Uncovering the hidden enemies of home buying. Your Enemy: Aluminum Wiring
This week I’ve decided to start a blog series on easily overlooked issues with houses that can turn into costly repairs once discovered. These issues are usually hidden in plain sight and are easy to find you just have to be aware of the issue. Today’s hidden enemy is aluminum wiring.
Enemy: Aluminum Wiring
Why it’s an issue: Fire hazard
Likelihood of finding it: Rare
Cost to fix: Very expensive
I equate finding a house with aluminum wiring like winning the anti-lottery. It’s rare to find it but expensive when you do. Aluminum wiring showed up in residential homes in the late 60s and lasted about a decade. It would be very uncommon to see aluminum wiring used in a home after 1980. Copper was expensive during this time period so people started swapping out copper wiring for aluminum wiring. Because it was used in an effort to save on construction costs, the most likely place you will find it is less expensive homes [though not always] that were built in the late 60s to late 70s.
Why it's a problem:
Aluminum wiring is a problem because it expands and contracts at a different rate than copper. When electricity is sent through the aluminum wiring it begins to heat up and expand. This expansion will begin to flex the connection points loose like the screws that attach the wiring to a switch or receptacle. Over time this will create a gap between the connection points and the electricity will need to “jump” the gap between the two connection points creating a spark as it does this. That will spark can ultimately lead to a house fire. Because of this you may also have trouble getting insurance on a home that has aluminum wiring.
What to look for:
Remember that aluminum wiring is most likely in homes that were built in the late 60s to late 70s and are of cheaper construction. If you happen to be walking through one of those houses then you should be on high alert because the enemy could be hiding right inside the walls. If you suspect aluminum wiring could be present in the home you can look for it in a few different ways. The first and easiest way if you are uncomfortable with your own knowledge would be to hiring a licensed electrician to inspect the property. If you have a few more DIY skills then you could look for it yourself. The easiest way to tell the difference between aluminum and copper wiring is by the color of the wire itself. Aluminum wiring is silver in color and copper wiring is more orange or brown.
Most of the wiring is going to be covered behind the walls and by insulation around the wire but there are a couple of places you can check to see if you can get a glimpse of the wire color. With the power to home off, you can take the cover of a receptacle or light switch off and peer into it with a flashlight.* In most cases you will be able to see where the wires have been stripped and connected to the receptacle. This is where you should be able to tell whether it is copper in color or silver in color. Remember if the wire is silver it’s aluminum wiring. If you can’t tell and you have above average experience with home repair you can remove the receptacle screws and pull it forward to get a better viewing angle.* Always remember it’s better to hire a professional and to ask the current homeowner before doing any type of these inspections.
How to fix and costs of fixing:
If you do find aluminum wiring in a home the best fix for the home is to rewire the entire house removing all the old aluminum wiring and replacing it with copper. Yep, it’s a real enemy. Rewiring a house is not cheap. If you plan on pulling permits [which you should] the municipality will expect you to bring it up to code since you are rewiring the entire home. This will costs even more. For real world purposes I owned 800 square foot house that was completely wired with aluminum wiring. The cost to rewire the entire home was $4,150, and that was a tiny house. I can only imagine how much it would be wire a bigger larger home. The moral of this story is that if you’re the unfortunate winner of the anti-lottery and do find a home with aluminum wiring you need to get a quote on fixing it before buying the home, budget wisely or simply run the other direction.
*Working with electricity can be lethal. This article is for informational purposes only. The author takes no responsibility from any actions performed after reading this article.
Happy home buying!
Red Link Realty
About the Author:
Daniel Smith is the Owner/Broker-in Charge of Red Link Realty a Lexington, North Carolina based real estate firm. Daniel uses his real estate knowledge to help both prospective home buyers and sellers with their real estate transactions. Daniel has been investing in residential rental properties and house flipping since 2008.