12 Things You Shouldn’t Ignore Before Buying a Home
April 8, 2021
For many first-time homebuyers, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of buying a new house. Or get distracted by the perfect neighbourhood, layout, or garage. But looks can be deceiving. Whether your place is a new build or an older property, there are plenty of opportunities for problems to crop up. Rusty pipes, moisture buildup, and a pest invasion can quickly turn your dream house into a home improvement nightmare, especially if you didn’t have the chance to get an inspection beforehand.
While buying without a home inspection can be risky, you don’t have to be a licensed professional to conduct your own preliminary assessment and decide if a property is really worth it. That’s why we’ve put together this handy guide of 12 things you shouldn’t ignore before you sign the dotted line.
First Things First: What’s a home inspection?
A home inspection is an onsite, in-person examination of a home’s condition and structure by a qualified inspector. Home inspections usually take place after you’ve made an offer, but before the end of the closing process. They’re less about cosmetic changes, like faded paint or lighting fixtures, and more about the big-ticket items that affect the safety and long-term livability of the property. That includes all major systems and components (plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc.) and any problem areas in need of repairs or replacement.
Do I need a home inspection?
Some sellers may arrange their own home inspections before listing their home on the market. If so, you can either trust their report, conduct your own inspection, or arrange a walk-through with the same inspector they used. Most walk-throughs usually cost a few hundred dollars.
Our advice? Even if you’ve got a great feeling about the home’s quality, a proper inspection is your best bet against buying something that turns out to be a home improvement nightmare. Sure it’ll cost a little more, but your peace of mind is priceless. You never know what’s lurking beneath the surface and a licensed professional can help you:
- Find defects and cover-ups that you’re unlikely to catch on your own;
- Determine the value of your home; and
- Make an informed decision.
Plus, without an inspection, you’re relying on the seller to disclose everything that’s wrong with the house. And while some may genuinely not know, others might just be trying to close the deal. In some cases, it might even be worth it to get two home inspections for an older or more dilapidated property, to avoid any hidden surprises—and headaches—down the line. Once you’ve got a full report, you can ask the seller to make repairs, lower the price, or walk away from the transaction if necessary.
What should I look for?
To be clear, we recommend that all homebuyers, particularly first-time homebuyers secure a professional home inspection. But between cost and scheduling, we know that it’s not always possible with properties moving so quickly in today’s market. Whether or not you have to forgo an inspection, the following tips will give you a clear idea of what to watch out for when you’re shopping around and help you eliminate any potential homes from the running.
1. Water Damage and Mold
Water damage is any homeowner’s biggest nightmare. Why? Unchecked leaks, water-soaked materials, and concealed water stains can trap excess moisture—and anywhere moisture builds is a breeding ground for mold, mildew, and fungal growth that attracts termites. Even worse? Exposure to any kind of mold over time can lead to respiratory problems, skin irritation, headaches, and more.
Unfortunately, mold isn’t always in plain sight and can be hard to locate, especially if the seller’s tried hard to disguise it. But be vigilant. Even a small spot on the wall or ceiling could be a sign of serious internal damage, a leaky roof, or an ice dam.
Be sure to:
- Check the walls and ceilings for water lines and stains, discoloration, cracks, flaky plaster, and peeling paint. Yellow patches mean water seepage, while grey or black spots signal that mold has already started to form.
- Look out for coverups, like new paint spots on the ceiling or wall. Move the carpets and furniture to double check, if necessary. If there’s wallpaper, inspect for dampness.
- Some areas of a home are more susceptible to water infiltration than others. Carefully investigate the following areas:
- All faucets, sinks, tubs, and toilets (look for mold or gaps in caulking and crumbling grout);
- The underside of all sinks and drawers;
- Inside kitchen and bathroom cabinets;
- Inside all big appliances, including the washer and dryer;
- Around all windows, doors, or vents (bubbled or peeling paint may indicate moisture); and
- The sheetrock underneath window sills (soft or warped sheetrock is usually due to a leak).
- Use your nose. A distinct, musty or damp odour is a surefire sign of moisture buildup.
- Don’t forget the basement or crawlspace. In addition to the above, look for:
- Powdery white deposits, or efflorescence, along the foundation walls and concrete slabs;
- Spalling, or corrosion, on concrete blocks (this usually means moisture is coming in through the walls); and
- Mold and rotting wood on floor joists.
Speaking of water damage, have a good look at the plumbing. It might be tempting to write off a leaky faucet or slow drain, but even some minor clogging could lead to mold, plumbing issues, or flooding in the long run. And unless it’s a one-off incident, like a burst pipe or an overflowing washing machine, your home insurance won’t cover you for any repairs. A typical homeowner policy only includes sudden and/or accidental incidents and excludes any damage from leaks or seepage over time, lack of maintenance, or mold.
- Look out for:
- Broken or rusty pipes;
- Polybutylene piping (they’re likelier to be corroded by bleach and other cleaning chemicals and burst);
- Galvanized pipes (which can corrode and and pose a hazard for drinking water)
- Running toilets or toilets that won’t flush properly;
- High or low water pressure;
- Slow water drainage in sinks, tubs, and showers;
- Leaks beneath and around all faucets;
- A broken thermostat;
- A clogged sewer line; and
- Sediment build-up.
- To test the water pressure, run the faucet in the bathroom sink or tub, and then flush the toilet. Look for a noticeable drop in pressure and listen for any gurgling noises in the pipes.
- For good measure, flush all the toilets and run all the faucets (including those in the kitchen and laundry room) for two to three minutes to make sure they drain well to keep up with the flow.
- Inspect the water main, water pumps, and shut off points for leaks, rusty metal, and moisture.
- Don’t forget to check the basement or foundation.
- Ask the seller if they’ve ever had any instances of pipes freezing in the past.
- If the property has a septic system;
- Monitor for leaks.
- Ask about the age—over 30 years means it’s time for a replacement.
- Find out the bedroom capacity the septic system is rated for. If the system has a capacity for three bedrooms, but your home has been remodelled to have 5 or more, that may lead to system overflow.
Proper heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are critical to ensure healthy air quality, control moisture, and prevent, you guessed it, mold. On average, HVAC systems last anywhere from 15-25 years, but they require regular upkeep to function properly.
While you need an inspector or a licensed professional to fully examine an HVAC system, the tips below should help you gauge whether you need extra help.
- Look for the following defects:
- Rust around the cooling unit;
- Dirty air filters;
- Cracked ductwork;
- A broken or damaged exhaust fan;
- Condensation in the windows;
- Combustion gas order;
- Damage to the chimney or fireplace;
- Open seams in flues or slopes up to the chimney connection;
- Strange odours from inside the home (i.e. gas);
- Unevenly heated rooms;
- Humidity in the home;
- A noisy furnace or water heater; and
- Puddling around the water heater.
- Pay attention to the airflow. Is there sufficient ventilation throughout the home, including the attic and crawl spaces?
- Check to see if the furnace, water heater, and air conditioning units are working well and within their life expectancy.
- Ask the owner or agent how old the furnace and water heater are and the last time each was serviced. Look for stickers that document routine service.
Looking for an older home? Chances are you’ll need to do some extensive rewiring before moving in to avoid the risk of an electrical fire. Older homes usually come with older wiring, which simply weren’t designed to keep up with modern usage. Between mobile devices, televisions, and kitchen appliances, people are relying on technology more than ever. Service panels need to be updated every 60 years and circuit breakers every 30, so if your home is older than that, brace yourself for an upgrade.
Much like plumbing and HVAC, it’s not easy to identify electrical issues without an electrician, but try the following to get an idea of how your home’s electrical system is operating.
- Flick every light switch on and off.
- Confirm that all electrical outlets are functional by plugging a device into every outlet in each room.
- Locate the service panel and check to see if it’s labelled accurately.
- Make sure there are enough smoke and carbon monoxide detectors throughout the home.
- Warning signs include:
- Flickering or dim lighting;
- Warm light switches or outlets;
- Exposed wiring and splices;
- Writing against sharp edges;
- Fraying insulation;
- DIY or mismatched wiring;
- Overheating fuses or breakers; and
- Wiring that isn’t hooked up.
- Keep an eye out for 2-prong outlets. If you see any, you won’t be able to use any devices that require grounding in the outlet, like your computer or your TV. Adapters are available, though they’re not safe for long-term use.
- Ask the seller or agent when the electrical system was last upgraded.
5. The Foundation
The foundation on poorly built or older homes can be sunken, cracked, leaning, or otherwise in need of repair. A few hairline cracks here and there are normal—that just means the house is settling into position—but larger gaps can signal a bigger issue with the property’s overall structural integrity.
Over an extended period of time, water can cause the soil surrounding foundation walls to expand. Once the water dries up, the soil shrinks and the foundation settles, creating cracks and pathways for water to enter your home. That’s why it’s key to have a proper drainage system to carry water away from the house and avoid cracks, mold, and rot, as well as any costly repairs.
Structural distress can also be caused by:
- Tree roots growing under the foundation;
- Differential settlement, where part of the foundation shifts but the rest does not;
- Missing or using an inadequate steel rebar, or reinforcement, in the foundation;
- Adding a second story without properly reinforcing the original footing; and
- Natural occurrences (i.e. seismic activity, sinkholes, and landslides).
- Be on the lookout for:
- Cracks in ceilings, basement walls, or around door frames;
- Uneven or bouncy floors (to check if the floors are uneven, roll a marble from one side to another in different rooms);
- Gaps between walls and floors;
- Gaps around windows or door frames;
- Doors and windows that won’t open, latch, or need extra force to close properly;
- Nails popping out of walls;
- A leaning front porch or stairs;
- Exterior cracks and tilts in bricks or stonework; and
- A cracked or leaning chimney.
- When checking for evenness, use a leveller with a laser pointer to be as precise as possible.
- As a rule of thumb, no cracks should be more than ¼ inch wide.
- Look for mismatched paint or surfaces, since sellers may attempt to mud over the cracks.
- For additional guidance, consult a structural engineer or a foundation contractor.
6. The Exterior
Pay close attention to the exterior of the property—and not just the size of the backyard or the finish of the deck. A poorly laid patio, sloped yard, or improper flashing can give way to water intrusion and destroy the foundation of a home.
- Explore the exterior and the garage for:
- Signs of weather damage;
- Cracked, loose, rotted, or decaying siding or stucco;
- Stained, peeling, or faded paint;
- Warped windows and door frames;
- Damp patches on brickwork;
- Signs of poor workmanship on any new extensions to the home;
- Any obvious soggy areas in the landscaping; and
- Evidence of standing water.
- If there are outdoor patios with drains in the ground, make sure they’re cleared.
- Probe the deck and structural boards for signs of termite damage, rotted wood, and frost heave. Verify that the beams, posts, and joists are in good shape.
- Assess the landscaping. Is the plot flat or on a steep slope? A sloping plot may give you a stunning hillside view, but can be dangerous in the event of a storm, mud-, or landslide.
- Note how many trees are on the property, their condition, and their ages. Ask the seller if there have ever been any issues with fallen trees or branches in the vicinity of the home.
- Are there any other structures or dwellings attached to the home or on the lot? How big are they? What materials are they made of? Your insurance company will need to know to secure property coverage later on.
Like everything else, roofs wear out over time, particularly in locations with extreme weather, heavy rain and snowfall, and high winds. A deteriorating roof is also a gateway for ceiling leaks, moisture buildup, and pest infestations.
- Keep your eyes peeled for:
- Loose or missing shingles;
- Buckled, curled, cracked, or otherwise damaged shingles;
- Loss of texture on shingles;
- Mismatched shingles (which could mean shoddy repair job);
- Missing granules (bits and pieces of shingles that shed or break off and usually pile up in gutters);
- Peeling, cracked, or rusted flashing;
- Excessive algae growth;
- Spots on your exterior walls;
- Soft spots or unevenness;
- Bowing gutters or leaks; and
- Worn-out materials around chimneys and vents;
- Make sure the gutters, downspouts, and eavestroughs drain properly into the ground, away from the house foundations.
- Inspect the flues and chimneys for damage to the interior lining, corrosion, and faults in masonry.
- In the attic or on your top floor, look for:
- Moisture, water stains, dark spots, and bulging patches on the ceilings and walls;
- Musty odours in certain rooms;
- Sagging areas (all ceilings should be straight and level); and
- Air leaks or light shining in from the outside (if light is getting through, so is moisture).
- Examine any vents and skylights inside for signs of water infiltration.
- Find out when the roof was last replaced, the age of the shingles, if there’s warranty, and whether it’ll transfer to you with the purchase (it doesn’t always).
8. Insects and Pests
As you visit the house, be sure to check for any uninvited guests that stick around long after the old homeowner has moved on. Pests, like rodents, raccoons, roaches, carpenter ants, beetles, bats, and more, can be anything from a minor inconvenience to a major health hazard. Rats and mice carry salmonella and other disease-causing parasites and can gnaw on wires, whereas wood-eating termites can chip away at your home’s structural integrity.
- Telltale signs of a pest infestation or damage include:
- Mouse and rat droppings;
- Live or dead insects;
- Signs of rodent nests in cabinets, pantries, and behind appliances (or in the attic for birds or bats);
- Chewed or gnawed wiring;
- Ant mounds in the front and backyards;
- Cracks in sealed areas such as floorboards and molding;
- Holes in the back corners of storage spaces;
- Webs in the garage and basement;
- Softened, wet, or moisture-damaged would (which may attract ants or termites); and
- Piles of sawdust near any entry holes (common in areas where carpenter ants are active).
- Inspect any nooks, crannies, and crevices where pests may live, including areas that are difficult to access (i.e. inside the closets, under the stairs, and around the deck).
- Listen for scratching or chewing noises coming from behind walls, in ceilings, or under the floor.
- When outside, look for openings or gaps (larger than about ¼ inch) that insects could use to gain entry.
- Look up in high trees or under overhangs on the structure for bees, wasps, and hornet’s nests.
- Ask the previous homeowner if they’ve ever had pest problems with pests and what they did to resolve it. See if they’ve taken any common pest prevention steps (i.e. trimming shrubs and tree limbs that extend to the roof, installing window screens).
9. Windows and Doors
Drafty or wonky windows and doors that don’t close properly aren’t always due to poor installation; often they’re a sign of water damage or foundation issues.
- While you’re making your rounds, open and close all windows, doors, and shutters.
- Pull the curtains back and take stock of any lopsided frames.
- Green flags to look for include:
- Proper alignment;
- Caulked frame joints;
- Correctly installed drip caps;
- No gaps in molding or trim;
- No cracks, rot or decay; and
- Use of storm windows or thermal glass, if needed.
- Depending on the season, try to notice the level of fogging on the windows. Excessive condensation could be caused by a failed heat exchanger or an ailing furnace.
- Ask when the windows and doors were last replaced.
10. Toxic Materials
Toxic materials like lead paint and asbestos are pretty common in homes built before the 1980s. Neither poses a danger unless they’re ingested, but when moved or disturbed, tiny particles can break off and become airborne. When inhaled, these particles can lead to serious health complications, such as anemia, brain or nervous system damage, respiratory issues, and more. In fact, asbestos exposure is the only way people can get mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer.
Unfortunately, both can be found in a myriad of other household materials, including: insulation around heaters, older pipes, vinyl or asphalt flooring, window caulking and glazing, roofing and siding material, and more.
- To determine if you have lead-based paint, you’ll need to send paint chip samples to a lab or hire a contractor who has the right x-ray equipment to detect lead on painted surfaces. Read more about lead paint here.
- To identify asbestos, look for signs of crumbling or cracked drywall, siding, and insulation.
- Ask the seller or agent what year the home was built (this could be an indicator to have the property professionally evaluated).
The property listing may boast fresh appliances, but a brand new fridge or stove, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in the best working condition.
- Ask how long ago the appliances were purchased, if there’s warranty, and whether it’ll transfer. If the appliances are high-end or luxury, you might need to insure them separately.
- Test all appliances, including the dishwasher, and laundry machines, to make sure they work as expected.
- Remember to check for leaks or hints of water damage.
12. Property Maintenance
Even a cursory glance can tell you a lot about how much your prospective home has been cared for. Burned-out lightbulbs and faded paint could be a sign that the seller has neglected routine home maintenance or cut corners during repairs.
- Don’t get caught up in the superficial. Keep in mind: the seller’s goal is to make the property look as good as possible in the most cost-effective way. More often than not, you’ll be walking into a house that’s been deep-cleaned, perfectly staged, and newly upgraded.
- Look for any suspicious cosmetic fixes or incomplete projects. Is a portion of the floor patched or only part of a wall freshly painted? Is the basement partially finished?
- Consider the following:
- How long ago were the air filters changed?
- Is the chimney clean?
- How fresh is the caulking around the sink, moldings, and trim?
- Ask what home improvements the seller has made since they bought the property and examine the work done. Poor tiling or mudding could indicate a DIY job by someone who isn’t in the remodelling business.
- If the home has been empty, ask for how long. When a house isn’t used and the systems just sit there, problems can crop up from underuse (i.e. no human intervention, water or air circulation, etc.).
Other Red Flags You Should Look Out For
1. Scents and Music
Some sellers use scented candles or potpourri to mask other odours emanating from the house, such as mold, sewage, wood rot, or cat and dog pee. Similarly, agents may also play music during viewings to cover up noises that could alert potential buyers to leaks, insect or wildlife sounds, ceiling fan noises, and more. Note any odd smells and determine the noise level yourself before buying.
2. “Forbidden” Areas
If the seller won’t allow you to see the crawlspace or a specific room in the property until you sign on, that’s a big tipoff that something isn’t quite right in there. Make sure you get to see and look through everything before making an offer.
3. Sellers Providing Incentives to Waive Inspection
Always consider a home inspection if the seller offers you an incentive to waive it; most sellers won’t try to avoid one unless they have something to hide.
4. “As-Is” Properties
This one isn’t so much a red flag as it is a disclaimer. Never pass up an inspection for properties being sold as-is. When a home is sold “as-is,” that means the seller won’t fix any problems an inspection brings up or adjust the listing price. What you see is what you get, structural and cosmetic defects included. Getting an expert opinion is crucial here because even though you won’t be able to negotiate on repairs or price, you’ll have a better idea of what you’re getting into—and hopefully it’s not a money pit of renovations.
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