Homebuyer, beware: In many areas, it’s a sellers’ market these days. Low housing inventory and competing offers north of the list price mean speed really matters when you’re on the buying side. While you could hire a home inspector to give a potential property a thorough once-over before any offers are made, it’s also smart (and cheaper) to keep your eyes open for signs that a home you’re touring is in need of some serious work. “Almost anything can be remedied for a cost,” says Liz Murphy, a realtor at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach, Realtors. “But spotting those money drains during a walk-through can save you a lot of time.” And keep you from falling in love with a money pit.
Don’t think red flags always take a trained eye to spot. Here are five you’ll probably see for yourself once you know where to look:
1. Foundation Cracks
Don’t sweat hairline cracks along the home’s foundation. Those are probably the result of minor settling and won’t require quick attention. Ditto to any crumbling you notice along the corners of a concrete slab, which is usually cosmetic. But if you spot a crack that’s ¼-inch or wider along the home’s foundation, that could mean serious trouble—including hiring an engineer and ponying up to $10,000 or more for a repair bill, depending on the extent of the foundation issue. A HomeAdvisor survey of roughly 1,500 foundation-repair projects found that the average cost for such a fix was nearly $4,000.1
2. Water Damage
Rainwater can wreak havoc if it gets into a home, as water damage in the walls encourages mold growth and rotting window frames. For signs that rainwater’s been diverted away from the building, look for gutters and downspouts that are in good repair. Then glance up at the roof—if you notice missing shingles, it could mean a leaky roof that’s been letting rainwater sneak indoors. Inside, peek into each room’s corners, where water damage may show up as shadowy stains or spots. And don’t be afraid to take a deep, long sniff: A musty smell might mean mold has infiltrated the home.
3. Fresh Paint
A new coat of color on the walls isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But with recent renovations, you’ll want to pay extra attention to how well projects have been done. “Pay close attention to the quality of the work, especially the things you can easily see,” says Thomas Miller, a licensed realtor in Washington, D.C. Loose banisters, wobbly fixtures or a sloppy paint job could signal that the renovations have been hastily or improperly done—which might mean you’ll spend more money down the road to do the job right.
For any home that got a recent facelift, Miller also advises that buyers should ask to see a record of renovations, to verify all work was done to code. If the previous owner tried to upgrade the plumbing or electrical system without acquiring the proper permits, for instance, that could wind up being disastrous for the homebuyer’s budget down the road. “If you don’t realize renovations aren’t up to code until after you close, it’s too late,” says Miller. “The new buyer will incur a very expensive bill to correct the damage.”
4. Deck Dangers
If stepping out on a deteriorating deck gives you pause, listen to your gut. Your limbs—and your savings account—might thank you. Decks that are outdated or improperly maintained might not be structurally sound, and redoing the deck could cost thousands of dollars. When you’re scoping out a new property, keep an eye out for loose rails or railings that are too low or widely spaced. A good guideline: Rails should be at least three feet tall with no more than four inches between each, for the safety of small kids. Meanwhile, soft boards underfoot may signal decay, while any gaps or cracks where the deck meets the building could mean the structure is starting to pull away from the home. (Yikes.)
5. Critters and Creepy Crawlies
Think you’re looking at a cozy house for two? Well, tell that to the three squirrels living in the attic or the thousands of termites making a feast of the basement woodwork. Pest infestations can be pricey to quash, but you don’t have to stumble into one unaware. Look for subtle cues that the home is hosting unwelcome visitors, like little wings that look like fish scales around the windows or doors (which could mean termites), egg sacs along baseboards (a sign of roaches) or small holes in walls and shredded piles of newspaper in attics (a sign of nesting mice).