Step 1: Assemble a few basic tools
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Bring a flashlight, screwdriver, receptacle
tester, binoculars and a small
stepladder when you're looking at
homes to buy. Use these tools to
spot costly problems.
When shopping for a new home, be sure to check over any likely candidate before making an offer. You'll then avoid major, expensive “surprises” after you move in. In this article we'll help you identify warning signs so you can plan for repairs, adjust your offering price or simply eliminate certain homes from consideration. Once you find a house or two that you're definitely interested in, go back to them with the tools and tips shown here. And if you're still interested, hire a professional inspector to more thoroughly examine the house.
Step 2: Visually examine walls and ceilings
Start by looking for discoloration on
the walls and ceilings. Yellow spots indicate
water damage. Large ones on the ceiling
point to a leaky roof, or if they're next
to exterior walls, ice dams. Small water
spots are probably leaking or sweating
plumbing pipes—and can represent
major hidden damage.
Black spots on the walls are usually
mold. While mold can be treated and
isn't a reason to panic, the cause of
the mold, excess moisture, can be
difficult to fix. If the mold is in
a bathroom, better ventilation
may be the answer,
but if it's in the basement, the
fix is usually much harder. If you
spot basement mold, also look for
efflorescence (powdery white deposits)
along the foundation walls and concrete
slab that result from water seepage.
Spalling (corrosion) on concrete blocks in
the crawl space or basement is another
telltale sign of moisture coming in
through the walls. So are bowed walls. In
crawl spaces, look for mold and rotting
wood on floor joists. A musty smell is also
indicative of moisture problems.
Step 3: Assess the plumbing
To check for problems with water pressure
and drain venting, turn on the water in the
bathroom sink or tub, then flush the toilet.
Look for a noticeable drop in water
pressure and listen for gurgling noises in
the pipes. Run water in each sink for two
to three minutes to make sure the water
drains nearly well enough to keep up with
the flow. Also check the drainpipes in
bathroom vanities and under the kitchen
sink. Make sure each pipe goes into the
wall. If it heads straight into the floor, that
probably means the drain isn't vented
(and adding a vent is a big job, usually
requiring a plumber).
Step 4: Examine the windows and furnace
Examine the windows. Fogged windows
will need to be replaced (and
that's not cheap!). Excessive condensation
on the windows may be the result
of a failed heat exchanger or an ailing
furnace (although it could be other factors
too). Unfortunately, humidity and
temperature conditions might make
condensation hard to spot, especially
during the warm seasons. Still, check
the age of the furnace and look for
stickers that document routine service.
Expect a well-maintained furnace to
last 30 to 40 years. Otherwise, a 20- to
25-year life span is typical.
Step 5: Check electrical outlets and switches
Check a few electrical outlets with
your receptacle tester to ensure they're
wired correctly. Brand new outlets
sometimes mean the room was recently
wired. Problems like reverse polarity
suggest the work was done by the
homeowner and not inspected.
Step 6: Inspect the exterior
Look at the shingles through binoculars.
Age is not the best indicator of
potential problems (some asphalt shingles
last more than 30 years; some don't
last 10). Cupping, curling, cracking and
rounded edges mean the shingles need
to be replaced. While you're outside,
probe the deck and structural boards,
especially near the ends where rot
starts. Make sure the posts aren't dislocated
by frost heave and the beams and
joists are in good shape. Look for flashing
around the ledger board.
Finally, ask about the age of the septic
tank (it may not be the same age as the
house). If the tank is over 30 years old, it
may be nearing the end of its life span.
But don't trust your own inspection to be the final word.
Hire a professional home inspector
before putting down money. The $300
to $500 it'll cost is well worth it.