For most people, the decision to buy a home hits like love at first sight: After endless rounds of dating, you finally find that special one. You walk in the front door and swoon over the refinished hardwood floors. Your eyes lock on the high ceilings. Your heart pounds at the fabulous kitchen and the huge yard. You begin to picture yourself cuddling up by the fireplace with your honey or building holiday traditions for your kids.
While I totally understand leading with your heart, I'm here to tell you to use your head, too. Before saying "I do" to one of the biggest financial commitments of your life, you need to follow up with a few repeat visits during which you play the role of the hard-to-please mother-in-law, checking out every nook and cranny for big-ticket problems. There's nothing more painful, emotionally and financially, than falling blindly in love with a place you soon discover is a financial heartbreak house.
And don't confuse your real-estate agent's statements with a formal condition report. Sure, many states require sellers and their agents to disclose known defects to potential buyers, but the agent might be as clueless as you are. Equally important, agents are typically paid by the seller. The vast majority of agents are honest, but it's only human nature to have a bias in favor of the person who's writing your paycheck. If you're buying directly from the developer, please, please, don't get snookered into believing new means perfect. Every single house or apartment needs a thorough inspection. Before agreeing to buy—in fact, even before hiring a professional inspector—run through this checklist. House Hunting Checklist
Cast your eye high and low, to and fro, to spot cracks or leaks outside your "normal" field of vision.
If the current owners are still in residence, move their furniture. That means pulling every dresser away from the wall, especially under windows, to check for leaks, cracks and incomplete paint jobs.
Pull back the rugs—you never can tell what those fine threads are hiding.
No matter what season it is, check that the summer screens and the winter storm windows are in good shape. If you're buying in the summer, turn off the air-conditioning and crank up the radiators; in the winter, do the reverse. The last thing you want is to find out, five months after unpacking your boxes, that the heating or cooling is noisy and inefficient. Running the systems will also reveal any funky smells you wouldn't otherwise notice.
Visit at different times of the day and night to gauge street noise.
Put appliances through their paces to make sure that everything is working—and working quietly. If your purchase includes the washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher, run a load in each of them. (Bring a few dirty dishes and towels of your own if need be.) And give the garbage disposal a spin.
Turn on as many kitchen appliances as possible, simultaneously, to see whether the electrical system can handle the strain. Turn on every light in every room. And bring a small appliance to plug in to outlets to see if they work. (Your phone charger is handy for this.)
Conduct a water-torture test: While the dishwasher and the washing machine are running, head to the shower and turn on the hot tap. How are the pressure and the temp? What happens when you flush the toilet?
Ring the doorbell, and test the alarm if there is one. For the latter, ask whether it's just local or hooked up to a central monitoring system.
Measure the garage to determine that both your cars will really fit.
Find out if the neighbors own any dogs. If they have an aggressive breed and you don't have a fence, perhaps this isn't the best backyard for your toddler.
If you're buying an apartment, ask residents next door, above, and below to turn on their stereos and television sets and just walk around.
Get estimates for ongoing maintenance: In a condominium or co-op, find out how many times the common charges have been raised during the past five years and by how much. If this is your first foray into the suburbs, don't forget to factor in the cost of a gardener if you don't want to mow the lawn or of a snow-removal service if you don't shovel—same with the pool and the alarm.
If you're still in love after your own investigation, it's time to get a professional opinion on the condition of the mechanical systems and the structure as a whole. I know that sounds incredibly obvious, but in some of the United States' hotter housing markets, I've seen way too many people get swept up in the craziness and agree to buy right on the spot. With average purchase prices ranging from about $180,000 in the Midwest to $310,000 in the West, according to the National Association of Realtors, can you really afford to buy and then find yourself facing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of repairs because you didn't bother to look past the fresh coat of paint and the shiny new fridge?
Any formal offer should include a clause stipulating that, while you do intend to go forward, the deal is contingent on the property's undergoing a professional inspection. A qualified inspector typically needs less than three hours (plus $400 or so) to reduce the chance that your home will turn into a financial nightmare. If major problems are unearthed, you can then decide to walk away—or to negotiate a lower price to compensate for the cost of upgrades and repairs.
Your agent will be quick to recommend a few inspectors, but be sure to check out their credentials. You can also ask friends for suggestions or consult the website of the American Society of Home Inspectors (www.ashi.org), which lists fully qualified professionals who have conducted more than 250 inspections, participated in 20 hours of continuing education annually, and passed two written exams. Once you contact someone, ask to see a list of standards or a sample report, so you get a sense of the level of detail to expect; you want to know exactly what is and isn't covered.
When inspection day comes, plan to tag along. Your inspector will work through a detailed checklist, noting how the foundation and roof are holding up, assessing the condition of the plumbing system, and searching for signs of flooding and/or water damage. Find out whether the electrical system is safe and whether the boiler is big enough to handle your brood of five. Given the rising costs of heating and cooling, ask the inspector to point out any areas where you could improve energy efficiency by upgrading older appliances, adding insulation, or replacing worn-out weatherproofing around the doors and windows. A good inspector should show you both the good and the bad—and offer suggestions for keeping the house in tip-top shape.
Virtually no inspector, however, can answer every question. You may find that you need to hire additional specialists. In earthquake-prone areas, for example, it makes sense to bring in a structural engineer. If the house is in a place known for termites or other critters that could be munching wood to death, hire a pest-control expert. If the property is planted with mature trees, it makes sense to hire an arborist because a diseased tree can be hard for non-experts to detect, especially in the winter. And if there's a pool, get a maintenance company to check out the filtration, heating, and other systems.