You don’t have to be a pro to know what to look for at an open house.
When you’re on the hunt for a new house, weekends spent touring open houses can quickly veer from fun to daunting by house number three. Keeping track of which home had that great kitchen (but terrible master bath) versus the home with a terrible backyard but a great floor plan can be tough. And while no house is likely to be perfect, when it comes to your budget, some updates are harder to swallow than others. Unfortunate paint colors, though hard to see past, shouldn’t sway your decision because they’re easily changed. But other issues should give you pause because they’ll require costly repairs, or they indicate larger, underlying problems that simply can’t be fixed.
1. Get an idea of the roof’s condition.
“You really need to look beyond the new kitchen and bathroom and consider the bones of the home,” says Adam Waggoner of Generator Real Estate in Denver, CO. One of the biggest “bones” of a house? The roof. The typical lifespan of a roof is up to about 20 years, but the average cost to replace one runs into the five-figure range, averaging about $12,000 but going up as high as $25,000 or more. That’s why Omaha, NE, real estate agent Robert Jensen suggests paying close attention to the age and condition of the roof before making an offer.
2. Damage in the home’s foundation.
This is what everything is resting on — literally. While superficial blemishes might not matter enough to affect a sale, if there are wide cracks in the foundation, says Waggoner, it’s most likely not worth the time and anguish that can come with fixing it.
3. Take a peek at the sewer or septic systems.
When it comes to sewer and septic systems, many people are in the dark on a few elements: first off, their level of responsibility. If something goes wrong, it’s the homeowner, not the city, who must cover damages (frequently through homeowners’ insurance). The condition of the sewer lines is also something that is not part of a regular home inspection, so a few hundred dollars for a dedicated sewer inspection could prove to be a worthy investment.
4. Ask about past insurance claims.
Jensen also recommends asking if insurance claims have been filed on the house, and for what — the answers may offer insight into any past issues that might not be immediately obvious at an open house. If the house is located near a pond, lake, or stream, he says, it’s important to ask whether flood insurance is required, because that can affect buyer financing or create difficulties than can delay closing.
5. Keep an eye out for noticeable water damage.
“While it may not be easy for a buyer to spot a wet basement, there are some signs you can look for at an open house,” says Caroline Staudt, a real estate agent with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate in Boston, MA. “If all of the utility systems and basement storage is propped up a few inches or more off the ground, that may be an indication that the basement has had water issues.” This is one instance, Staudt says, where you should pay close attention to furnishings. If a basement has a nice, fresh carpet and furniture, and there’s no musty smell, that’s a likely sign the space has stayed dry.
6. Check the condition of the electrical system.
If you’re considering an older home, don’t ignore the possibility of outdated electrical systems and wiring. Older systems may still be functional but can pose a safety risk, can be difficult to insulate, and are sometimes hard to insure. One example Staudt gives is the knob-and-tube system dating back to the 1930s and ’40s, which can be spotted by its white/off-white knobs connecting to wires, often in an unfinished basement — and can be a big expense to replace. Another telltale sign of a potentially pricey upgrade? Old fuses with circular knobs in the fuse box (newer boxes have many small toggle switches). Staudt points out that an electrician should verify any seller-provided details about wiring or electrical systems.
7. Give the windows a test.
Older, original windows often look great but can be painted shut or not airtight, which can make utility costs skyrocket in certain climates. Staudt advises buyers to consider the cost of replacement windows when they’re making an offer on a new home. Replacing old ones can be expensive, but having functional, efficient windows can increase savings in the long run — and be attractive to buyers the next time the home hits the real estate market.