With endless how-to guides in print, consumer reports online, and DIY home shows proliferating on channels like HGTV, it seems like any Average Joe or Jane could imagine themselves as the next Mike Holmes. Today’s homebuyers are more well-informed than ever when it comes to construction and design logistics, which means they’re constantly on the lookout for built-in red flags—ones they would be best to walk away from rather than fix. Here are the most common structural issues I’ve come across in Toronto’s houses: which ones are worth ripping out, and which are just a plain rip-off.
Knob-and-tube wiring: The term comes from the white insulator “knobs” that are used to support a home’s electrical wires, and the ceramic “tubes” that bundle them together when they pass through wooden beams. The hazard is threefold: First, if the black and white wires make contact, they could start a fire; second, the insulation around the wiring can break down with age; and third, the material insulating the wire is made of asphalt-impregnated cotton—another fire risk. There’s no doubt that knob-and-tube wiring is a red flag, but not a big enough one, in my opinion, to justify saying no to a house. The wiring can be replaced at a cost—as low as $1,000 for a few odd pieces of wiring, and up to $20,000 for a whole house—and there are still a few insurance companies out there that will cover properties with these electrical systems.
Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI): UFFI, like some other common household products, contains the chemical formaldehyde, and there are health concerns about both the gas it emits and long-term exposure to it. The substance was banned in Canada in the 1980s, and while it’s still used in other parts of the world, seeing “UFFI” on a real-estate listing is enough to turn most buyers off. The jury is out on whether or not this insulation definitively compromises your health, but I wouldn’t advise my clients to consider a home where every wall is filled with this stuff.
Asbestos: I don’t think this one is worth debating. Asbestos is poison, and while certain types of asbestos remain in use (in automotive brakes, for example) and “undisturbed” asbestos (like a pipe wrapped in asbestos that hasn’t been touched in 40 years) may not be harmful, it’s a compound that has been unequivocally proven to cause serious illness following prolonged inhalation. In my experience, homebuyers will still consider homes with asbestos, but they won’t consider living there before it’s removed. The cost of doing so is on par with removing knob-and-tube systems.
Lead piping: Lead has been used in water systems for hundreds of years, but studies have shown that lead deposits in drinking water can cause adverse health effects, most notably in children. The lead enters drinking water as the pipes corrode over time. The City of Toronto has instituted the “Priority Lead Water Service Replacement Program,” in which the municipality replaces the city-owned portion of the pipe that supplies water to the home, so long as the homeowner replaces the remainder of the lead piping on their property. I wouldn’t advise a client to pass on a home with this setup, but it’s a construction issue that should be tackled as soon as the deal closes.
Weed: You can’t buy a house in Toronto known to be a former marijuana grow-op without signing a whack of indemnification clauses that absolve the seller and selling agent of any responsibility. Taking on a house with this particular narcotic past comes with major concerns, including mold due to humidity, a lack of air circulation, and electrical problems caused by the former grower-owners manipulating hydro panels in an effort to avoid detection by Toronto Hydro. Never in a million years would I let my clients go near one of these things.
In the end, every buyer has a different level of risk tolerance, and while some of these red flags represent absolute dealbreakers to one—or come with health implications that cannot be ignored—another person might view construction foibles as an opportunity to put in some sweat-equity, rip out the undesirables, and create value. And creating value in a heated real-estate market is always a good thing.
What are your structural dealbreakers when looking for a new home? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.