There are many electrical warning signs in a home that a home buyer should look for. Issues with a home’s electrical systems can stem from age, improper maintenance, improper installation, or modifications by an unqualified person.
Some problems are obvious. Unfortunately, the nature of how electrical systems are installed make issues harder to detect and will necessitate hiring a licensed electrician to review and diagnose potential issues.
A cursory inspection of a home may show receptacles that are cracked or discolored from overheating. Walking through an unfinished basement (if a home has one) may also give clues to the type and condition of a home’s electrical systems.
Reverse polarity is an issue that should be checked in all outlets. It can be checked easily with a plug tester. If this is found during an inspection, the entire house should be checked and you should verify that any major electrical updates, repairs, or maintenance were done by a licensed electrician before making an offer on the home. Polarity-dependent appliances could be damaged or destroyed by an outlet with reverse polarity.
Older homes may have electrical systems that were “grandfathered” (assuming the initial build and install was done correctly and up to the standards and code in place at the time of construction) under code requirements but that are in need of repair or updating because they are not grounded or cannot safely handle the needs of modern electrical appliances and devices. Many insurance companies will not insure a home with an amp service lower than 100amps. A home with a breaker box older than 20 years old should have the box and electrical system thoroughly examined and tested by an electrician. Danger signs could include corrosion, arcing or burn marks inside the box, melted conductors, or the wrong sizes or types of fuses and circuits installed.
Many older homes lack electrical grounding. These electrical outlets or receptacles only have 2 prongs. To accommodate just about any modern appliance with 3 prongs, you’d need to rewire most of the electrical receptacles in the house. Some homeowners assume all that’s needed is to update the receptacle itself but there are other code compliant solutions such as installing GFCI outlets in appropriate locations to protect circuits. Depending on the age and condition of your electrical wiring, your electrician may recommend that all the wiring between the breaker panel and receptacles is also updated properly with new wiring that is grounded correctly.
Some homes may have been built with aluminum wiring. Aluminum is an excellent conductor, but in climates where there are significant temperature fluctuations aluminum wire is susceptible to expansion and contraction. This expansion and contraction can create the potential for loose terminations at the devices, causing a fire hazard. Your electrician can retrofit these receptacles with a special wire nut meant for connecting aluminum and copper wire together, allowing the copper wire to terminate at the devices, eliminating the expansion and contraction issue. If the receptacle has not been retrofitted for a copper wire termination, replacement receptacles and switches should be labeled AL-compatible.
Some older homes still have knob and tube wiring, which was installed in homes built in the early 20th century. Homes with knob and tube wiring are generally very difficult to insure or even finance because this kind of wiring is notoriously dangerous. If still present, knob and tube wiring will likely be woefully outdated. Buyers who are relying on financing to purchase a home will likely not be able to consider a home with knob and tube.
Age-related issues aren’t the only potential problem areas in a home for sale. Remodeled homes are notoriously fraught with code violations, particularly if the homeowner or an unqualified contractor carried out the renovations. Signs of trouble include non-UL-listed devices or materials used improperly, inappropriately installed breaker boxes, exposed wires, and new kitchens or bathrooms without GFCI outlets.
All areas of a home that have been remodeled should be carefully inspected. Wires and outlets should be properly sized and installed correctly. Cables should be secured and supported appropriately. Loose devices or outlets, large gaps between the junction box and drywall, and outlets without a faceplate can be a sign of shoddy electrical work. Double tapping of circuit breakers within the electrical panel is sometimes done by unqualified persons due to inadequate spaces for additional circuits to be added properly to a breaker box. Improper wire sizes are also a hazard that could cause a fire.
Look for lighting fixtures such as can lights installed without thermal rating or protection and in direct contact with insulation such as in an attic. Ceiling fans that wobble may indicate improper installation as well.
Check for damaged electrical components especially around whirlpools, swimming pools, and bathtubs as these are especially susceptible to water damage and corrosion. Motors for whirlpool pumps, for example, are sometimes concealed behind tile and drywall. There should always be an access panel to maintain and inspect the components of these kinds of fixtures.
Be sure to look at any structures on the exterior of the home as well, including the garage, patio, or water features. These are often projects modified or built by unqualified persons or homeowners and while not considered part of the home interior could still pose significant electrical hazards. Check to see how outside lighting, water features, and exterior outlets are installed. Are the GFCI outlets in the appropriate place for water features or exterior receptacles? Wires, fixtures, exterior housings of lights and fittings should not be corroded, cracked or melted.
If you are considering purchasing a home and you find any of the above-mentioned issues, please consult a qualified electrician to troubleshoot and make code-compliant repairs. Insurance claims can be complicated or even denied if documented issues with a home were not addressed.
Issues like these do not mean you should walk away from your dream home. With the right negotiations and willingness on your part to have the necessary repairs and upgrades completed, you can make even an older home safe and comfortable.