Owning an older home can be a dream for many people. These homes were built in prime locations, contain larger rooms than many newer homes, and have loads of charm. But people who own homes 50 or 100 years old or more may find themselves running up against some nightmares with insurance that they didn’t bargain for when they fell in love with the house.
The majority of mortgage lenders require home owners to have home insurance as a condition of their mortgage, but older homes have many problems that make them a bigger risk to insure. Many times, elements of the house may be so worn out that insurance companies will refuse to insure the house without some repairs or replacements.
“Depending on the age of a home, most insurance company require the parts of the home to be updated,” says Brian Boak, an underwriter who has worked in personal insurance for 25 years and works for Singer Nelson Charlmers. “Depending on the company, if these are not updated, they may not insure the location due to the additional risk.”
Even if insurance companies don’t outright refuse to cover your home, insurance premiums for older homes can shoot through that outdated roof. With an older home comes an increased chance for damages caused by parts not functioning properly, and insurance companies don’t take on these risks without charging you more.
Replacement costs for homes that are considered antique or historic are also higher since specialized materials and labor are required to restore the home to historical accuracy.
A home inspection can help reveal the age of components of your home, whether you’ve just put in an offer or have lived in your home for years. Many insurers will perform their own inspections to determine if the home is insurable, particularly if the house has a high replacement cost.
“Some companies rely on their agent to provide the replacement cost; some companies hire an outside inspection service to do either an exterior inspection or a full interior inspection. Some companies do the inspections themselves,” Boak says. “The higher the replacement cost the more likely (and desired) that you will get a comprehensive inspection inside and out.”
Table of Contents
- Biggest Problems for Insuring Older Homes
- Finding the Right Policy
- Buying an Old Home
- Tips for Home Owners
Biggest problems for insuring older homes
Older homes across the country face many of the same problems that scare insurers away. Inspectors will be looking for these issues and fixing them will likely bring your premium down significantly.
- The roof: Roofs typically have a life expectancy of about 25 years, according to Boak, so if you have a roof older than that, your chance of a leak is greater. And with water damage being so serious, old roofs can be a sign to insurers that your premium should be raised.
- The electrical system: Most older homes were originally outfitted with small circuit breaker boxes. This combined with old fuses and old wiring can become a problem when faced with the demands of today’s home, Boak says. Air conditioning, electric heat, microwaves, and electric ovens and stoves weren’t used when the home was built, so the extra workload on the electrical system can increase the chance of a fire.
- The plumbing system: Besides plumbing problems being unpleasant to live with, they can also cause leaks and water damage. The invasive nature of repairing water damage makes old plumbing systems costly to insure.
Finding the right policy
Shopping around is important when looking for home insurance, not only for the right price but also for the right policy. If you care about preserving the original features of your home, you’ll want to make sure your policy will pay for the materials that are no longer standard.
Lath and plaster: Older homes often had walls of lath and plaster instead of sheetrock. “Depending on your insurance company they may not pay to replace your lath and plaster walls as they may say that sheetrock is equivalent (and less expensive for them),” Boak says. “Lath and plaster is much more expensive and if you want to keep your old home accurate, you want lath and plaster. Ask your broker what your company will do.”
Lumber measurements: Another consideration to make is your home’s lumber. Today, two-by-fours are actually only 1.5 by 3.5. If you have an old home with “full dimensional” lumber, Boak says, many insurance companies may want to replace it with the cheaper “equivalent,” but you’ll want the original dimensions if you’re trying to preserve the home’s accuracy.
Other added costs to consider are custom molding, solid core doors, and trim that must be custom-made. Anyone with a historic home should make sure they find a company who will insure them for the full replacement value for original features. “You want to make sure you have a true guaranteed replacement cost,” Boak says. “Many companies have replacement cost but it is capped at 20% or 25% above the insured value. You want a company that will rebuild the home exactly how it was with all the
quality you had, regardless of the cost.”
Watch out for any cash value policies. These will only pay for what’s damaged including depreciation, so you could be covered for much, much less than you need or even realized with one of these policies.
Buying an old home
So what do you do if you’re house hunting and have fallen in love with an old house? Don’t rush into anything!
Start getting insurance quotes before closing on your mortgage. By giving yourself time to shop around for home insurance before closing, you can see what you can reasonably expect to pay in premiums, find the best prices, and maybe even stumble on some discounts. You may find that the replacement cost is going to be significantly higher than what you’re paying for the house and that the house isn’t affordable for you because of insurance costs.
Getting quotes from insurance companies will probably also help you find the problems with the house. If you find a few small problems during an inspection, you can budget for it. And if you discover that the whole electrical system and plumbing system need to be replaced, you can walk away.
If you do decide to go ahead with buying a house that needs repairs to make it insurable or bring down your premiums, consider asking the current owner to make the fixes. “If items are old and you are buying the home, you would either want to have the current owner discount the price of the home or update the items for these improvements you will need to make ,” Boak says. “Or expect to add that cost into your budget.”
Tips for home owners
If you already own an old house, you may worry about your insurer raising your premiums significantly or even dropping your coverage altogether. Many insurance companies change the status of your coverage if you file a big claim or several claims in a row. So if your roof gives out and you file a claim, you could be hurting your chances of continuing to be insured.
To avoid this problem, it’s best to try to stay ahead of all repairs and updates if you can. They can certainly be costly, so keep an eye out for warning signs of problems so you can choose what absolutely needs to be fixed first.
Roof: Roofs really aren’t made to last more than 20 or 25 years, but even younger roofs might need replacing. Check for several shingles lifting up, broken, or gone, and then go into your attic to see if you can see any pinholes of light or new water stains.
Electrical system: Look out for flickering lights when you turn on an appliance, switches and plates that are hot to the touch, two-prong outlets, burning plastic smell at switches and outlets, and improper fuses.
Plumbing system: Check out any exposed pipe in your house and look for discoloration, dimpling, stains, and flaking, which could mean your pipes are corroding. It’s a good idea to also look at the color of your water, especially after it’s been sitting in the pipes for a while — try filling your bathtub after a vacation. If it’s brown or yellow, there is probably rust in your pipes.
Old homes can be beautiful investments if you’re prepared to take care of them and keep them up to modern safety standards. If you don’t have the time and money to dedicate to updating your systems, you could find yourself buried under insurance premiums that may cost as much as the repairs in the long run.