If you've got your eye on a house, of course you'll want to look it over carefully, but you may not know exactly what to look for. Here's a guide on how to be like a home inspector, and learn how to spot potential problems.
Good home inspectors are trained professionals who can walk through a property and assess within an hour whether a home is a beauty or a beast. When the time comes, make sure your potential purchase is checked out from roof to basement by one of these skilled specialists.
But what about before that point, when you're just at the open house or the Realtor is showing you around? Can your untrained eye spot potentially serious problems in a quick walk-through?
"There are plenty of obvious problems that you can see beforehand," says Rich Lee, a home inspector based in Sonoma, Calif. "Your first clue is to walk down the street looking at the neighboring houses first. Are they in good shape? Is the landscaping taken care of? Is the paint still bright? These facts will give you an idea of how the previous owners handled maintenance in comparison with their neighbors."
Before marching into that house you like, take a small notebook and watch out for these six hot-spot areas where trouble can lurk:
On asphalt shingle roofs, look for patched areas where the colors don't completely match, as well as shingles with warped, upturned edges. On tile or shake roofs, look for breaks that may have a pattern (where a worker may have recently walked). Also, be sure to look up under the eaves.
"You may see water stains, which could indicate a leak farther up the roof," says Mike Lauby, a Phoenix, Ariz., home inspector.
Use your eyes and your nose. Look for areas of "fuzzy" drywall or plaster, which can indicate that water is getting behind the walls.
If a room, closet or under sink cabinet has a mildew smell, that's a red flag. Mold and mildew remediation can be expensive and it's a problem you'll want to know about before all the paperwork is signed.
You may see fine cracks around doors and window casements as a result of the house "settling." But as long as they're no wider than the width of a dime, it's usually not a problem.
Turn On the Water
Try out each faucet you find, especially in houses that have been vacant for a long period. If the water comes out rusty then old galvanized pipes will need to be replaced with copper.
See if the water pressure is the same all around the house. If the water in one sink trickles while it flows in the bathroom downstairs, that's not necessarily a huge problem. The aerator, the inexpensive screw-in filter where water flows out of, may just need changing.
It may be hot out, but turn the furnace on. When turning on either the furnace or air conditioner, listen for pounding noises coming from the vents. You don't have to know what's causing it -- you just need to make a note for the home inspector to do a full check of the unit.
On the Floor
If the home is built on a cement slab foundation, you're unlikely to hear any creaking on the ground floor.
If there is it may be cause for alarm. If there's a wood subfloor, walk carefully around, especially in bathrooms and kitchens, feeling for areas where the floor might seem to "sink" in more than the other areas. This could be water damage, and another area that needs closer inspection. If it's in a bathroom near the shower, the shower pan could be leaking which is an expensive project.
If there's a pool or spa and the home has been vacant for a while, there's a good chance the bank has drained it for safety. If it's a plaster pool, the sun could cause the plaster to dry and crack, which means a new plastering job.
Add another note to your inspector.