Getting the most out of a house showing (as a buyer)
April 9, 2021 12:10 PM   Subscribe

I will be looking at a house tomorrow that I am very interested in. How can I make the most out of the showing, in order to make the most informed decision possible on whether to make an offer?

I have heard of bringing a marble to roll across the room to see if it's level... but that's basically the only trick up my sleeve!

Are there any other easy ways for an amateur and new buyer to take the basic measure of a home?
posted by nowadays to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Open up the windows. Very tight windows could mean some foundation issues.
Run the water. Terrible water pressure is sad.
Look for dehumidifiers and smell the basement.
Look at the ceilings in each room for water damage.
Will there be more than one person with you? Have someone jump upstairs and see what it sounds like downstairs!
Look For water damage around windows, inside and out. Give a knock- you'll know if it sounds solid.
posted by ReluctantViking at 12:21 PM on April 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Personally I wouldn't spend too much time worrying about structural or maintenance issues unless something is blatantly wrong. You'll be having an inspection anyway (at least, you should!) and they can help with that stuff. You can cancel the deal if the inspection turns up stuff you're not ok with, and an inspector will be much better at finding those things than you will.

For me the main thing are how we'd use the space. What area would be my office, and where would my spouse's be? Where would we normally eat breakfast and dinner? Where would we eat if we had a bunch of people over? Where would we hang out in the evenings? What would the kitchen be like with both of us cooking in it? Imagine our stuff in the closets. Imagine our furniture in the rooms. Think about any renovations we might want to do, and how they'd work.

The secondary thing is paying some attention to the neighbors and neighborhood. It's hard to get a great feel for that during a showing, but at least try to notice if there are any red flags of neighbor issues, or things you wouldn't want to live near. Those things aren't always obvious in the pictures.
posted by primethyme at 12:24 PM on April 9, 2021 [8 favorites]

Keep your marble at home. Google map it, is it close to stuff you like? Does it point in a direction you personally (or climactically- generally a front yard facing west is a bad thing) agree with?

Check the ceiling heights, are they something you like? Check the exterior yard, is it something you are comfortable maintaining? Do you have kids? Are the bedrooms in appropriate locations (close enough when they are small, far enough away as they get older?), is the house echo-y in an annoying way? Are the appliances super old? Is the kitchen layout terrible? Is the living room layout suitable for your furniture?

Are you interested in a fixer upper, in terms of cash or skills? You should be able to determine the condition of the home just by looking at it - trust yourself - you've seen buildings before.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:25 PM on April 9, 2021

I am sure that others will cover the "what to look for in the house" bit, but if the neighborhood is not one that you are familiar with, pay attention to where the house sits and what's around it. Is it a busy street? Is there a school or business nearby that might have weird traffic patterns? What's the noise level? How close are the neighbors? What does their yard/house/situation look like?

Most of that stuff won't be apparent in the listing but has the potential to majorly affect how you live.
posted by AgentRocket at 12:27 PM on April 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Consider whether there is enough storage space for your needs - remembering that the current owners have likely declutered to make the space and storage (closets etc) feel bigger
posted by walkinginsunshine at 12:37 PM on April 9, 2021

Just get your offer accepted, then worry about all of this at the home inspection. OR bring (pay) a home inspector and waive your inspection contingency.

Most places in the US are extreme sellers' markets right now (offers over asking, multiple offers, all-cash sales, etc.), so if you're really interested, worry less about perfectly level floors and more about how you're going to be the most attractive buyer.

If you want to be cheesy, you could keep an eye open for personal details (a cat bowl, a team pennant) and include a letter with your offer about how you'd love your own little cat to enjoy the sunny windows while you watch the Team or whatever.

But to answer your question... there's too many things that will lead to $10k in repairs, and you'll be the weirdest buyer in the bunch if you're there confirming that the shower drains well. Look for obvious stuff (your realtor should be good at this list -- wall cracking that signals foundation issues? roof mossy? AC old? An infamous or old type of electric panel?) but mostly focus on whether you can picture yourself living there for many years as you / your family go through changes.
posted by slidell at 12:38 PM on April 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you're in a genuinely hot market you may not be allowed to have an inspection contingency (I mean, you can ask, but in hot markets your offer will simply be ignored as being "unattractive") so actually you should do as much yourself as humanly possible because you won't have a chance to get an inspection.

When standing outside, look at the ridgeline on the roof -- it should be straight. If it sags in the middle it's a fairly bad sign that may require expensive work. It helps to have a small ruler to judge against.
posted by aramaic at 12:41 PM on April 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

Probably the most bang for buck in a hot difficult market would be to pay a general contractor to come with you. Fire up your voice notes app on your phone and let them free-associate everything they see that could be a red flag or good thing.

Obviously that person can't tell you how you're going to feel about the non-structural stuff - neighborhood traffic, proximity to a train/air route, gardening space, kitchen flow etc, but you can make a checklist of your must-haves, like-to-haves, and dealbreakers to carry with you. You can also bring a friend to work the checklist with you.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:47 PM on April 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Check how the cell phone reception is (in the area in general, and within the house, especially the basement and rooms that aren't adjacent to the exterior). Later, look up what ISPs serve it.
posted by likedoomsday at 12:49 PM on April 9, 2021

It's hard now during COVID, but if you'll be commuting from this home to a job site then do your best to test--or at least envision--the trip to and from work and its convenience or annoyance factors at the times of day you'll be going back and forth.
posted by carmicha at 12:58 PM on April 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Open and shut closet doors. Flush toilets. Sniff the air. How does the electrical panel look? Scary-ass, or tidy? How is the basement -- can you see electrical wires, or pipes, or anything? Is the furnace ancient and scary or free of dust rhinos?

None are determinative on their own, but they are just things that indicate a home is well-kept and maintained.

Plus, a musty smell means moisture, and MOIST IS MISERY.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:58 PM on April 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

Write up a checklist of what you want, ahead of time, and check them off during the tour.

Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in portions of a house, and miss other important things.

A good home inspector during closing can find the mechanical issues.. that is what they are paid for.

Come back at other times of day to the neighborhood. Is there a loud party next door at night?
posted by nickggully at 1:02 PM on April 9, 2021

Hmm -- this depends on what the photos in listings are like for your market, but in mine, most houses had 3D tours and were staged to the nines -- there is no trace of the seller's stuff or personality anywhere.

What I couldn't get from the 3D tours was a sense of space / flow, especially outside. Will it be easy to take in large items? Can we get from the garage to the backyard (or even the house)? Despite the gorgeous high ceilings in the living room, does the cramped hallway make up for it in claustrophobia? Yes, the bedroom opens to the deck, but does the deck connect to the backyard in a sensible way?

I have a strong feel of "I would tolerate this as an AirBnB" and "I could live here, this is a nice normal house". There were also some homes that seem interesting on screen, but once you visit, you're like "ok, I cannot go down this stair-ladder-of-death if I am tired or holding anything, never mind".

Also, if the backyard is sloped, do you care? Is any part of the land oddly marshy? Is there not enough room between the ground and the siding / do you care enough or have enough cash to fix any problems that this might suggest?
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:02 PM on April 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

You'll be having an inspection anyway (at least, you should!) and they can help with that stuff.

Respectfully disagree. In my area, in the current market, you probably won't—because the market is so ridiculously overheated, offers with contingencies are often just rejected outright. The stuff that isn't selling for way over asking, is going "as-is".

I would definitely treat the showing as a de facto inspection of the house. Do homework first—Google Maps / Street View the heck out of it, check the WalkScore if that's important to you, basically do all the stuff you can do from home—so you're not wasting time asking about where the nearest grocery store is, or what the schools are like. If you're not familiar with the neighborhood, it might be worth to visit it during peak rush hour, if you live in an area where Traffic is a thing. Leave the marbles at home, but bringing a flashlight.

I'd do a methodical walk-through of the house, probably starting in the basement. Look at the floor first (if it's unfinished) and look for water entry or signs of leaks from plumbing above. See how old the mechanical systems look—HVAC, water heater, etc. They're not stunningly expensive to replace but they are a pain. If it's gas heat, check to see if it's a low- or high-efficiency furnace (high efficiency ones usually say that, plus they typically use two runs of white PVC for intake/exhaust; low-efficiency furnaces use a vertical vent). Look for cracks, especially in block foundations: cracks that follow the mortar (if small) are normal; cracks that actually shear through blocks indicate a potential problem. Follow plumbing lines and look for small mineral "stalactites" hanging down from 90-deg bends, they indicate possible slow leaks. Pinhole leaks in copper plumbing is a real problem in some areas and ages of home.

Find the main electrical panel and see if there's an installation date. If you see a fuse box, consider marrying an electrician. Even breaker boxes older than the 1980s can be problematic and hard to find parts (additional breakers especially) for.

Throughout the rest of the house: ignore paint colors, they are easy to fix. (Consider yourself lucky if the previous owner left the house with ugly colors on the walls: it drives away some especially unimaginative buyers, but is easy to change.) Flooring is more expensive, but also worth looking at with an eye towards its replacement cost before move-in. If there are rugs in high-traffic areas, flip them back and peek underneath to see if they're covering up wear.

Kitchen: look for leaks and signs of water damage under sinks. Get down at eye level with the lower cabinets, and see if there are visible/big shimmed gaps between the top of the bottom cabinets and the countertop, especially with stone countertops. It's a sign of bad workmanship and a sloppy install. (Basically, you want to know if someone did an on-the-cheap kitchen reno before selling.) Some people recommend switching on major appliances; I can't say I would bother. Appliances are comparatively cheap, in house terms. Except I always check to see if there's a vent hood that actually vents to the outside (good) or if it just recirculates air (stupid); easiest way to do this is by opening any cabinets above a vent hood and looking for ducting—or you can look outside for a vent.

Bathrooms: similar to kitchens, what you really want to look for is signs of leaks. In tile bathrooms, I always like to look and check to see whether the toilet/floor joint is caulked (correct) or grouted (incorrect); it's a warning sign of a bad tile job.

All over: do doors close and latch easily? Windows open and close? (May or may not be allowed to check this during a showing.) Do any rooms feel drafty or vary significantly in temperature from others?

Anyway, that's what I try to do during house showings, anyway. YMMV.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:11 PM on April 9, 2021 [9 favorites]

only noticed on the second walk-through of our current apartment that there were no outlets in the bathroom (WTF 1960s architects?). It did not end up being a deal breaker (although we did remodel to include an outlet before too long).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:41 PM on April 9, 2021

I recorded the house as I went through it, along with my commentary, for review later. Very helpful (and kinda fun and nostalgic to go through years later).
posted by kdar at 2:03 PM on April 9, 2021

Better my heart's comments about house staging reminded me of another bit of advice... Measure a few of your large pieces of furniture, if you're committed to them, so you can determine if they will fit. Bring a tape measurer. House stagers tend to use small pieces to make the place look spacious, but your hypothetical king sized bed may be awkward in a spot shown with a queen and your giant sectional may not work in a living room outfitted with two loveseats.
posted by carmicha at 2:19 PM on April 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Focus on smell and sound. It's easy to be dazzled by the visuals of new paint, new appliances, etc. But noise and smell clue you into things beyond the surface. Also, try to think about how things might look at different times of day/different seasons/etc than the time you happen to be inspecting. When we bought our house, we only ever visited it in the daytime - the light in the house at night (from nearby buildings) was really surprising. Things like different seasons (i.e., rainy/dry hot/cold) can make a big difference.
posted by Mid at 2:22 PM on April 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Respectfully disagree. In my area, in the current market, you probably won't—because the market is so ridiculously overheated, offers with contingencies are often just rejected outright. The stuff that isn't selling for way over asking, is going "as-is".

This is fair. I just wanted to follow up to say that even in this hot market, this is extremely location dependent. We are currently selling our house in a fairly hot west coast market, and we got exactly zero offers that waived inspection. It's only in the hottest of the hot markets where this is happening as far as I can tell. If OP is in one of those markets, this advice is definitely excellent. If they're not, I'd urge them to not waive inspection. Only do it if it's absolutely required in order to be successful. If you're not sure, hopefully your agent can advise you.
posted by primethyme at 3:00 PM on April 9, 2021

Response by poster: This specific property is a short sale, so being sold as-is. Can you even have an inspection contingency in that scenario?

Most properties in the area are being sold as-is, but I had figured I would put in an inspection contingency on any offers anyway. I don't feel comfortable making such a big commitment without an inspection, and if that means I don't get offers accepted, then I guess it just wasn't meant to be.

That said, my boyfriend is an electrician and his buddy contractor, so I will have some professional eyes on the property at the showing (for my boyfriend) and via pictures (his buddy).

Short sales might be a different beast anyway, though?
posted by nowadays at 3:33 PM on April 9, 2021

You can still put in an offer with an inspection contingency on a property sold as-is, but the seller is basically telling you ahead of time that they're not going to fix anything that gets found. So the inspection would be for your information only.

You can always ask whether you can have an inspector come in and look at the property before putting in an offer; that's not the usual order of operations, but I can't think of any reason why the seller would object, assuming that you're the one paying for the inspection. Then you can take the inspection report and decide whether or not to even put in an offer, and put it in without an inspection contingency if you are comfortable moving forward.

But in a world of 10-20% over asking and all-cash offers, I wouldn't put in an inspection contingency if I could avoid it. There's no reason for the seller to take an offer with an inspection contingency if they have other similar offers without it, meaning you'd have to outbid them all. Or put differently: the inspection contingency has some potentially-large hidden costs associated with it, above and beyond the $500 or whatever that the inspector charges as their fee. Just food for thought.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:23 PM on April 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

On a short sale, consider asking if you can just do an inspection before making an offer.
On a walk-through, open closets, open cabinets, esp. under sinks. Look at ceilings in every room, take a couple pictures in every room and one pic of each side of the exterior. Visit the basement. search "home inspection checklist" to get an idea of what to look at.

I am not even remotely a builder, but could tell that my house was not level, that much of the renovation construction is unpredictable. He added steel I beams under the 1st floor and did other things well, some things were just horrible.

Construction-trade BF - will he be on the deed? Work out a fair deal for the work he does on the house, in advance.
posted by theora55 at 4:52 PM on April 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

House shopping has become my part-time job; I just looked at my 31st and 32nd houses this morning. Unless it's brand new construction (and even then, maybe), I highly recommend paying an inspector a few hundred bucks to walk through any house you're really interested in with you for an hour or so and give you their take. Have them rate it 1-100.

Also, if it's possible, take a quiet moment to sit in each room--at least the bedrooms--with the door shut. Get a feel for it.
posted by gottabefunky at 5:44 PM on April 9, 2021

(Like slidell said, the inspector thing makes it possible to waive the inspection contingency and make your offer more attractive.)
posted by gottabefunky at 5:45 PM on April 9, 2021

If you can swing it, get a buyer's agent--not the seller's agent or a dual agent. They'll be able to tell you what to look for/look at while you're there.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:50 PM on April 9, 2021

This specific property is a short sale, so being sold as-is. Can you even have an inspection contingency in that scenario?

Yes, I did. Because of course, you don't want to buy a home and then find out "oh, I paid $300,000 for this, but it turns out that it's falling into a sinkhole" or something else disastrous. If it turns out that the HVAC and foundation and roof and siding all need redone, you can take that to the bank and say "look, here's the estimate I'm getting from a contractor for all of this work, and here's what completely-renovated properties in this neighborhood are worth, so there's no way that this deal makes sense at a purchase price of $300k, and any other buyer is going to tell you the same thing -- you should lower the price to $260k," and they might. (This is what happened to me.) They won't do the repairs, but they might charge you less so that you can then go do them yourself.

And I'll just underscore again, if you have to ask this question on Metafilter (and I don't mean that as a criticism), you need a home inspection. There are so many expensive problems that haven't been mentioned yet. I'd get the sewer scoped, too, personally, just to know.
posted by slidell at 12:44 AM on April 10, 2021

I would simply try to envision living there. What is the work flow like in the kitchen? Is it an attached garage? Where does the garage door come into the house? Carrying groceries far? Which way does the house face? What will be the sunlight in the summer and winter? Is there shade? What is the typical gas/electric bill? What is behind the house? Road? ANother house? What is street parking like? If you see a neighbor outside, stop and talk to them. Ask them about the neighborhood or what they know about the house. Does anything seem odd or out of place? Is there some really fresh work somewhere like the bathroom that would indicate a previous problem? If you have any kids or plan to have any soon, where is the laundry in relation to their room? What would it be like to wrangle kids in the house? What are the taxes on the house? Will they reassess based on sale price?
posted by AugustWest at 12:48 AM on April 10, 2021

Here's what we did:

Take a walk around the neighborhood in the daytime (and evening if you can).

Bring a flashlight to check out the crawlspace if there is one.

Check cell reception, check to see what kind of internet is available by going on ISP websites (eg. Is there fiber internet?).

Look at shared fences, take a glance at your immediate neighbors houses. Do they have aggressive dogs? Are they friendly if they happen to be outside?

Count outlets in each room. Check the electrical box -- breaker box or fuses? How many amps?

Look at the age of the water heater. Are visible pipes copper? A remodeled bathroom will likely have copper pipes. Galvanized pipes can have build up and you will lose water pressure over time, so be prepared to pay for some plumbing work if the water pressure is too low at some point in the future.

What kind of laundry/dryer -- gas or electric? Is there proper venting for the dryer?

Check comps. Be prepared to pay for the appraisal gap if you waive the appraisal contingency.

Does the kitchen have enough counter space? Check to see if the range hood is properly vented.
posted by extramundane at 8:43 AM on April 10, 2021

I should add, have your agent get disclosures for the house. In the SF Bay Area, everyone waives all contingencies and homes are sold as-is, but the disclosure packet will likely have a general inspection report and pest report. This is specific to the Bay Area, though.
posted by extramundane at 8:49 AM on April 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

« Older Windows PDF software that does OCR   |   Help me explain this to a white person Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.