I moved to San Francisco thirteen years ago, and about half that time I’ve lived in an apartment that was built in the early 1940’s. While it’s not as historic as other buildings in the area, it’s hardly the pinnacle of modern living either. Here’s a list of the things nobody — present company excluded — tells you about life in a charming old building before you move in.
- Toxic building materials
If you’re old enough to read this and you have the slightest amount of common sense, lead and asbestos aren’t much of a threat to your health. But if you’re raising kids (or even have kids over) that’s a different story. Sometimes I wonder if I should be calling Child Protective Services when I see my neighbors carrying their baby around the place.
Verdict: If you’re planning on breeding, consider a newer home.
MoldDon’t sign any leases until you know for certain that you don’t have a mold allergy. And no you can’t just scrape mold off, it will come right back. Besides, that might cause lead paint to chip off.
You know how if your electricity is out, the first thing you do is go outside and see if you need to flip a switch? That’s called a circuit breaker. Before those came along, they had large fuses (pictured above) that screw into the wall. Each fuse has a different amp rating, and if the current going through the fuse exceeds the maximum amps, a little wire inside the fuse burns out. At that point you have to unscrew it (being careful not to stick your fingers in the socket while doing so) and screw in a new one. In fact, the first thing you should do when moving into an older building is see what fuses your unit has and go buy a bunch of replacements. Otherwise you’ll have to call an electrician to come out and install new ones for you if it’s the middle of the night and the local hardware store is closed. As I found out the hard way, that can set you back a couple hundred bucks. My unit only has two circuits, so if my fridge kicks on at the same time I turn on my computer, that could burn out a fuse.
Verdict: Electrocution and/or fire, costly maintenance
- That lovely natural gas smell
This one’s kind of specific, but in my building the stoves don’t have an electric ignition system. Instead they rely on pilot lights. The day I moved in the entire building smelled like natural gas, and I quickly discovered why: only one of the two pilot lights in my stove was lit. The other ways just leaking natural gas everywhere! Not having a lighter or matches, I rolled up a piece of paper, caught it on fire with the flame from the functional pilot light, used the rapidly burning paper to ignite the second pilot light, then quickly threw the paper in the sink before the fire reached my hand. I’m not entirely certain how I knew to do this, I certainly never read a manual or anything. It was only later that I discovered the manual for the oven/stove was taped to the back of it. Which, clearly, is the safest place to put a bunch of paper.
Verdict: Okay, I probably should have reported this one to the fire department.
You might think with a stove and an oven, you’d need a ventilation system so the fire alarm didn’t go off when you cook, right? Hah! The thing about ventilation ducts is that they eventually get clogged up with grease, and someone has to clean those out because it’s a fire hazard. So your landlord — or some previous owner of the building — had those all sealed off. Ideally they cleaned them out before doing so, but let’s be realistic here; they didn’t.
Verdict: Another reason to get fire insurance.
- Ancient heating technology
Before fancy things like thermostats and forced-air heating were commonplace, people came up with a variety of strange old methods to heat the interiors of their homes. In my case, we have a steam heater. The way this works is a giant boiler on the bottom floor clicks on twice a day for a couple hours, once in the morning and once in the evening. The steam produced by this boiler is forced into pipes to radiators throughout the building. There’s no way to control how much heat this produces, since steam is pretty damn hot. So while it could be freezing outside, in an apartment with steam heat it could easily be 80 degrees F. If you’ve ever wandered around and seen a building where all the windows were open on a cold day, odds are that the occupants of the building are trying to ward off the artificial heat wave inside.
Verdict: Hope you like tropical weather!
Oh, you know who else likes warm weather when it’s cold and rainy out? Yup, rats. They’re pretty good about finding hiding spots, and you may never even see them except for brief glimpses out of the corner of your eye. But their signature trails of shit across your counters are a dead giveaway. Once a rat managed to get trapped in my bathroom somehow, and it escaped by clawing a hole in the wood window frame. I emailed the landlord about this and they said they’d get back to me. That was five years ago, maybe? Haven’t heard from them since.
Verdict: Keep paper products, food, and compost in hard to reach areas and the rats might stay in your neighbor’s unit instead.
- Washing dishes
Unless the kitchen was updated in the last 50 years (yeah right) you’re not going to have a dishwasher. That said, you don’t have to laboriously wash your dishes by hand: portable dishwashers are a thing that exist. They’re just like a regular dishwasher, except they’re in a big metal box with a wooden top (read: extra counter space) and they have wheels so you can move them around. Instead of plumbing them in directly, they come with a special gizmo that latches on to your sink. Sure, about a third of the time it will fly off and water will spray everywhere, but that’s still better than the arduous task of cleaning dishes by hand like it’s the fucking dark ages.
Verdict: Your dignity is worth more than $600
Any others I forgot to add? You can always reach me with ideas for a follow up article, my e-mail address is in the sidebar.