it doesn't look like it'll kill us. i think.
February 27, 2012 3:51 PM   Subscribe

When househunting, what are signs of quality renovation? What are signs of a shoddy renovation?

We're looking into buying our first home house. Hurray! We barely know one end of a hammer from the other. Boo.

The stock in our area consists of renovated 50-150 year old rowhomes and/or Victorians. We're worried about buying a home that has been shoddily restored by somebody out to make a quick buck/where major systems issues have been papered over. We'll definitely get inspections, and we'll definitely get all the home disclosure paperwork about when the roof was re-done and when new windows were put in and whether the appliances come with the house and so forth, but what are things we can look for at open houses/initial showings to see if a place is worth further investigation?

Examples of what we look for now:

- If the floors have been re-done to be hardwood or laminate, then they should be even and should not tilt alarmingly to one side. We also check the millwork around stairs and doors to see whether there are gaps and/or whether the pieces match the rest of the floor.

- The shower/bath fixtures have an access panel that is easily accessible, so that fixtures can be replaced down the line without ripping the wall apart.

- If there is exposed brick, it should be an interior brick wall. If there is exposed brick or an unfinished basement, there shouldn't be any effloresence.

Are we correct to look for these things? If so, what are other things like this we should look for?

We've seen this, but are looking for tips on the construction side of things.
posted by joyceanmachine to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
This is why you get a home inspection. Unless you are a contractor who knows what they are doing, there are countless ways shoddy work can be hidden from your average home buyer.

But yeah, a floor tilting alarmingly (or making ominous noises) is bad.
posted by Big_B at 4:05 PM on February 27, 2012

Look at the quality of the materials used. Cheap fixtures, hollow doors where solid would be better for sound deadening reasons, veneered or wrapped cabinets where solid finish wood would be sensible for durability reasons, $20 noisy disposal in a $500 sink, etc.

Looking at the quality of the finish work, as you mention, is also a good tip. Joints that don't quite fit, corners or drywall screws that weren't spackled smooth, new walls that noticably out of plumb, grates and panels that aren't square, etc.

As to the shower/bath access panel, I personally don't care about that sort of thing... depending on where the access panel would be. In 35 years of houses I've had to get to the fixtures ... twice? If something fails or I need to replace something, I'll just cut into the drywall, do the work, and close up the hole when done. In my current house, if there were an access panel for the main bath plumbing, it'd be an eyesore over the main stairwell.

P.S. don't trust any home inspector to be competent. They're almost generally going to do what it takes to get repeat business in town. Even if you pick them from the phone book and pay their way, they make their living with people who sell houses in that area. Having a reputation as someone who is honest about sale condition isn't something they're going to optimize for. REA's are in the business of turning over homes as quickly as possible. This doesn't mean there aren't good home inspectors out there, but the stuff that I've seen "reputed-good" home inspectors let slip is astounding.
posted by introp at 4:08 PM on February 27, 2012

Response by poster: Yeah, Big_B, we're definitely, definitely getting inspections. We're just trying to figure out what should totally raise giant red flags of OH GOD THESE PEOPLE DIDN'T EVEN TRY TO GET AWAY WITH IT.

introp, thanks for the advice about the access panel (and the warning about the inspectors. Oh lord.)
posted by joyceanmachine at 4:22 PM on February 27, 2012

I've been house-hunting for far too long, and also work in architecture. This is far from a sure way of telling, but I've noticed that renovations that use completely generic components - the same cabinets, the same granite counters, the really neutral tiles, everything from Home Dept, etc - seem to be the lowest quality. I think less-generic elements can be a sign the renovator actually thought about the place instead of just churning it out. Nicer and more molding around also seems to be a good sign. Try to find something renovated by the owners, not flippers.

That said friends of mine bought house that was generally renovated well except for the illegal gas hookup. If any of the work is recent, try to get the actual permits and any inspection records available. Check that it's legally zoned.

I will second that inspectors are far less useful than they should be, and also add that disclosures should only be read as a list of problems they admit but NOT as a list of things that are ok.

If you are looking in Philly, some things to look out for:
- if the kitchen is a smaller part of the building at the rear, make sure it has a foundation, many of them don't.
- when you look at the sewer vent in the front, you want to be able to look down and see water. Sometimes it gets filled in, but make them clean it or scope the sewer. Lots of the lines from the house to the street were terra cotta and collapse, or otherwise crack. If you can see down but there is no water, something is broken (unless the house has been empty a while).
- check that no knob-and-tube wiring was left in the walls where it's less visible. Aluminum wiring is also to be avoided.
- the utilities are pretty good about checking on things for you, if you suspect something is wrong or you want to know about work done by them. So if the seller tells you when new water service was put it, if you ask nicely PWD will probably tell you.
posted by sepviva at 4:32 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of restored Victorians here, and my contractor goes with me to look at houses. FWIW, his two big pet peeves are sags in rooflines, and the floor in the corners of rooms. Sags mean the load is not properly supported or distributed, and the floors in corners where the wall framing meets most often show moisture or termite damage, or poor reno work.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:37 PM on February 27, 2012

Uh, yeah, I guess I was thinking more of the "okay we like this one, what's wrong with it."

You're looking for more first level screening tools. introp has good things to look for, and I'll echo it in that look for things that just aren't right. Seems not matching, crappy finish details on items like tile/trim - points towards rushing/low cost versus doing it right. I would also suggest looking at things that are goign to cost a lot of money versus things that are easy fixes. Many of these are system type things - plumbing (old galvanized pipe? that's bad), electrical (as mentioned - aluminum wires - very bad), roof might need replacing? etc.

And I don't mean to imply that a home inspection is foolproof. Yes there are a lot of bad ones out there, but we had a good one who we vetted before hand. Also I didn't feel like crawling around the crawlspace and attic each for an hour like he did.
posted by Big_B at 4:40 PM on February 27, 2012

Could just be my naivete, but I've felt like watching "Holmes on Homes" has made me feel a lot more prepared for our next round of home searching. Certainly more wary of home inspectors.
posted by neilbert at 5:18 PM on February 27, 2012

When I was looking at foreclosures for my sister and mother over the last couple of years the biggest give a way to a crappy DIY flip house was cheap PVC compression fittings on the drains under a sink. Good plumbing work on the drains will be black, glued together ABS plastic. Buy a rafters square and a torpedo level to take with you to check to see if the corners are true, the door and window frames are square and things are level. Take a 1" putty knife and see if you can get under any tile work done. If you can it is crap. Take off a light switch cover and plug in cover and see if the wires are copper (they will be the color of pennies) and if they are wrapped around screws (good) or just stabbed into the back of the fixture (bad). Take a note of the all the appliance brands and the brand of the electrical panel and google them to see if they have a good reputation or not (zensco electrical panels are bad). Do all the cutoff valves in the basement/under the counters work? if they dont turn or they turn and it doesn't stop the flow chances are the plumbing is old and corroded everywhere.

And if you do find a house you really like, pay a general contractor to come and look and show you stuff before you sign any paper work. Inspectors are hit or miss, here in Oregon I have been fairly impressed with Pillar to Post but not sure if they have offices elsewhere and if they are any good elsewhere.

And in general start watching Holmes on Homes (it is a great show, neilbert) and get a subscription to fine homebuilding. A good handyman book from your local bookstore (readers digest has a few out that are actually pretty good) is a great thing to have for new homeowners who are learning. The reference books won't necessarily make you capable of doing the work but they can at least help you from getting blindsided and ripped off.
posted by bartonlong at 6:36 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

- The shower/bath fixtures have an access panel that is easily accessible, so that fixtures can be replaced down the line without ripping the wall apart.

This may be a thing in your neck of the woods, but it is totally not a thing in my country. I wouldn't be fussed at all.

If you're properly renovating a bathroom, you're probably retiling, so probably ripping that wall out anyway.

- If there is exposed brick, it should be an interior brick wall. If there is exposed brick or an unfinished basement, there shouldn't be any effloresence.

Huh? Exposed brick on an exterior wall is perfectly OK.

Efflorescence isn't a killer. It can mean rising damp which needs to be fixed, but it can mean not very much at all.

Are we correct to look for these things? If so, what are other things like this we should look for?

The biggest thing that needs checking from a safety point of view is the wiring. But that probably requires a sparky to get a little bit invasive.

I'd look for no creaky floors, straight rooflines, quality fittings (how new is the hot water system?), a decent plastering job.

Mostly though I wouldn't stress too much. Not many houses completely fall down around their owners, not many problems require immediate fixing to make habitable, houses are fairly robust and most quality issues are aesthetic. If it looks OK it probably is. Having a decent layout, being in a decent street are far more important in the long term. Most of the cost of your house will be in the land.
posted by wilful at 7:02 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

We're almost ready to put in an offer on a fixer-upper, and we know our carpentry capabilities, but we brought in and paid for an inspector even before we made our offer (with the seller's permission) so that we can be certain to avoid things out of our budget or beyond our capabilities.

What we did, that I'm suggesting you do too, is that my wifey and I were present at the inspection and followed along behind the inspector and asked questions, pointed things out, asked what he thought things cost or how long it could stay that way before making things worse, etc., etc. The inspector sounded like he enjoyed the company and showing his knowledge, so it all worked out well. The inspection took about an hour longer than we had planned, but I feel like we got a really thorough inspection, and we learned a lot from the process -- so if this deal falls through (we think the seller is asking too much), we know better what we're looking for next time around.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:15 PM on February 27, 2012

Look for trim that fits together tightly and has had the nailholes filled before painting. A good carpenter does a good job all around. In the same vein, a good general contractor hires only people that do good work. If one aspect of the job looks bad - be suspect about the rest that you can't see.
posted by horsemuth at 7:30 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Check walls behind showers/baths for signs of damp - flaking, bubbling, wallpaper lifting away. So if the room behind the shower is the bedroom... Check the bedroom wall behind the shower. If you see damp, strong sign the bathroom is poorly waterproofed. Or not waterproofed at all. Also look around the edges of showers and baths. Have they been patched up with silicon? Another sign of poor initial waterproofing. Which can mean ripping everything out and re-waterproofing. Which is expensive. Ask me how I know!
posted by t0astie at 8:13 PM on February 27, 2012

In an old house, sloping floors might mean the house is in terrible shape, but it might just mean all your cat toys will pile up in one corner. An inspector will help you decide if it's stably slanted, or if it's slowly getting worse and worse. Instead of looking at the floors with a spirit level, look for places that things have cracked - that indicates that "square" has moved, levels have shifted, etc. Of course, it's just been renovated, so you're looking not for cracks, but for patches in the plaster walls, or in in the brick or cement foundation.

(I am not a home inspector)
posted by aimedwander at 8:36 PM on February 27, 2012

What horsemuth says x2. If the cosmetic stuff is all shiny and new it can trick you into not looking very hard. Once you find a problem with the work though, there are probably more.

One house I looked at seemed nice, newly renovated. But the painter had sprayed right over a vent screen with an in-wall electric heater behind it, getting paint spay right into the heater. "That was kind of careless," I think, "and pretty lazy not to do something about it after."

The more I looked closer, that turned out to be the story of everything about that house. Insulation done cheap/wrong, chimney mortar made to look redone, but really just smeared on certain bad spots externally, a side sewer missing a whole section, and on and on.

Definitely get the side sewer scoped if the house is more than about 25 years old. The old clay or concrete pipes can be in pretty bad shape and a few hundred dollars on the inspection can save you thousands.
posted by ctmf at 8:44 PM on February 27, 2012

Old houses often have some kind of shifting, so that's not always a deal breaker. I worry more if it's recently sagged; I check all the closet doors to be sure they open and shut without binding. In bathroom remodels, I see a lot of soaker tubs installed in shower stalls. Every time you shower, water is going to collect between the wall and the rim of the tub. In a short time, it's going to go all black and mildewy and will need to be torn out. I wouldn't worry too much about efflourescence in an older basement walls unless you are absolutely committed to having a finished basement. I'd be more worried by a recently finished basement that has sisal carpeting over a bumpy concrete floor. If it smells damp or they have a humidifier running, stay away. In fact, I'd stay away from any house with a brand new basement remodel (unless you see that the outside has been completely waterproofed with black, dimpled plastic sheeting).
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:10 PM on February 27, 2012

In fact, I'd stay away from any house with a brand new basement remodel

I'd extend that to suggest being wary of any house with a brand new remodel, period. What you want is a place that somebody has renovated for themselves to live in, not something done by a property speculator for quick sale. The latter will have every reason to hide structural problems behind cosmetic solutions (like new plasterboard walls or false ceilings), and not fix the roots of any problems, which may not become apparent for a years. For that reason, kitchens & bathrooms that show signs of having been used for a few years are good; brand new ones, be a bit skeptical.

Something that's a bit of a red flag for me: a matching set of European appliances, typically Smeg or Miele in my town. If you visit a few whitegoods stores, you'll find that they sell base model packages of oven-hob-rangehood in these kinds of European brands for about the same price as a midrange oven of any reputable brand. Basically, matching sets of base model appliances = for display purposes only, installed by speculators to impress aspirational idiots.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:09 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

My husband and I bought a flipped 100 year old house and we couldn't be happier with it. Yes some things where done cheaply but they were done and I don't have to worry about them in the near future and on the other hand some design aspects I would never have thought of and involved a lot of work opening up the ground floor and I don't have to spend hours sanding back hardwood floors.

I was lucky though in that the person that flipped our house only does one at a time and works with the same contractor and actually has a good reputation with local real estate agents so don't let the house being a "flipped" house turn you off at all. Just get a building inspection, ask around to make sure you get a good inspector that knows what he's doing. I would also get an engineer out to check out any older houses, specially if you are worried about structural problems the sort of problems an engineer can find are the ones that work out to be very expensive.

Signs of good renovations are thought has been put into design, not just generic one size fits all solutions. Quality of finishes, painting has been done carefully not just slapped on. Thought has been put into keep with the feel and features of the house and they haven't just stamped a modern look on an older building. Remember too with an older building even if the renovations are done perfectly things fall apart and not every single part of the house will have been renovated. Things I would check the expensive but hidden things such as insulation is it more than just a token amount or enough to be actually effective, furnace, hot water heater and air conditioning is it new or older but in good condition and have been serviced.

Remember too that things you see that worry you can often be fixed as a condition of sale, we had problems with old repairs from the 1950's had actually cut through floor joists causing the dining room floor to sag the seller fixed the joists for us and added supports to the floor and then paid for our engineer to come out and reinspect it for us. Though for a while there we were worried we'd have to fix it. Oh and we got a 2 year warranty thrown in as a condition of sale too as the furnace was a bit older than we would like, though it has turned out to be in great condition and doing a great job. It is a nice feeling to know that major problems with appliances etc are covered.
posted by wwax at 7:30 AM on February 28, 2012

I've been told that you can get an inspector that is also a contractor. They will have more experience and be more likely to catch everything. In the past, we have used family members or friends that are contractors of architects to come on viewing with us. Allowing us to follow and ask questions was very helpful!
posted by Gor-ella at 7:43 AM on February 28, 2012

In addition to what has been said above, do your best to look at a LOT of old houses. Most of the places my wife and I looked at were 120 years old or so. You start to develop a feel when things are out of whack. Walking across the kitchen floor feels like you're on the ocean, even though the floors are shiny and new. Poorly mudded drywall. Sagging roofs. Also pay attention to how space is used; did they cram in an additional bedroom at the expense of having no closet and smashing your head on the eaves every time you get out of bed? With one electrical socket?
posted by craven_morhead at 11:21 AM on February 28, 2012

Coincidentally, I recently read this blog post on my local newspaper website, which I found very useful (plus, it has pictures!). The blog is written by a home inspector, so the rest of the articles make for good (if scary) home-buying reading.
posted by Maarika at 5:03 PM on February 28, 2012

My apartment building is 108 years old. Here is my list for you:

Floors built on top of floors. General contractors find it easier to level a floor (apparently) by laying a new one on top. This hides damage and provides un-even walking surfaces. Both of my kids have tumbled, as they learned to walk, when they hit the lip between the kitchen and the bathroom. Further, the damaged floor may have been water damaged. Read: rotting flooring and joists. Squeaking floors will remain so without some serious re-working.

Look at the roof. This is a big feature. Trust me when I say "look at it". There are many ways the roof can be wrong. Patches that were misapplied, chimneys that are improperly sealed, skylights that have shifted, etc. The roof, as a point of failure is, to my mind, as big of a concern as the foundation.

Understand that in old buildings the doors were custom fit. In my place, there were 6 or 7 different door widths. Maddening when trying to find a replacement. Additionally, if someone has done "work" work on the doors, you may have gaps between the bottom of the door and the floor that are not fixable (save for installing a sweep).

In old buildings, it is very rare to find much of anything that is straight or plumb. This has it's own challenges in remodeling (try fitting a series of cabinets that are a total of 97 inches wide into a space that is 98 wide at the floor and 95.5 at the ceiling). Much cursing was had that day.

Understand that EVERY wall has something behind it. I have found old gas lines. Disconnected sewer lines. Gerry-rigged electrical and phone lines. You name it. Open the wall when you have to and when you do, be prepared to deal with what you find. Rotting beams? Soil pipe has a fissure in it? Yikes.

Follow your pipes. Where do they shut off? Where do they come into the building? Are the pipes to code (proper diameter).

Follow the electrical lines. Is the amperage set correctly for modern home use? If not, you will be flipping circuit breakers until you call an electrician. Many newer appliances are being built without a whit's care for whatever other appliances you use. Meaning: when the monster AC unit cranks on, it sucks up the amps. If anything else is on the line...POP goes the circuit breaker.

Check the windows. Open and close them. Even new windows warp out of alignment and cannot be totally shut and locked. This is bad because the upper pane will creep down and you will get drafts. Likewise, make sure the screens are solid and in place.

Water pressure. Run everything at once. Seriously. You need to understand that the water will keep flowing if you are doing laundry and want to take a shower.

Hot water. How old is the hot water heater? If it is older, it is most likely gotten a good bit of sediment built up in to bottom. This means that on a 50 gallon tank, 15 gallons of space is taken up, and is being heated. Double bad. If they are old, know that they are a built in replacement cost.

Drop me a mefi mail if you'd like any additional information. Good luck.

I agree with the statements above regarding the quality of the rehab work that you do see. If it is sloppy, there is much more of it hidden. Guaranteed.
posted by zerobyproxy at 5:58 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

« Older What would happen if large-scale lunar mining...   |   What does this T-shirt say? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.