The first walkthrough of a home is when potential owners get that gut feeling and come with their buying wishlist in tow.
And while you’ll know if a potential home meets your basic requirements—from the number of bedrooms to the availability of outdoor space, you won’t know every detail of a home the first time you view it.
One of the most important factors to consider is how much work it’ll require. Is it move-in ready, will it need a few upgrades to accommodate your needs, or is it a full-on gut?
Curbed spoke with a home inspector and architects who specialize in home renovation on what you should look out for before you pull together a down payment and take the plunge on a new home.
Meet the homeowner
Don’t just view the house, come equipped with questions. Michael Ingui, of the firm Baxt Ingui Architects suggests asking the selling agent how long the home was under its prior ownership. A quickly flipped house, he says, has higher potential for oversights. “There may be new tile or fixtures, but there won’t be any new piping behind them.”
A long-term homeowner will be able to give you a more comprehensive oversight in changes to the property over the years. “Whenever you don’t get to meet the seller, you’re not getting as much history,” says Nick Gromicko, founder of the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. If you’ve got the seller at hand, “You’ll want to ask them about the history of repairs, who the repairs are made by, and any warranties,” Briggs says. Plus, be sure any warranties extend with the house, and not just the homeowner.
Check the floors
One way to the tell that the plumbing might not be up to par? Look for floors with unusual sagging or dipping near the bathroom. “It’s a sign that plumbers may have done some interesting plumbing underneath the floor,” Ingui says. Sagging floors in other portions of the home mean the structure may need some work. Be sure to ask the age-old question of if the home has good bones.
...And cracks in the wall
Spotting a crack in the wall is, unsurprisingly, not good. “A crack in a brick wall means there’s movement,” Briggs says, which is the sign of serious structural problems.
Don’t always trust fresh paint
A bad paint job—or 15 layers of paint—is nothing to worry about. But do take note if it looks like the home hasn’t been renovated in a while, and you spot fresh paint or sheetrock in the cellar or basement ceiling. “That likely means that before they put the house on the market, they fixed something. Or, they’re covering something up,” Ingui says. Location is crucial, he notes, because it’s the most likely location for termite or carpenter ant damage. If you notice any unusual cover-ups, ask why the work was done.
Look for water in the basement
While you’re in the basement, keep an eye out for water. If it’s recently been rainy, and the basement looks dry, it’s good news. If it’s been dry, and the basement appears damp, you should look for a deeper issue and figure out where the water is coming from.
Check the windows
“Open and close the windows,” Ingui recommends. “Do they lock properly? Take into account that people usually replace windows with cheaper, lower-quality windows.” This shouldn’t be a huge deal breaker, and won’t be the biggest headache in improving a home. Still, the cost can add up if you need to replace them down the line. Cheap or faulty windows are also likely to drive up heating costs if they’re not replaced.
Don’t forget the roof...
First thing’s first: ask when the roof was installed and ask to see the warranty to back it up. Older homes may have several layers of roofing, some of which could have asbestos. “At some point, someone will have to remove all those layers of roofing,” says Ingui, “And the possibilities of them finding something they have to repair will be high.” It’ll be hard for a non-expert to know everything about the roof just by looking at it, so don’t be afraid to ask questions or follow-up with an expert opinion.
...or the trees outside
“Trees are often overlooked by buyers and even the home inspector, because they don’t think it’s part of the inspection,” Gromicko says. However, trees near a home pose all sorts of risks, like trees catching fire or falling during a storm. Smaller risks include the gutter filling with leaves, roots getting into the basement, or an infestation of bugs.
The tough stuff: electrical and piping
Electrical and plumbing issues will be hard to decipher with the naked eye. Ingui says he likes to check how the electrical boxes are sorted. Is there a lot of exposed wiring? Does it look like it was installed correctly? Take a look at the electrical panel and ask the homeowner if they experience regular electricity shorts, and be very wary if the system hasn’t been replaced in a few decades.
For both electrical and plumbing matters, it’s a good idea to bring an expert along for a second walk-though. You can also follow up and test the pipes using a water kit, which you can secure cheaply, or in some places free through the state. “It’s a way to check how much lead, or anything else, is in your water,” Briggs says.
Follow-up on building violations and permits
If you’re feeling good after the walk through, get to work investigating any open violations or permit issues the home may be saddled with. Check the local building department, fire department, and historic agencies to make sure the building comes out clear. “It’s very important the home has a clean bill of health with local government agencies,” says Briggs. He also recommends checking if a neighbor has filed complaints with the home—and follow up with the neighbor, if so. Numerous complaints may signal that there are problems with the property, or that the home will come with a sensitive neighbor.
Make sure, too, all work that’s been done in the house was filed with the local buildings department.
“Sometimes you’ve got home extensions that the town never knew about,” Ingui says. Prior owners may have added a fourth bedroom to the house, but permits were never filed and it’s getting taxed as a three bedroom. Or an addition, like a deck, was added without the proper approvals. Be sure to ask the sellers if all the permitting is in order; if you’re suspicious about shoddy work, a title company should follow up with due diligence.
In some cases, find an architect
Some buyers start searching for houses with the assumption that a renovation will soon follow. In that case: consider house hunting with an architect in tow. “If you know there’s [a firm] you want to work with, an architect can take a look at things and say that will be hard to do, there’s something in the way there, there might be a leak over there,” says David Briggs, founder of the New York firm Loci Architecture. An expert’s opinion should be crucial in finding the right property for your renovation plans, and will help you avoid renovations that become money pits.