5 Signs a Home Has “Good Bones” According To Real Estate Pros

Your real estate agent says a house you looked at has "good bones," but what does that even mean? We asked some pros to define it for us.

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Real estate listings often tout “good bones” as a selling point, especially when a house lacks curb appeal or needs a significant update. Ugly shag carpet? Outdated appliances? Pastel pink bathroom fixtures? No worries! The house has good bones.

In reality, though, there’s no correlation between good bones and carpet, appliances, fixtures or anything else you can easily swap out or update. So before you get too excited about a listing that hypes good bones, find out what that really means. Then you can determine whether the house in question is one you want to invest in. No bones about it.

What Are Good Bones?

Bones, good or not, are all the things that contribute to the home’s structure from the ground up. They’re not surfaces, fixtures or things that you can remove.

“The defining characteristic of a home with good bones is a strong foundation and envelope that are in great condition,” says David Steckel, a general contractor and home expert with Thumbtack, which helps homeowners find qualified service providers.

“This means you can do any sort of major renovation, like building up, down, out or gutting without having to be too concerned about existing infrastructure.”

Here are five signs a house has good bones:

It Has a Solid Foundation

A solid foundation ensures that “the base of the home can support all of the rooms and the spaces inside of it,” says Steckel.

While there are various types of foundations, nothing beats poured concrete, says Chuck Vander Stelt, a real estate agent in Valparaiso, Indiana. Poured concrete foundations, he says, require less maintenance than other types because they keep out water better and are less likely to shift.

Regardless of the foundation material, a walk around the perimeter should give you a sense of the foundation’s integrity. If you see cracks or sinking in one corner, the house likely does not have good bones according to Bill Samuel, owner of Blue Ladder Development in Elmhurst, Ill.

You can always get a faulty foundation repaired, but it could cost you thousands of dollars. The national average is around $4,700 according to Home Advisor, but Steckel says it can range from $1,200 to $15,000. It may not be worth it, depending on how the rest of the house’s bones are holding up.

As for the depth and thickness of the ideal foundation, standards can vary by municipality. The key is making sure the foundation meets local code requirements.

It Was Built in the Right Decade

We wouldn’t recommend making assumptions based on this one piece of information, but the build year can provide clues as to whether a house’s bones are good or not.

“The golden era of U.S. residential construction was from the 1970s through the late 1990s,” Vander Stelt says. “Homes built in those years are the ones with good bones. [They] typically have all the structural and system elements [that provide] a safe and long-lasting home.” This was also a period, he says, where building codes were strong and home builders typically used high-quality materials.

Another good bones era? Pre-1945, says Ian Katz a licensed associated real estate broker who specializes in brownstones and other urban dwellings in and around Manhattan. “(These homes) had a certain quality and proportionality that is not easily found post-World War II,” Katz says.

Everything Is Level

Remember the nursery rhyme about the crooked man who lived in a crooked house with his crooked cat and mouse? Well, that house probably lacked good bones. If it did, it wouldn’t be crooked!

Vander Stelt says straight walls and level floors are “easily identifiable features” of a home with good bones. In some cases, simply eyeballing it will give you the information you need. Otherwise, ask your home inspector or verify it with leveling tools.

Mike Powell of Red Flag Home Inspection suggests a few DIY-friendly tools that should give you a reliable result:

  1. A bubble level, also known as a spirit level. These are easy to use for floors especially. Just place them on the surface and see if the “bubble” inside balances out.
  2. A laser pointer combined with a ruler. Turn on the laser point and place it on the floor. Then use the ruler to see if the laser’s line is straight. If it is, the floor is level.
  3. A golf ball or marble. This will only work on hard surfaces. Set it on the floor and see if rolls away, and if so, how fast. The more level the floor, the more slowly it will roll (if at all).
  4. A self-leveling laser tool. This can help you find out if your walls and floors are level. It can also come in handy for many other projects.
  5. Phone apps. For Android users, download a leveling app from your preferred app store. For iOS users, the ‘measure’ app that comes with your phone will do the trick. “Most of these have suitable accuracy and are easy to use,” says Powell. For the best reading, place the phone on a straight edge.

Framing Was Done With 2x4s or 2x6s

Lumber comes in a lot of sizes, and technically you can use almost any to build a house. Houses with good bones, though, usually feature 2x4s or 2x6s, with studs placed 16 inches on center.

“Walls with this framing are stronger, straighter and offer more options for utilization regarding what and where things are hung on those walls,” Vander Stelt says.

How do you know whether the house is built with the right lumber? Start by measuring the thickness of the walls.

With a tape measure, Powell suggests measuring the width of the wall between a door frame or on any edge, adding about one inch to account for the plaster or drywall. (In most cases there’s about a half-inch of drywall on each side.) Because 2x4s are a nominal 3-1/2-inches wide, the wall thickness for a home built with 2x4s will be about 4-1/2-inches, or 6-1/2-inches if built with 2x6s.

After learning the thickness of your walls, use a stud finder to locate the studs. Or, again, ask your home inspector for this information.

The House Has Good Spatial Quality

That means it has an efficient, workable and pleasing floor plan, says architect Eugene Colberg, owner of Colberg Architecture in Brooklyn, New York.

Good spatial quality often goes hand-in-hand with things like high ceilings, open spaces and flexible options. But an awkward floor plan can cancel out all the other good bones qualities because, no matter how solid the structure, you may not enjoy living there.

“If a home … has a closed-in floor plan that isn’t functional, this could be a red flag for a few reasons,” says Steckel. For one thing, he says, it could make it harder to renovate and sell. Or, if you intend to live in the house, he says “the incoherent floor plan may become a burden and cause the space to become one that brings more stress and annoyance than enjoyment.”

Bottom line: Make sure you don’t overlook issues with the floor plan because everything else is on point.

Other Signs of Good Bones

Along with all these important attributes, be sure to:

  • Check the quality of the roof. If it’s sagging, it could be a sign that the area lacks good bones, Steckel says. Specifically, the roof could be built with lumber that’s too narrow. Roofs can also sag when they get old, so this isn’t necessarily a reason to run away — just check it out.
  • Make sure any additions have the same type of foundation as the original house. Using a different foundation may lead to serious structural problems down the road, says Samuel.
  • Verify the wiring, drainage and plumbing components are in good shape. Otherwise, Steckel says, you could find yourself dealing with water and/or electrical damage and subsequent expensive repairs.
  • Take a look at things like built-ins, millwork and other special touches, Katz says, especially if it’s an older home. While these features don’t necessarily contribute to the structural integrity, they often do help give a home good bones because they add character and can’t be replaced.

Dawn Weinberger
Dawn Weinberger is a freelance writer who has contributed to numerous publications and websites over the past 20 years, including Reader's Digest, Forbes Home, Glamour, Women's Health, Entrepreneur, Your Dog, Northwest Construction News, and many others. Dawn has a BA in journalism from Western Washington University and is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). With the help of her well-honed research skills and arsenal of subject matter experts, Dawn has written about a variety of topics for FamilyHandyman.com, including home improvement, pet care, insurance, trampoline safety, pests, and more. Dawn is a former landlord who recently completed a largely DIY renovation of her Portland, Oregon, home, where she lives with her husband, daughter, and cat.