How to Make Your Older Home a Safe Home
Sure, older homes can be charming — but if they are not properly maintained, they can also pose some pretty serious safety hazards. Here's how to upgrade your home to a safe one.
By Krisha McCoy
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Homes built today must adhere to strict safety codes. Older homes, while offering plenty of charm and character, are more likely to have safety issues — potential problems can range from lead paint and asbestos to faulty wiring and wobbly stairs.
But you can make an older home a safe home. Educate yourself about some of the dangers associated with old homes and take any necessary action to transform your older house into one that’s as safe as possible.
The Dangers of Lead Paint and Asbestos in Older Homes
Certain materials used to build and remodel older homes are no longer used today because of safety concerns associated with them. These materials include:
- Asbestos.Asbestos was used in insulation, shingling, millboard, textured paints, and floor tiles in older homes to make them resistant to fire. But when asbestos becomes airborne, it can be inhaled and can accumulate in your lungs, potentially leading to lung cancer, mesothelioma, and fatal scarring of the lungs. Since asbestos-containing materials are usually not dangerous when they are in good condition, it is usually best to leave these materials alone. But if you’re planning on remodeling your home and removing them, you will need to contact local environmental health officials to find out how to have these materials properly removed and, equally important, properly disposed of. If you aren't sure if you have asbestos-containing materials in your home, a professional asbestos inspector can do an assessment and advise you.
- Lead paint.Lead-based paint was once commonly used to paint homes, but health professionals now know that airborne lead can lead to serious health problems, such as damage to the brain, nervous system, blood cells, and kidneys. Exposure to high levels of lead can cause convulsions, coma, and even death. If your home was built prior to 1960, there is a good chance it contains lead paint. Like asbestos-containing materials, surfaces with lead-based paint are usually not dangerous if they are in good condition. But lead paint that is chipping or disturbed by friction or remodeling can cause lead poisoning. You can hire a professional who has been trained in dealing with lead paint problems to test your home and help you remove it or make your home safer. If you have children and you suspect your home contains lead-based paint, have them tested for lead exposure.
If you are considering purchasing an older home, you should first determine if asbestos or lead is a problem, especially if you are planning on renovating or restoring the home. Always make sure qualified professionals inspect the house and determine the extent of the problem.
Fire Safety Hazards in Older Homes
Another potential problem that can keep an older home from being a safe home is an outdated electrical system. While older electrical systems had no problems supplying enough power in previous years, many have trouble keeping up with today’s increased power demands. This can result in electrical fires — in fact, electrical fires are three times more likely to happen in homes that are more than 40 years old compared to homes that are only 11 to 20 years old.
Signs that your home's electrical system may be outdated include:
- Your circuit breakers trip often
- You need to replace fuses frequently
- Your lights are dim or flickering
- You have seen sparks in your electrical system
- There are unusual sounds coming from your electrical system, such as buzzing or sizzling
- There is an unusual burning smell, which could be a sign of a hot wire inside your wall
- Your switch plates or electrical covers are hot
- You have experienced a mild shock from your electrical system
If you suspect your electrical system may be outdated, have a licensed electrician inspect it. This is especially important when you are deciding whether to buy an older home, since updating an electrical system can be costly and may affect your decision. The following electrical upgrades often need to be made in older homes:
- Two-hole outlets should be replaced with three-hole outlets
- Ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets need to be installed in kitchens and bathrooms
- Add extra outlets to eliminate the need for extension cords
- Circuit breakers should be replaced with an arc fault system
These changes do not usually need to be made all at once. For budgeting purposes, fix the most dangerous elements first and the others over time.
4 Musts for Maintaining Your Older Home
The longer you live in your home, the more likely you’ll need repairs and renovations to make it safer. Consider the following:
It’s important to keep your home in good repair and to make safety updates over time. Keep a log of all improvements and create a schedule to help you stay on track.
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