NEW! Listen to this article. (Read by George Kamel)
So you’re buying a home—congrats! Investing in a house is an awesome way to keep building wealth. But sometimes, buying a home can feel like you’re gambling hard-earned money when you’re not sure how to tell if a home will turn out to be a money pit.
Good news is, knowing what to look for when buying a home is pretty simple. Of course, there are some general things you’ll want to consider first, like size, school district and neighborhood atmosphere. But once you’re settled on all that, you’ll need to know if a home is structurally sound. Check out our list of six important things to find out about a house you’re considering so that you can feel confident you’ll find a rock-solid home.
6 Key Things to Look for When Buying a Home
Before we launch into the nitty gritty of what to look for when buying a home, make sure you’re financially (and emotionally) ready to buy a house. Then when you’ve got the green light to start house hunting, look for these six things.
1. Roof Condition
Unless you’re Shaq-sized or have a drone handy, you probably won’t be able to actually see a home’s roof during a showing. But that doesn’t mean you can just forget about it—after all, a new roof ranges from $5,000–10,000.1
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Avoid surprise roofing costs down the road by figuring out a roof’s condition with these questions:
- How old is the roof? The lifespan of a roof is usually determined by what it’s made of. For example, asphalt shingle roofs should last around 20 years. Once you know a roof’s age, compare that to the typical lifespan of that kind of roof to see how long it’s got left.
- Does the homeowner have a roof certification letter? A roof certification letter is a document given by a contractor after an inspection that estimates the lifespan of the roof over the next 2–5 years.2 Not all sellers will have this, but it never hurts to ask.
- Can a roof inspection clear things up? If there are concerns around the roof’s age and condition, you may want to get a roof inspection which is different from what’s involved in the home inspection. Home inspectors don’t always check out the roof, so if you go by the home inspection report alone, you could miss some costly repairs.
2. Reliable HVAC
If you’ve grown accustomed to life at room temperature, you’re not going to want to skip this one. Ask what type of heating and cooling system a home you’re considering has as well as its age and if there’s a copy of any maintenance records you can look at.
Units typically last anywhere from 10–25 years. If a unit is broken, costs vary based on the size and sophistication of the unit, but Home Advisor estimates it would cost an average of about $7,000 to replace an existing HVAC unit—and don’t count on a home warranty to automatically cover that.3
If a home’s unit is under a decade old and doesn’t have rust, water damage, suspicious-looking cracks or weird sounds coming from it, there’s a good chance you’re in the clear. But if you’re still worried, remember that a home inspector should find any major issues. Then, you can work with your agent on any repairs you’d like to request.
3. Plumbing Issues
If you’re not familiar with home plumbing, it’s easy to get your pipes crossed. You may have no idea how much Drano is too much Drano or why the only way to get your toilet to stop running is by turning on the shower.
We get it. Luckily, examining the big three—sewer lines, toilets and water heaters—can help unclog (yeah, we went there) some of the confusion on if your potential home may have plumbing issues.
- How fresh are the sewer lines? If a home is 20–60+ years old and the seller hasn’t provided any disclosures, get a sewer inspection. Pipe disintegration, obstructive tree root growth or some pretty righteous clogs can all jack up the system. Keep in mind that sewer line replacement ranges anywhere from $3,000–25,000—yikes!4
- Take a look around the toilets. Check for leaks, unstable bases and discoloration. Yes, you’re allowed to flush the toilet during a home showing, so have at it!
- What’s the state of the water heater? On average, a tank lasts 10–15 years. A new one can cost from $300–2,000 depending on the type you need, and the average cost of installing a new tank is about $1,000.5 If it’s making unusual noises when it turns on or it’s rusty, have a pro take a look.
With higher ticket items like sewer lines being on this list, find out whether or not your homeowner’s insurance helps cover replacements if things look dicey.
4. Water Damage and Mold
Untreated water damage can cause a whole host of problems in a home such as structural damage, rot and mold—especially in basements. Pay attention to any musty smells in the home as well as water stains. If you do move forward on a home you suspect has water damage, your home inspector should be able to give you an idea of how bad it is.
The thought of mold lurking in the dark corners of a home is enough to trigger a fit of the willies. The cost of removal can be anywhere from $500–6,000 depending on the size of the area affected.6 Because mold is a health hazard, you’ll definitely want to get it treated before moving in, but also be sure to find out the source of the moisture to prevent future infestations.
If you’re worried about negotiating water damage or mold repairs, remember: Your real estate agent has likely been on both the buyers’ and sellers’ side of the deal before. Ask about their experience and advice for situations like these.
5. Noise Level
One of the most overlooked factors is a neighborhood’s noise level. Just because things are on quiet-mode during a showing doesn’t mean it’s like that 24/7. Think about these questions:
- Is the home by a major road? If you’re really digging the place, make another visit during high traffic times to assess street noise. Even if the house is perfect in every other way, the constant zoom of passing Tahoes and Versas may not be worth it.
- Is it near an airport or railroad tracks? Same thinking here. How patient will you feel when a train engine steamrolls through your newborn’s nap time?
- Is the property a condo or townhome? In a home where you’d actually share walls with neighbors, you definitely want there to be a sound barrier. Do a walkthrough during a time that neighbors are home to get an idea on if you can hear them rewatching season four of Friends or not.
You’ve also got to consider the impact of neighborhood noise on the home’s desirability and value. Ask your agent if homes in that neighborhood have a comparable value to the same homes in a quieter location.
6. A Good Foundation and Home Exterior
Remember the parable about the wise man who built his home upon the rock? If there’s one lesson we learned from that story, it’s that your foundation counts. Bulging or bowing foundation walls are a sign of structural weakness that can be expensive to repair. To fix a bowed wall, just one steel reinforcement strip alone can cost as much as $1000.7
Other easy-to-spot foundation-related red flags include:
- Cracks in the foundation, exterior, drywall or ceiling
- Gaps above doors and windows
- Sunken stairs or porches
- Sloping or uneven floors or tiling
Keep in mind that not every crack means the structural integrity is doomed. Every home experiences some degree of settling so some cracks are to be expected. Let a qualified home inspector tell you whether or not a minor crack spells major trouble.
Know Who to Call for Advice When Buying
Most homes you’ll look at, even brand-spanking-new ones, will have some flaws. But what gets tricky is knowing when to spend the money to fix an issue and when to negotiate a compromise with the seller. That’s why you need an experienced agent who can guide you through these rough patches and help you come up with a solution.
If you’re looking for a trusted agent with expertise, check out our Endorsed Local Providers (ELP) program. From searching for solid homes to negotiating repairs, an ELP real estate agent will be able to walk you through your questions and work with you to find a home you (and your budget!) love.
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