My first house!
June 7, 2015 11:22 AM   Subscribe

Y'all's advice on how I could pimp my cover letter actually did get me a ton of interviews and a new job-- hooray, and thank you! So now I'm moving, and I want to buy a house. What do I look for?

There is a charming house I want in New Exciting City. I've gotten a preapproval and will be having a formal inspection performed before making an offer.

However, I'm going to be seeing the house in person in a few days. Before an inspector rolls in and takes a look at it, what are the things you recommend I check out as I'm "kicking the tires," so to speak? What are the questions you wish you'd asked before buying your first home?

Possibly irrelevant details: the home was built in 1915. Foundation: piers. Heating and air: central. Sewage: city. 3 bed, 2 bath.

Always with the excellent advice, MeFi. Thanks in advance once again!
posted by schooley to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Check out how much natural light it gets.
posted by that's how you get ants at 11:33 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Check that any recent modifications were done with permits.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:44 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Go back multiple times at different times of the day and check out noise levels and neighbor activity.
posted by MsMolly at 11:49 AM on June 7, 2015 [9 favorites]

When were the electrical and plumbing last updated? Was this done by a certified professional? When and how often has the home been treated for termites? How old is the water heater? The roof?

Are the windows original to the house? If so, know that you will have to deal with noise and drafts that you may not be used to.

Check the upstairs water pressure. Nothing ruins a dream home faster than a lousy shower.

I love older homes. The workmanship is lovely and the rooms are so much bigger. If it was kept up well, you will be very happy. If it wasn't, you will be very, very broke, but there is still the possibility of happiness.

While you are kicking the tires, stay there as long as possible and ask to go back. You want to experience the neighborhood during the day and the evening.
posted by myselfasme at 11:49 AM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

This might not be exactly along the lines of what you're asking about, but I thought I'd throw it out there because I feel like it's the best thing I did when buying my first house (and, indeed, subsequent houses). I spent hours building a spreadsheet outlining every expense I currently have, every expense I anticipate having in the new house (including getting estimates of utility costs, etc.), figuring in money for maintenance and improvements, and balancing that against my income. I built a significant buffer in for unanticipated expenses. This made me feel far more secure in knowing how much house I could comfortably afford. And the time invested in figuring that out has paid huge dividends.

For what it's worth, we did look at houses above our calculated budget, but only when we thought we had a chance of getting it for below the listing price. And we had a hard and fast rule that we would not go above our budget no matter how much we loved the house. We did have to re-do the budget for each house we were serious about, because things like taxes, insurance, HOA, etc can vary. And we also worked in estimates of any repairs or improvements that needed to be made quickly. Don't forget closing costs and moving expenses either. It sounds like a lot of work, but once I had the spreadsheet built, I just plugged in the appropriate numbers in a few spots and out popped a grand total. Worth it!
posted by primethyme at 11:56 AM on June 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Two big things to check in older houses are closets and other storage space, which I guess would be pretty obvious, and electrical outlets. Older houses usually don't have the type of storage space we modern youth of today expect, and even 30 year old houses never have enough outlets unless they've been updated recently. So there's a better than average chance you'll just need to factor in adding some yourself.

And generally, too, just check how recently different parts of the infrastructure have been updated. I had a house about that vintage once, and I ran into a few weird configurations where everyone would be all confused by them until finally some older service person would look at it and say, "Ha ha! I haven't seen one like that in thirty years!" This is more a home inspector thing, though.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:57 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I might be biased: explore the kitchen. Pantomime making dinner there--how far do you have to reach? Are there convenient places to group things together? You're going to be in there a lot, so give it as much of a test run as you can.

Ditto the bathrooms. Are they comfortable? Awkward? Convenient?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:59 AM on June 7, 2015

Know what you're getting into, and don't act only out of love. There's no urgency, there will be other great houses, if this one gets away it will be okay. See if your realtor can take you to a few others houses and walk you through what to be looking at, before you go see your place. When you approach this, you need to be ruthlessly selfish about demanding that you get as much time as you need to look at the place -- take your time, in the walkthrough, don't worry about being rude. Feel free to double back and get a second look at a room, or whatever. Don't get distracted by needing to make smalltalk with the realtor. You are there to evaluate a hugely expensive purchase, keep focused on that.

"Contingencies" are things you add to your offer, that let you get out of the contract if you find something wrong. In your walk-through, be thinking about what contingencies for specific issues you want to include. (Don't take the seller's word for things -- they may flat out lie or just be mistaken about things, and you have every right to get your own independent expert in to look.)

Take a ton of pictures - at least two angles of each room, and especially of the boring parts of rooms, of the basement, of the furnace and hot water heater and electrical box and all that stuff. Bring a good flashlight, bring a measuring tape. Bring a pad of paper so you can quickly sketch out the layout of the place as you go, so you don't forget where that second bathroom is or whatever.

Pay attention to the vibe of the place - little light, smoke smells, creepy feeling? Some of those things are hard to change, so worth noticing.

Think about big expensive things that are hard to change - electrical, plumbing, foundation, roof, main heating, removal/remediation of old oil storage tank. Next stage, windows, exterior paint/siding/etc, A/C, hot water heater and other appliances, asbestos, lead paint. Do the bathrooms need to be redone? Do the floors need to be redone? If you expect to pull up carpeting, pull it up a tiny bit at a hidden corner and see what's underneath it.

See as much of the electrical wiring as you can. Look up "knob and tube" wiring online, and see if you have any of that (your system can be made of different eras of wiring cobbled together). See what the electrical panel looks like - fusebox? Circuit breakers? What level of service do you have - is it updated for today's electrical needs? Do you have updated GFCI outlets near sinks/water sources. You may want to insist on an electrical inspection contingency.

In the basement, look up at the joists if they're exposed - poke with a pen, see if there's any evidence of termites. You can get a termite inspection contingency, in many places it's required.

Notice whether there are closets and how big. Houses this age often have very little storage space, you might see the residents have armoires or other big storage pieces because there are inadequate closets.

If it matters to you, find out if the fireplaces work and when they were last cleaned (chimneys need to be cleaned regularly for safety).

Notice counter space and pantry/cupboard space in the kitchen.

Try to get pictures of the roof and the inside of the roof, in the attic.

See what the basement/foundation is like - are the walls painted (to conceal faults) or bare, is there a floor, are there cracks (notice if they're vertical or horizontal). Is there asbestos-wrapped pipe, and is the wrapping in good condition or crumbling?

Go around outside. Does your yard have privacy? Do you have big old overgrown trees (they're beautiful but can be a headache because you need to take them down or get them expensively trimmed)... plus they might be growing roots into aging plumbing pipes? Does the yard have telltale low/wet spots? Are there bars on the windows, suggesting a security problem? Drive by at night - is the yard and street well-lit? Are the landscape elements (retaining walls etc) in good shape? Does the ground drain away from the house (it should)?

Is there anything that's going to be a hassle to maintain? Pool, big garden, etc - these things are great if you want them but take maintenance (your time and money) to stay nice.

What's the neighborhood like? Noisy? Trafficky? How close are you to the neighbors? Are their houses well-maintained? Is your house the biggest and nicest on the street, or about average? What's the parking like - if you had a party, is there room for a few friends to park easily nearby? Are a bunch of houses on the same street for sale? (if so, why are they all leaving - do they know something you don't know?)

Get your snoop on, online. Most states have a way you can access property records online for free -- you can find the transaction history of this house, you can see how much the owners owe on their mortgage and whether they have other loans outstanding on the house (or on other property). You can look back and see if there have been any sinkholes or crimes or planned big construction projects etc in your neighborhood.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:00 PM on June 7, 2015 [11 favorites]

1) Wiring wiring wiring...and, um, the wiring. This is high on the list of potential Unpleasant Discoveries about an old house.

2) Bring a tape measure and check doorways, windows &c. Many older houses have entry-ways, windows and what-not that are no longer standard; this can be a problem both if you need to replace something and if you need to get your contemporary furniture into the house!

3) Check for signs of water damage (stains, bulging, peeling, mold, etc.).

4) Look at the foundation for any signs of major cracks or other damage.

5) Look for mold and mildew in the basement. (In a house of this age, be prepared to see something other than concrete down there--I've seen basements with uneven rock floors or even dirt.)

6) What's the siding? Wood siding is pretty when nicely painted, but it will quickly become scary if you let your guard down--depending on your climate, the house may need to be repainted every five years or so.

7) As myselfasme noted, older windows can often be drafty. In addition, you'll want to look closely at the frames for signs of rot.

8) With a house of this vintage, be prepared for odd/quirky room sizes and, in a cold climate, unexpectedly low ceilings.

9) Does the house already have a dishwasher? If not, will the plumbing handle one?
posted by thomas j wise at 12:07 PM on June 7, 2015

What everyone said, plus map out your commute to work, especially if you plan to be at that job for a long time. For day-to-day quality of life, a shorter, easier commute adds a lot of value.

Be prepared to go around with your inspector and ask questions. They may give you good advice and teach you house stuff you need to know.

Also, be aware that inspectors may not dig around as much as you'd hope. In my city, they only do a "visual inspection" which means the don't move anything to look behind or under (including a light rug, small piece of furniture, a pile of stuff leaning against a basement wall, etc.).
posted by Frenchy67 at 3:00 PM on June 7, 2015

Our inspector missed a broken pipe in the basement. He assumed the moisture was from poor drainage outside. It ended up being the neighbor's pipe and she got it fixed so everything is fine now but there are just a million things that could be wrong with the house. Look up common problems for homes that age in your area and spend some time imagining what your dealbreakers might be. Any problems with the foundation could definitely be dealbreaker territory.

If the inspector indicates there may be a problem with something (foundation, roof, etc) you can have a specialist come out to take a look. Our inspector couldn't get up to the roof so we had a company come check it out. They said it would need to be replaced and we negotiated $7500 off the already accepted offer.

Don't get hung up on anything cosmetic unless you can't envision yourself doing any work on it at all. In our house, in five years, we've (with the help of friends who are good at this and some contractors for anything tricky) replaced carpet on both floors with hardwood, removed the knob and tube, painted, replaced light fixtures, removed kitchen cabinets, moved the fridge, added a banister to the stairs, had a concrete floor poured in the basement, replaced, the front porch, built a back porch, and completely renoed a bathroom. With the insurrection inspection, you're looking for immediate- mid range problems that could be expensive and whether the bones of the house are solid.

Also, talk to the neighbors. Especially if they're older, they know everything about the house you are planning to buy.
posted by betsybetsy at 4:28 PM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Two items: 1) Radon test (and fix if necessary).
2) Clear land survey (check for easements, etc.). We didn't get a survey done before we closed on our present home (which we like). When, years later we did, we found our neighbor had encroached nearly five feet over the actual line.

You won't regret either.
posted by KneeDeep at 4:40 PM on June 7, 2015

Go back to check for traffic at multiple times of the day. Don't take anyone's word for it if that is important to you. Do it several times during the week. Great advice above about the bones of an old house. Check everything out. I have one and I LOVE it but you have to be ready to care for it and be sure that you aren't buying a problem. Look into some updates you can do before you move in. Blown in insulation, new heat and AC, fix up the duct work, a light sanding and refinishing the floors, a great paint job..... Easier to do earlier and these old girls do well if you give them the love they deserve. Think outside the box. Congrats!!
posted by pearlybob at 5:18 PM on June 7, 2015

Congrats! I would add this slight variation on Frenchy67's and pearlybob's suggestions: check the traffic for your commute at your regular commuting day(s) and times. You can do (most of) this virtually using the traffic option on google maps, which has a choice to show typical traffic at a given day & time, but sometimes there is e.g. a particularly bad left turn to get out of a neighborhood that might not show easily on google maps traffic. This shouldn't necessarily stop you from getting the house, but it's useful info.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 5:36 PM on June 7, 2015

A few things I haven't seen mentioned yet:

1) Check how water gets away from the house. Downspouts? How far out? Gutters? Again, how far out do they go? You want to make sure that water is going away from your foundation and house, not towards.

2) Dirt matters. When we were looking, I thought it didn't matter because we could clean and it would be fine. It does matter, but not for that reason. A lot of dirt around means that the house isn't maintained on a day to day basis, which means it was possibly/probably not maintained long term, either. Our house had a uniform film of about 5 years worth of dirt on the windows and walls. We knew it had sat mostly vacant for about 3 years, but after moving in and starting to do cleanup and settling in, we realized that a lot of maintenance (like cleaning out the gutters) had been deferred for years and years, with predictable outcomes.
posted by RogueTech at 10:32 AM on June 8, 2015

Congrats, schooley! I'm a renter, and for my one-day dream house these are the things I think about.

For the inspector specifically:

-Plumbing: Water pressure, age of pipes (I know someone who's shelling out $$ to replace pipes because of corrosion and rust flakes in her water)

-Electrical wiring. In my grandma's house you couldn't plug in the iron while the A/C was running, or some crazy such thing, without blowing a fuse. I see the house you're looking at has central air and heat but still worth checking, especially if you ever want to upgrade your lighting and electrical fixtures

-Installing exhaust fans in bathrooms if there are none. They get rid of moisture and shall we say lingering smells, much more efficiently than an open window.

-Make sure the central heat/AC is actually effective, and that you're not dealing with any ridiculously hot/cold spots especially in frequented areas of the house.

-Lead paint on the house's exterior (and therefore in the soil surrounding it), as well as in the house

Other considerations:

-The amount of natural light you get, and in what rooms. My dining room is super-bright but my living room is dark. I'd rather bask in a sun-filled living room and have a dimmer dining room, plus for me at least a darker room dictates my color choices in furniture/rugs too much.

-Ease of parking for you. Do you care if you can't always park in front of your house? Where would guests park when they visit? Are you dealing with alternate-side of the street parking? Special church parking on Sundays? Film crews (unlikely maybe but this article about Brooklyn residents growing tired of film crews is interesting)?

-Noise from a nearby hospital (sirens) or helicopter activity (traffic, hospital, etc.).

-It might be a good idea to check a crime report/sex offender website for your neighborhood. Maybe not if you think it will make you paranoid--my neighborhood is pretty great but any amount of city living will have some bad elements. But better to go in with your eyes open especially if you're buying.

Good luck!
posted by luckyveronica at 1:55 PM on June 8, 2015

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