As a veteran home inspector has told me about this subject, I’m still surprised by how often people make preventable and costly mistakes when choosing a potential home to buy. Here we’ll attempt to give potential homebuyers some ideas and guidelines to evaluate potential homes from a layman’s perspective. Hopefully we can prevent some unpleasant surprises after you’ve signed a purchase agreement.
This in no way will replace a professional home inspection, but choosing the correct home from the start can save a lot of time, money and aggravation. Too many times I’ve inspected homes with major defects that could have been visible to even the untrained eye. What we’ll do here is cover some of the basics of evaluating the home from a structural and mechanical perspective. I want to stress again – this will NOT replace a professional home inspection, but may prevent you from entering into a purchase agreement on the wrong home.
Now I am not saying that a home that is less than perfect (aren’t they all?) cannot remain a candidate. It can, but having all the information you can gather up front can help you in your home buying decision. For example, let’s say you’ve narrowed it down to 2 homes. They are the same price, size, quality, age and neighborhood. Both homes are 18 years old. One has a new air conditioner, roof and water heater. The other has original everything. Which one is the best buy? I know the answer is obvious here on paper, but you’d be surprised how often home buyers never look at it from that perspective. We’ll attempt to change that here.
After you’ve chosen the potential school districts and neighborhoods, it’s time to start narrowing down the homes. This is a layman’s version of the process a good home inspector uses. It should help you narrow your decision down.
First we want to walk around the exterior twice. Once up close, then the second time farther away. The first walk around we will be looking for things like wood rot, unusual cracks in the exterior or anything out of the ordinary. Look closely at the windows and doors, roof overhang, gutters, etc. Look for water stains and damage on the soffit overhang. This often indicates roof leakage, especially with tile roofs.
On the second trip around the exterior we want to be far enough away to get a good look at the big picture. Does the home sit up high, or down low? Homes that sit high are ALWAYS preferable and the ground should slope away from the home. (I once did a home that was literally in the bottom of a deep bowl that extended ¼ mile in every direction. All water drained towards it which caused major water issues that were not practically correctable. The buyer had no choice but to walk away from the deal.) Look at the home’s roof line. Look for framing sags, look for shingles that curl or look worn. Look at the walls and make sure they are plumb and square. Take in the entire home scanning left to right, top to bottom. Look at the condition of the wall cladding and the entire exterior.
Next we’ll look at the mechanicals.
We’re not going to get too technical here, we just want to look at the general age and condition. The HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system is one of the biggest concerns here. We’ll start with the air conditioner. They can usually be dated by looking at the serial number. This can usually be found on a metal plate fastened somewhere on the AC unit. They are usually easy to find, but on some Bryant/Carrier and other models you may have to get down on your hands and knees. Generally speaking the 3rd and 4th (sometimes the 2nd and 3rd) digits of the serial number are the year manufactured. With American Standard and Trane they have a place in the upper right corner of the rating plate that says “manufacture date”. It would be nice if all manufactures were like this. The information plates some manufacturers use are a typed label and they only last a year or two. If that’s the case, you won’t get any information off of it.
Air conditioners generally have a lifespan of 12 to 15 years. I know opinions vary widely on this, but I feel that’s a pretty accurate consensus. I’ve personally seen them last well over 25 years, but this is not the norm. You will want to turn on the AC and hear it run. Listen for any unusual noises. On the inside, just check for cool air coming from all registers. Your Home Inspector should do a more thorough check later. For now just note its age and condition. You should be aware that new efficiency standards came into effect January 2006 so the cost of replacement AC units will be going up significantly.
Now let’s look at the furnace/air handler. I recommend you observe it without opening anything on it. Leave that up to your home inspector. Look at its general condition and try to judge the age. Electric furnaces are commonly called air handlers, especially in warmer climates like Florida. Again, don’t open it, just look it over and judge its general appearance. Does it appear neglected, or well maintained?
Water heaters You can generally date water heaters the same way you date AC units. Look at the serial number on the rating plate and determine its age. With most brands it’s pretty easy to figure out, the major exception being the Bradford-White brand. Depending on a number of factors such as water hardness, water heaters will generally last from 8 to 12 years. Sometimes longer, but that’s a pretty accurate range. Fortunately a water heater will not break the bank when you need to replace it.
Kitchen The kitchen is fairly easy. Give a good look at the appliances and cabinets. Operate all doors and drawers, just be careful in case a door comes off in your hand. (Hey, it happens.) Operate the disposal and run water in the sink. Note the age and condition of the appliances. Your home inspector should to a more thorough inspection later.
Plumbing Run water in all the drains, flush the toilets with the seat lid open so you can observe the water flow. If there is a septic system you may want to run water for several minutes then check over the septic field for backup or a foul smell. Either could indicate a serious problem with the septic system. A serious note of caution here! Always watch drains closely when running water! I’ve never personally had a drain overflow, but I know of plenty of home inspectors that have.
Interiors Nothing complicated here. Operate doors and windows, look over walls and floors. If tile floors are present, look for cracked tiles and grout. Minor cracking is usually acceptable, major cracking or offset cracks will need further evaluation. Look over the ceilings for water stains. An important hint: Bring a flashlight and look at closet ceilings. Homeowners often forget to cover up water stains in closets.
Electrical Don’t get in over your head here. We simply want to operate all lights, and look at the main panel – NEVER remove the cover, simply open the door on its front. (Some still call the main panel a “fuse box”.) What size is the main breaker/disconnect? (It is often not inside the main panel, but near the electrical meter.) The most common sizes are 100, 150 and 200 amps. This will be printed on the main disconnect itself and tells you the size of your electrical service. I still see some older homes with 60 amp “fuse boxes”. If that is the case we need to budget about $2,000 for an upgrade.
Following these instructions will increase your odds of writing an offer on a home without major disappointments. After the offer is accepted by both sides, now you have to find a good home inspector.
A word to the wise on choosing a home inspector. As most any expert will tell you, check out a home inspector’s credentials closely. In many states home inspectors are not licensed or regulated in any meaningful way. MOST home inspector “certifications” out there are questionable, if not outright scams. They line the pockets of the certification mills and mislead consumers into a false sense of a home inspector’s competency. It’s truly very sad and one of these organizations is rather large.
Most attorneys and real estate experts will advise you to only hire an inspector that is a member of ASHI (ashi.org). There are also some state organizations that are very reputable. In Florida there’s FABI (fabi.org) in California there’s CREIA (creia.org) and Texas there’s TAREI (tarei.org). One other national organization worth noting is NAHI (nahi.org). Although their membership requirements are somewhat looser than ASHI’s it still is a quality organization worthy of consideration. Although there are more, those are the major organizations that are legitimate.
When shopping for a home inspector, I strongly advise you accept nothing less than one of the best. Never take an inspector’s word on their membership claims. False claims of ASHI membership are extremely common. Always check it out on the organization’s web site listed above. Always hire a home inspector based on qualifications, not cost. The cheapest home inspectors often end up costing you far more than you saved.
See more in Falls Church