What to Look for When Buying a House
If you’ve ever been to an open house or toured a home then you’ve most likely marveled at different home layouts, lamented over beautifully designed kitchens or critiqued the color choice in the bathrooms. But beyond the veneer that makes a house shine to potential home buyers, have you ever wondered what could be lying below the surface?
Is the home you’re touring actually in good shape or are there hidden issues that only a trained eye can spot? Here’s your chance to learn what to look for when buying a house so you too can begin touring homes like a professional home inspector.
Inspecting the driveway
All parts of the home need to work in unison and that includes your driveway. When entering a driveway you’ll want to look at its surface conditions, levelness, and the areas around the driveway.
Walk the entire driveway, noting any deterioration, cracking, heaving or settling. Driveways are known to crack over time but the reasons behind these cracks can vary, such as:
● Improper compaction of the soil prior to pouring the concrete.
● Trees near the driveway can cause heaving if their roots grow underneath the concrete.
● A slope in the driveway can cause rainwater to settle, causing it to erode the supporting dirt below.
● Deterioration of any wood used in the pouring of the driveway may leave a gap that can both become a tripping hazard and a means of moisture entering the fissure, causing more damage.
Inspecting the living room
When inspecting the living room, use three passes to look at everything.
On the first pass, walk the floor in a circle and look for any signs of the floor moving or shifting, water damage, or any damage to the floor itself.
During the second pass, check out the ceiling by walking around the room again. Check for water stains and any cracks that could indicate a structural problem. Also, check out any air conditioning vents to see if they are clean, as dust or other debris around these vents may signal a lack of maintenance.
On your third pass, look only at the walls, keeping an eye out for cracks or separations between the walls, the ceiling, or the fireplace that could be another indication of a structural problem. Look at the electrical outlets to make sure they are clean (not painted) and don’t show any indications of smoke or burn marks. And don’t forget to check all of the light switches and ceiling fans to make sure they work.
Inspecting the fireplace
Fireplaces can be an attractive focal point in many homes. It’s a place where family and friends get together to relax and warm themselves during the cold winter months. That’s why when touring a home you’ll want to know if that fireplace with a great mantle is a winner, or if it will be in need of repair.
First, you’ll want to inspect the exterior of the chimney by looking for any structural issues around the foundation, as well as the chimney case, crown, flue and cap (if installed). Whether it’s around the foundation, firebox area, or chimney case you should make a note of any signs of cracks as these indicate some deterioration. These cracks could have occurred from normal settling of a home, movement from past earthquakes, or the deterioration could have been caused by years of moisture seeping into these cracks, resulting in more damage. Most of the time these areas can be repaired by a mason.
Inspection of the chimney crown, flue and cap usually means a trip up to the roof, which during a home tour you most likely won’t do. If you decide to make an offer on the house, your home inspector will look for any damage to these areas to make sure dangerous carbon monoxide or moisture is not reentering the home.
Inside the home, you’ll want to inspect the fireplace for signs of cracked or damaged mortar and brickwork. Your home inspector will go one step further by inspecting the fireplace throat and determine if it has a proper sized hearth and that the mantel is secured properly.
Inspecting fire and carbon monoxide detectors
In a newly constructed home, smoke detectors should be installed inside each bedroom and in the adjoining area outside the bedroom door (such as a hallway). Newer homes are required to have smoke detectors wired into the electrical system with battery back-ups. They should be interconnected so that activation of one alarm sets off all alarms. In older homes, at least one smoke detector is required per floor, including basements, and should be within 21 feet of each bedroom.
Carbon monoxide (CO) detectors are highly recommended for homes with gas appliances such as stoves, hot water heaters, furnaces, and when the home has an attached garage. They should be installed on each floor of the home and within 15 feet of all bedrooms.
After you buy a home, it is a good idea to test the smoke and CO detectors every 2-3 months to ensure functionality. You'll also want to replace your batteries regularly and it is recommended that you replace your devices after 10 years.
Inspecting the kitchen
A good idea for prospective homeowners attending an open house or touring a home privately is to look under the kitchen sink, which can actually tell you a lot about the overall condition of a house.
If you see a well-kept cabinet under the sink, it's usually a good reflection about the upkeep of the rest of the home. In fact, if you see water damage or possible mold under the kitchen sink, it usually means the rest of the house is in disrepair. Of course, this doesn’t always hold true but more often than not, it’s a great barometer of the house as a whole.
When touring a home like a home inspector, the kitchen is obviously a major component since they are unique in regards to the volume of items that can have issues.
During a typical inspection, home inspectors usually operate all installed appliances such as the dishwasher, range/oven, microwave, vent hood, disposal, and sink. They also note issues with the countertops, cabinets and drawers, R/O systems, compactors, and built-in refrigerators (if any).
In each bathroom, you will want to turn on all the lights and the bathroom fan. If there isn’t a fan, make sure you take note because if you end up buying the house you’ll need to open a window every time you shower. Also, you’ll want to check and make sure there is a heat/air conditioning vent.
Next, look for water stains around the toilet, the bathtub/shower, and especially under the sink. You’ll also want to make sure the toilet is secure. Start by straddling it and then using your knees see if the toilet rocks or moves.
Look at any glass within five feet of the shower or bath and make sure there is a tempered stamp etched in the corner. Do the same for the shower doors as well if they are glass. You’ll also want to check for water damage around windows of the shower enclosure. Then make sure the shower head pipes and faucets don’t wiggle.
Check for an electrical outlet within thirty inches of each sink and that they are 3-prong (grounded). One of the bathrooms should have a GFCI electrical outlet. You can easily spot it as it’s the outlet with the two buttons in the middle.
Finally, look at the ceiling, walls, and floors to make sure there isn’t any damage. If the bathrooms are on an upper level, go downstairs and look for water stains or patches on the ceiling under the bathrooms.
Houses with bedrooms that are too small, too few or on the wrong floor can make a great house dysfunctional for your needs. Luckily, when it comes to inspecting, bedrooms are easy for most homebuyers to evaluate for themselves.
You’ll want to note the number of windows each bedroom has. Something that most people do not realize is that building codes do not require a bedroom to have a closet, so make sure to see if each bedroom has one.
Bedrooms also require several important features and security measures, such as a smoke alarm, an emergency escape/rescue opening (such as a window or door), heat, and some means of light and ventilation. The condition of the bedroom will often be indicative of the overall condition of the house as damaged and scratched doors, stained walls and carpets, and dirty ductwork can indicate a poorly maintained home. Consider the heating and cooling system for each room and note any bedrooms above garages as with older houses these can be less comfortable.
Inspecting the basement
The basement may not be the place you seek out first on a home tour. However, basements can offer great extra space in a home that you can potentially use as extra bedrooms, a family room or playroom, or storage area.
If the basement is unfinished and insulation is not covering the foundation walls, then you have a great opportunity to view the foundation wall for signs of structural concerns. While minor concrete cracking is somewhat typical, larger cracks and, in particular, horizontal cracks, can be an indication of structural movement.
A white powder-like substance called efflorescence, can be an indication of poor drainage around the home and possibly a grading or gutter issue. Your nose is one of the best tools for inspecting a basement. If things smell musty or damp, this can also be an indication of moisture concerns.
Lastly, look around for signs of any unwanted insects or rodents who tend to make their way into a home through the basement. Droppings could indicate a pest concern.
Inspecting the garage
When entering the garage make sure all light switches work. Though you most likely won't check electrical outlets during a home tour, your home inspector will do it for you during the home inspection and report any that are not working.
You'll want to check the walls and ceiling to see if they are fully sheetrocked. Sheetrock provides a fire barrier to your home when properly installed. Also, make sure that the access point to the attic also has a sheetrock cover; if it’s just plywood this would be a breach in the fire barrier.
Test the garage doors and the wall mounted remote as well. Look at the condition of the springs, tracks, and rollers of the garage door. Do they appear to be in good condition? Your home inspector will go further by testing all remotes, the laser eye barrier, and reverse sensor to make sure it meets minimal resistance.
Look at the garage floor, also known as the garage slab. Slight cracks are pretty common, but you should take note if you see excessive cracks or settlement.
Below are things you won’t typically see during a home tour. However, your home inspector will certainly look into these areas of the house during a home inspection.
Inspecting the HVAC
One of the largest systems in the home, the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems (HVAC), require periodic maintenance to ensure they run properly for years. Neglected and dirty HVAC equipment is the main reason for system failures. Though you most likely won't inspect these systems, here's an overview of what's involved during an inspection:
● Visual inspection of each component of the system if it is accessible.
● Check for loose connections, leaking gas lines, worn out components, and damaged coolant lines.
● Inspect the heat exchanger and evaporator coils to ensure they are clean and in good condition.
● Listen for hard starts, irregular combustion, and worn out bearings.
● Check for clogs in the condensate line and verify there is a proper discharge location.
● Check the filter to ensure it has been changed regularly.
The average gas furnace lasts 15-25 years, the heat pump about 12-20 years, and standalone AC 12-15 years. An annual inspection is a small investment to protect your HVAC system. It's a good idea to maintain your HVAC system biannually in the spring for air-conditioning units and the fall for furnaces. To improve efficiency, use a small portable vacuum to remove any dust buildup on the system and the air-conditioning coils.
Inspecting water heater
You probably won't personally inspect the water heater during an open house, however, you can count on your home inspector to: