While inspecting and working in older homes in the city of St Louis, MO and other older areas like Old St Charles or Webster Groves, or many others, it quickly becomes apparent that the varied construction techniques of the time were much different than today's methods.
I mean homes over 75 years old, which is most all of the city of St Louis.
Here are just some of the differences you may find interesting, that I've found while working on, and performing St Louis home inspections:
(Don't get scared of the ugly pics, it's my job as a home inspector to document the ugliest spots best, so I have a plethora of these types of photos. I'll sprinkle in some nice ones, like the one above, as I go, to keep our spirits up :-).
Flat roofs were much more common on older buildings, and get sealed very differently than the typical peaked roof with eaves of today. Torched down roofing is often applied, which is less likely to be affected by the elements and considerations of a flat roof, like wind, and pooling, than the typical shingles found on a newer home.
Mansards are a often slate covered wall like roof, typically w/ windows in it, and are found on the front of often the 3rd floor of a building. A gutter system is installed at the lower edge. I love mansards.
Deck attachment and support standards have changed dramatically over the years, with the older deck set directly into the brick work. This has shown to be a major fail point through the years. Additionally, others have lag bolted ledgers directly to brick, in turn creating a lateral load on masonry, which is rarely, if ever a good idea. Should the (single) brick that the deck is bolted to break up or slip out, there is no support at all. People can die over this one. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of decks on newer homes installed incorrectly as well. There is a full post on this topic somewhere over there -->
Large arched windows were very popular on the front of these homes, with even the less fancy front windows often still having a slight arch across the top of them. If replacing, it is usually required to not alter the overall look of these windows, in order keep the nice appearance. The side and rear windows are usually a more standard 34" wide, w/ flat tops.
Similarly, the exterior doors on the side and rear of these homes are typically 2-10 as well. The front door, however, can be a single 40" or more, or even larger spanning double doors. The reasoning for this comes from a time in which people hosted a family members wake, or 'parlor funeral' in the home. Here's an Interesting Article on North American Funeral Traditions.
Which brings us to pocket doors. Most of these homes would feature huge pocket doors, which I can only assume would make funerals easier, like the wide front doors. You often find them on the first floor between the foyer, living room, dining room, and and entry halls. Multi family buildings may boast them throughout the floor plan on all floors.
Both interior and exterior (regular swinging) doors would likely have transom windows installed above them. Before air conditioning, these windows allowed the home to be opened, and cool through the night, and the 10' ceilings would allow that heat to rise over the occupants until those windows were opened. The standard today is 8' ceilings, and while feeling less roomy, are 20% less overall air space to condition. If an older home has 'dropped ceiling tiles' installed (aside of the basement), there's a good chance it is catching the plaster from the actual ceiling above it. 'Sleeping porches' were also common, due to the length of time it took through the night, to cool the home.
The interior door transoms could also help to transfer or hold heat, from room to room in the days of gravity heating, fireplaces, wood burning stoves, coal, boilers, radiators, and other non forced air heating methods.
Multiple stairwells from 1st to 2nd floors, with the one near the front door being significantly more prominent than the other in the back.
Older homes had single pane glass windows, and eventually most added storms. New homes use a double layer of sealed glass, which is a much more efficient thermal barrier, but, well installed storms on well preserved single pane glass windows, do not risk the same 'broken seal and interior fogging' that is inevitable to many newer window manufacturers.
Ever notice how a brick building usually needs tuck pointed under it's windows first? That is moisture intrusion at the window sill or possibly window edges. Once the mortar is saturated and freezes, it pops the face of the joint off. Fixing the wall without fixing the sill will only perpetuate the issue, and even make it worse, as now the water is trapped, and will literally push the two layers of brick apart through freeze thaw cycles, so, nightly, for 4 months per year in St Louis. This mostly applies to missing or bad gutters and downspouts as well.
Water is all buildings worst enemy, and is only made worse by freezing.
The front of these homes were almost always laid up with slightly larger sized brick than the sides and rear, and used smaller joints, called 'butter joints'. If having tuck pointing done on your building, don't let a grinder sized for a standard 3/8" joint, be used on these butter joints. A tool called a 'mortar cutter', which uses 2 reciprocating sets of 'fingers', instead of a wheel, while significantly pricier of a tool, can do this removal with way less damage to the brick. Less dust too, which OSHA has become more stringent about recently. Look into, and follow the rules concerning dust collection. I have not personally used this particular brand, it's just the best example photo of the blades I found.
The exterior walls of the older home will be double or triple layers (or wythe) of brick work, with the floor joists set directly into and supported by the masonry. Sometimes, you may find that the interior of exterior walls steps out from one floor to the next, having literally more floor space above, usually totaling around a 9" difference total, in both directions. Not always the case, but it exists.
Wooden headers (or lintels) were laid into the interior layer of brickwork over windows and doors, and covered with plaster. Today, masonry is typically supported by angled iron. Wooden blocking will also be found in the masonry wall, put there for future nailing of doors, windows, trim, or fixtures, so, often near windows, doors, and floors. These walls were then coated w/ layers of plaster, and that's the whole wall.
Interior framed walls are generally covered with lath, and plastered, including ceilings. *Pro Tip: If removing any plaster and lath, it's a good idea to keep the lath around, to shim down uneven joists for hanging finished ceilings, and other mismatched wood members, like old to new wall lumber framing size transitions. Also remember you'll want longer drywall screws, to grab the joist or stud, not just the shim.
If framing in an old home, be prepared to work with out of square, level, and plumb conditions. For example, if furring in the interior of an exterior wall, don't measure from the existing exterior brick wall and nail the bottom plate, before checking to ensure there is room at the top to plumb the framed wall up. Better yet screw it, they back out easier, and have a laser plumb-bob handy.
Gas lighting wasn't always just a political term. A pipe in the ceiling, run to the middle of the room, was for actual gas lighting.
Occasionally, the city sewer system is at a level above the basement floor, making a raised sewer system necessary. Sometimes a grinder pump and lift system can be installed for a basement bathroom, and at minimum a sump pump is recommended, to make sure the basement never becomes a pool. A raised system can be the case in a newer home too, but is much less common.
Cast iron waste (sewer) piping was standard into the 50's, being found inside the home and under the (basement) floor. Today, with most cast iron nearing the end of it's usable lifespan due to natural decay, replacement or portions of replacement with PVC are commonly found.
Typically, as the piping passes through the foundation, the system transitions from cast iron to clay tile underground sewer piping, found outside, and to the main, with a vertical 'clean-out' somewhere between. Many of these clay mains are still working well today, if not effected by outside forces like root intrusion or lift, settling, or washout / collapse. Today's homes generally use PVC, as previously mentioned, inside and out, which is chemically 'welded' at the seams and fittings, technically creating a continuous pipe, unlike the overlapping hub lock system of cast and clay.
It is not uncommon to find galvanized piping used in the water supply system of older homes. Also outdated, galvanized piping has long been replaced by copper, and more recently flexible PEX piping. Mixing copper and galvanized (dissimilar metals) will create a reaction that automatically restricts and clogs the pipe in even shorter time.
Homes built before the 20's had no original indoor plumbing, so, many had large additions added to accommodate for kitchens and baths, usually to the rear of the home, allowing for removal the old outhouse.
Most homes I inspect, young and old, have a center beam system, supporting two 'halves' of the home. These beams and posts were generally wooden in the older home, and can be a point of concern if:
-the posts are rotting, from moisture at floor level or below.
-the posts are sinking, or have sunken (improper piers).
-termite damage. They seem to prefer the taste of the beam to the posts, but, if the posts are through the floor into soil, it's worth a closer look. Newer homes usually use steel I-beams, and posts do not pass through floors.
Many of these homes used boilers, and radiators for heat. You may find a newer boiler still using the old radiators, or often replacement with forced air, and remaining abandoned piping for the system, larger than water and gas supply piping, left behind. Sometimes the boiler itself is even left behind unused, as well as fuel tanks, due to size. Take care to ensure an abandoned fuel tank is empty.
If there is a large hole in the wall of a raised basement with a steel plate over it, it was likely a coal chute, for loading the coal into the house.
In rare cases, you may still find old knob and tube wiring, or even fuse panels. Abandoned or still working, it's best to remove or replace them (by an electrician, of course).
12" + thick stone foundations were the common basement structure. I often see that people have attempted to seal leaks in these from the interior. That unfortunately rarely, if ever works. The moisture must be diverted from the outside, and tuck pointed on the inside.
Front porches: Sometimes you will find a home with a concrete floor on the front porch. Rusting rebar is inevitable, and cracking and failing is a possibility. Be aware.
In closing, many methods have changed, and for good reason, whether becoming too expensive, or due to better technologies. I hope that knowing some of what to expect going in helps.
Here's one last nice photo, as promised, to end on: