Image of stucco chipped away from window before replacement - what needs updating in an older home may include single pane windowsWhat needs updating if you are buying an older house, townhome, or condo? Most of the homes for sale in Silicon Valley are more than 25 years old, and with our already very restricted inventory, that makes the odds of purchasing an older house, townhouse or condo fairly high if you’re in the market to buy real estate here.

  • The older the property (think 100 years versus 60 or 70 years), the more likely it is that the home would benefit from expensive updates.
  • Typical home buyers find that an 18 year old remodel is in need of updating
  • See the list below of components that may need updating in an older home

If you are buying an historic home (more than 50 years of age is technically historic, but most consumers think of houses or units which are 100+ years old), the question of what needs updating will be significantly longer than if we are thinking of homes 25 to 60 or 70 years of age. The older the structure, the more you may need to consider safety improvements, or changes for better comfort or style.

Don’t despair – the older homes do tend to offer good locations, often there are beautifully established neighborhoods with large trees and bigger yards – which you may not see in newer developments.

How recent should that remodel be?

Something to note is that how often rooms or homes need to be refreshed is a matter of personal taste. If a kitchen is built well and done in a more timeless fashion, perhaps only the appliances or countertop or lighting may need a redo from time to time. But some home buyers will find that if a house was last remodeled 18 years ago, it’s time to do it again. If you’re selling, it’s important to appreciate that the 18 year old whole house remodel you had done may feel like yesterday to you, but it won’t to a large number of buyers.

Buyers, once you purchase a home, if you are like most home owners you won’t be doing a total remodel every 15 – 20 years. It’s too much expense, work, and inconvenience. My usual advice is to try to pick timeless elements that won’t go out of style (and put a more personal touch into things like paint or floor coverings, which are relatively inexpensive to change in many cases).

What needs updating in an “all original” home?

What needs updating if you are buying an all-original home? If you are looking to purchase a property where the home was built many decades ago (say pre 1980) and it’s never been updated except those items that had to be replaced like a water heater, furnace, or roof, there are many areas that you may want to consider improving. Some buyers may do a complete remodel, some will take it all the way down to the studs and put in new wiring, plumbing, HVAC, etc. Yes, that’s expensive, more than $250,000 in most cases (it will depend on the size of the home, location, and how much elegance you pour into it).

Most houses, townhouses, and condominiums are not completely original. Most homes are partially updated and do not need to be gutted! You’ll want to see what the inspectors call out, as every property is different.

Here’s a list of some of the components of what needs updating, replacing, repairing, remediation or upgrading in an older home if not remodeled. Please note that this is not exhaustive or comprehensive.

  1. Plumbing (crawl vs slab, in walls) if galvanized steel or iron (sometimes even copper needs replacing)
  2. Waste or sewer lines
  3. Asbestos and lead (often encapsulated rather than fully removed)
  4. Windows – replacing some with safety glass, swapping single pane for dual pane, bedroom window sizes enlarged for safety reasons
  5. Insulation (walls as well as attic, possibly under floors)
  6. Drainage improvements (especially in hillside areas, may also need French drains, sump pumps), runoff water diverted away from the house, grading improved if the lot slopes toward the structure
  7. Water efficiency, low flow toilets, faucets (all of CA should have low flow devices only now)
  8. Safety issues such as the stair rails being no more than 4″ apart
  9. Air duct leaks sealed or ducts replaced
  10. Garage door safety features checked and improved, insulation, wiring
  11. Electrical panels may be a concern (many or most experts suggest that Zinsco and Federal Pacific Electric panels be replaced), wiring may need replacing if deemed unsafe, safety elements added
  12. Cosmetic issues such as adding recessed lights, remodeling the kitchens & baths, adding crown moulding & baseboard, widening halls or raising ceilings, etc.
  13. Possible foundation repairs
  14. Possible siding repairs
  15. Whatever else the inspectors list….

Something else to know is that even when sellers have updated and remodeled their homes, most of the time there will be repairs here and there (roof, pest, electrical, plumbing), and it’s not hard for the must-do items to reach $10,000 to $20,000 for a small house. It should be less in a condo. Certain things just have to be replaced periodically, such as dishwashers (8-12 years) or water heaters (often 8-12 years also). If you are buying and want a little peace of mind regarding repairs that may need doing but only appear after you own it, you might want to consider purchasing or asking the seller to provide a home warranty.

Finally, beware of flipped homes where a property has been hastily remodeled and without permits. Please do your homework. Some flippers are novices. Some will only update what you can see.

Related Reading

Buying a home warranty? What you need to know to choose well

Homeowners Insurance, Title Insurance, and Home Warranties


  • Mary Pope-Handy

    Silicon Valley Realtor, selling homes in Los Gatos, Saratoga, San Jose, Silicon Valley, and nearby since 1993. Prolific blogger with a network of sites.

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