Buying a flipped house—what to watch out for
April 6, 2022 7:14 AM   Subscribe

I am house-hunting in a neighborhood I love that was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis a decade ago. Many of the homes now available are newly renovated by flippers. What might an inspector want to especially watch out for, with regard to shortcuts flippers might take?

The neighborhood is an older one, with lots of houses built in the 1920s-40s. Adorable little Craftsman houses with nice woodwork and other interesting features. Many of the houses I'm browsing (still in the online-browsing stage, haven't seriously started looking at places just yet) are recently renovated. I'm always wary of repairs and upgrades made in order to sell a place—it seems like the renovators have an economic incentive to do the least possible, or to make cosmetic fixes that may hide other problems.

Of course I'll have any house I'm interested in inspected. But I wonder if there are common shortcuts flippers make that can cause problems down the line, and, if so, how an inspection might find them?

I'm happy to hear anecdotes as well as general wisdom.
posted by Well I never to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should add, I am a middle-aged person with thirty years of homeownership under my belt, so I don't need general advice so much as ideas about this specific thing.
posted by Well I never at 7:26 AM on April 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm not an expert but as someone who has watched a ton of videos of inspectors looking at flipped houses, touch EVERYTHING. Wiggle anything that should not move - faucets, appliances (dishwasher are often not mounted in properly), toilets, trim or other decorative elements if it looks loose at all.
posted by brilliantine at 7:27 AM on April 6, 2022 [12 favorites]

Get a camera run through your sewer lines.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 7:28 AM on April 6, 2022 [10 favorites]

Make sure that they didn't just add in modern electrical, but that they actually removed the old knob & tube.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:29 AM on April 6, 2022 [9 favorites]

I think the complaints about flippers are dramatically overblown, but my normal list is, beyond a normal home inspection:

Have the plumbing scoped. Most flippers aren't going to mess with replacing the main drain line.
Go to Home Depot and Lowes and look at the discount cabinets. Are those yours?

Look at the flooring. Same thing. Is the cheapest thing there yours?

If it is, it's not actually a bad thing. It's just something to be aware of.

Does it look like they did an ok job laying your flooring and any tiling, or did they DIY?
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:29 AM on April 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

With a flipped house, regardless of the inspection I'd plan to budget for potentially expensive surprises down the line. A few years ago I was able to walk through a number of houses in the process of getting flipped, and the shortcuts taken were laughable but also kind of scary. (Like, removing walls to create a more modern open flow but not putting in adequate headers/beams, say.) But all of that is totally invisible once the sheetrock is up and things are painted, until some point down the road something goes wrong. Inspections don't go "deep," like opening up walls, so you are unlikely to know how things were done.

Because of that, I'd be a lot more suspicious of a flipped house where they did major work like removing or adding walls. When it is just cosmetic stuff like flooring, tiles, paint, bathroom fixtures, etc., the only real consequence is maybe having to redo that work down the road.

I'd also be more suspicious of a place where the work was done with no permits. The permit process isn't perfect and you can still hide all kinds of shady business, but it provides a decent amount of oversight and assurance.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:55 AM on April 6, 2022 [8 favorites]

The first and biggest thing is to make sure that the right permits were pulled and closed out with a certificate of occupancy/inspection. Some of our friends learned the hard way that open permits and/or unpermitted jobs become the new owner's problem and they had an expensive tear out when they tried to do their next upgrade.

Separately, if you find one thing goofy look for other things in that category. We bought a flipped house and what struck us was that the flipper was clearly skilled in a couple things and hopeless in others. The flooring and tiling was good, electrical was good, and drywall/molding was good. The plumbing and HVAC were not at all. It turns out our guy was a tradesman in carpentry before he got into flipping houses and so the stuff he knew got done well and the stuff he didn't got done just enough to look right. So the weird drain under the sink led us to the reversed hot/cold in the shower and the incorrect dishwasher line and the wonky toilet seal. Finding them all at once was a frustration at first but it saved us a lot of grief to get it all fixed at the same time.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:55 AM on April 6, 2022 [12 favorites]

Things we've noticed in 18 months in our flipped house: It has multiple doors that don't line up quite right and therefore don't latch properly, kitchen counters at different heights on opposite sides of the stove, laundry that vents through the roof (and so the condensation freezes in the attic and the dryer can't vent if it's cold out), random things like mismatched closet door pulls and clearly salvaged/damaged floor registers, they used grout or caulk in lots of places where they should have used silicone and it's already crumbling, and we can't use more than one outlet in our kitchen at a time. Water also flows into our garage from all directions. We had an inspection and none of this was noted at the time.

There are actually really good videos by inspectors on TikTok of all places that show flipping pitfalls in an entertaining way.
posted by mcgsa at 7:57 AM on April 6, 2022 [14 favorites]

Talk to the neighbours if you can. They will know if, for example, the roof was exposed all winter after the tarp blew off and was covered in black mold before work resumed in spring and they covered it over with roofing tiles.

They may also know if drainage is a problem for the whole neighbourhood but your house is the one in the lowest spot, and other similar things that may not be obvious.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:57 AM on April 6, 2022 [7 favorites]

Check out all outlets for proper grounding and polarity. If your inspector can't/won't check then you can buy a device like the inspectors use.

Make sure there are GFCI outlets in all bathrooms, the kitchen, and any outdoor outlets. Use the test button to check their operation. Make sure when TEST is pressed that any other connected outlets are also off.

If you can get into the walls and behind the breaker box, check for the type and condition of the wiring. Look for old cloth or fabric insulation, which is a red flag.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:01 AM on April 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

I bought a flipped house. It had been occupied by an elderly woman for many years who had not taxed the systems, like the waste pipe which could not handle a dishwasher, disposer, showers used be 4 people daily, and near-daily clothes washing. Needed replacement within a month of moving in, which required cutting down a mature tree in the front yard to replace the pipe. Run all the appliances and taps at once when you inspect, and wait for a bit to make sure the pipes can take the volume of water.

There were literally tons of concrete (old driveway, probably), broken brick, old shingles etc. buried beneath a couple of inches of topsoil and a skim of lawn in the back yard. Clearly they were too cheap to get a dumpster. We cursed loudly when we tried to create flower beds.

But the worst offense was laying the roof of the open front porch over a bed of sawdust. The porch was supported by round wooden columns and had decorative wooden trim across the front. After we lived there for a couple of years we noticed the roof had a weird sag. When we investigated we found that the entire roof was supported by a bed of rotting old sawdust. I can scarcely convey my astonishment when our carpenter told us - who would do this? Who would even think of this? Of course the columns had rotted, too. We had to completely remove and rebuild the porch. This seems like such an astonishingly bizarre scenario that I can't even recommend a way to protect yourself.

Except to get yourself a really savvy home inspector who inspects flips regularly. The inspector your realtor recommends may want to help the realtor sell the house more than he wants to serve you, the potential buyer.
posted by citygirl at 8:07 AM on April 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

I bought a flipped house and so far, the only thing that is a big hassle is that they painted the exterior brick and used the wrong paint for it. So now the brick is crumbling. I don't even want to think about how much it's going to cost to get it fixed.

Minor annoyances include the following:
- the dishwasher wasn't connected to the counter
- the water wasn't hooked up to the refrigerator so I can't use the ice maker
- one bathroom wasn't painted after they put in new drywall

These are easy enough things to do myself but after almost 3 years of me not doing it, I wish I had insisted that they do them before I closed on the house.
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:25 AM on April 6, 2022

I'd look for signs of water damage in the basement. We got caught with that one on our first house, which wasn't even a flip, and in the spring the buried stream that flowed under our house and our neighbour's appeared in our basement. That was a nightmare.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:27 AM on April 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Water damage is a big one. We almost bought a house whose owners had thrown sheet rock up inside the back of the house. There was a bit of a waterfall behind it. We paid a home inspector (recommended by our realtor) and he detected it and saved us everything except the small deposit we had made.

We ended up buying another house that had been renovated fast and cheap, and the same inspector gave us the thumbs up on that one. We've been there over 15 years now. Later on we found out that the flipper had put in an industrial whole-house air conditioner compressor that was way overpowered for our house, but that wasn't obvious to the inspector and wouldn't have been to anyone at the time. Had to replace that.
posted by Peach at 9:03 AM on April 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Definitely run all the appliances. My friend bought a flipped house. The flippers put a gas dryer into a space that had no gas run to it. They had to buy a new electric dryer.
posted by hydra77 at 9:04 AM on April 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

We bought an old, flipped house and our inspector caught or predicted most of the issues aside from the sewer line needing to be replaced. That's on us for not getting it scoped.

Honestly, the weird "why tf did they do that" stuff that we see from the flipper work is pretty indistinguishable from the "why tf did they do that" stuff from the previous owner DIYing things. I think if your flippers aren't shady/fraudulent a good inspector will catch most of it. Ours were I think good people if not particularly skilled in some of the work they did. Most of the issues are cosmetic.

The TikTok inspectors mentioned above talk about finding a tile shower floor without a shower pan under the tile with surprising frequency. Apparently you can catch this if you run the shower for a while and then check the temp with an IR camera from below - you'll be able to see the water seeping down from the difference in temperature. I know someone who bought a house from a flipper who had to totally tear out and re-do the brand new bathroom because the flippers didn't use the right drywall/membranes/materials or something for the shower surround and it immediately leaked and caused a bunch of water damage. I don't know the full details but I think they took the flippers to court it was so bad.

On preview, I'm reminded that we also walked away from a house under contract which had a ton of issues, including that the new fridge with ice maker and in-door water/ice dispenser... didn't have a water line run to it. But more importantly, it also had significant water issues in the basement that were covered up by new drywall and carpet, but the inspector found via crawl spaces and an un-finished mechanicals closet, thankfully. Definitely be wary of a finished basement, especially if it wasn't previously finished before the flippers got a hold of it.

Speaking of which, if you're lucky you might be able to find the old pictures from the listing when the flippers bought the house which can give you insight into the state of things before they got a hold of it. A friend was looking at a house in our neighborhood and scrolled down far enough on Redfin in the property history section to see the pics from the previous listing, which included TONS of mold and water issues in the basement. Not sure if that was a one-off stroke of luck but it's always worth Googling the street address to see what you might be able to find.
posted by misskaz at 9:21 AM on April 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

Search Home Inspection Checklist and use a few of them. My inspector found some very useful things that the previous owner fixed. You may be able to do the inspection, but lists iwll help you be thorough.

Look for uneven walls or flooring that may conceal bad repairs or rot. Bring a long thin screwdriver to investigate potential rot.
posted by theora55 at 9:29 AM on April 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Check out all outlets for proper grounding and polarity. If your inspector can't/won't check then you can buy a device like the inspectors use.

Be aware those devices won't detect a bootleg ground which is a very common safety hazard of flipped houses originally built pre 1960 or so. One should visually inspect a sample of outlets to ensure they are properly bonded.
posted by Mitheral at 10:27 AM on April 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

A friend of ours recently discovered that the flippers he bought his house from removed a load-bearing pillar to make it open-concept. So there's that.
posted by telophase at 12:09 PM on April 6, 2022 [7 favorites]

Was the house rewired? Was it REALLY rewired, or only the parts of the wires you can see from the electrical boxes, outlets, etc? I've seen houses where the flipper only "rewired" the parts of the electrical system you can see, and leave old knob and tube wiring intact in the middle.

Was the basement repainted? Why do you think it was? Does the paint chip away easily? If so, moisture problems abound. Was the basement waterproofed? Really? Can they prove it?

Are the appliances cheap? Budget to replace them sooner than you'd expect. Many cheap appliances have a major component that fails and it's cheaper to replace the appliance than the part.

Were the right permits pulled? Were inspections completed?

What do the neighbors have to say about the people doing the work? I bought a flipped house that had problems (which were anticipated) and the neighbors told us the guys doing the work were jerks.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 12:37 PM on April 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

Damp, water damage, slow leaks behind tiling in the kitchen or bathrooms from poor installation, badly fitting trims, misaligned door frames, badly installed ceiling lights, missing things such as bathroom mirrors and letterboxes, busted double glazing, missing insulation.
posted by turkeyphant at 3:41 PM on April 6, 2022

The inspector your realtor recommends may want to help the realtor sell the house more than he wants to serve you, the potential buyer.
Just to emphasize this, never use an inspector recommended by anyone involved in the sale, including “your” realtor, who, unless the world has changed recently, is paid only if you buy. There is no reason to think the realtor is working for you.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:03 PM on April 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all! This has been immensely helpful, especially the reminder to have the water lines scoped—we had to replace the main drain to the sewer not long after we bought this house we've been in for twenty years, but I would not have thought to check the new place.

Ideas about what might be hidden are exactly what I was looking for. Thanks.
posted by Well I never at 8:14 PM on April 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

If there is any furniture in situ, or anything that CAN be moved but you may not be inclined to move it- MOVE IT and see what is there.

Did not do this on last home purchase and found a piece of furniture hiding a big $$ issue that the sellers just hoped to get away with. And they did, because we did not MOVE IT first to check (final walk-though, a lot of their stuff was still there, for some reason; and we were "too polite" to move or touch their stuff, which they were counting on).
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:05 AM on April 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

As misskaz said, check for previous listings online. I don't know if it's the same where you are but, here (,, old listings remain pretty much forever and you can search for the property and look at photos of how the house used to look. That will help identify any areas that have changed such as walls being removed or damage that may not have been fixed properly. Google Street View can give you a small amount of information about how the house used to look as well and Google Earth much more so (low res though).

Don't just rely on an inspector, either. Visit the house several times (open houses are great for this) and look and look and look. Open every wardrobe and cupboard, check every nook and cranny. Check carefully around the outside of the house looking for damp spots, sunken spots in the ground particularly close to the house etc. Stand well back and look at the roof to see if it's straight and check guttering and downpipes for signs of leaks (especially if they're freshly painted). Every time you visit, you will see something you missed the previous times, so make a nuisance of yourself until you're satisfied you've seen everything. A house that has been 'flipped' as opposed to lovingly renovated will have been done to the lowest cost possible and will tend to have been 'surface renovated', so you need to look beyond the pretty new paint and nice appliances.
posted by dg at 6:56 PM on April 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

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