People often make preventable and costly mistakes when choosing a potential home to buy. Here are some guidelines to evaluate potential homes from a layman’s perspective so you can prevent some unpleasant surprises after you’ve signed a purchase agreement.
Choosing the correct home from the start can save a lot of time, money and aggravation. Too often, homes can have major defects that could have been visible to even the untrained eye.
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. If water is draining towards the house, that is a recipe for trouble.. 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.
Air conditioners generally have a lifespan of 8 to 10 years, sometimes less. With newer technology, systems are not made to be repaired as they used to be. They often need to be replaced. If you are by the ocean, your system will rust and have even a shorter life span. I know opinions vary widely on this, but this is a pretty fair estimate; my husband has worked in A/C for over 30 years.. 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 vents. Your Home Inspector should do a more thorough check later. For now, just note its age and condition.
Now let’s look at the furnace/air handler. Most houses in Hawaii don’t have these, but some do in the cooler areas. 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. Depending on a number of factors, such as water hardness, water heaters will generally last from 7 to 10 years. 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, and 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.
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. 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, you need to budget 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. They will help you find out anything you missed, but you will be off to a good start if you have followed this advice.
Dana Kern is the Principal Broker at Lokahi Properties