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January 21, 2013 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Our offer was accepted, so it looks like we're buying a house. Our three-to-four-hour home inspection is tomorrow -- what do we we need to know going in and what do we need to be prepared to ask? I've read through the previous threads, but I was hoping to get some advice specific to the frozen north (Shorewood, WI, outside Milwaukee).

The house seems to be at something of an advantage compared to other houses in the area. The property is slightly elevated so only a portion of the basement is underground, which seems to help with the pressures caused by frost and the frost-line. And neither the house nor its street was hit by the Great Shorewood Flood of 2010, so things look good there too.

Any and all advice appreciated! Real estate is stressful.
posted by gerryblog to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Things that were overlooked in my house inspection, which continue years later to cause me some grief, include:
  • Moisture or mold in the basement, particularly near the floorboards. Our house had drywall placed directly onto the brick, no vapor barrier. Brick is water-porous, and you can guess the rest. Fixing that was Excitingly Expensive.
  • Old insulation settles down quite a bit. If you have plaster-and-lathe walls anywhere, what insulation is behind them?
  • Access to the attic - is there a hatch? What's up there? (Asbestos? Bees? Asbestobees? Asbeestos?)
  • In older houses, you may find knob & tube wiring. Does it need replacing, according to code in your area? What does that do to your insurance rates?
  • A furnace inspection may be in order. Take a look.
  • Pipes - any cast-iron? Anything need replacing?
If your inspector has the means, ask him to scope your drains and vents.

Real estate is stressful.

Yeah, so: be as thorough as you can figure out how to be, particularly around issues like plumbing, moisture and electrical.

Apropos of nothing, I hate the former owners of my house so much.
posted by mhoye at 12:21 PM on January 21, 2013 [10 favorites]


The advantage of the exposed basement might be offset by the loss of the temperature stability of an underground structure.
Be sure to know the age and condition of the roof and furnace/AC, and any appliances included in the sale. The owner should have records of utility costs, and tax assessments. The real estate agent should know if any tax increases are planned for the area - sewer upgrade, new school, street lighting, etc.
Tag along with the inspector while he pokes the wood and looks for sawdust trails that mean termites. If any vermin are found, delay the sale until all that is taken care of. Be aware of the smell or sight of mold.
Try the faucets for water pressure all over the house. Also be sure of your lot's boundaries in case you want to build fencing.
posted by Cranberry at 12:25 PM on January 21, 2013


I made sure to go to the city permit office and pull all the records for permits pulled for my house. Not sure if everyone does this but I did for peace of mind. That way you can confirm things have been properly permitted and also gives you specific dates of work that was done. I actually learned a lot about my property this way, since it was built in 1928 there was a long paper trail of work on the house.
posted by dottiechang at 12:34 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Making a note to myself from another thread: Don't forget to test every light switch! I would bring a lightbulb or two with you of every size to test all the light sockets, too.
posted by gerryblog at 12:53 PM on January 21, 2013


The big ticket items that might look like nothing's wrong but could require $10K or more to fix are typically are plumbing, roofing/drainage, water sealing and structural defects with electrical a distant fifth.

Plumbing -- any evidence of water damage underneath fixtures and in the ceilings of rooms below fixtures. Poke a coat hangar at drywall and/or plaster in these places. Look for paint mismatches indicating stain coverups. Make sure the clean-out plugs in the basement are accessible and removable so that future "rooting" is more or less trouble-free.

Roofing -- thoroughly investigate the attic and look for stains and/or matted insulation. See how many layers of roofing there are. Poke your coat hangar firmly at wooden overhangs, looking for rot. Same check for mismatched paint, looking for rot cover-up. Look at all the siding for water marks indicating bad drainage. Make sure the downspouts are all connected and sensibly route water away from the house.

Water sealing -- Check the basement for water intrusion signs, including efflorescence, stains, fresh carpet, peeling paint, odd smells and/or a dehumidifier.

Structural defects will be hard to suss out without an engineer but in general look for cracks in plaster/paint, floors that aren't particularly level or have lumps, beams that aren't level and posts that aren't plumb. Make sure all of the windows can be opened and don't bind (stuck windows could be paint, could be the walls have shifted). Generally houses don't fall down suddenly but rot and foundation settling can gradually pull things apart which is bad after a decade or two.

In general electric either works or doesn't, but if you have knob & tube that needs to be ripped out and replaced. Make sure the outlets are grounded and that there are plenty of them. GFCI's in wet rooms. And make sure your panel is at least 100 amp service.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:53 PM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Who recommended your inspector? Are they certified to do a termite inspection (often a second thing, and I've NEVER regretted having one.)

Have them scope the drains, had we done this, we could have saved ourselves about $10,000 on replacing our sewer pipe (oddly enough, the part that goes from your house to the city connection is all YOU buddy.)

Hopefully, they'll have one of those thingies that they can hold up to the walls to see if there's heat loss.

A door blower test is good to see how air tight your house is.

Get a good understanding of your HVAC system, what you'll need to do to maintain it, and how much more life it has. Ditto your roof.

Find out what kind of plumbing pipe there is (you don't want that weird PVC that's been banned). Also, electrical. Knob and tube is no good, neither is aluminum. That means going into the attic.

The other thing you may want to think about is Chinese Dry Wall. This may not be any kind of problem at all in your area, but it's a big deal in Florida.

Also a Radon test.

If your area is prone to flooding, even if your house didn't get hit the last time, think about getting flood insurance.

You'll never regret the money you paid for a good inspection.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:03 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


HVAC: it's probably going to be cold enough that the inspector won't be able to test the operations of the cooling system (if you have one). That being the case, prepare yourself to find out you need a new compressor or a coolant change or something come summer. You probably won't have this happen, but you may as well gear up for it just in case.
posted by aramaic at 1:03 PM on January 21, 2013


Bring a small lamp or a hair dryer and plug it into every outlet to make sure it works.

Don't ask me how I know this. ;-)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:03 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would ask follow up questions on anything the inspector says is "cosmetic." Cosmetic often means "oh the house isn't falling down but yeah you'll have a crack in your ceiling forever."
posted by smackfu at 1:06 PM on January 21, 2013


As you've touched on, checking for water penetration issues should be a point of emphasis. But that means more than just the basement. Check the sufficiency of attic insulation. If it's inadequate, heat from below will enter the attic, heat the roof and melt the bottom layer of snow, which will refreeze into an ice dam at the roof's edge. Ice dams cause water problems.

Also make sure the flashing is sufficient where, for example, a garage roof runs up against the house siding. If it's not done properly, water can sneak in.

If the bathrooms have vent fans, turn them on and see if the suction will hold a square of toilet paper against the vent. If so, good. If not, either the fan needs upgrading or the exhaust hose needs inspecting.

Keep in mind that even the best home inspectors may make little things seem like "fix it now!" potential disasters (and indeed, that may indicate you've got a good, thorough inspector). Maintain perspective, and remember that if the house has been standing for a while, it's not likely to fall over out of spite.
posted by schoolgirl report at 1:06 PM on January 21, 2013


Don't forget the home inspector works for you. The real estate agent works for the seller (usually). So you're going to get a good report out of this that has two purposes (a) a list of things that the seller really should fix as part of the deal, and (b) a list of things that it's good for you to know about to deal with down the road. So under (a) there are basic functionality things: a light switch that doesn't work, a boiler that doesn't work; termites in the walls, etc. On the (b) list is stuff like: This house has single-pane windows, so your heating bills will be astronomical. Unless the windows are broken, the seller is under no obligation to fix them, but you're certainly going to want to address that kind of situation.

If the deed is subject to any covenants, you'll want to make sure there's compliance with the covenants. I bought a house with homeowner association covenants that required hot water pipes to be insulated. They weren't, so they were insulated as a condition to the closing. Other houses in the neighborhood have sheds and garages that are built in violation of the association's setback requirements. Next time those properties sell, those conditions are going to be flagged in inspections and sellers will have to deal with them.
posted by beagle at 1:08 PM on January 21, 2013


I am gonna add in the cold north there is perhaps no greater way to check the dedication and care of the previous homeowner than to see how much caulk/weatherstripping/foam has been applied to all the little cracks and crevices both inside and outside the house. A badly sealed house will over the course of years tend to become a mushroom farm as the moisture inside the home migrates outward during the frozen winters and forms little ice dams, which then melt in the hot summer and foster mold, mildew and rot. A proper 100% moisture barrier coverage is not something you can observe either from the inside or outside, but if all the cracks are caulked and all the electrical boxes are thoroughly foamed, you can rest a little easier.

On the other hand, if your house is really old and made of brick, keep in mind it was not built to have a moisture barrier and if you try to thoroughly insulate the inside what is going to happen is the bricks are going to start falling apart in quicktime as they start weather cycling rather than being protected by the heat leaking outward from the body of the house.

What I am saying is that if your house is really old probably consult someone super knowledgable about old houses specifically. Because an inspector who is great at dealing with McMansions might not know jack shit about double brick.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:10 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ok you are pretty much asking for horror stories by posing this question, and not all home buys are horrific. But since you asked:

Is your exposed basement a regular living area? If so, make sure the temp is comfortable or at least not 10 degrees less than the other parts of the house. We bought our split level in summer and it is a frickin' meat locker downstairs in winter. There might not be anything you can do about but if you do an HVAC inspection, that might help bring up any issues.

Also, make sure there is no evidence of water damage in the attics. Our inspector didn't notice the trash bags taped up in a part of the attic crawl space (neither did we, actually!) and the first winter we had water damage in the upstairs and downstairs ceiling.

Lastly, make sure 80% of your functional living space is not on the same circuit. If I had a heater on and ran the microwave, a fuse would blow and take out most of the house.
posted by thorny at 1:15 PM on January 21, 2013


This might be obvious, but since you'll be inspecting it in the winter you have the opportunity to thoroughly check the heating system. Crank it up when you arrive, and before you leave check the ambient temperature in every room. Physically feel each heating element (baseboard, radiator, vent, etc). If you find any discrepancies, ask the inspector about it.
posted by googly at 1:22 PM on January 21, 2013


The following winter-related issues come to mind:

1. The age and condition of the furnace. Talk to your inspector about whether you need a separate inspection. We had to replace our furnace a couple of years after buying the house. That was okay because our inspector had warned us that our furnace was already older than its expected life and was on borrowed time.

2. The condition and quality of the windows. You can lose a lot of heat through low quality or poorly installed windows.

3. Is the attic insulated? If so, with what quantity and quality of insulation?

4. How warm is the house? How well does the heating system work? Are there certain rooms that are drafty or don't have enough radiators or heat registers? Do other rooms get too warm? Can you live with it?
posted by Area Man at 1:24 PM on January 21, 2013


An inspection by a profession inspector who is bonded. Ensure a radon test is done as well as termites. Even if you have to pay for it get a survey of the property and check for any easements or discrepancies, don't rely on verbal descriptions or obvious boundaries, have a survey done.
posted by KneeDeep at 1:34 PM on January 21, 2013


Don't forget to test every light switch! I would bring a lightbulb or two with you of every size to test all the light sockets, too.

You can also get a "receptacle tester", a $15 tool that will tell you if the wall sockets are wired up correctly. I strongly recommend it.

The big ticket items that might look like nothing's wrong but could require $10K or more to fix are typically are plumbing, roofing/drainage, water sealing and structural defects with electrical a distant fifth.

I second this remark. If you screw up your electrical, you're going to find out about it right away. Screwed up plumbing or roofing might not become obvious for months, and it's likely to be an extremely exciting discovery.
posted by mhoye at 1:55 PM on January 21, 2013


Apropos of nothing, I hate the former owners of my house so much.

Prepare to feel this way. We just closed on a new place last week and I seriously found myself wishing I could give our sellers one star on Yelp because dealing with them has been hellacious since minute one and they left a few dumpsters' worth of trash for us to haul away as a little farewell present. We have been assured by our agent that getting them to pay for the haulaway will almost certainly have to involve small claims court. Real estate transactions bring out the worst in a lot of people.

This might be an Earthquake Country thing, but if your inspector is at all concerned about the state of the chimney, pay for a chimney inspection before you buy so you know what you're getting yourself into. Those suckers fall over in earthquakes like you wouldn't believe and it's a lot of brick coming down on your head/roof/etc if it happens to you. Even without the seismic concerns, it'd be good to know if the chimney is operable, and if it's not, how much it would cost to get it that way.
posted by town of cats at 2:02 PM on January 21, 2013


Ask the inspector about the grade of the surrounding land--where does water drain from and to? This might come up re: basement flooding possibilities, but it can also tell you where you might have your own little ice rink in your yard even if the house is not in danger.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 2:23 PM on January 21, 2013


town of cats: "Apropos of nothing, I hate the former owners of my house so much.

Prepare to feel this way. We just closed on a new place last week and I seriously found myself wishing I could give our sellers one star on Yelp because dealing with them has been hellacious since minute one and they left a few dumpsters' worth of trash for us to haul away as a little farewell present. We have been assured by our agent that getting them to pay for the haulaway will almost certainly have to involve small claims court. Real estate transactions bring out the worst in a lot of people.
"

To avoid this situation. the day of or the day before closing, have a walk thru. Make sure everything is as you expected such as fixtures that were supposed to come with the house are still affixed, no garbage is left behind, and it is in general clean condition as you would find an apartment you were starting to rent. If I saw a dumpster or two worth of garbage in the house the day before, I would drive by the house on the way to the closing and look again and then decide to delay the closing by whatever time it took to get it right or have the cost adjusted so you can make it right.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 2:25 PM on January 21, 2013


Take the time to ask questions of your home inspector. Take very good notes and/or make an audio recording if you can. Have a camera. Good luck!
posted by jgreco at 2:40 PM on January 21, 2013


Your foundation footings should go deep enough to be below the frost line. If the basement is partly elevated, I'd want to know what the deal is with all that.

Keep in mind, inspectors don't have x-ray vision and if you read the contract carefully you'll find some clause, saying that they can't be responsible for anything that's covered up. You're really only getting an informed opinion that compares this house with others of the same vintage.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:38 PM on January 21, 2013


Take the opportunity to walk the perimeter and check out every bit of the surrounding land that you will own. We found several chemical-looking barrels (which probably didn't have anything dangerous in them, but were ugly and taking up space and would have been a pain to dispose of) and a lot of piles of brush from the owners' efforts to improve the streetview. We requested that these things be taken care of, and voila. This wasn't really the job of the inspector, so it wouldn't have happened otherwise, and it was simple to add to the rest of the list of things that needed to be taken care of. (Like having the laundry drain INTO THE SEWER as req'd by law and logic...)
posted by Tandem Affinity at 4:16 PM on January 21, 2013


Your foundation footings should go deep enough to be below the frost line. If the basement is partly elevated, I'd want to know what the deal is with all that.

Rest assured, I garbled what my realtor told me about the property and the basement and why it wasn't at risk for the sorts of foundation problems other homes in the area are. I'l definitely talk to the inspector about it though.
posted by gerryblog at 5:33 PM on January 21, 2013


One thing I SUPER recommend is to do a walk through of the house about 1 hour prior to the closing. That way the former owners won't leave any surprises for you.

If they leave dumpsters full of trash, don't close until they're gone.

If the place is devoid of appliances, light switches, those chandaliers you liked, etc. Don't close.

If the joint is filthy, don't close.

You hold ALL the cards before closing, you have NO leverage after.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:24 AM on January 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Do a walkthrough the day before closing and then take a quick look again on the way to your closing. The first is to make sure everything is gone that is supposed to be and the second trip is to make sure they have left all the fixtures and appliances. The seller removed the washer and dryer after the official walkthrough when I was the buyer's agent and since it was on the contract we were able to force them to bring it back before signing closing papers. We had just happened to stop there to measure something or else we wouldn't have seen they were gone and it would have been a huge problem to get them back. Now I do it before all closings.
posted by Melsky at 2:46 AM on January 23, 2013


"I garbled what my realtor told me"

Unless you are working with a buyer's agent, it is not your realtor. It is the seller's realtor. Keep that it mind.
posted by beagle at 4:31 PM on January 24, 2013


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