by Dana George | Updated July 19, 2021 - First published on Jan. 3, 2021
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No matter how much you want to buy a house, go into the house-hunting process with your eyes wide open.
Forecasters expect more houses to go on the market as we get deeper into 2021, but at the moment, it's slim pickings out there. The big problem with low inventory is that it can cause a feeding frenzy, with dozens of buyers vying for the same house. And if there's anything that gets lost amid a feeding frenzy, it's careful consideration. In an effort to get into a house -- any house -- buyers will overlook problems that are sure to empty their bank accounts down the road.
If you plan to buy a home in 2021, keep your elbows sharp and keep your wits about you. Know the tricks home sellers employ to hide imperfections. Like putting lipstick on a pig, covering up defects doesn't change the fact that they are there. Few properties are perfect, and you may still want to buy a house, warts and all. But at least you'll know what you're getting and how much you can expect to spend on updates and repairs.
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Say you tour a property on a sunny day, not knowing the roof leaks. It may just be a small problem now, but roof leaks are more than a nuisance. They eventually lead to structural issues that must be addressed and mold issues that can be bad for your health. Sometimes, a seller will put a fresh coat of paint on the ceiling to hide any tell-tale signs of water. Where they often forget to "doctor" is in the attic, where water damage clearly shows.
According to HGTV, basement and foundation repairs range from $500 to $10,000, depending on the severity of the problem. It pays to make sure the basement of any home you consider buying is nice and dry.
The tricks used to cover basement leaks depend on whether the space is finished. If you walk into a finished basement that smells damp and moldy, you probably have a problem. If the seller left candles burning or a potpourri burner plugged in, they're hoping to cover the smell. If an unfinished basement has been covered with an area rug, lift it. Area rugs hide a multitude of problems, and sellers routinely use them to mask problems large and small. If sellers have boxes or furniture pushed up against the walls, check behind them for signs of water damage.
When asked on the seller disclosure form about the age of their HVAC system, water heater, or other mechanical system, sellers frequently mark "Don't know." You can find the age of these yourself on the internet by typing in the serial number on the manufacturer's website. If you're lucky enough to have a friend or family member who is familiar with mechanical systems, bring that person along to make a quick assessment. A friend's opinion is not a substitute for a professional home inspection, but it will give you an idea of costs you can expect if you do purchase the home.
If you're looking at a home built before the mid-1970s, it may have been heated with oil. Typically, homeowners "hid" the tanks by burying them in the yard or installing them in the basement. The oil used for decades likely contaminated the soil to some extent, making sellers quite keen on hiding their existence. Take a stroll around the yard, looking for a small pipe that sticks up out of the ground. Sellers have been known to plant flowers around the pipe, place a lovely bench over it, or even saw it off. If you don't see anything, don't be shy about asking the seller's agent if the home ever ran on oil. If so, find out if (and when) the oil tank was removed.
Don't be fooled by a shiny stove or dishwasher. While sellers can make them look their best, they can't add life to appliances destined to fail. A gas range will last about 15 years, and you can expect a dishwasher to do its job for six to 10 years. No matter how good they look, check the age of any appliance that will stay with the house.
This may be the number one trick used by home sellers worldwide: placing an area rug over floors that need attention. Whether it's deeply scratched or stained hardwoods, linoleum that's lifting, or stained carpets, raise every area rug you come across to learn what lies beneath. Along the same lines, if you see furniture that seems out of place (like an oddly placed settee in the foyer), move it long enough to make sure there's not something hideous hiding under it.
Moving into the house of your dreams can become a nightmare if the homeowners next door let their dogs bark 24 hours a day or you're unaware of a new highway slated to be built so close you'll be able to hear semis from your bedroom. No matter how emotionally charged you are, don't make an offer on a house until you've walked the neighborhood at different times of the day. If you're familiar with the area already, this will be easy. Either way, it's essential to know what you're getting into.
If hauntings are not your thing, it's important to remember that sellers are not always willing (or required) to share what they know. In some states, sellers are only required to disclose material defects (like a leaky basement or janky electrical system). In other states, sellers must disclose issues referred to as "emotional defects." These include alleged paranormal activity, grisly crimes committed on the premises, or any issue that could make the house less desirable to buyers. If you're unsure of your state requirements, ask your agent. And if the idea of taking out a mortgage for a house that could be featured on an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" gives you the willies, let your agent know.
A good home inspector is worth their weight in gold. Once you've made an offer and it's been accepted, hire a quality inspector to look for problems. Issues are typically addressed by asking the seller to make repairs or renegotiating the sales price.
No matter how hot the market or how stiff the competition, never buy a home without a thorough inspection. Seller tricks are easier to catch when you know what to look for and have a professional backing you up.
Chances are, interest rates won't stay put at multi-decade lows for much longer. That's why taking action today is crucial, whether you're wanting to refinance and cut your mortgage payment or you're ready to pull the trigger on a new home purchase.
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