Home inspection findings by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck, Professional Real Estate Inspector TREC# 9073

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What to Do with the Chimneys in Historic Homes

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Much of the appeal in a historic home are the original features which no longer serve a purpose. You may find chimneys around the house that were originally part of the home heating system, but are no longer operable.

I love historic homes. I love modern homes. Alright, I have a problem. I admit it. I love the design of homes from any period. With historic homes, I am fascinated with how they dealt with the same issues that we still have to deal with in our own homes. This centers around how we cool and heat the house. Fireplaces are wonderful things, but they are not the best for the climate in the Houston area. I was excited to inspect a historic home that was advertised with fireplaces, because I wanted to see the mantles. Mantles from different time periods are great decorative features reflecting the style of those periods. This home did not have the promised fireplaces (is it false advertising to write such statements in the MLS?), but the chimneys were still in place. They made a wonderful decorative feature in the home, yet they also cause a problem.
chimney fluechimney in attic
    Not everyone would see this as a design opportunity, but the chimney flues sticking out from a brick wall do add character. Most older homes in our region used one of three types of heating systems: the massive boiler; gas heaters; or the wood stove/fireplace. This home originally had four wood stoves. There were two chimneys. Each chimney flue divided into two flues to allow the wood stove to be in separate rooms. This was quite a nice luxury, since the wood stove or fireplace might not have been in each room in other homes. The flue itself becomes a conversation piece; however, you have this nice brick wall feature in the home, which lends itself to the decor. I imagine that the flues probably extended down to a union with the stove (there was no evidence for a hearth structure in the house, so I felt that the flues had to be for a stove). The flues were cut back to the wall to move them out of the way.
    In one photo, you spot the chimney terminating in the attic. When walking the outside of the home, I only noticed the one chimney. When walking the interior, I saw the old flues, so I wondered what they had done. Upon entering the attic, I found that the chimney top had been removed when a new roof had been installed. The other chimney had been left in place, probably to allow for a future fireplace. The flues were not sealed, so from the attic, I could look down the flue to see the junction dividing the flue to the two rooms, where there was no seal either. The chimney which did penetrate the roof also had no damper. This causes two immediate problems for the homeowner: energy efficiency; pest control. There were signs of rodent activity in the attic and in the home. These flues made perfect entrances for them. The open flues allowed conditioned air to flow out into the attic or the exterior, so the air conditioning system would have to work harder to maintain the desired temperature in the home. A possible problem with the chimney exiting the roof would be rain. Rain water could come down the flue to cause moisture damage.
    The idea of leaving at least the one chimney was a good idea. Fireplaces remain a popular feature, and a new homeowner has the option of obtaining some efficient unit that may do the house good. However, installing the fireplace or stove may not happen right away. Moreover, the flue and chimney in the bedrooms will not have a fireplace or stove installed without much more work. The best temporary solution is to install a damper system on the flues. Retro fit dampers can be placed at the top of the chimneys. Another solution is having some type of blockage installed in the flues where they enter the rooms. A more permanent solution is adding cement to seal the flue for good.
    Historic homes do have wonderful features, but we also have to live with new technology in them. The huge old boilers cannot be easily removed. Nor can the huge house fans in the attic. Flues can present their own problems. You have to look at these items to see if they will be causing you trouble.

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© Frank Schulte-Ladbeck Professional Home Inspector Houston, Texas
Frank Theodor Schulte-Ladbeck
home inspector, TREC# 9073
Houston , Texas , 77063 United States

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