Homes & real estate: For house hunters, old and new homes each have their advantages

Architecture vs. amenities

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Matt Freed, Post-GazetteChris and Amye Sledge with their children, Jayce, 1, Jordyn, 8, and Erica, 14, at their Point Breeze house, an example of a restored city home.

New house or old house? Western Pennsylvania has plenty of each. For home buyers, it often comes down to taste and priorities.

"Newer homes are more functional, with floor plans designed for today's living," said Brian Kelly, an appraiser with Kelly-Rielly-Nell-Barna Associates in Oakland. "Older homes are architecturally more desirable."

Houses built from the late 1800s through the early 1900s, most common in older city neighborhoods on the North and South sides and East and West ends, often feature large porches, arched or handsomely molded doorways and stained- or beveled-glass windows or doors.

Those built in the 1920s and '30s in other parts of the city and close-in suburbs may boast original hardwood floors, crown and other decorative molding and real plaster walls and ceilings. In the South Hills, you'll often find junior-beam construction, which stabilizes each story with concrete floors. And old brick and stone give many homes a distinctive look.

But all those architectural niceties come at a stiff price, not necessarily on the front end, since older homes can cost the same or less than more utilitarian new homes.

High maintenance and/or restoration costs are the main drawback of older homes. The porches may be rotten, the molding damaged and covered with a dozen coats of peeling paint, and the windows and doors broken, drafty and ill-fitting. Furnaces or boilers may also need to be replaced.

If the roof is the original slate or tile, it may need only minor repairs. Otherwise, you may soon be financing the house's third or even fourth roof.

"Around 40 years old, houses really start to show their age," said Steve Gazzo, an inspector with World Inspection Network's office in Plum.

"You have plumbing issues, electrical issues, maybe safety issues. When we're inspecting, we may recommend an energy upgrade" -- including more insulation, weatherizing or storm or window replacement.

Gazzo said one benefit of older homes is that any major structural problems will have shown up by the time they're changing hands. He doesn't buy into the old adage that older houses were built better than new ones.

"That's an opinion," he said. "Some people just don't understand the new techniques, new materials."

As an example, he noted that many new houses use manufactured joists instead of 2-by-8 or 2-by-10-inch lumber. The laminated beams -- made from multiple layers of wood and space-age adhesives "are engineered to be stronger, better and more consistent," Gazzo said.

Although Kelly is a fan of older homes, he noted that their owners often must remodel or add onto them to get the four bedrooms and 21/2 baths found in the typical modern home. If modern amenities are a top priority for prospective buyers, they'll probably end up in a newer house.

Bob Donaldson, Post-GazetteBrad and Lynn Oberg outside their home in Cranberry, an example of new construction in the outlying counties.

"You could make a list of 10 things that you want. If you find seven of them in an older house, you're lucky. If you look at newer homes, you may find all 10," he said.

But owners of newer homes might be giving up one all-important amenity in real estate -- location. Kelly noted that older suburban homes are usually more central, closer to schools, shopping areas and municipal offices. Newer homes tend to be built on the outskirts of towns or, in our case, of Allegheny County. The majority of new construction in Western Pennsylvania is in the outlying counties of Butler, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland.

Whether they opt for new or old, transplants to the area might be pleasantly surprised by a few aspects of Pittsburgh housing stock. No, we're not talking about the Pittsburgh toilet, the ubiquitous basement fixture that harkens back to the heyday of the steel mills and coal mines. Not usually a big selling point, it nevertheless provides a good starting point for a basement powder room.

The real plus of most Pittsburgh-area housing is the toilet's surroundings -- a full basement. Though taken for granted by natives, a basement is a rare commodity in some parts of the country, where crawl spaces are the rule. Transplants from the South or parts of the West are often delighted to discover all that extra storage space or the perfect spot for a home theater or game room.

And their disappointment at not finding a Pittsburgh house hunter's Holy Grail -- the level lot -- may be tempered by the fact that their basement is also a walk-out, bringing in more fresh air and sunlight than a cellar should rightly expect.

Kevin Kirkland is the Post-Gazette's homes and real estate editor. He can be reached at or 412-263-1978.


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