Top defects to look for when buying an older home

REThink Real Estate

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 8, 2011

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REThink Real Estate

Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News™

Q: Buying a house worries me. I don't know what I should be looking out for! I know that the older the house, the more likely it is that the wiring, plumbing and roof might be out of date, and the paint could even have lead in it if it's old enough. I have been looking at houses and like a handful of them, but obviously don't want to pay for an inspector for all of them. Help!

A: The fact is, you're simply not going to be able to rule a home all the way in -- or out -- without paying for an inspection. Your best bet is to generally select the home on which you want to place an offer based on its location, basic specifications and how well they fit with your wants and needs, and the price you are able to negotiate for it.

You simply have to go into a home purchase with the understanding that it will not be a done deal until you do pay for a home inspection, and pest and roof inspections, too, in most cases.

Generally, homebuyers don't have a laundry list of homes they feel are interchangeable with each other; they tend to have a strong preference for one over the others, or a ranked list of homes, based on things like location, aesthetics, price and the like.

And the fact is that the average plumbing, electrical or roof repair or upgrade might not even be a deal-breaker, depending on how strong your preference is for one home over the others.

If the home costs $250,000 and you love it, would the fact that it needs a $5,000 roof deter you from buying it? Most buyers would say no -- and on today's market, most buyers would simply try to negotiate with the seller to make the repair or get an upgrade credit, or chip in some or all of the needed repair.

With that said, there are some basic things you can and should watch out for with respect to the areas of concern you mentioned. First things first: disclosures.

Your agent can find out whether the seller's disclosures are already available for the properties in which you're interested.

Many times, smart, honest sellers will flat out disclose what plumbing, electrical and roofing kinks and quirks a home might have; if they mention lots of little repairs they've had to do over the time they've owned the place to a particular system (e.g., multiple times they've had to have the sewage line snaked, etc.) that may indicate that particular system (a) might need some work and (b) definitely needs a closer, professional inspection.

In terms of things you can see with your own two, untrained eyes, if you're looking at an older home and have concerns about its electrical system, look to see:

  • whether there are three-pronged or two-pronged plugs throughout (three-pronged plugs suggest, but do not guarantee, that the home might have modern grounding, which can reduce the risk of shock, and some of your appliances and electronics might need a three-pronged outlet to plug into);
  • look for those little reset buttons on the electrical outlets in bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and garages (they indicate modern safety upgrades known as ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCI), which minimize shock hazards around water;
  • watch for fuses vs. breakers (a fuse system is an older, almost obsolete method of electricity management and may indicate that an electrical upgrade will be needed in the home's near-term future); and
  • scorch marks on and near outlets (not good).

Water stains on walls and ceilings may indicate roof, plumbing or drainage issues; similarly, looking under sinks is a quick way to look for water damage and staining from plumbing leaks.

Actually, many roofs that require repair just look like it from the exterior, when viewed with the naked eye; if it seems rippled or raggedy or worn, it might require some repairs or upgrades in the near future.

But here's the thing: Even if you do see any of these items, you should not necessarily construe them as a deal-breaker. Rather, you should take any or all of them as signs that you should ask your property inspector to pay special attention, or make sure you obtain a specialty inspection or repair bid from an expert like an electrician or roofer.

And by the same token, a home can have none of these visible signs of plumbing, electrical or roofing issues and still have major, deal-breaker-level condition problems.

I once represented a buyer who got into contract on a home that had been gutted and remodeled after a fire -- new electrical, new plumbing, new roof -- all on top of a completely rotten foundation that received six-figure repair estimates from multiple contractors.

When you find a property that works for you and get into contract on it, don't cut corners or costs when it comes to having the home thoroughly and professionally inspected.

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