Buyer discovers old electrical wiring

Q: The home we just purchased was listed as 30 years old, but our neighbors say the house was actually built in the 1940s and was moved to the site 30 years ago. We've also learned the electrical wiring is very old, so we're worried about electrical safety. Do you think the house should be rewired?

A: Older residential wiring is definitely substandard when compared to current electrical safety requirements. In some cases, these deficiencies warrant major changes, such as total rewiring or replacement of the main service panel, but major upgrades of this kind are not always necessary. To answer your question with certainty, the system should be thoroughly evaluated by qualified licensed electrician.

The most common and apparent shortcomings with older electrical systems involve wall outlets, particularly the lack of grounding and the shortage of available receptacles. Ungrounded outlets increase shock and fire hazards and may expose electronic equipment, such as computers, to possible damage. When outlets are the old two-prong type, the lack of grounding is obvious. But in many homes, old outlets have been "upgraded" to 3-prong receptacles, without actually being grounded. Users are thereby given the false impression that outlets are safely wired to ground.

When older homes have minimal numbers of outlets, occupants often use extension cords and other drugstore devices in ways that may overload circuits and create fire hazards.

Another shortfall with older electrical systems is inadequate capacity of the main service. Homes built before the mid-1950s were not designed for the many power demands we currently take for granted - i.e. dishwashers, garbage disposals, hair dryers, air conditioners, etc. With very old systems, especially those with fuses, overloading is common and total replacement is highly recommended. Because your home was moved only 30 years ago, panel upgrades have probably taken place, even though the old wiring still remains.

If you hired a home inspector prior to purchasing this home, evidence of its age should have been discovered. Regardless of renovations, signs of vintage should be apparent to a qualified inspector. If you did not have a pre-purchase inspection, you made a major mistake - one that should now be corrected. A competent inspector can evaluate the condition and adequacy of your electrical system and will identify items of concern involving other aspects of your home.

Q: The home I'm buying has a screen on the clothes dryer vent outlet. My home inspector says this screen should be removed, but the seller says it is necessary to keep rodents out of the building. Could you please weigh in on this debate?

A: Few will dispute the undesirability of indoor rodents, but other considerations override this common aversion.

Screens are specifically prohibited on clothes dryer vents because they become clogged with lint. This restricts the airflow, causing the dryer to overheat, which adversely affects the condition of your clothes and, more importantly, poses a fire hazard. If rodent control is a concern, other means should be considered. A hungry cat is one possibility.

• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.

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