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Buying a Home with Outdated Electrical Wiring

Electrical fires are the leading cause of residential fires. Ensuring your dream house has safe wiring is essential. Learn what that means.

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When looking to purchase a new home, the idea of buying in a mature neighborhood with historically interesting homes is incredibly appealing. Although it comes down to comfort levels, buying an older home can lead to potentially hazardous situations like faulty electrical wiring. Although the fix could be as easy as upgrades, is it worth the potentially high price tag?  

This article explains what you need to know about the electrical work at your potential home and how to feel comfortable moving forward or walking away. 

Understanding Different Wiring Types  

Depending on the age of your home, the type of wiring itself can be problematic. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), firefighters responded to nearly 45,000 home fires involving electrical failure and malfunction from 2012 to 2016. These fires resulted in 440 deaths, more than 1,200 injuries, and an estimated $1.3 billion in property damage. Electrical issues accounted for half of all fires responded to in that time period. 

Knob and Tube Wiring   

Historic homes built around 1880 to the 1940s have what is called knob and tubing wiring. This type of wiring can be very dangerous, posing a serious fire hazard and risk of electric shock. For this reason, you will be hard-pressed to find insurance on homes with this type of wiring, and most contractors will not work on it. 

Knob and tube wiring consists of copper wires, one hot and one neutral, being run through porcelain knobs and tubes. These elements are insulated as they run through drilled holes in your home’s framing. 

If your dream home has this type of wiring, think long and hard about it. Be prepared to either walk away or budget for replacing the wiring completely. It’s not unusual for rewiring to cost $15,000 to $40,000, depending on the size of your home and where you live. 

Aluminum Wiring 

Although copper wiring is common today and has been since 1965, some homes built in the 1960s and 1970s still have aluminum wiring because of the Vietnam War. The war drove copper prices up and created a shortage. Aluminum seemed like the best solution at the time, but it was later discovered that aluminum wiring created problems of its own. 

However, unlike knob and tube wiring, there are ways to make aluminum wiring safe, including things like “pigtailing,” which is essentially adding shorter copper wires to the end of aluminum wires.  

Although you may have a slightly harder time getting insurance for a home with aluminum wiring, shopping around a bit should supply you with options. 

Copper Wiring  

Cooper wiring is the most popular and the current standard used in any new home build. Typically, NM cable, which contains three or more individual conductors, is wrapped in a sheathing of plastic called a jacket. These jackets are color-coded to differentiate wire gauge. 

What to Spot During a Walkthrough  

From the first time you see a house, there are several things to keep an eye on before calling in a professional. 

  • Flip the Switch
    Every switch you see, turn it on. Make sure it works smoothly and doesn’t flicker or affect any other electricity around it. 
  • Exposed Wiring
    Unless the home is under construction, exposed wiring is a red flag that work needs to be done or has been done recently and not handled properly.
  • Use your Senses
    Use your hand to feel switch faceplates and outlets. Are they hot or warm? Do you smell a burning plastic odor? See any discoloration around outlets or faceplates? All are signs wiring has or is having serious, potentially dangerous problems. 
  • Two-Prong Plugs
    In addition to being frustrating, two-prong plugs indicate an older wiring system that can’t support modern electrical demands. Two-prong plugs lack a ground wire. The ground part of the plug protects modern appliances from powerful power surges that can damage electrical devices. Swapping these two-prong outlets is fairly easy and reasonable. 
  • No GFCI Outlets
    In rooms like kitchens and bathrooms, or rooms that frequently get wet or humid, GFCI (Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter) outlets are designed to work as a circuit breaker, shutting off the flow of power if there is a surge. Although they are a good idea throughout the home, they are essential for code purposes in some areas. If the home doesn’t have GFCI outlets in bathrooms and kitchens, it’s a sign the wiring is outdated.

When Should I Call an Electrician?  

Since the safety of your home and family are at risk with unsafe wiring, making the investment to hire a professional electrician before purchasing a new home is probably money well spent. Seriously consider if the home is more than 40 years old, you’re looking to add a major appliance, undergoing a renovation, or it is needed to get the house insured. 

Electricians look at potential issues and determine the tools and cost to repair them.  

What to Do Next 

Unless you have knob and tube wiring, you generally do not need to rewire your entire home. The steps below give you an idea of what to do if you are concerned about the wiring at a home you’re interested in purchasing. 

Call an Electrician  

Like all home inspections before the sale, usually, the home seller won’t have problems unless they have something to hide. Speaking with the seller’s agent to schedule an electrical inspection is an easy and invaluable decision to make. 

Update Electrical Panel  

One of the things the electrician may suggest is updating the electrical box. In older homes, you may find an outdated fuse-based electrical panel. Although this type of box isn’t dangerous when taken care of properly, given modern electrical needs, a fuse-based panel isn’t going to cut it and will result in constant blown fuses and other issues. 

Beware: to avoid constantly blowing fuses, some homeowners will use bigger than appropriate fuses, causing much more electricity to flow through the system and potentially causing an electrical fire. Instead, replace the old box with a new circuit breaker electrical panel. 

Three-Prong Plugs or GFCI   

As previously mentioned, replacing any two-prong plugs with three-prong plugs will likely be suggested throughout the house. This way, any appliance is protected, and there is no use for adapters that have the potential to cause problems. GFCIs also need to be considered and add only a nominal additional cost, usually around $15-$20 per outlet. Another option is tamperproof outlets that protect from electrical shock if a child pokes a metal paperclip or hairpin into the outlet. 

Adding Arc Fault Breakers  

Arc fault breakers are a device added to a home’s electrical wiring that helps prevent fires. Generally, the arc fault breaker detects any abnormal activity and stops the flow of electricity before it can get hot enough to cause a fire. Wiring that is old, damaged by rodents, installed incorrectly, or exposed to water can cause an abnormal electrical flow. Installing an arc fault breaker ensures you and the home are protected. 

Selling a Home with Old Wiring  

We’ve addressed the steps to purchase a home with outdated wiring. If you are looking to sell a home with old wiring, consider having it repaired prior to the sale. Often, that is the only way the home will be attractive to buyers if they can have a certificate of repair from a licensed electrician. 

Depending on the condition of the wiring, sometimes the only option is to consider cash offers, if available, because a mortgage and insurance company won’t be involved. 

Bottom Line: Electrical Issues  

Old or outdated wiring doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker as long as you understand and feel comfortable with both the risk and the cost of updates that need to be done.  

Choosing to rewire and modernize the home or continue searching for your perfect home are both viable options for outdated wiring. 

If the potential home is also in need of foundation or waterproofing needs, contacting your local Groundworks inspector can give you an idea of how much, if any, electrical needs will be necessary for something like a sump pump or dehumidifier. Contact us today to discuss your electrical usage needs.

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