Home Buying 101: Watch Out for These Red Flags

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When you’re in the market for a new home, touring various properties is one of the most exciting parts of the process. But beware; as you begin your house-hunting journey, there are a few red flags you should look out for on your quest to find your dream home. From duct tape to foul smells to cracks in the foundation, here’s a roundup of some things to watch out for and steer clear of when you’re shopping for a new home.

New Paint Only

If you’re touring a home and the only thing you see that’s been updated is new paint, this might be a red flag. That fresh paint smell is a nice sign that at least the home has been refreshed — even just on a cosmetic level. But if a home’s listing boasts that it has new updates, you should expect to find more than just painted walls.

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If painted walls are all you see, you might end up wanting to do many more improvements than you initially anticipated. Think about the cost of updating the rest of the home to meet your standards. This might not be the remodeled home you were hoping for.

Rainstorm Tours

If you’re looking at a home on a bright and sunny day, you may miss areas that have leaks, flood damage or access where water can seep in. If you’re house shopping in a floodplain or in an area that’s prone to seasonal flooding, the weather on the day when you tour a home is especially important.

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To better assess potential rain and water damage, see if you can tour the home while it’s raining — assuming you’re in a rainy area. When you go visit the house, look near windows, around the doors and in the basement to see if any water is coming in.

The Sniff Test

Sometimes it can be really helpful to do an old-fashioned sniff test when you visit properties. When you walk into a home, think about everything you smell. If you smell a lot of very strong cleaning products, this could be a sign that the owners are covering something up.

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You may also be able to smell mold, smoke, pet odors, garbage, a septic tank, old pipes, sewage or something unsavory outdoors. If you catch a whiff of something that seems like trouble, an inspection or some questions to your agent might be in order.

Ambient Sounds

Some of the main things you do in your home are sleep, relax and rest after a busy day. If the home you’re looking for is near a train station, public transportation depot, busy street, highway or even a dog park or a school, listen for noises outdoors. Tour during the times when you’ll be home, if possible.

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When you go tour a home, take a listen when you’re in the bedrooms and main living areas. If you can hear a lot of ambient noise or traffic sounds, this could be a red flag that you should keep searching.

Roof Damage

One of the most important areas of a home to inspect is the roof — it plays a critical role in the home’s structural integrity. The roof of your home is also one of the most expensive things to update. When you’re looking at a potential home to buy, pay close attention to this area.

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If you aren’t able to see a lot of the roof from the ground, you can also have the roof examined during the home-inspection process. Water damage from a roof will likely leave stains on the ceiling and walls. Ask to go in the home’s attic if it’s safe to do so. If you see water damage, keep looking.

Furnace Functioning

One of the most expensive pieces of equipment in any home is the furnace. Check this appliance before buying a home. When you’re first touring a property, you can ask how old the furnace is and when it was last inspected.

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During your home inspection, you can also have a professional look at the furnace to check for repairs, damage or anything that seems out of order. If the furnace hasn’t been serviced in a while, ask the sellers for a credit to have it serviced at closing so you know it’s done.

Signs of Condensation

When you tour a home, check the windows and doors for condensation. If you see a lot of water or condensation on a window (or inside double-paned windows), this means the window has lost its seal. A window that isn’t sealed properly lets cold or hot air in or out at your expense.

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Windows that aren’t sealed or have signs of cracks or damage can cost you a lot in heating and cooling on your utility bills — and that’s not to mention that they’re expensive to replace. Condensation, over time, can also damage the wood around your windows and can cause mold and rot.

Foundation Cracks

The foundation is literally what holds a home up, so it needs proper care and maintenance. When you look at a home for sale, take a few minutes to walk around the structure and check for exterior cracks along the perimeter of the foundation.

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Inside the home, look for cracks in the walls. Feel for drafts, and see if any water has seeped in from the outside on the ground floor. Cracks in the foundation can be really costly down the road. An inspector should look for cracks when evaluating the home before closing, too.

Bricks and Siding

If the home you’re interested in is showing signs of damage on the exterior, take a closer look before you make an offer. Inspect the bricks and the siding of the home you’re touring from the outside by walking around.

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If it’s a brick home, check for cracks, broken bricks and missing mortar. Have a tuck-pointing professional look at the home before you make an offer — this contractor can tell you if it’s necessary to replace any mortar and how much it’ll cost to do so. If the home has siding, look for missing sections, cracked pieces and areas that are loose.

Drain Speed

The plumbing system in a home is really important for its overall function. When you’re looking at a potential home to call your own, check the drains in the sinks, toilets, baths and showers.

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To test the drains, quickly run the water, check the stoppers and flush the toilets. If you see anything suspicious or broken or anything that doesn’t appear to be flushing or draining smoothly, this could be a bad sign. If you’re concerned, have a professional plumber come to take a look before making an offer.

Other Plumbing Problems

Don’t just determine how well the plumbing drains; look at other elements of the water system, too. Sometimes the hot and cold water knobs get reversed during installation; run the faucets to be sure. If these are switched, it could be a sign of sloppy construction elsewhere.

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You’ll also want to make sure all of the faucets work and that the showers and baths all have running water. Get a feel for the water pressure, too. If this is out of your comfort zone during your tour, you can also ask your real estate agent for their assessment.

Electrical Outlets

There’s nothing more disappointing than an outlet that doesn’t work, but this can also be a dangerous red flag. Ask your inspector to check all of the outlets before you move in. If outlets don’t work, it can be a sign of a bigger wiring problem that requires more extensive repairs.

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While it may be something small, you don’t want to run the risk of having outlets short out or not work at all. You can have the seller fix small electrical issues or ask for a credit at closing if you need to.

Cable and Internet

When you’re first checking out a house, look at the walls where your television will go. If you don’t see cable or internet hook-ups, this might mean they aren’t there. If you’re willing to tackle a project and install your own wiring for a sound system, that doesn’t need to be a deal-breaker. But do your homework on the cost and timeline. If you want something professionally installed, it’ll likely cost more.

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You can get a quote from a home wiring professional and also from your local cable company to see what this will entail. Typically new or remodeled homes are the ones with sufficient internet or sound-system wiring.

Refused Access

If you go to tour a home and there’s an area or a room that’s off-limits to look at, this could be a big red flag. It’s one thing if the sellers have their dogs sequestered in there during the tour and don’t want them to get out. But if something seems strange and you aren’t able to look at all of the rooms or floors in a home, it’s probably a sign you should just walk out.

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Another red flag is if you still aren’t able to see a room after asking the agent about it or coming back another day. You should never feel pressured to not look at a room.

Falling Ice

If you’re house hunting during the winter months and you see a lot of ice accumulation near the roof or even icicles hanging from the gutters, this could be a costly sign. Ice accumulation could mean that the roof isn’t properly insulated.

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Have a contractor come to check out the roof. A professional home inspector or even a roofing specialist can examine the exterior roofing materials, the insulation and also the attic to check for repairs or replacements that might be necessary.

Utility Bills

If you’re looking at a home and have seen some signs that worry you in terms of energy efficiency, you may want to take a second look. When you see condensation, feel cold drafts or spot cracks, you may want to ask for a copy of the utility bills before you make an offer.

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Several months’ worth of utility bills can help you understand what to expect in a new home. But if they’re much costlier than what you currently pay in the same geographical area, this might indicate there’s a water leak somewhere, windows letting air conditioning or heat escape or appliances overworking. Asking to see bills is always helpful, even if you don’t have big concerns about energy usage.

DIY Disasters

If you’re potentially buying a home from someone who did a lot of DIY construction, you may be taking a risk because a professional didn’t do the work. While plenty of cosmetic work is fine for DIYers and handymen, there are some home systems you just don’t want the Average Joe to mess with — electrical work and plumbing are chief among them.

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If you’re unsure about the quality of any work, walk through your potential home with a contractor. They can tell you what was done well and what wasn’t. An inspection can also tell you if something is off with the work in any spots you can’t see during a tour.

Cell Signals

One of the worst things that can happen when you purchase a new house is that you buy it and realize your cell phone doesn’t get reception in the home. When you’re touring a place, double-check your cell service and ensure you can make calls and send messages from various spots around the house.

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If you’re looking at a home in a rural area, ask your agent which cell phone providers people use most often there. If you’re debating between one house and another, the one where your cell phone doesn’t work might be the loser.

Exterior Grading

When you look at a home, assess the grading — the slope of the surrounding landscape. If you’re up on a hill or at the bottom of a hill, look at how extreme the slope is. A home that’s on top of a hill is nice because water should flow away from it, but you may have trouble parking if the hill is too steep.

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If your potential home is at the bottom of a hill, be extra cautious about water flowing down towards the home. Ask the owners, check the flood history and have an inspector give a closer look into how the drainage may impact the home’s livability.

Traffic Patterns

When you’re house hunting, you might want to stay away from busy streets or areas with high-flow traffic. If you have small children or pets, busy roads are a safety hazard. You may also have a loud, disruptive problem on your hands.

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If you’re searching in an urban area, check traffic patterns and look at the amount of traffic near the home when you tour it. Noise and congestion aren’t for everyone, so don’t overlook these potential hazards. Traffic can make getting out in the morning even harder. If possible, visit the home during rush hour to better judge the traffic and noises.

The Parking Situation

If you’re looking at a home or condo in a busy, densely populated area, scope out the parking situation before you tour it. If there isn’t parking included with the home or a dedicated spot or garage for a condo or townhome, street parking can be tricky.

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Check the street during the busiest times of the day and find out if there’s zone or permit parking in the area. You can also check with your agent and the city for more specifics. If you need easy street parking or have multiple vehicles to store, you may need to keep looking.

Termite Damage

Termites can be expensive pests to get rid of, and that’s not just accounting for the damage they can do to a home’s structure. Request to have an inspection completed by a pest-control specialist. You don’t want your new home to also come with roommates.

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If you see signs of rotten wood, damage to wood or other worrisome signs that the home may have termite damage, you might just want to keep house hunting. Ask for reports or any disclosures on the matter if you absolutely love the home otherwise.

Mouse Traps

When looking at a potential home, check the pantry, utility room, laundry, garage and basement for signs of any rodent problems. If you see mouse traps or other traps or bait, these could all indicate that the house you’re looking at has a known rodent (or cockroach or other pest) infestation.

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Mice and rats can be expensive to get rid of — not to mention creepy. If you see any red flags that there may be a mouse or rodent problem, such as droppings along baseboards, think twice about whether this is something you’re comfortable with, even if the sellers agree to cover the costs of pest control.

Radon Testing

When you find a house and want to make an offer, it’s always a good idea to get a radon test done. Radon is an invisible gas that is formed in Earth’s crust. It’s also one of the leading causes of lung cancer in people who don’t smoke.

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If the home has higher-than-average radon levels, you could be putting yourself and your family in serious danger. A radon test is inexpensive, and your home inspector should be able to handle it. These are always well worth the money and the peace of mind they provide.

Time on the Market

One of the biggest red flags that something may be wrong with a house is that it’s been on the market for much longer than the average home in your area. A house that’s been on the market for hundreds of days — even in a buyer’s market — could have a big problem.

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Talk with your real estate agent if you’re concerned about how long a home has been for sale. They may be able to give you some insight as to why the home hasn’t sold and what other potential buyers disliked about it.

No Photos Posted

If you’re looking at houses online and you come across one with only one photo, this could be a bad sign. Listings that only have exterior photos are often dead giveaways that there are big problems inside the homes or that they aren’t as updated as the descriptions say. Foreclosures often only have exterior photos in their listings, too.

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Before you waste your time looking at a home that doesn’t have any photos posted online, ask your agent to get more for you. You could also drive or walk by the home and take a quick peek to see what’s what.

The Neighbors

When you’re house hunting, find out who your neighbors are. If you have young children, for example, you might want to look for areas with a lot of other young children. You can walk around the neighborhood and search for parks, playing kids or other families out and about.

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The same thing goes for anything else you’re looking for in neighbors. Maybe you don’t want dogs near you. Perhaps you don’t want to live by a park with kids because you need to sleep during the day. Get the scoop on the area before you make an offer.

The Cleanliness Level

If the sellers didn’t even bother to pick up after themselves or clean anything before your tour, it may be a serious red flag. When you’re coming to view a home, you can usually expect to see a spotless space. A messy home can say a lot about the importance the owners (don’t) place on other maintenance tasks.

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A messy home can indicate that the current owners neglect repairs and have no pride of ownership. A mess might also indicate a bug, rodent or mold problem in the home. If all you see is clutter, you might want to move on.

Duct Tape Test

While duct tape is an amazing invention that has all sorts of great uses, home repair isn’t one of them. If you look around a home and see multiple things that are only held together by duct tape, keep on looking.

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Take a look at pipes, faucets, hoses and seals. If duct tape is holding the house together, this may be a big indication that there could be a lot of hidden problems within the home.

Calling All Pet Lovers

While many people love their four-legged friends, not everyone wants to move into a house where dog damage, cat urine or other foul pet odors or messes are present. If you know the current owners of a home have pets, check for signs of damage or for any bad smells, particularly where carpeting is involved. Urine can seep into carpeting’s underlayment, making it impossible to clean and necessitating complete replacement.

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Check the floors, walls and door frames for scratches. A pantry cabinet may also show signs of Fido scratching for a treat. Floors are the biggest area of concern if claws have done some damage.