As a real estate reporter, I field a lot of questions—When is the market going to recover? Do I know a good electrician? What’s the deal with Energy Star windows?—but there is one question I get more often than any other: Is it better to buy a new house or an existing one? My response is, invariably, it depends.
Let’s be clear, my answer is strictly relegated to the house, not about neighborhood. Location is a matter of preference. Some people favor quaint old communities with tree-lined streets, and streetscape of architecturally inspired older homes. Others prefer new subdivisions in the suburbs with homogeneous-looking houses but (typically) better schools. Location is a different discussion. The issue here is strictly about the quality of the house.
An older house, one from, say, the 1920s or the 1960s, probably uses higher quality materials, which includes such items as real wood interior doors (perhaps Douglas fir), wood crown mouldings, plaster walls, and a real cast-iron tub. The windows are probably made from real wood, though they are most likely inefficient and leaky. The floor is likely old-growth oak or maple, the brick work will be impeccable, and the locks will be made from heavy duty metal. Even the components used to construct the house—the things you can’t see—are of a higher quality.
To be clear, the old house will likely have problems that need updating, which is why consumers often feel that an old house is too much of a headache. And it’s the main reason they feel a new house is a best bet. But is it?
Thanks to building science and research we have the ability to build houses that are way superior to an older home from an energy efficiency perspective. Windows are more energy efficient, and we have better air conditioners, better hot water tanks, better appliances, and better insulation. The plumbing is leak free, and the components are unlikely to contain lead.
Unfortunately, builders care about one thing: profit. As a result, they use the cheapest products they can get their hands on to build your house. In the end, the homeowner gets an inferior house but one she can afford to buy. She also gets under-insulated walls, cheap vinyl siding, sheet vinyl floors, and inferior components. Builders then dress up that house with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and wood floors. And buyers fall for it every time.
You can’t blame builders for their decisions. They are, after all, in business to make money, and they make choices based on economics. In most cases, the home buyer simply wants to get into the house, so issues of quality may be irrelevant.
So, is it better to buy a new house or an existing one? If you want more predictability–in performance, utility bills, etc.–a new house is your only option. But if you want a quality house, get the old. Personally, I don’t think i could ever buy a new house unless I had my own lot and hired an architect to design one for me. There are some builders doing quality homes, but they are the exception. I enjoy bringing old homes into the 21 century. Though renovating an old house can be a serious undertaking with many obstacles, when it’s done right you get the best of both worlds–a quality energy efficient house build with quality materials.