Homes can get more charming as they age, but they can also become less safe. From high-tech security upgrades and structural improvements to simple preventative steps, the tips in this MasterKit will give you everything you need to safeguard your home against common hazards and be prepared if that safety is compromised.
Eight Common Dangers Lurking in Older Homes (And What to Do About Them)
Older homes have history, but they can also have a slew of hidden threats, putting you and your family in danger. Get to know the potential risks concealed in your home and how you can address them.
If you purchased an older home, you were probably drawn to it because of its charm. But what you may not have considered are the dangerous and even potentially harmful problems that might be hidden around the corner.
From aging electrical equipment and problematic plumbing to the more insidious dangers of asbestos and lead, older houses are often full of hazards that can put the health and well-being of you and your family at risk. Some problems may have been noted during your home inspection, but others might not have been. Many home inspectors aren't licensed to look for things like asbestos and lead - their typical objectives are to note problems with structural elements and things in the home that are defective or require immediate service.
This list can help make you aware of some of the most common dangers and how you can address them.
1. Lead Paint
Any home built before 1978 is potentially full of lead-based paint. That was the year the federal government banned consumer use of these paints because they were found to be the leading cause of lead poisoning, which can cause life-threatening damage in children and adults.1
Lead-based paint that's in good condition and not on an impact or friction surface like a window is less likely to be hazardous. But any time that paint is scraped, sanded or heated, or when painted surfaces bump or rub together, lead dust and chips can form. Lead dust can be inhaled and can also spread to the soil where your kids play or where you garden. The only way to truly know if your property’s paint, dust, or soil is putting your family at risk is to test for it.
What You Can Do: Get your home checked for lead paint. A lead-based paint inspection will tell you if your home has lead-based paint and where it is, but it won't tell if the paint is a hazard. You'll need a risk assessment to determine if the lead is a hazard. You can also get a combination inspection and risk assessment. Find a local specialist by contacting your state or local agencies, visiting epa.gov/lead or calling 800-424-LEAD (5323).
Pro Tip: Regularly check all painted areas that rub together or get lots of wear, like windows, doors and stairways, for signs of deterioration.
2. Lead Plumbing
Lead doesn't just hide in the paint - it can be in your pipes, too. That means toxic levels of the substance can accumulate in your family's drinking water and put your health at risk due to poisoning.
What You Can Do: The only way to know if your drinking water contains lead is to get it tested. While most water municipalities perform system-wide tests for lead, these results may not give you an accurate picture of your own individual water supply since each home contains unique pipes and materials. If you know the pipes in your home are made from lead (a soft, dull, gray metal), or you have non-plastic plumbing that was installed before 1986, you may want to test your water using a kit from a home improvement store. You can also find local contact information for lead testing by calling the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791.
If your water tests positive for lead, there are certain steps you can take to reduce your risk:
Always flush your pipes. This means that if a faucet hasn't been used for six hours or more, you should run the water until it comes out cold. Only use cold water for drinking and cooking.
Consider new plumping. Since the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) requires all new plumbing to be lead-free, it may be worth your peace of mind to completely replace yours with plumbing you know is lead-free.
3. Polybutylene Pipes
Lead isn't the only hazardous material that can be hiding in your pipes. Between 1978 and 1995, plastic manufacturers produced an inexpensive alternative to lead called polybutylene (PB). Pipes made from PB were installed in up to 10 million homes in the United States, but production shut down when people began reporting ruptured pipes resulting in property damage. Even though companies stopped making and installing PB pipes, many homes still contain them.
What You Can Do: An inspector can tell you whether your pipes are in fact made of PB. If they are, you probably want to replace them immediately. PB pipes can leak without warning, and when they do, the resulting flooding can cost you thousands in damages to repair.2
Asbestos is a type of mineral fiber that was used frequently during the 20th century, especially during World War II. It was used mostly in roofing and construction since it effectively provided fireproofing and insulation, but was also used in caulking, wall compounds, wallpaper, ceiling tiles, pipes and ducts, furnaces, and boilers. Asbestos treatments were even sprayed on ceilings and walls to provide a decorative overlay, to cover up any problems underneath, or to block sound.
But in the late 1970s, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) started banning asbestos because of environmental concerns, and in 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) completely barred any new uses of the material.
The problem is that any asbestos that was put in place prior to the ban was allowed to stay, and many older homes contain it.
Having asbestos in your home doesn't necessarily mean you'll get sick, as long as it remains in good shape and stays undisturbed. But if it starts breaking down – either from natural deterioration or home remodeling, it can release tiny fibers into the air that can get trapped in your lungs, cause scarring and inflammation. Asbestos exposure can even lead to serious diseases like mesothelioma and other fatal cancers.3
What You Can Do: You can't see asbestos fibers, so the only way to confirm whether they're present in your home it to hire a certified abatement professional to take samples and inspect it. You should never try to take samples of any suspicious material yourself; doing so can disrupt any fibers that are present, sending them into the air. The best way to find a professional to inspect your home and/or to remove any asbestos materials is to contact your local state agency.4
5. Outdated Wiring
If you live in an older home and you've never had your electrical system inspected, you may want to do so. According to the CPSC, there are about 46,000 fires involving home electrical systems each year, and the majority of those could be prevented with a routine inspection.5 The CPSC says that in many cases, homes that were built between 40 and 100 years ago hadn't been inspected since they were built.
Obvious warning signs of a failing electrical system include: flickering or dim lights, a shrinking of your television picture, frequent power outages, sparks, unusual sounds like sizzles or burning smells, smoke, any kind of electrical shock, damaged insulation, and warm or hot outlets or switches.
If you find yourself using extension cords all the time, that's a bad sign, too. Extension cords can be helpful to extend your home's wiring, but they're meant to be temporary fixes. Using them long-term can cause serious damage to the system. If your electrical panel is "overrated" – that means its fuses or circuit breakers are rated higher than its currents allow – it's time to upgrade. Standard circuits are 15 amps and should have 15-amp breakers, using breakers any higher can heat the circuit wires and possibly cause a fire.
What You Can Do: If you can't remember the last time your electrical system was inspected, it's probably long overdue and you should consider hiring a certified electrician or electrical inspector to prevent a potential disaster. Even if you've had an inspection less than a decade ago, you should contact a professional immediately if you start to notice the warning signs of a bad electrical system. You should hire only a licensed and insured electrician to do any electrical work. States generally have an electrical board that gives exams and has the power to issue, suspend, and revoke licenses.
6. Balloon Framing
Balloon framing was a commonly used construction method from the late 1800s through about 1940. It involved using a continuous wood stud wall that stretched all the way from the foundation of a home up to the attic.6 In newer homes, each floor is individually constructed to ensure that fire stops between them, but in balloon-frame homes, there's nothing to stop a fire if it starts. That means in a home with balloon framing, flames can spread from the floor to the roof in just seconds.7
What You Can Do: If you live in a much older home that could have balloon framing. Ask a skilled professional for an inspection to see if a major remodel of your home is your only option. A remodel could open up the walls and ceilings and install solid blocking at specific locations to act as fire stops. They may also be able to install insulation in empty cavities.8
7. Radon, Carbon Monoxide, VOCs
The quality of the air inside your home is critical to your overall health. But in some cases, invisible dangers can be lurking in the air and can even threaten your life.9 One of those is radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can enter your home through holes or cracks in the floors or walls. The gas has no color, odor, or taste, but it's thought to be the second leading cause of lung cancer next to smoking.10
Carbon monoxide (CO) is another kind of colorless, tasteless, odorless gas that can threaten your life. It's produced by incomplete burning of certain fuels, and exposure to it can cause everything from dizziness and shortness of breath to eventual death.
Finally, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are vapors found in many household products like cleansers, disinfectants, paint, and aerosol sprays. They're thought to contribute to everything from eye, nose, and throat irritation to liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage, as well as cancer.
What You Can Do: To address the risk of radon, buy a testing kit at a hardware store. If you find that your home has excessive levels of the gas, look for a local radon professional who can help you design a plan to vent your home.
You can avoid CO poisoning by making sure your stove, oven, dryer, and heating systems are all in proper working order and located in well-ventilated areas. You should also install CO monitors/alarms in all the areas of your home where people are sleeping, as well as in the basement.
To eliminate the dangers of VOCs, start buying safer alternatives and environmentally-friendly products. If you have no choice but to use VOCs, always do so in a well-ventilated area and avoid buying more of the VOC-containing products than you need.
Pro Tip: When selecting a latex paint, look for "low-VOC" or "zero-VOC" paints and primers. White or light pastel-colored paints tend to contain fewer VOCs than darker/richer colors.
Bugs and rodents can be a problem in almost any home, but older homes in particular. Termites, for example, are a major problem because they like to eat soft wood. According to the National Pest Management Association, these insects cause about $5 billion in property damage every year.11 Other pests, like rats, can create an unhygienic environment, putting you at danger for disease and also fires when they chew through electrical wires.11
What You Can Do: Pay attention to the signs of a pest infestation. Listen for noises at night when pests tend to be active, and be aware of strange smells. Be on the lookout for damaged furniture or wiring, and for droppings around your house. If you suspect you have an infestation, immediately contact a local pest control expert or exterminator to survey your home and provide an estimate for getting rid of them before they do irreparable harm to your home, your health, or both.12
Even though you probably love living in your older home, you need to be mindful of what comes with its age - and it's not just always just charm and character. Be aware and ahead of the unappealing things that come with an aging home, too, so you're not surprised by unexpected repairs.