First of all, buyers should never make an offer on a house they have only seen once...... in the dark! Many times in winter, we have no choice but to look at properties in the dark. However, before making an offer, go back and inspect the home during daylight hours. You would be surprised what you will see! I once listed a house in the evening and went back the next morning to take photos, only to discover that the brick chimney was pulling away from the house - yikes! Most contracts allow for inspections, but why waste your time and money when there was a defect you could have discovered with just a little more examination. Instead of looking at the décor and family photos, check out the house! Here's a quick checklist:
Trees, yard, landscaping - Are there dead or overgrown trees? What about dead shrubs or grass? You may love the shade of trees, but don't forget all the leaves that must be raked in the fall. Also check for low lying areas where water might puddle or stand. Is there a drainage problem that will affect the foundation?
Outdoor electrical hazards - Are all outdoor outlets equipped with Ground Fault Current Indicators to prevent shock? Are there low hanging wires? Make sure the box where the electrical current comes into the house is not rusted out. What about the use of extension cords to illuminate landscape lighting? Dangerous!
Driveway, sidewalk, patios - are there visible cracks and shifting? What about in the garage foundation?
Garage or carport - make sure the garage door opens and closes properly and has a lock that works. Check for ample electrical outlets.
Outdoor water spigots - where are they and do they work? Have the home inspector check it out. If you turn them on and they have frozen and burst, they will likely leak inside the house - you don't want to be responsible for that mess! This leak is a common discovery during home inspections.
Home Exterior - Walk around the exterior of the house. Examine the roof, gutters, foundation, siding, etc. Look for cracks in mortar joints and brick. Check for mildew or signs of wood rot near lower edges of siding. Window frames should show no signs of wood rot or water damage. Window panes should be clear and not "foggy". Windows that are fogged could have a broken seal and need replacement. A Chimney in good condition should be plumb, with tight flashing and solid, undamaged brick. Make certain the chimney has a flue liner. All chimneys should be inspected by a professional before use.
House Interior - Leaky basements are the number one complaint of buyers after they buy. Look for signs of dampness; mold and mildew. Rust signs around the furnace are a dead giveaway. If there is a new coat of paint on walls and floors be suspicious. Is the seller trying to hide a previous leak? If it smells musty, there has been or is water somewhere. Also, be leery of a basement (or any area) that has so much "stuff" piled up; you cannot do a proper inspection. Ask the listing agent to have the seller move items away from the wall so a proper inspection can be done. You can write this in your offer as a condition of the purchase. Make sure your home inspector goes into your crawl space to check for water and other wood destroying varmints such as termites, powder post beetles, etc. Your home inspector will also check the attic, beams, trusses and joists.
Floors - uneven floors could be a sign of a foundation problem. Of course, if the home is 100+ years old, the floors will be uneven. Looks for bumps and excessive "springiness" as well.
Walls and ceilings - Don't expect walls and ceilings to be crack free - a few hairline cracks are normal. If you see large cracks, this could be a problem - may be the foundation again or just poor workmanship.
Windows and doors - All windows and doors should open and close easily. Go into a room and close the door from inside the room. Is the door fitting square into the door jamb? This is an easy and great way to get a feel for the quality of workmanship in the home.
Bathrooms and kitchens - All fixtures should be working and not leaking. Turn on the shower, flush the toilet, and see how water drains down all the sinks. If a home has a water pressure problem, it may be a deal killer. This is an easy test. Cabinet doors should open and close easily.
Appliances - if appliances are included, test them. Turn on the stove. If the frig is included and has an ice-maker, see if it is making ice. If not, ask "why"?
Plumbing, electrical system and HVAC - this is an area for the professionals. Make sure your home inspector thoroughly checks all these systems.
Most purchase contracts allow a buyer to perform a thorough inspection. Some sellers will negotiate repairs and some sellers are selling "as is" and will not perform any repairs. It's important for buyers to know where the seller stands before they spend money on an inspection. If there is an issue of major concern to you, you can also have a professional look at the property prior to making your offer. Just keep in mind that someone else may come in and buy the property and you will be out the money for the inspection. I recommend a professional home inspection to all my buyers, even on new construction. Over the years, I have found time and again that they are priceless. Taking the time to really look at the home can save buyers a lot of heartache, money and wasted time.