Like the Baby Boomers they nurtured, homes built in the 20 years after World War II are mellowing with age. Somewhere between 25 and 30 million single family houses went up between 1945 and 1965—most of them in the newer, more compact styles variously called Ranch, split level, raised ranch, Atomic Ranch, Cape Cod, and others. Altogether they make up at least a third of the occupied homes in the United States.
As any Baby Boomer can tell you, getting older comes with challenges. The good news: Most of the homes built in the postwar era were stick-built from quality materials, with solid foundations and rugged brick, wood, or composite siding. Inside, walls are sheathed with smooth wallboard and floors laid with durable strip hardwood. Kitchen layouts feature the classic work triangle, and unlike many homes built before 1940, there was at least one bathroom.
Builders made good use of the many new materials developed earlier in the 20th century, especially when it helped curtail the rising cost of construction. Among the innovative products you can still find in postwar homes today are plywood and fiberboard; composite siding, roofing shingles, acoustic tile and floor tile; and early forms of insulation and electrical distribution boards.
Of course, some of these vintage products came with unforeseen issues. Early plywood and wallboard, for example, contain or were finished with materials that contained high levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Fortunately for present-day residents (and perhaps bad for Boomers), any off-gassing took place within months of initial construction. More pernicious is the use of asbestos in all those composite products, lead in paints and other finishes, and formaldehyde in a variety of products, including insulation. Add in aging and obsolete plumbing and electrical systems, and you have a scenario where a significant chunk of the renovation budget for a 60-year-old house must go toward elements that are absolutely essential for health and safety, but won’t be seen.
Let’s start with plumbing and wiring.
If you have poor water pressure or unexplained leaks, you probably know there’s a problem with the plumbing. As a cost-saving move, many postwar homes were plumbed with galvanized iron pipes rather than copper. Galvanized pipes are actually made of steel covered with a layer of zinc. Over years or decades, the zinc erodes and allows corrosion to build up on the inside pipe walls, reducing water pressure and contributing to poor water quality. Worse, the corrosion can form rust, creating the potential for lead accumulation, which then percolates into drinking water.
If you suspect your house is served by galvanized pipes, have the system inspected by a reputable plumber. If the plumbing is original and fully or partially corroded, the only way to ensure no lead gets into your water is to fully replace the galvanized plumbing and service lines.
As for electrical wiring, the good news is that many houses of the 1950s and ’60s missed the knob-and-tube era completely. That’s fortunate, because aged knob-and-tube is considered such a fire hazard that modern building inspectors will stop work on renovation projects if it is still in use in the house.
The bad news is that most postwar houses didn’t miss the fuse era. A common design for fuse boxes in homes built between 1940 and 1965 was the 60-ampere fuse box. (An ampere, or amp for short, is a unit of electric current.) Inside were four Edison-base plug fuses for branch circuits, and one or more fuse blocks for cartridge fuses to serve major appliances. Electrical junction boxes with 100-ampere or higher service appeared about 1985. Today, 200 amps is standard, but modern electrical needs are pushing even this higher standard, too.
While fuse panels are still legal in most places, having one in the house is usually an indicator that the wiring may be equally obsolete. Additionally, there is a risk of fire if, say, someone plugs a 20-ampere fuse in a slot for a 15-ampere fuse. The electrical wires can’t handle the higher amperage, causing the wires to overheat. Once damaged, the danger remains even if the 20-ampere fuse is replaced with one of the correct size.
To fix it, the old circuit must be rewired. The modern standard is an electrical panel with circuit breakers, not fuses.
Beyond the electrical service panel, electrical wiring has gone through many changes since the 1960s to make it safer and more stable. There have been a few wrinkles, too. For example, aluminum wiring was used for a short time in the 1960s and early ’70s during a period of high copper prices. Even then, outlets and switches weren’t equipped to handle it, and aluminum wiring is considered a potential fire hazard today. Any plans for remodeling should include a full inspection of the existing electrical system to make sure it meets modern building codes.
Insulation has witnessed a similarly rapid evolution. If your wall or attic insulation contains vermiculite, you should be aware that 70 percent of this material sold between 1920 and 1990 came from a mine contaminated with asbestos. Obviously, any old insulation should be tested for asbestos, especially if it is exposed to the open air.
During the 1970s, many homeowners installed urea-formaldehyde foam insulation as a retrofit to save energy. A substantial number of these homes had high levels of formaldehyde in the indoor air soon after installation, according to the EPA. While the levels decreased rapidly after the first few months and reached background levels a few years later, you may still want to remove it and replace it with more eco-friendly insulation.
Speaking of asbestos, the material was rife in building products in the postwar years thanks to its fireproof properties. The good news: asbestos is only dangerous when it’s deteriorating or disturbed. The bad news: when an asbestos-containing material is damaged, it releases microscopic fibers into the air, where
they can be inhaled or swallowed. Exposure can cause lung cancer and a rare variant, mesothelioma.
The best approach to dealing with materials that may contain asbestos is to leave them alone if you can. That said, many banks will not write mortgages on houses that are known to contain asbestos, especially if it’s wrapped around heating or cooling ducts. If you are planning a renovation that may disturb an asbestos-containing material, such as old siding or vinyl composite tile, have it tested by an accredited asbestos inspector. If asbestos is confirmed, the material should be removed only by a certified remediator. Removal is regulated at the state level: look for a licensed pro on your state government’s website.
Asbestos Pro Tip:
Asbestos is common in 20th-century homes. Floor tile, adhesives, insulation on heating ducts, plumbing, or electrical panels, plus cement or asphalt roofing and siding, early vinyl wallpapers, attic and wall insulation all may contain asbestos. Removal, if needed, should be handled by licensed pros wearing protective disposable suits with hoods, goggles, and NIOSH-approved respirators.