Looking for non-financial advice for buying a house
December 21, 2019 5:43 AM   Subscribe

The financial questions are already sorted so right now I'm strictly looking for some suggestions about what to keep an eye out for when we're looking for a home. What should we be aware of? What should we ask for? I put together a list of things I specifically want to ask for (in the Extended), are these things I can reasonably ask for as part of a deal?

-Soil and water testing (we plan to grow our own food)
-Composition of the water and sewer lines
-Pay for lead paint/asbestos testing and remediation
posted by Socinus to Home & Garden (40 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I trust you’re going to have the home fully inspected, which is essential - but won’t catch everything.

An item to have on your list is radon testing.
posted by hijinx at 5:55 AM on December 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

posted by flabdablet at 6:05 AM on December 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

You can *ask* for anything, but what's standard and paid for by the seller and what's a negotiation point will somewhat depend on the location.

In my experience, Radon testing and water quality testing (if on a well) are standard, and remediation is covered by the seller. Soil testing or water testing w/city water would be unusual requests. Lead paint and asbestos are usually covered by a form the seller signs saying that they aren't aware of their presence. If you have indications either might be there (older house & peeling paint, or likely asbestos pipe wrap / tile / vermiculite insulation), it's fairly likely you can ask for testing and remediation. But you need something to test - they aren't going to test every painted wall.
posted by true at 6:09 AM on December 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

Less about the house itself, but I suggest walking around the neighborhood at dusk and after dark to see how it feels.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 6:37 AM on December 21, 2019 [15 favorites]

Travel / commuting experience at _rush hour_ (or whenever you would be doing it)

Noise, at different times

If there's a neighborhood association, how dysfunctional are they


Are you likely to enjoy your neighbors? This is hard to ascertain, but HUGE -- it can make your life incredibly wonderful to have friends so nearby. In my opinion, worth going an extra mile or two to try to make it possible.

Is development likely in adjacent properties?

Even if you don't have children, the quality of nearby schools will affect your resale value.
posted by amtho at 6:47 AM on December 21, 2019 [7 favorites]

Bitter experience:

1) Do not get sucked in by the staging!!! Pretty flowers, flag hanging on the porch, quilting station in the living room... IGNORE THAT SHIT.
2) Especially if this is a small town - who lived here and where are they going? Who are the neighbours? Go say hello, suss things out.
3) What are the churches in town, and are you religious? How much of the town is parked there Sunday morning?

From your "grow my food" comment I am assuming rural rather than urban. Small towns - it is not just the house, the people you are living amongst will make a huge huge difference to your quality of life.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:50 AM on December 21, 2019 [8 favorites]

Look first at the basement - if there are signs of water leaks or foundation issues just walk away now.
posted by leslies at 6:52 AM on December 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

We asked the buyers to pay for a one year home warranty since the home was older. It was a pretty cheap ask that gave us some peace of mind in case something went wrong - our inspector was very good, but stuff happens.
posted by joycehealy at 6:52 AM on December 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Other folks are covering the big, expensive stuff so here's some odd balls to consider:

* Is the driveway an S shape that's not very noticeable at first but will drive you nuts over time?
* Is the garage a side-entry with obstacles that prevent you from getting a second car in?
* Look at water drainage in the yard. If there's a drought in progress consider whether your yard will be a swamp when the rain starts again.
* Walk through the house and consider whether light switches are in weird places and how annoying that will be over time.
* If you have dogs can they get out to the back yard easily?
* How hard will the yard be to mow?
* Does the bathroom have a towel bar/ring or a place to put one?
* Where's the sun going to be in the morning and evening?

Most of these can be fixed (although yard drainage is expensive) and their not deal breakers but might be useful tie-breakers and it's nice to go in with your eyes open.
posted by Awfki at 7:02 AM on December 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Less about the house itself and more about the surrounding area. Are you in a floodplain? Are there any HAZEOPER sites in the neighborhood? What about endangered species or plants that could make adding structures a problem? What’s the crime rate around the house? What’s the crime rate between the house and the nearest place you’ll be walking?
posted by lepus at 7:07 AM on December 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

You should assume any home built before 1978 has lead paint. Our house was built in 1943 and I would never, ever, in a million years agree to lead testing, because the difference between a house where any reasonable person would assume it has lead paint and a house that's been conclusively proven to have lead paint is expensive. I'd rather just wait for the next buyer.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:09 AM on December 21, 2019 [9 favorites]

If daylight is important to you (ie. you want a ton of it in as many rooms as possible, or you want shade/passive solar qualities), download an app like Sun Surveyor to check out the house with. You can adjust to different times to get a sense of what it would be like in different seasons.
posted by Drosera at 7:15 AM on December 21, 2019 [7 favorites]

Walk through the house and consider whether light switches are in weird places and how annoying that will be over time.

The wall sockets too! Envision where you want lamps, computers, televisions and figure out how many extension cords you’ll be running.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:26 AM on December 21, 2019

Soil, asbestos and lead tests might be worth asking for if your inspector sees something suspicious but as a seller (if the house was old), I'd be adverse to risking deniability on those matters and would jump pretty quick to the next highest offer.

If it's an older house, ask your inspector's advice on logistical challenges that might complicate future renovation plans - for instance, is there enough space around the house to get heavy equipment in if you want to add an addition, or need to do waterproofing/drainage repairs?
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:28 AM on December 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Are you OK with living on a main road vs a side street? How much car traffic does the area get at various times of day? Is that likely to change in the near future? What is the posted speed limit and do drivers generally obey it? If there is a lot of traffic, are there sidewalks so that you can still walk around your neighborhood without getting hit?
posted by eeek at 7:33 AM on December 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

This all depends a lot on where you are. What is the climate? Should your house be ready for storms or for draughts, or both? Is rising water an issue? Are insects?
IMO, it is almost always both cheaper and better to buy a "fixer-upper" with expert advice from someone you can trust. You can get everything the way you want, and when the whole house has been done over, there are no surprises. It can seem daunting, but that's where you need the experts. Ask around the area for trusted architects and/or builders.
If you go that way, you can focus on the important stuff. First the site: is it in an attractive neighborhood, does the yard have a nice combination of old trees and good light? Is it possible to protect your future garden from deer and other veggie-eating monsters?
Does the plan of the house have a good orientation? What is a good orientation depends on where you are and how you live, but bedrooms to the north and east are usually good. Traditionally, kitchens were to the north to keep them as cool as possible, but today it depends a bit more on the use and design. That leaves south and west for the living areas, and then you might like a big overhang or a porch for shade. Do you want your living areas or your private areas facing the street? There are pros and cons for both, and they have to do with your lifestyle and with the area. It is nice to have the living rooms open up into the garden, specially during summer. But if there is a lot of traffic, it might be too noisy to have the bedrooms facing the street. Or you can two or more stories, separating semi-public from private with a staircase. If there are stairs, make sure you can get your beds and cupboards upstairs.
Then the plan/disposition of the house. Are the rooms that need plumbing in a good place? Those are the most expensive to move. Are they well-ventilated? Is there a good flow between the daily entryway, kitchen and dining areas? This is going to get the heaviest use, and you don't need daily irritation because of weird hallway shapes or steps.
Do the bedrooms have the privacy you would like, or can you easily create it? Are there enough bathrooms?
How is the house heated/cooled, or how much will it cost you to do what you want to do? Does the house need extra insulation for better long term economy? How will that look? A south facing roof is good for installing solar panels, which may end up being a very good thing.
How is the daylight? In most buildings, you can open up if you need to, so it's not a huge issue, but if you feel rooms need bigger windows or doors, how can the rooms be furnished if you do that? If you want to combine rooms into one, how will the windows and doors then look? Again, daylight depends a lot on where you are. If you are way up north, you'll like a lot of light most of the year, for health reasons, too. If you are more to the south, overhangs or porches can let in light during winter when the sun is a bit lower, and shade it out during winter.
BTW, if you want to save energy by using natural ventilation except for very hot months, make sure the house can be cross ventilated.
Remember to set aside at least 10% of your total budget for unexpected expenses.
And good luck!
posted by mumimor at 7:44 AM on December 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

YOu might want to leave soil testing out of your deal, because you can get it done (both lead and nutrients) for under $50 at your nearest cooperative extension. It may be worth focusing on bigger-ticket items.
posted by Miko at 7:51 AM on December 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Here is a bit of advice from my bitter experience: If something seems even slightly fishy, move on. Trust your gut. I didn't do that on my current home, and I regret it. There were plenty of yellow flags, but I ignored them and said, "Meh. I can deal with it." Well, I have dealt with it but it's cost me a shit ton of money (one-quarter the purchase price of the home) and made me resentful.

To go along with the "don't be suckered" by staging advice above, I'd also say to pay attention to the staging, especially on older homes. Sometimes the staging deliberately hides flaws. And sometimes it deliberately hides flaws from inspectors.

For instance, this house had areas of rotten flooring, siding, and decking. Neither we nor the inspector caught it (less acceptable in the inspector, obviously) because the owners placed heavy, awkward items on or around the problem areas. "Oh, there are damaged hardwood floors? We'll just put the couch over them! Rotten boards on the deck? Let's place a large, heavy decorative item on top top to hide it!"

Also, I've come to realize that my seller outright lied on his disclosure statement, saying that he didn't know about certain issues when he clearly did. "No, there's no known rot in the house." Aside from the small things I noted above, he remodeled half of the bathroom, removing (apparently) the most rotten parts of the floor and walls but leaving the rest. How do we know? Because when we did some minor repair work, we discovered that the rotten boards had been cut in half along a certain line and the new (past few years) work hadn't begun to rot yet.

I like my house. If it weren't for these issues, I would love it. But the issues have clouded my experience here, and that's too bad.
posted by jdroth at 7:53 AM on December 21, 2019 [8 favorites]

When you reach the inspection stage, hire an inspector yourself and do not tell your buying or selling agents who it is. Accompany them to the inspection, do not leave them alone with either agent. This won't stop all possible shenanigans, but it will help.

Don't assume anyone has your best interests at heart in this sale except you. It's possible your agent does, to some extent, but at the end of the day their actual goal is for you to complete a sale, not the best sale.

Many sellers, in this economy, do not have any cash for all the things you'd like to have done as a condition of the sale. Sometimes you can ask for those things, get declined, and come back with a slightly lower offer in lieu of those things, but they can also just sell to someone else who's already prepared to deal with it. If you want those things actually done and really want to know the results, off the record, you'd be better off quietly taking samples while viewing the house and having testing done yourself.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:53 AM on December 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Trees - are there trees on the property? How old are they? How healthy are they? If they fall in a storm, which way are they likely to fall and will they hit anything?

In particular, if there are big old trees you probably want an arborist's opinion. We had a big old tree that, unknown to us, was all rotted inside. There was a storm. It fell. It didn't hit anything, which meant insurance didn't cover anything...and because of the weird location it was in and the way it was partially propped up on broken branches, it cost us $6000 to get it cut up and taken off the property. (People are all "do it yourself with a chainsaw" when they haven't actually seen this kind of situation.)

Don't buy a house with big old dying trees unless you're ready to get them taken down ASAP - and have any old trees inspected to see whether they're dying.

Taking that tree down on a non-emergency basis would still have been very expensive, but not $6000.
posted by Frowner at 7:56 AM on December 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

What you can ask for depends a lot on your local market. Last time I bought a house, it was a strong seller’s market, and the buyer couldn’t ask for anything because the seller would just turn to one of the three other offers.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:03 AM on December 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just some other subtle things:
- do you share a swale with a neighbor, in which case are you the downhill (loser) property
- ceiling heights (different floors and even rooms can have subtle differences in ceiling height, which can effect your plans for use of that space)
- if there is *not* a basement, see if nobody in the area has a basement which *might* be a sign that the houses were all build on a landfill
- if there is carpeting it may be hiding humps or defects in the flooring material or supports
- is there easy access to the plumbing (e.g., if there's paneling is there access panels, or do two bathrooms' showers share a common wet wall)
- what is the crime rate
- on the plus side, is cable internet readily available and reliable, is the area/neighborhood dependent on above ground or underground wires for power
posted by forthright at 8:45 AM on December 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you get a home warranty as part of the sale avoid American Home Shield at all costs. They used to be a reputable company but have now become a scam - they won't pay out on legit claims and there is a class action suit in the works. Better to just put some money aside each month for unexpected repairs - which always happen with houses.

Also as part of your inspection get the sewer scoped with a camera. Important to know the state of the sewer - tree roots? Is it orangeberg?
posted by leslies at 8:46 AM on December 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

How many closets does it have? If it’s a two story house, is there a closet on the first floor?
posted by lyssabee at 9:01 AM on December 21, 2019

Slope, drainage, and proximity to water. You can check flood zones online with most state environmental agencies. On a more individual basis, what does the property look like when it rains heavily? Does the water puddle against the foundation, or make pit puddles on the lawn? These things won't be obvious if you visit on a dry day.
posted by Gneisskate at 9:45 AM on December 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:57 AM on December 21, 2019

If you are a person who uses the internet make sure you know what your options are on a house you might be buying. In a rural situation you'll want to know how reliable the furnace is and maybe what back-up heat options are. If you run an oil or gas furnace check the age and inspection dates. If there's septic, check when it was last pumped and see if the owner even knows where it is. Again if northern and rural make sure your road is plowed on the regular and that you have a plan for plowing your driveway. Check to see if there are restrictions on building or renovating (like if you're in a historical district or something). Check to see if there are easements on the property (I had power lines running through my backyard and occasionally they'd need servicing which meant trucks driving into and over my yard, not a huge deal but worth knowing and planning for). Also rural, look into reliability of power (this can mean backup power like a generator, it can also mean look out for trees near power lines if they're above ground). Do a walkabout to see what the neighbors are like, especially in a rural area with few people, one bad neighbor can really make a house less awesome than it might be (and might be why it's lower cost than you were exppecting).
posted by jessamyn at 9:58 AM on December 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Find out how old everything is: the furnace, the water heater, the range, the refrigerator, the roof, the electrical panel and any other appliances. If they say they don’t know, or more than 10 years, assume you will have to replace them and offer accordingly.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:06 AM on December 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

Talk to the neighbors, if possible. We dodged a major bullet when house hunting several years ago. We found what looked like the perfect place - fit all of our needs, looked solid, great location. We were leaving and talking excitedly about it when our to-be neighbor walked out from his backyard with a watering can.

"Hold up," I said to my realtor. "I'm going to say hi."

Turns out the guy was a wealth of knowledge about the house, the neighborhood...and most importantly, the benign looking large building across the street. Apparently it looked fine at that moment, but it was being used as an illegal scrapyard and the neighbors had several active lawsuits with the owner and the city over the noise, smell, and zoning violations.

We didn't put in a bid. We go by that block frequently now, the scrapyard is still there illegally crushing metal, and many of the houses on the other side (including that of the nosy neighbor) have gone up for sale in the last few years. Bullet. Dodged.
posted by Gray Duck at 10:54 AM on December 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

In more rural locations, you need to dig a bit into local laws. Can your neighbors shoot off fire arms on their property? Can they keep roosters? What are the fireworks laws? What is the zoning of the properties adjoining yours?
posted by DarlingBri at 12:31 PM on December 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Anything recently renovated or upgraded would be a red flag for me. The sellers likely just hired someone to do a shit job in preparation for the sale and will expect to get the cost of the work and then some back from you on the sale.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:09 PM on December 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Along with making a list of what you DO want in your new home/property, make a list of what you DON’T want. Both are equally important.
posted by bookmammal at 4:15 PM on December 21, 2019

Your realtor's job is to get you to buy. Some are more ethical than others but they are all trying to sell. I don't mean to be too harsh, I liked both of ours, but they aren't really on your side and they have substantial incentives to gloss over things.
posted by Tehhund at 5:03 PM on December 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

+1 to mygothlaundry's comment re: age of appliances, roof, and other elements that you can expect to wear out over time. Knowing this may not give you much negotiating leverage on house price, but *will* give you a good sense as to how much money you need to have available in the short-run in your emergency fund.

If you have time, you might also want to visit the house/block a few times at different times of day. E.g. does the street get busy at rush hour? Are people out walking in the early evening? Does the dog living in the house next door bark in the backyard all morning?
posted by pingzing at 5:52 PM on December 21, 2019

Well I can see lots of us have gotten burned! Be wary of the agent, who will not tell you the hospital or fire station is 6 blocks away, and this house is on the most direct road. Inspectors are often incompetent. One missed the wet basement (it was a dry year) in spite of all the pallets (clue!) . Another forgot to mention the state of the roof - (different house.)
A shared driveway can be a curse. Large trees have incredible root systems that preclude planting anything other than shade-tolerant groundcovers.
Small town? How far away is the nearest grocery store? How good is the snowplowing? Personally, I love a small town, but groceries must be convenient.
Dry basement, good roof, plumbing and electrical.
posted by Enid Lareg at 7:01 PM on December 21, 2019

Definitely think practically. Our house has the original 1943 bathroom upstairs. It's adorable and quaint and one billion percent impractical. It was actually a bit of a selling point when we looked at the house, now it's an albatross that we know we will have to address at some point. It's not up to code because it didn't have to be, and to bring it up to code and renovate it is likely to be more expensive than we anticipate.
posted by biscotti at 4:54 AM on December 22, 2019

Take listings with a "caveat emptor" attitude. Check everything yourself. Most inspectors inspect very little ime, so vet before hiring.

Also my house came with a bunch of stuff we thought were cool extras but turned out to be a nuisance (if you don't have lots of extra money for upkeep) and I wish I had known to avoid them. The previous owners put up a gazebo in the backyard and bricked and landscaped everything so that there was very little lawn left. Wow! So little to mow! No maintenance required! What a cool gazebo! We can sit and enjoy the sunset in it! BS. That arrangement is fine if you want to spend all your time dealing with weeds in the bricks and mulch and basically living to do yardwork or paying someone else quite a bit of money to fiddle around all those shrubs and corners and rocks in wierd places and (draws breath) being eaten alive by mosquitoes in the lovely gazebo that is slowly (quickly) rotting in the humid climate. I'm saying this in the spirit of irony, not bitterness, since we didn't know, but I do wish I had known. A plain lawn, especially if you live in an area without a HOA, is so much easier. You can make it pristine if you want, or just mow it and that's it, done.

Can you afford the taxes?

Pay attention to attempts to cover up bad odors. In one house we looked at the realtor pretended the smell was from some plants outside. Turned out to be the septic system. Other houses had noticeably moldy odors under all the scented candle smells. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Also pay attention to renovations as others have said. The previous homeowners in my house staged everything with showy renovations in all the right places that turned out to be incomplete and clearly done on the cheap. While we were lucky in the end with not having bigger problems, as the house is solidly built and was decently taken care of, today I would opt for As Simple As Possible.

Good luck!
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 10:20 AM on December 22, 2019

Folks have given good advice, but one thing I did not see is checking that any remodeling was done with the proper permits. Especially when it comes to kitchen and bathroom updates and #'s of bedrooms. You will be responsible for them even if you didn't do them.

Also, ask to see utility bills for the past year. You can get an idea of how efficient or not efficient the house is.
posted by jraz at 1:38 PM on December 23, 2019

Sounds silly but INTERNET!! My sister's husband bought a house without checking for internet only to realize there were zero connectivity options and would have cost like $150,000 to get a provider to install anything that worked in their rural area. They ended up using their neighbor's house across the street as a giant hotspot.

Rats. You don't want them.

Murders. Same sister is now divorcing and looking at buying a house with a history of murder from 1988. Not my thing, she seems untroubled by it though.

Fire. My other sister had completed an extensive renovation to her home which burned down 3 days later due to an ancient extension cord in the basement causing an electrical fire. They redid the renovations completely and you'd never know from looking that the place had been totally destroyed.

Leaks. How old is the roof? Anything weird draining into the basement?

Levelness of property. Is the foundation equal? Pretty hard to change the foundation of a house if it's tilted after some minor quake in 1954.

Gas or electric heat? Central AC or window units? How old are the windows, for that matter?

Neighbors. Dang, I've had some noisy ones. Had a survivalist one once too, that was also less than optimal.

Property taxes (compare state by state) especially if you plan on living here til old age and have to live on a fixed income eventually.

Trains. Trains are noisy. My aunt and uncle have a house near one and I can remember listening to it as I fell asleep as a kid during visits.

Similarly planes.

Pollution. Some places are historic factory sites, old mining towns, etc or are currently embedded in unsafe distance to pollutant producing plants.

Trash. If it's a rural place, trash isn't always collected.

Plumbing. This is huge. Bad plumbing can make your life miserable. At least check the water pressure and the age of the hot water heater.
posted by erattacorrige at 7:58 PM on December 23, 2019

Also, local bugs! Once while trimming a tree in our front yard in Texas, a tarantula fell out. So, bugs. And maybe snakes. And maybe wild hogs.
posted by erattacorrige at 8:00 PM on December 23, 2019

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