Older homes have a certain charm and sense of warmth difficult to create in a newer dwelling. This charm, however, is often coupled with problems, sometimes with the structure itself. These structural problems often start at the sill level. Sills are the beams which rest on the foundation and to which the rest of the house is attached. They are usually fairly large beams (8” x 8”). because the sills must distribute the weight of the house upon an often rough and irregular foundation. Even the balloon frame house developed in Chicago in the 1830’s utilized a large sill, even though the rest of the house was constructed of 2 x 4’s and 2 x 6’s.
Sill problems usually develop because of a moisture problem. Sometimes the house was built too close or even in contact with the ground. In other cases water leaked in around windows and doorways. Whenever wood and moisture combine, there is the possibility of wet rot, ants, termites, etc.
The fact that hardwoods rot from the inside out, coupled with the tendency for sills to develop moisture problems on the outside, often misleads homeowners concerning the condition of their sills. From the inside of the cellar, sills may appear to be in good condition, while the outside two-thirds of the sill is completely rotted away.
Unfortunately, most of the weight of many houses rests on the outside of the sill. It is unfortunate that many homeowners have fairly extensive interior work done on their homes, without first having the structure checked.
Another area prone towards moisture problems is on the same level as the sills. The main carrying (summer) beams, the connecting beams, and the joists are all likely targets for water damage and the resultant wet-rot, carpenter ant infestation and termites. Again, the damage is sometimes not visible as the insects often tunnel through the center of the beams, thus greatly weakening the timbers. Wet rot and dry rot are a fungus which attack wood. The affected wood should be removed to stop the spread of the fungus. The possibility of structural damage should not he a reason to avoid the purchase of an older home. However, as with any home, the services of a house inspector are recommended. In addition I would urge prospective buyers to give me a call, to talk about obtaining a repair estimate. prior to purchase. In the past such estimates have been both a help to the buyer and seller, because some of the uncertainty can be eliminated, and costs understood in advance.