Older houses have a charm and appeal for most homeowners. A hundred years ago, homes weren’t as modular as today’s building techniques but instead trim work, mantles and cabinetry were built according to the space available and the contractor’s ability. Antique carpentry can be a thing of beauty, but electric systems that aren’t up to date can be a nightmare.
The first problem with older outlets is they don’t typically have the ground plug. Appliances at one time were independently grounded, whereas modern appliances are designed to rely on the external ground for safety. Adapters are available, but they’re really only intended as a quick fix, not long term usage.
Secondly, outlets in an antique house are likely well past their intended operating life. A worn out outlet can be frustrating at best if it only works intermittently, and can be a dangerous fire hazard at worst if it is overheating or causing a spark due to a loose connection. The good news is, outlets themselves are relatively simple and inexpensive to replace.
A deeper problem than outlets is when the wiring itself is also outdated. Adding an outlet when there isn’t a ground wire available to attach doesn’t solve the ground problem other than superficially allowing you to plug in a device to an ungrounded connection. Further, old wires can get worn out like anything else. The outer insulation cover becomes brittle over time, eventually cracking and leaving exposed wires. They might be a lighter gauge than modern code calls for, causing them to overheat under a heavy load. In some cases these potential problems may not be cause for alarm, but you’ll certainly sleep better knowing everything has been made safe rather than taking the risk of a potential fire.
Antique lighting fixtures can be gorgeous and give the home a wonderfully distinct character. On the other hand, they can also be grimy beyond cleaning up or flicker from bad connections and simply need to be replaced. There are plenty of available options in lighting so you can keep the older charm while upgrading to a modern accessory and the convenience of new fixtures.
The inspector should point out these issues when going over the house, but it’s likely worth your time to have a licensed professional electric contractor take a look and advise you as before buying, or soon after the purchase of an older home.
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