Whenever I find myself getting advice from folks who’ll make money from my actions, I recall two pieces of metaphorical advice that I picked up a while back—one from one of my doctors, the other from my lawyer.
Said the doctor: “Never take the word of a surgeon who says he ‘got everything.’ ”
Said the construction-defects lawyer: “The builder—like the state-appointed psychiatrist—is not your friend.”
The message of the two metaphors is this: Watch out for folks who have a conflict of interest. They might just be serving themselves when they’re supposed to be serving you.
That said, I’m going to share a little knowledge that I picked up over a 20-year run of doing home inspections here in Middle Tennessee. This is the stuff that I tell good friends and would tell family, if I had any family looking for a house.
The best houses in and around Nashville are the ones built between the Sputnik launch (1957) and the moon landing (1969), give or take a few years on either end. Stay away from houses built after Nixon resigned (1974). Run from houses built after the Bee Gees launched the curse of disco (1977).
After inspecting about 5,000 local houses, I’ve decided that the modest and sturdy little ranch houses of the ’50s and ’60s give the most bang for the buck. They’ve got everything you need and nothing you don’t. The workmanship is uniformly good, and the decently maintained houses have aged well. West Meade, Crieve Hall, Donelson, the area around David Lipscomb University and Knob Hill are loaded with well-kept ranchers. If we Jowerses were to buy a house tomorrow, it would be a pre-moon-landing rancher. Another good thing about the ranchers: The immodest folk who just have to have a 600-square-foot master bath and a two-story foyer don’t compete for ranchers. That keeps ranchers affordable.
Note to folks lusting for a rancher: Don’t tear out the funky bathroom tile. (Well, unless it’s broken all to pieces.) You’ll never find a tile guy who’ll be able to match the quality of a good ’50s or ’60s tile job. And one day, the funky old tile will come back in style.
One bit of bad news for ranch buyers: The original electrical system built back then is obsolete, or close to it. If the wiring is original, get the house rewired. While you’re at it, have the electricians pull Ethernet cable—and any other cable you might need in the next 30 or so years—to every room in the house.
Around 1985, seriously troubled houses started springing up in town and in the suburbs. That year, there was a building boomlet when the Saturn plant was announced and the airport started a major expansion project. During this spell, unskilled and semi-skilled laborers started to appear in bunches, building new houses and condos as fast as their nail guns would let them. This was the beginning of the bad-brick-veneer era, which led to the inadequate-codes-inspection era, which gave way to the moldy-house era. I say avoid houses built in the mid-to-late ’80s.
The houses built from the late ’80s until now are worrisome. In the early ’90s and later, co-inspector Rick and I spent about half our inspecting time finding and documenting egregious building defects—roof leaks, wall leaks, mold growing in walls, rotten framing in walls and big cracks in foundations and brick veneer. We found heat-and-air systems that blew when they should have been sucking and sucked when they should have been blowing. We found ducts that were never connected, ducts that contained water, and a few sewers that dumped raw waste into basements and crawl spaces. A recurring theme: The bigger and fancier the house, the bigger and more troublesome the problems. For years, it’s been devilishly hard for builders to get good help.
About 10 years ago, we started finding more and worse defects in virtually every new house we inspected. We found a recurring theme of builders denying that there were any defects and shoddy repairs meant to cover them up. There were recurring problems such as leaky roofs, poorly installed brick veneer and badly botched deck installations. And don’t you know, we found hundreds of building code violations that municipal codes inspectors never noted. Next thing I knew, I was working for plaintiffs as much as I was working for homebuyers.
If I had a good friend of family member looking for a house in Nashville today, I’d tell them to stay away from new houses. There’s nothing new about a new house. Before you move into a new house, strangers have bathed in it, eaten in it and used its plumbing, if you know what I mean. And most likely, it’s been christened by lusty lookyloos. All that makes it a used house.
I say look for a sturdy house in a settled kind of place, and let the folks who want new McMansions overspend on houses that might not last as long as their car.
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