Old Houses: Charm Isn't Cheap

The opposite approach is up the garden path - to the old house with the gazebo, the quaint fireplace, and the sagging slate roof. But that charming old house - the one with lots of space and character that your wife wants to "make over" - can turn into a disaster when you get down to restoring and modernizing.

It's a case, of course, of first eying the timbers before you become at all serious. Remember, there's only one sure way to avoid trouble with an old house: If it's on a prime site, and the price is low enough, tear down the house and build a new one.

In any case, a simple - but thorough - layman's inspection can be helpful (before you hire an appraiser at £20 to £30 an hour).

First - especially if the house is quite old - line up the top ridge of the roof to be sure it's reasonably straight. A sag could mean a partial framing collapse, and maybe a sizable - and costly - rebuilding job. Lopsided house corners and outside walls that bulge mean foundation weakness and probably a weak frame. Costs can be even higher.

Next, go to the basement. If it's an antique house and the walls are laid-up stone (pre-1875), at least be aware that they may one day pose an expensive problem - even if they haven't started to bulge inward. If solid masonry, check for cracking, which means dampness, weakness, maybe termites. To test for termites, probe the basement timbers with a knife, especially the "sills" running flat along the top of the cellar walls.

The point is, if you want the house in good, safe, durable condition - for general family use - you can live with just so much deterioration. Remember, too, the problem of resale in 10 or 15 years. Here are some further checkpoints for your inspection tour:

Ventilation: Peeling on the outside of a frame house means poor ventilation in the walls with too much moisture retained - a new paint job will peel, too. New venting is no major problem, however.

Firestopping: Without some type of in-wall cross-framing to break the updraft, the fire hazard is apt to be serious.

Chimneys: Thin-walled, single-brick-thickness types are dangerous; so is lack of fireclay lining, top to bottom.

Wiring: An eight-to-12-room house needs 20 circuits or more - and a circuit-breaker panel - for modern operation; if you see a fuse box in the basement with only four or six circuits (typical), the wiring is inadequate, outmoded.

Plumbing: After checking basement piping for heavy cor rosion, go to the topmost floor with a bathroom and open all faucets; a strong flow of clear water means at least usable piping - and adequate pressure.

Say that you finally call in an appraiser, and finally get his tentative O.K. (he usually will have reservations) - and decide to buy. You'll likely end up doing more restoring and modernizing than you counted on. Costs vary, depending on locale, but generally you can figure on these ranges:

A quality bathroom costs £4,000 to £6,000 if entirely new space and piping are needed, and £3,000 to £3,500 if you can use an existing layout.

A kitchen, depending on fanciness and existing layout: £3,000 to £8,000.

A quality basement game room with bar runs £3,000 to £6,000 deluxe (wall paneling, suspended ceiling, recessed lighting). Important: For a good liveable job, you need reflective insulation behind the panelling.

A new wing in quality construction costs £25 to £30 per square foot; and £30 to £35 with bath, electrical units, and such.

A complete rewiring job for eight to 12 rooms runs £1,500 to £2,500.

Blown insulation can cut your heating and cooling bill by 30% or so; it also tends to prevent spread of fire. Cost is about £2,000 for eight to 12 rooms; installation time is one week.

As for heating, consider radiant wall heaters if you open up unused space or add a wing - instead of installing a new heating plant. For an 8-to-12 room house, a new furnace (often needed in a pre-World War II house) will cost about £1,500 or more, including automatic controls and labor. A central heating-cooling system runs at least £3,000 if ducts are already in; £6,000 if new ducts are needed (assuming that walling construction makes it possible to run ducts at all).

If you have no buying experience with window (or wall) room air conditioners, count on at least £1,500 for enough tonnage to cool the bedrooms and other hot rooms. Note: All of these costs are rough, and can vary by as much as 25%, depending where you live.

One more tip: If you intend to create new space instead of just improving old space, hire an architect. Among other things, an architect can avoid a "remodelled house" appearance that quickly gives away a redone house. If you add only modern equipment, or a bathroom or kitchen - hire a contractor. Check his references, and work on a contract basis.

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That New Home: A Project You Can't Delay

Anyone who has ideas about building a new house - instead of buying a standing one - had better start the ball rolling a year in advance. Don't wait until spring if you want to build in summer. Note:

If you want an architect, you'll have to find him and sign him a year in advance. Top architects are scarce, over-booked, and work on a long lead-time.

If you want a construction mortgage, you should get your commitment from the lender as soon as you find your architect - don't let time slide.

If you take a look at today's housing scene, you can shape this rule of thumb: Delay costs cash. For instance, if you let months go by before starting your new-house project, chances... see: That New Home: A Project You Can't Delay