House Rules: You can’t beat mid-century classics

Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 1:00am
Walter Jowers

I know, I know. Your everyday stalwart American family wants to live in a brand-new, custom-made, fresh-out-of-the-ground house. A house with that new-house smell, a house that you can call your own and enjoy until the sun blows up.

Well, if you set emotion aside and focus on the house parts, you’ll soon figure out that there’s no such thing as a new house. All houses are old. Just like Johnny B. Goode’s log cabin, they’re made out of earth and wood. The earth — and by that I mean the planet — is a little more than four billion years old. The wood in your new house could be hundreds of years old. Besides that, your new house was christened long before the roof went on and the doorknobs got polished. Believe me when I tell you, when you walk into your new house, you’ll be walking in behind strangers who have slept in your house, eaten in your house, used the bathrooms in your house and performed every known and unknown bodily function in your house.

Simply put, your new house is used. If you sniff around a little bit, you might notice that the new-house smell is a little off, if you know what I mean.

When somebody asks me for house-buying advice, I tell him to buy a mid-century house in an established neighborhood. Donelson, West Meade, Crieve Hall, Knob Hill and other neighborhoods are full of well-built '50s - '60s houses that still have plenty of potential. I say avoid houses built after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

Unless you just love ugly, avoid disco-era houses. If you do get stuck with a disco-era house (and I hope you don’t), be sure to get an electrician to check the house wiring. Aluminum wiring — the kind that’s prone to starting fires now and then — was popular in our part of the world in the '70s.

If you’re thinking about buying a house in Davidson or one of the surrounding counties, stay away from houses built during and after 1985. That’s when the skills of the labor force became, well, unpredictable. Few if any builders had competent roofers; few if any workers knew how to install flashing (metal that keeps water out of roofs and walls). Worse yet, I never saw a bricking crew who knew how to lay brick properly. The results were poor, and a lot of houses ended up with leaky walls.

It was in the late '80s and early '90s that my little home inspection company added litigation support to its list of services. I’ve yet to see a post-1985 house that doesn’t have a lot of building code violations. Hint: Municipal code inspectors, taken as a breed, aren’t very thorough.

I don’t always follow my own advice. I live in a 95-year-old house, in a settled kind of place. The house was wrecker ball bait when I bought it. I slowly fixed the place up and funded the project by selling how-to articles to book and magazine publishers. I don’t recommend that anybody else try this at home.

If you get an itch to live in a century-old house, be aware that you’ll be spending a lot of money on maintenance. For instance, when my sewer line collapsed a while back, getting it fixed cost me about as much as a good used car. For those with the sense to stay away from a century-old house, the good news is that a person with decent native skill can keep a '50s - '60s rancher in good shape.

Don’t buy an old house just because it’s quaint, and don’t think a new or newish McMansion will be your dream house. Either house could eat a pile of money and make you miserable.

As for new houses, the differences between a good starter home and an estate property are cubic feet of empty space, linear feet of crown molding and the affectation level of the kitchen appliances.

I think this is a good time for house hunters to stay straight down the middle. Find a settled neighborhood with attainable, sustainable houses, built in a time when the laborers were skilled and took some pride in their work. The '50s-'60s ranchers have held up for 50-to-60 years, and they’ll last a while longer. The McMansions, I think, won’t last so long.

Jowers has been writing about renovating old houses, and other things, since 1981. His column will be published in each Thursday edition of The City Paper. Contact him at

6 Comments on this post:

By: Fundit on 5/7/09 at 7:08

I've read this same article about several times over the years. Is he getting paid for this?

By: Kosh III on 5/7/09 at 8:01

It's always good advice, no matter how often you hear it. How many times has Ann Landers written about cheating wives yet it's still good advice.

Too many buyers are foolishly naive and focus on new homes with unneeded features. Granite is nice but other less expensive materials are just as good.

Buying a house with appliances included is idiocy: why are you willing to pay for a stove for 30 years, esp. when the stove will be gone in half the time?

I didn't follow his advice on house age last year when I bought even though I tried. The place I ended up in was built in the mid-80's but prior owners had done a lot of good upkeep AND it was on a dead end street backing up to the Cumberland River. LocationLocationLocation. :)

By: govskeptic on 5/7/09 at 10:18

Again, well said, and worthy of reminders more often than the board of Realtors and developers might like. If they happen to be 1.5 or 2 bath versus one they are then a true jewel.

By: pandabear on 5/7/09 at 10:45

Narrow hallways, tiny bathrooms, bad plumbing, outdated wiring
and everything out of level.

...who could want more ?

By: neel833 on 5/7/09 at 12:35

Good to see Jowers write about houses again.

By: tardistraveler on 5/8/09 at 11:30

I live in a mid-century ranch that I grew up in - built in 1957. Although it needs repairs here and there, it's structurally sound, with hardwood floors, and quality that you don't usually see in newer houses. I think this article gives some good advice.