Monday, February 21, 2011

Your Place: Ancient knob-tube wiring is potentially troublesome

February 18, 2011|By Alan J. Heavens, Inquirer Real Estate Writer

Question: We purchased our home in Palmyra in July 2005. The house is about 120 years old and in great shape, but there's a ton of knob-and-tube wiring.

Someone mentioned recently that homes must have most or all of it replaced when selling a house.

We had a professional home inspection done, and they never mentioned this. I still have their reports. Do you know if this is something I can act on? I realize it has been more than five years.

Answer: I put your question to real estate agents who list older houses that might still have this kind of wiring.

The short answer is that removal before sale is not required.

The long answer, however, is that, although not illegal in either Pennsylvania or New Jersey to sell a house with knob-and-tube wiring, it is - in the words of Prudential Fox & Roach Center City associate broker Mark Wade - a good idea to disclose that the house has this ancient and, frankly, inadequate and potentially troublesome wiring.

I've also seen chat sites on the Internet that claim that houses with knob-and-tube wiring cannot get FHA mortgages. When I investigated, I discovered that what the Department of Housing and Urban Development actually says is: "Knob-and-tube wiring is acceptable if found to be in good condition and a minimum of 60 amps."

If the home inspector you used in 2005 disclosed the presence of knob-and-tube wiring and suggested that you might wish to hire an electrician to check it out, then he did his job, and you have no legal recourse.

If he did not disclose, and I cannot believe he did not, then you may have a case, but keep in mind that an inspector is required only to report what he or she sees and can only recommend further examination by qualified professionals.

Let's take a step back and explain what knob-and-tube wiring is.

The oldest wiring in an old house is knob-and-tube, installed between 1890 and 1910; however, some sources report installations as late as the 1930s.

Two wires, insulated with rubberized cloth, run independently of each other along beams from the basement through the center of the house. Where they run through the joists, they are encased in ceramic tubes to prevent the wire from chafing on the wood. The wires that run over joists are looped around ceramic knobs nailed to the joists, which is the reason they are called knob and tube.

Failure to disclose that a house contains knob-and-tube probably could find a seller in court somewhere down the road.

That's not all, however. Consider the age of knob-and-tube wiring, as Cherry Hill home inspector Harris Gross points out. The wiring was intended initially, he said, for operating lightbulbs.

Look at all the electric gadgets that fill our houses these days. Even if the rubberized insulation around the wiring hasn't been chewed by rodents, trying to run a hair dryer or a front-loading washer on such antique wiring is playing with fire - literally, since an electrical overload is within the realm of possibility.

Has the presence of knob-and-tube killed home sales? Yes, said Gross, because it is costly to remedy. He checked into some pricing and found that removing and replacing the wiring in a two-story house might run $4,000 to $8,000; in a three-story, it could be as high as $10,000. That does not include filling in the holes for the old wiring, which can range from $40 to $80 per, Gross said.


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