Houses Built In The Fifties

What’s to like about a house built in the Fifties? 

  • Big yards! Big front yards and bigger back yards. Privacy fences didn’t became fashionable until much later so many lots were separated merely by chain-link fencing.
  • Real “dimensional” lumber was used; heavier and very dense woods such as yellow pine or even oak. If the house was built for a composition shingle, the roof usually had sheathing planks made from pine or fir and was called “ship-lap”.
  • Many 50’s-era homes were built with wood shake or wood shingle roofs. By now, the house has had several roof replacements; likely now has a composition shingle, Hardie shake, Aluminum or other type of roof covering.
  • The bathrooms in these houses were almost indestructible. Most likely the original pink, blue or yellow tiles are still intact; even the original floor tiles may still be in place.

What’s not to like about a house built in the Fifties?

Characteristics common in houses built in the fifties that are totally different from new homes are:

  • Wood roof shingles and wood shake roof coverings
  • Asbestos in roof shingles
  • Tar and gravel roofs
  • Asbestos in exterior siding
  • Asbestos in attic insulation
  • Asbestos in ceiling tiles
  • Asbestos used in drywall (sheetrock)
  • Gas floor heaters
  • Copper gas lines
  • California-style flat roofs
  • Lead pipes
  • Whole-house attic ventilators
  • Two-wire non-grounding type electrical systems (some systems with as few as 6 circuits total)
  • Kitchens wired for only a few conveniences (before dishwashers, disposer, microwave ovens, etc.)
  • Kitchen appliances shared electrical power
  • Low-hanging electrical service wires
  • Paints that contained lead
  • It was built before air conditioning became popular and affordable so the air conditioning system that is in place now was not always there. Don’t be surprised to find a huge fan in the hallway ceiling that was once used to cool the house in the summer. It was often call a “whole house attic ventilator”. (It should have been removed altogether once the air conditioning system was installed but not all were.)
  • Unless it has been replaced by previous owners, the original cast iron sewer line will still be in use.
  • Although gas wall heaters made by Sears, Montgomery Ward and others were still common, gas forced-air heating systems began to replace them. Gas floor heaters and room space heaters often remained connected to the old Copper gas lines.
  • In the 1950’s it was customary for builders to use Copper for Natural Gas appliances. It is still common to find that the gas heater and the gas water heater have a Copper gas line still attached.
  • It is common to find that the gas water heater or a gas heating system (or both) is located in a bathroom or bedroom closet. This was customary in the 50’s and 60’s but is prohibited
  • The gas water heater barely fits in the closet. In the fifties, a 30-gallon water heater was a common size and by now the replacement is likely 10-20 gallons larger and a tight squeeze in the closet.
  • The exterior walls of most houses of the 50’s were not insulated. If the attic contained any insulation it likely contained a modest amount of asbestos and was little more than an inch or two deep.
  • Expect to find the gas heating system to be in similar straits. Since the house was designed for a heating unit only, expect the tiny closet to now hold a heater and an air conditioning system with barely enough room to open the air filter compartment.
  • Roof lines became more California ranch-style designed for wind loads; usually low-pitched which means little or no attic space. Often times the attic cannot even be entered at all.
  • If the foundation is a pier and beam, it is highly likely that the crawl space cannot be accessed; which means that it hasn’t been accessed….for years…maybe decades. This means that plumbing issues are likely to be a problem and may be discovered during an inspection. Even worse, because of the limited access, ongoing costly plumbing issues may not be discoverable during an inspection.
  • If the original bathroom tiles are still in place, remodeling is a little more of a task than simply removing tiles. You don’t scrape off these tiles. It takes crowbars and sledge hammers and a knowledgeable contractor to renovate these bathrooms.
  • Unless it has been replaced don’t be surprised to find the house equipped with the original FEDERAL PACIFIC, GENERAL ELECTRIC OR ZINSCO electric service panels. (Other brands were used back then but these were widely used by builders of that era). The Federal Pacific and the Zinsco brand panels have fallen from favor by home inspectors and most electricians because of issues of safety and will likely be flagged during a home inspection. If your house is so equipped it is not the end of the world. There are ways to deal with it.
  • Two-wire non-grounding type electrical circuits: During this era of construction, two-wire non-grounding type electrical conductors were the standard systems installed by builders. It was easy for electricians to accidentally reverse the polarity of an electrical outlet and never realize it. Radios, clocks and most everything else still worked even though they were reversed. Since transistorized circuitry and integrated circuits were just beginning to change the world, polarity didn’t matter as much in house wiring or home ownership. Now, because houses built in the 50’s are still so prevalent, computers and other devices and appliances make polarity and grounding extremely important. (There are remedies that do not involve re-wiring your entire house.)
  • Low hanging electrical service wires were allowed in the 50’s. Today they are not. There are many houses still equipped with the original low hanging power lines. We still find  electrical systems that have not yet been updated since the house was built. Ordinary house wiring that is exposed, unprotected and stretched from the house to the detached garage can still be found by inspectors and appraisers; wires either draped across the driveway or the back yard or worse, buried underground without the benefit of conduit. Conditions such as these need to be systematically corrected.
  • Twelve-inch ceiling tiles became very popular in the late 50’s and all through the following decade. Most of them contained asbestos and formaldehyde, both of which were later found to be unhealthy.
  • The typical range hood or range vent did not require a dedicated circuit and was permitted to share electrical power with other devices and outlets in the kitchen. When microwave ovens became fashionable and popular, people thought that they could simply remove the range hood and install the microwave oven in its place. Microwave ovens consume too much power for a shared circuit and continually tripped the breaker until corrected. The same goes for refrigerators, dishwashers, food disposers, etc.

Written and distributed by

David Padgett

817-269-4419

Professional Inspector

License No. 58