They go by various names, from fixer-upper to money sink. But if you opt for an old house or apartment rather than something newly-built, you’ll gain two big environmental points right off the bat: You’re not contributing to urban sprawl, and, like a hermit crab, you’re recycling a preexisting “shell.”

Before you acquire that picturesque, if slightly sagging charmer, however, you can save yourself a lot of money, grief and even toxic exposure by finding out what condition it’s really in. In addition to the traditional inspections for termites, dry rot and off-kilter foundations, “An increasing number of home buyers are asking for environmental assessments,” says Paul Novack, owner of Environmental Construction Outfitters (E.C.O.), a supplier of least-toxic building and decorating products in New York.

At the very least, it’s a good idea to check out whether your prospective home contains:

    chronic, mold-fostering damp
    old lead paint
    pressed-wood surfaces
    asbestos insulation
All of these can cause health problems, from triggering asthma to neurotoxic or carcinogenic effects.

In addition to avoiding and removing toxic substances, you’ll add to your home ecology score by incorporating sounder environmental products – and practices – into your checklist.  These include buying local and sustainably-produced or recycled materials as much as possible. Such precautions will help ensure that your old house, or apartment, will bear no resemblance to the House on Haunted Hill or the Amityville Horror, except, perhaps, from the standpoint of a mold.

Renovation Resources:

Detecting and Removing Old Lead Paint

A Sane Home: In A Plywood, Particleboard & Pressure-Treated Wood World

Managing the Hazards of Insulation