Buyer Beware

In the market for a house? Here’s how to spot serious problems.

By Joan Tupponce

buyer_beware2Any homebuyer who lives by the adage “ignorance is bliss” certainly hasn’t seen the film “The Money Pit.” The 1986 comedy starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long chronicles all the pitfalls that can occur when you don’t check things out before you buy a home.

“Condition along with location of a home are real drivers in the real estate market,” says custom homebuilder Jim Walker of J.R. Walker Homes in Henrico.

Your first clue that something may be amiss is noticing that a home has not been well-maintained. Even before you venture inside, you may recognize a problem if bushes are overgrown, the paint is fading or chipping off or the property is untidy. “That’s a dead giveaway,” Walker says.

When Walker first started building homes, real estate agents would narrow a homebuyer’s focus down to two or three available homes. “Now they show them everything in the market in their price range. Buyers use that to cross ones off that don’t interest them,” he says. “If the plumbing fixtures are not updated or the carpet is dirty, for example, the house gets crossed off the list.”

So how can you best know if a home will end up having costly problems? Here’s the answer: It’s not always easy to determine. Walls and a coat of paint can hide a number of issues.

“The biggest problems are generally based on lack of maintenance,” said Henry Blau, senior technical adviser for U.S. Inspect, which serves the metro Richmond area. A certified home inspector, Blau has conducted more than 5,000 home inspections. “I have also restored old houses for over 25 years,” he says.

Just because a home is older doesn’t mean it will become a money pit.

“Age alone is not a defect,” Blau explains. “It’s one thing to have a 15-year-old furnace and another to have a 15-year-old furnace that has not been maintained.”

It’s important to recognize that water is the No. 1 enemy of any house.

“You may have an older roof that may be leaking or exterior wood trim that has deteriorated and is letting water get past the trim,” Blau said, noting that would mean you would have to replace the window frame and fix the roof.

In Richmond, roughly 90 to 95 percent of homes have a crawl space, according to Blau. If a home’s gutters, downspouts and grading are not letting water flow away from the home, moisture and water can build up in the crawl space. “Water gets into the crawl space, and it raises humidity,” Blau says. “Humidity builds up and damages the insulation and can lead to mold, mildew and fungus, which can be a health and structural problem.”

Blau remembers doing an inspection on a 26-year-old home in a nice neighborhood that had been exposed to so much humidity under the house over the years that the crawl space had developed severe wood fungus. “All of the structural members were failing. They were cracking in two,” he says. “They were failing to the point I could take my 12-inch screwdriver with my bare hand and put it through the wood. That’s a very rare case, but it does happen.”

Home inspector Scooter Burgess of Burgess Inspections in Chesterfield always looks for obvious rot when he is examining the exterior of a home. “If there is a lot of rot, it should be obvious,” he says. “You’ll also want to look at the roof to see if any shingles are curled up or missing.”

You need to be a real sleuth when you are checking out the interior of a home. While inside, try opening a few windows to see how well they open and shut. Windows that don’t open for any reason would need to be fixed. If the windows are insulated, look to see if they are dirty or foggy, which means they might have to be replaced.

Check the overall quality of the paint job in the home to see if it was nicely done. Make sure that all appliances and countertops are straight. Open and close doors to see if they work properly.

If you walk into the house in the summer and notice that the air conditioning is on, but the house is not that cool, there may be a problem with the air conditioning system. Take note if the house has a musty smell.

“Every house is going to have some mold on the inside, but when it reproduces or grows, it has a musty smell,” Burgess says. “Also look up when you are on the first floor. Look for water stains on the ceiling under the bathrooms. We always run a lot of water and flush the toilet to see if it causes a water stain.”

If you see simple cracks around interior doors, it doesn’t necessarily mean the home has foundation problems. “Cracks don’t always mean something,” Blau says. “If in the basement you see cracks, particularly horizontal cracks that actually open one-eighth of an inch or more, that can be a little concerning.”

When you are walking through the house, look to see if things are shaking when you step down. “Something like a china hutch sometimes gets some deflection, but it shouldn’t be very much,” Burgess says. “Squeaking floors are not a sign of something wrong with the house, but it may indicate that the subfloor is not nailed down properly.”

Most electrical problems in a home are not always obvious. “Fortunately most electrical things are relatively straightforward unless you are talking about a house built in 1938 or before,” Blau says, noting that older houses may have knob-and-tube electrical wiring, which uses ceramic insulating knobs as anchors for the wiring and may be riskier than modern wiring.

Because it can be tedious trying to search out issues in a home, many homebuyers rely on home inspectors such as Burgess and Blau to find any problems.

“Home inspectors provide information, and they are objective,” Blau says. “We bring a fully informed buyer to the table.”