It's off topic from the green building/living topic we have been investigating, but maybe not so much.

The decision to buy a new home or an older home has many ramifications and energy efficiency and the impact on the environment are among them. While we continue to intermittently talk about new materials and new techniques, in building, we are going to pause to examine the pros and cons of buying a new house or buying old an old house.

In making a decision between an existing home and new construction there are a lot of factors to be considered:

  • Functionality
  • Aesthetics
  • Cost
  • Maintenance
  • Accessibility
  • Energy efficiency

While new homes are commonly evaluated by size, amenities, and finishes, an old house may be impacted in large part by how old it actually is. An antique or a home with special provenance - i.e. one once owned or even visited by a celebrity or serving as the site of some historic event , one in a town or neighborhood with historic connections - has a value or an appeal beyond the factors listed above. Similarly a home with extraordinary architectural features will be valued as an historic and artistic artifact as much as housing.

So this is a discussion about new homes versus pedestrian "older" homes, those built during the last half or slightly more of the 20th Century, in various states of repair, and located in decent established neighborhoods anywhere in the USA. These are average homes that, for reasons we will hit on later, are priced close to new homes and are competitive with them for very different reasons.


A problem with older homes, particularly those that remain frozen in the year they were built, is the lack of amenities that Americans have come to expect of their living space. The typical home built in the 50's and 60's was small - 900 to 1,600 square feet was pretty typical; had two or three bedrooms and often only one or 1-1/2 baths. This won't come as a surprise to people who are looking in that market nor will the small rooms and lack of the house's connection to outdoor spaces.

What may come as a surprise, usually discovered shortly after move-in, are other examples of lack of function. Electrical service is one. The 60 to 120 amp service common to homes built in the '40s through '60s is not adequate for the demands of the 2006 family. The same is true of wall plugs. A house built in the 1960's or earlier typically has one outlet per wall in most rooms with maybe a few extra in the kitchen. When these homes were constructed the owner needed to plug in a few reading lamps, the television, maybe a stereo system or a trendy decorative wall sconce. In the kitchen the electric mixer was seldom used at the same time as the Osterizer or Mr. Coffee. The Litton Radar Ranger was still a feature in Popular Science not a must-have microwave. One or two plugs were more than adequate.

Today we need to run our PC, printer, router, DVD and/or VCR, cable box, fax machine, stereo, perhaps one that requires a separate cord for a CD player and tape deck. And that is just in the family room and office. In the kitchen we have the microwave, a slow cooker, juicer, hand blender, Foreman grill, coffee grinder, food processor, an under cabinet TV, etc. OK, you would never use all of these at the same time, but in a home with multiple cooks three or four appliances churning away at once is not unreasonable and juggling the plugs is aggravating; blowing fuses even more so.

Storage is another functional issue. Blame it on run-away consumerism if you must, but we need much more storage today than we did forty years ago. We own a dozen or more sets of towels and multiple sets of sheets for each bed. We might change our curtains, bedspreads, or decorative accents with the seasons and we decorate for lots of holidays. Men and women now need both work and leisure wardrobes and we won't even try to quantify the kids' toys. Costco and Sam's Club did not exist in 1965 but now we buy in bulk - toilet paper in 30 roll packs, dog food in 52.5 lb sacks. It is cost effective, but it has to be housed somewhere. And then there is the wider way we live and cook. One pound of hamburger and a box of "Helper" doesn't cut it anymore. We need hoi sin sauce, three kinds of rice and 12 varieties of pasta; lemon grass, and spices our mothers never heard of. All of this requires space and storage which can be sorely lacking in a 1960's or 1970's home.

Another issue is the flow of old houses. We went from a time when families huddled around the kitchen stove to keep warm, read, or do homework to a time when Dad was in the living room watching TV while Mom was cooking or cleaning up in the kitchen. Today's families, at least those with younger children, congregate around the TV or computer. Mom and Dad and maybe even some of the kids are working together to cook dinner. Families want houses that are, as Better Homes and Gardens recently put it, "kitchencentric." They want the rooms where they spend precious family time to be open and connected and large enough for every family member to participate in the activity of the moment. The "rec room" in the basement or the living room two rooms away from the kitchen is not 2006 family friendly.

Old houses probably can't win the functionality competition, at least not without substantial renovation, but we will see that they have a competitive advantage in many of the other areas listed above. It all comes down to what is important to you in selecting a house.