Question: Do you have any advice to help reduce the risk of not doing a home inspection before buying a house?
Answer: The unfortunate reality of the current market (and the market of the last ~18 months) is that, in most cases, to make a competitive offer on a home, buyers are absorbing all the risks (financing, appraisal, inspection, etc). Understanding the risk/benefit trade-offs and the downside potential of these risks is critical in such a fast-paced, expensive real estate market.
Risk Management is Critical
If I had to guess, I would say that at least 75-80% of winning offers on local homes that go under contract within the first 1-2 weeks do not have a home inspection contingency, meaning they are either not doing a home inspection at all (unfortunately common) or doing a pre-offer home inspection. As with nearly every decision you make in real estate, this needs to be done with great consideration for the cost of the risk and the value of the upside to make sure it is the right decision for you on a specific property.
Part of that risk assessment is making a determination on the condition of the home – whether it has “good bones.” Having a home inspection done is the best way to reduce the risk of buying a home with condition/maintenance issues but is no guarantee that everything will be caught. If you can’t do a home inspection, seeing a home with a trusted, experienced real estate agent or somebody in the home building/improvement industry (contractor, builder, etc) is also a good way to reduce your risk.
Property condition/maintenance issues show up in a multitude of ways. Below I’ve summarized some tips on assessing a home’s condition from inspectors I work with, an article written by Stephanie Dickens of BOWA, a local design-build firm, and my personal experience.
Observe How Water Moves
Water is a home’s worst enemy and poor water management can lead to water pooling against a home and getting into the cracks of the foundation, which can lead to structural deterioration over time. A musty-smelling basement is a sign of poor water management. Look at where gutters drain – I often find that they’re dropping water right next to the house instead of sending it away. Look at the grading (slope of the yard) and if water is running towards the house, look for drainage systems. Sump pumps are nice, but they should be connected to a battery backup in case power goes out.
Good vs Bad Cracks
Cracks can be deceiving. Something as small as a crack in the drywall could be a sign of larger structural issues but are most likely cosmetic. Straight, hairline cracks above openings or at joints, like the one pictured below to the left, are nothing to be alarmed about. If you see jagged, diagonal cracks that are wider than 1/8”, like the one below to the right, the house may have settlement issues or insufficient framing. A pattern of uneven floors and cracking around support (e.g. lintels) in one section of a home can be a sign of a bigger issue.
Level Floors Are a Good Sign
A nice, level floor indicates good structural support. If you look up to where the ceiling and the wall meet, the corner crease should be mostly straight. If the floor looks wavy or dips down in the middle, the floor joists may be sagging and need reinforcement. Uneven floors do not necessarily indicate a problem, rather is a justification for a harder look to see if there are other signs of active issues. We have plenty of well-built old homes with uneven floors around here that have been that way, without issues, for decades.
Stand on your tiptoes then drop down hard on your heels. Do this at various points in the house to test the deflection in different areas. All wood-framed floors are going to have some deflection, but you don’t want it to feel like you’re jumping on a trampoline. Too much bounce is an indicator of insufficient structural support.
Young At Heart
A house with newer core systems is not just a sign of good maintenance, but it’s a huge money-saver in renovations. Check on the age of the windows, roof, HVAC, water heater, plumbing, electrical, and main sewer/water lines. Any of these systems that are in the first half of their expected useful lifespan add tremendous value.
Permits Help, but Not the Whole Story
If a home has been updated or expanded, look for permits on the County permit status website, but remember that permits and quality work are not necessarily directly correlated. I’ve seen far too many permitted projects with quality issues and plenty of unpermitted projects done at a high level. Permits are a good sign, but not the entire story.
Look for Signs of Cover-up
Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you see recently painted foundation walls, patched ceilings, or brand-new flooring in the basement. They may be perfectly innocent attempts at improving the aesthetics of an ugly basement wall or old carpet, but they are also signs of covering up moisture or cracking issues. Sellers in Virginia do not have to disclose defects, but they cannot actively hide, mislead, or lie about them.
Quality Care and Repair
One of the most important judgments I try to make when looking at a home is how attentive a homeowner was to issues as they came up and how likely it was that they addressed them with quality service and solutions instead of cheap patches. There’s no specific formula for this, but there are usually signs throughout a home that suggest solid long-term maintenance vs one-time, cost-conscious listing prep. I look for the quality of materials and craftsmanship in work that was done while the owner was living in the home. For example, the choice in appliances, windows, shingles, and plumbing fixtures. Signs of attentiveness and quality in the things you can see are often suggestive of the same care in the things you can’t see.
If you’d like to discuss buying, selling, investing, or renting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.
If you’d like a question answered in my weekly column or to discuss buying, selling, renting, or investing, please send an email to Eli@EliResidential.com. To read any of my older posts, visit the blog section of my website at EliResidential.com. Call me directly at (703) 539-2529.
Video summaries of some articles can be found on YouTube on the Ask Eli, Live With Jean playlist.
Eli Tucker is a licensed Realtor in Virginia, Washington DC, and Maryland with RLAH Real Estate, 4040 N Fairfax Dr #10C Arlington VA 22203. (703) 390-9460.