What to Look for When Buying a House (And How to Avoid a Lemon)

Posted on Oct 12, 2020


What should homeowners look for when buying a new home? An outdated kitchen is a drawback for some, while another family might see old cupboards as a way to get a great starter home for a more affordable price. 

However, every homeowner is going to want to know if there’s damage to the foundation, or mold growth - and the sooner you know, the easier it is to make informed decisions. Here’s what you need to know. 

Signs of a Bad House Flip

HGTV shows introduced millions of people to house flipping. Over the years, though, there’s been plenty of stories about poorly-done house flips that result in expensive fixes for homeowners. YouTube tutorials can make shower installations look easy, but a missed step can lead to extensive water damage. And home flippers are incentivized to work as quickly as possible, because the longer they own the house, the less money they recoup.

Of course, many house flippers are experienced renovators who know what they’re doing - so flipped homes can be a great way to get a fully renovated home. But here’s some of the things you should look out for. 

  • Gaps between cabinets: if installation was done on a rush or by someone experienced, there may be gaps between the kitchen cabinets, the countertops, or even the doors and their frames. 
  • Improperly installed shelves: some house flippers don’t realize that shelves and handrails need to be safely attached to studs in the walls, and not just drilled into drywall. 
  • Buckling floors: home flippers often install new floors, but an improperly installed floor can buckle, sag or slope - and these are signs of future trouble. If you’re not sure, use a marble and see if it rolls.

When it comes to touring flipped homes, senior buyer agent Sommer Mateer says that a huge red flag is finding bubbles in the flooring. “A bubble is exactly what it sounds like,” she explains. “Walking around the house, you get to an area of the flooring and there’s no support under that part of the flooring - you can push down and it goes up and down. If I find any of that I know they’ve cut corners or used a B team to do the renovation.”

what to look for when buying a house: signs of a bad flip

Location

There’s more to a home than just the square footage. Being near a main road or highway can be nice for your commute, but if the house is too close, you might be hearing traffic all hours of the night. What the neighborhood is like and how convenient it is to go to the local grocery store are also going to matter. Figure out where the grocery stores, parks, restaurants, and bars are, along with the school district and any other shops or amenities you appreciate having nearby. Use this website to determine your neighborhood’s walkability score.

Signs of Deferred Maintenance 

Deferred maintenance refers to home problems that the previous homeowners put off dealing with. This can be something as innocuous as the need for a paint job, or as serious as not fixing a hole in the roof. If you see that the homeowner hasn’t been keeping up with regular maintenance, be wary - there’s a good chance that they haven’t kept up with other issues that you can’t see, too.

Here are a few signs of deferred maintenance that in themselves may be easy to fix, but can be a sign that homeowners haven’t been keeping up with repairs.

  • Broken appliances
  • Clogged drains
  • Loose hinges
  • Peeling wallpaper
  • Jamming windows

Window Problems

“I like to take a look at the windows when I’m showing homebuyers a property,” says senior buyer agent Isabella Faro-Winkelman. “Have they been repaired, or are they the original windows?”

It’s a good idea to check to make sure windows actually open, and that doors actually shut. 

Why? If windows break, they’re often replaced with cheaper alternatives. If the wood is already warping and making it difficult for windows to open, you may be looking at a complete replacement within three to five years - and windows can be surprisingly expensive to repair or replace (the average, according to Home Advisor, is $650 per window). Another issue with cheap windows: they’re often inferior insulators, driving up the cost of your heating and cooling bills.

“I always look for hot ticket items that are going to be more costly to repair or replace,” explains Mateer. “If the caulking needs to be replaced on the windows, it can be $300-$500. If the windows are super old school or have open seals, that’s going to cost you. Open seal is when you can see a mist or fog in between double paned gas, and it means the argon gas that was originally in the pane was replaced and your home isn’t energy efficient. Your heating bill and your central air bills will be higher once that seal is broken. Single pane glass is really old, and you’re definitely looking at window replacement in the very near feature.”

“If blinds or curtains are drawn, I want to see what’s going on there,” says Mateer.

always check the lighting

Foundation Issues

If there’s too much water in soil - or conversely, not enough - it can begin to shift, swell, or shrink, and a home built atop this soil can begin to experience deep structural damage. Poor drainage, droughts, and mistakes during construction can all lead to soil movement. 

As the soil continues to shift, cracks can form in the foundation, pulling the house apart. It’s worth noting that foundation problems can be fixed, but it’s an expensive problem that not all homebuyers are willing to tackle. Here’s how you can keep an eye out for damage to the foundation.

  • Floor cracks/wall fissures: Cracks are probably the most obvious signs of a shifting foundation, and they’re easiest to spot in basements. Tiny cracks are common and can be explained by normal shifting; larger cracks are more concerning.
  • Doors and windows getting stuck: Some issues are easy to fix, if the problem is a loose hinge or the home settling a bit. If the door gets stuck or if there’s a gap at the top, though, it could indicate a serious issue with the foundation shifting.
  • Google the neighborhood: sometimes, multiple homes in an area will experience the same foundational issues if the homes were built on a floodplain or in an area where pool soil is common - such as this neighborhood in Florida. A quick internet search can let you know whether your area is known for trouble. 

Is the Home Family Friendly?

Every family is different, but there’s a few common “wants” on the lists of most families. This can be especially important to look for if you plan on having kids but don’t have any yet, since it may involve re-framing how you evaluate the home. When you think of what to look for when buying a house, consider  your future needs as well. 

  • Private yard: a big yard is great, but sometimes a small yard with a fence is even better if it means less opportunity to walk off into the street.
  • Same level bedrooms: if you want to be on the same floor as your kids, four story townhomes might be out.
  • Bathtub: most kids aren’t capable of self-bathing (showering or tub) until age 6 or 7. Until then, a bathtub allows parents to easily wash their kids.
  • Play area: is there enough space in the home that children can have a play area of their own without knocking over vases and lamps?
  • Open concept: parents often want to be able to cook or clean while tending to their kids. But conversely, if you need to work from home you might want more distinct areas for yourself.

It’s important to identify what you’re looking for before you check out a house. Agents are legally prohibited from commenting on things like schools, crime, and demographics, so if that stuff is important to you, you’ll need to do your own research. In other words, they can point out useful home features, but they can’t tell you that a home’s feature is, specifically, “family friendly.”

Storage Space

According to the National Association of Realtors, nearly half of homeowners say that “more storage space would make their residence ideal.” Some homeowners may prioritize a walk-in closet, but equally as important are everyday storage options in the kitchen, bathroom, basement, and bedrooms. It’s a lot easier to stay organized if it’s easy to put things away! For this reason, take note of how much storage space is available in the home - or what you’d have to buy (shelves, bins, boxes) to supplement it. 

Digital & Electronic Necessities 

Virtually every homebuyer today has a cell phone, and plenty of other gadgets they need to plug in. Many homebuyers, though, forget to check their potential home’s compatibility. Here’s what you should be checking. 

  • Type of electrical wiring: In older cities like Philadelphia, NYC, and DC, you may encounter knob and tube electrical wiring - the very first type of electrical wiring ever installed. Knob and tube wiring is problematic because it was only built to handle lights, not today’s many gadgets. This can make it more susceptible to fires - especially since knob and tube wiring often runs through insulation. The other big issue is that most insurance companies won’t insure for knob and tube wiring - they will either charge a 10% premium, or they will give you 90 days to remediate it or they pull the policy. The only way to fix this issue is to rewire the entire home, which can cost from $20,000 to $50,000 depending on the size of the home.
  • Electrical outlets: Old homes often have a limited number of electrical outlets - builders anticipated lamps and TVs, but not computers, rice cookers and phone chargers all plugged in at once. It could be a major inconvenience, or worth hiring an electrician, if you can’t turn on the microwave without unplugging the coffee maker.
  • Internet connections/phone coverage: Does your phone have coverage in your home? Finding out your home is in a dead zone is not a fun surprise – or a quick fix. This is something that can get easily overlooked during a home tour, but could spell trouble if you don’t plan to switch your carrier. Similarly, what internet providers service your area? If you or someone in your family has to work from home, this might be good to double check.

electrical-home-problems.jpg?mtime=20201008145944#asset:37374

Don’t Rely on Your 4pm Weekday Impression

We’ve heard the horror stories of someone who found their dream home, only to realize after moving in that they have nightmare neighbors. It’s possible to overlook some potential issues with a home if you’re always observing it at the same time of day - here’s some house hunting tips you’ll want to keep in mind.

  • Noise - Noise is often one of the most common complaints people have about their living quarters, whether it’s from the outside street, the upstairs neighbor, barking dogs, or the bar two buildings down, yet it’s something people often forget to check for. Be wary of home sellers who have either music playing or fans left on, since this might be an effort to mask noise pollution. Take a second to stand still and listen to the noise levels in the home, since you might tune it out during a quick visit but find it’s much more noticeable when you’re not talking to an agent. If it’s a noisy area, ask if the homeowners have had soundproof windows installed. 
  • Commute - if you’re going to be commuting or dropping kids off at work, you might want to give your route a test run at the same time you’d normally drive it. Heavy traffic and congestion may make you reconsider certain neighborhoods.
  • Meet the neighbors: Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid terrible neighbors, but you can try to get a feel for yours by knocking on the door and introducing yourself. Sometimes the agent will be able to tell you whether you’re living next to a quiet family of five, or a rental unit filled with college students. Neighbors can also be extremely helpful when you want a better understanding of the neighborhood. They can tell you things that may not be in the listing description, like if there are other families in the neighborhood with kids the same age as yours, if you’ll hear the train every morning at 5am, or what nearby coffee shop has the best cup of joe. 
  • Swing by at night: it can be worth your time to visit the neighborhood at night. What seems to be a quiet avenue at 2pm could be a rowdy walk to the bars for college students at 9pm. In dense urban neighborhoods, parking can be hard to come by. If you drive often, you need to know in advance if you’ll spend an hour every night looking for parking, if you’re comfortable walking half a mile to your car, or if you need to budget for a parking pass. 

Are the Flowers Blooming?

Landscaping is an essential part of most homes. If you’re visiting homes in fall, winter or early spring, it’s easy to overlook the home’s landscaping. It’s worth taking a walk around the home to get a feel for overall plant health. If it turns out you need to do a heavy amount of landscaping, that bill can run from $3,000 and up if you decide to hire a landscaper. Here are a few common landscaping problems you should look out for.

  • Tree rot or infestation: removing a tree can alter the entire look of your yard. Check trees for signs of insect infestation, rot, or disease.        
  • Pavers (or “paving stones”): examine pavers for signs of cracking and lifting. This is sometimes done as a DIY activity, which can lead to moving, sinking, and drainage issues.
  • Irrigation systems: in-ground sprinklers can help keep lawns green, but an improperly installed sprinkler system can lead to hundreds of dollars worth of wasted water.
  • Spray-painted hedges: it’s not unheard of for homeowners to spray paint dying hedges. While this typically doesn’t pass even a quick inspection, it does emphasize the need to look around the entire property - if you’re only seeing a bush from the driveway, it’s something you could miss.
  • Downspouts: do the downspouts have extensions or do the gutters stop right next to the property? Poor draining can be a warning sign of potential unseen water damage to the home.
  • Potential hazards: “How about that tree right next to the house that should’ve been removed two years ago? The next storm that goes through is going to knock it over onto the home,” points out Mateer.

Mold and Mildew

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), mold is very common in homes. Sometimes homeowners aren’t affected by it at all; other times it can trigger asthma, coughing, and serious conditions such as shortness of breath. Mold can be controlled by keeping humidity levels low, proper ventilation, fixing leaks and properly drying after a flood. Here’s what you need to look out for:

  • Mold is often visible to the naked eye, especially in the bathroom or basement where condensation gathers. Spores are often dark but can come in any color.
  • Peeling wallpaper can be a sign of mold.
  • There’s a musty odor: most people can identify the smell of mildew, which is a form of mold. 

Things to Consider When Buying a House: is it Worth It?

If you’re facing major foundational issues, black mold, termite infestations, or outdated electrical wiring, it might be worth it to walk away. But keep in mind that most homes (even new construction) will have some issues, and it doesn’t always mean you need to let it go! Being aware of your home’s potential issues, though, will help you make a more informed decision and can give you leverage when it comes to the closing table. 


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