If you live in Downtown Las Vegas or have a hankerin’ to do so, chances are it’s not just for the close proximity to the 18b Arts District, to the Last Neighborhood Bar in Las Vegas and to the distractions of the Fremont East Entertainment District … or even for the convenient freeway access. More than likely, it’s also because you dig historic neighborhoods with tree-lined streets and older houses screaming with character.
However, although we often focus on what we do want in a vintage home, the things we don’t want from an old house are just as important. So we rang up Master Inspector Glenn R. Curtis, who’s been conducting home inspections in Nevada for more than 30 years. Based on our conversation, he’s seen more than his fair share of the good, the bad and the ugly during that time. We got the skinny from Curtis on what homebuyers should be looking out for when shopping for older homes, especially those found in DTLV’s historic neighborhoods.
Do Your Research
Anyone purchasing a house with a mortgage will need a home inspection, but Curtis says not to just “automatically take the inspector the real estate agent pushes in front of you.” Just like finding a good mechanic, doctor or other service provider, you need to do your homework. You’ll want to find an inspector who has many years of experience in the area where you’re house-shopping, and preferably someone with an extensive background in home construction themselves.
It all starts here. A house could look great outside and in, but if the foundation holding it up is damaged in any way, there could be trouble ahead. Many of the older homes Downtown have crawl spaces underneath, and many people seal them off to keep pests out or for aesthetic reasons. The problem is, these spaces need to be properly ventilated. “The underside of the house has to breathe,” Curtis says. Be on the lookout for pest damage or signs of excessive moisture—these are good indicators of what’s happening inside the house (such as plumbing leaks that are otherwise undetectable).
While looking under the house, it’s a good opportunity to survey the pipes leading to the house, especially those designed to draw effluent to the adjacent sewer line. Many vintage houses used cast-iron pipes, which are prone to rusting. Even if they’ve been upgraded to copper piping, copper’s not perfect—and if it’s been reinforced with steel couplers, that could be a sign of trouble. “Anything not copper that touches copper leads to corrosion,” says Curtis. If you’re looking at a house with a concrete slab foundation, a good plumber with a snake camera can run it through the sewer pipes to get an idea of their condition.
“Every component in a house has a service life,” Curtis says. “Nothing is designed to last forever.” This is especially true for electrical panels. There’s a reason you often hear about “electrical fires” in older homes—circuit breakers are essentially fire preventers, and factors such as neglect, sun exposure and just plain ol’ time can diminish their effectiveness. Curtis says if you see an FPE, Zinsco or Murray breaker, it may need replacing or upgrading.
One of the most common parts of a house—old or new—to consider when buying is the roof. Because it’s one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind areas, the roof is often neglected, even though it takes the most abuse—think sun, rain, wind, tennis balls, fireworks—and provides most of our shelter from the elements. Older homes often have wood shingle roofs, which—even if they’re intact—are serious fire hazards. Curtis says those can be upgraded with a spray-applied restorative product that adds a measure of fire protection. If you see any signs of water damage inside a house, have a professional roofer do a proper assessment. And those gutters that draw away rain water we never think about? Make sure they’re not cluttered with leaves and debris.
And once you do find the cottage, bungalow or mid-mod home of your dreams, Curtis suggests trying to maintain the dignity of the property when doing repairs and renovations.
“Try to preserve the original character of the house,” he says.
PHOTO BY PJ PEREZ