If you’re not a buyer who is completely clear on whether you want to buy an older home or a new-ish one, here are some of the factors to consider, pro and con, as you compare and contrast homes built in different eras:
1. The Charm Factor. Obviously, “older” and “newer” are relative terms. If your area is one where “older” homes are those which were built in the ‘60s or ‘70s, you might not find them to be particularly charming. But many buyers do find there to be a particular charm and aesthetic detail in homes built in the early part of the last century – from the 1900’s to the 1940’s, say – that is uber-attractive and decidedly craveable. (To be fair, in some areas, the Eichlers and other modern styles of the mid-century are seen as having similar cachet as much older homes, especially when compared to 80s, 90s and later construction.)
The Tudors, Victorians, Craftsmans and other classic styles and eras tend to have strong appeal to large groups of home buyers, as do the maturity of the trees and other details, from lights to benches to outdoor staircases, lining the streets on which such homes were built.
Buyers who are committed to having this “Charm Factor” in their lives and their homes are not likely to find this particular feel in newer neighborhoods, though many builders and subdivisions do make an effort to replicate the best qualities of older homes and neighborhoods with reproduction features.
2. Neighborhood establishment. Having hundred-year-old trees along the streets can be a critical plus point of living in an older home, but so are the many other upsides of an established neighborhood, from well-developed parks with great recreational programming to long-time standout school districts, to great neighborhood infrastructures for things like neighborhood Watch Groups, email listservs, annual block parties and farmer’s markets. That said, not every “older” neighborhood has these benefits; and many older neighborhoods come with longstanding issues like neighbor conflicts, eyesore or blighted properties and even ongoing challenges with crime, traffic and noise.
On other other hand, some newer neighborhoods haven’t “taken” yet, and it can be difficult to project how the neighborhood will evolve over time. But you can’t necessarily dismiss every newer neighborhood out of hand. Some developers and cities have gone to great lengths to imbue newer subdivisions with some of what was great about – or missing from – older, nearby areas. You might find that “newer” neighborhoods in some towns are more likely than nearby older areas to have amenities like dog parks, newer clubhouse and recreational facilities, schools and stores interspersed well and walkably into the neighborhood and better infrastructure when it comes to lighting, street width, parking and public transportation.
3. House history. Newer homes have little or no history – anyone who has ever bought a brand new home can attest to the relatively blank slate of disclosures they receive from the builder. A blank slate sounds great, but also means you really don’t know about what glitches the property may have, and my experience has been that every home – even brand new ones – have glitches or quirks. The sun might create a funny bleach spot on the floor in one room, or the place might settle over the first few years to have an unexpected slope. A roof on which it has never rained might even turn out to have a design flaw or leak. And the fact that the home hasn’t been lived in means that no one can flag these issues – or fix them – for you in advance. (Most newly built homes do have warranties that cover the worst of such ‘lemon’ home issues.)
Older homes may come with a lovely family history or even just a detailed record of what has and hasn’t worked – and what has and hasn’t been repaired and replaced over time, with which newer homes can’t compete. But they also may come with the tough-to-erase remnants and consequences of historical occupants and their activities on the property, from lead paint remains in the soil that prohibit you from growing vegetables in the ground to the very unfortunate (and extremely toxic) consequences of illegal activities like the manufacture of methamphetamine.
4. Conveniences. One would think that newer homes would almost always have conveniences that older homes lack, especially in the realm of newer appliances and mechanical systems like plumbing, air conditioners, heating and even insulation. But there can critical periods at issue, here – while very new homes are likely to have the latest of everything, homes built 20, 30 even 40 years ago can be more out of date than homes built 70, 80 or 90 years ago – especially in areas where very old homes are very desirable, as the latter might be more likely to have been updated by a recent owner.
However, as you look at and compare older homes with newer ones, also give thought to the less easily updated differences across the construction eras, like:
- Layout: Older homes are less likely to have wide open floor plans, sky-high ceilings and the massive windows that allow in the natural light that more contemporary styles let in.
- Size: Some eras of older construction simply didn’t focus on building homes beyond a basic 1,500 or 2,000 square feet – in areas where those homes predominate, it might be difficult to find a home much larger than that, if that’s what your household requires.
- Room Size: Older homes tended to be designed around smaller rooms – and especially smaller bedrooms and fewer, smaller closets and storage spaces – than newer homes.
- Accessibility: Depending on the era, older homes might not have the space and layout suitable for homeowners who are looking to ‘age in place,’ or care for an older relative; early-century eras of construction may include stairways, hallways and doorways too narrow for wheelchairs and walkers to easily fit through.
5. Maintenance. Unless you’re able to find that best-of-both-worlds older home with recent upgrades, with an older home you should take extra care to understand the age and condition of all the home’s mechanical and electrical systems, and to get a good sense for the cost of any upgrades you’ll want to do – before you finalize the purchase. Also, be aware that some of the ornate classic home styles may have intricate woodwork, like the so-called gingerbread adorning many a Victorian home, that is both prone to damage (from water or termites) and costly or impossible to replace.
Flip side: new homes *can* pose a lower maintenance cost, but the fact is that new home buyers still face the ‘potential lemon’ problem of being the first to discover any glitches or design/construction flaws. In densely populated areas, new homes may be built on fill or what some see as less sound ground; by the same token, in earthquake or tornado-prone areas, some see older homes and neighborhoods as having proven their ability to withstand natural disasters due to the quality of classic construction.
Ultimately, there’s no one right answer to the older/newer home decision. It’s really a matter of fit. But in any event, whether you buy an older home or a brand new one, work with your agent to make sure you have an appropriate home warranty policy in place before your home purchase closes escrow