When viewing a new home, a prospective home buyer needs to have the impersonal approach of an investor and get beyond the welcoming feeling the fireplace, great view or captivating family room present.
Your new home may well be your castle for the next ten to 30 years and you want a secure base of operations for you and your family, not a "money pit" that soaks up your vacation funds. Even before you get a building inspectors report, you can quickly check several areas as a non-expert to get an idea on the health of the property your are viewing.
A simple four-step checklist can be based on fire, air, water and earth. Checking the electrical wiring, the HVAC, the plumbing and the landscaping near the house can give you a general idea if repairs will be needed or if there are possible problems lurking behind the drywall. Of course, this check list is not a replacement for a bona fide home inspection, but a quick education to guide your property reviews.
- The electrical is the hardest to check since it is mostly hidden behind the drywall. However, a few places can give you a glimpse of what to expect. The most visible areas to check the electrical system are the exposed wiring in the attic and basement (if there is one), and the fuse box or breaker panel. Looking to see if the wiring is run neatly, run through joists and not just stapled on the outside of exposed beams can give you an idea of how well the wiring was run in the walls. Also, while you are in the attic, its good to see if there is signs of water leakage.
For older homes with fuse panels, if they have a good store of fuses laying around, it may be a sign that the circuits are regularly overloaded and the house has outgrown the power limits of its fuse panel.
- Checking the HVAC can be as simple as turning on the fan an smelling the air from the vent. In moister areas of the country, if the home does not have a dehumidifier in the system, condensation can build up in the summer months when the AC is on and create a buildup of mildew in the ductwork.
Make sure there is insulation in the attic and exterior walls. This is not necessarily a given. Back when home fuels were cheap, some cost-conscious home builders relied on the heating system to warm the house and skimped on the insulation. If any external doors are hollow core doors (yes this happens) then it is a pretty good indication that insulating the house was not a priority when it was built.
- Checking for water damage in the house looks at two areas the plumbing and the windows. A good area to check the plumbing is under the sinks. Look for signs of leaks and any resulting mold damage from the moisture build-up. similarly, check under the dishwasher to make sure there aren't sign of water damage from undetected pinhole leaks.
For areas of the country with very cold winters, the windows can gather condensation and create swelling in the window frames or get under the paint and be another source of mold or mildew. If the home is situated near a creek, make sure that the drains have a back flow check valve so any flooding does not invade the home through the outgoing plumbing pipes. If it is a multi-story home, make a mental note of where the bathrooms are and check the ceiling on the floor below for signs of leaks or recent repairs.
- Finally walk around the house and check the landscaping and topography. First, make sure the land is sloping away from the house for at least the first three to four feet. If the land has not been sloped properly rain and snow melt will be directed towards the foundation and lead to water infiltration through the foundation creating at best dampness and at worst flooding. This may be more true in traditionally dry areas of the West. Since rain is so infrequent in the arid West, some new home builders do not take the chance of rain into account and one good gully-washer may be enough to have the homeowner mopping out their basement.
Also make sure the trees and shrubs are all positioned well away from the house also so their root systems do not crack the foundations. Trees have the double problem root invasion and of growing up and in ten or twenty years start growing into the eaves. Testing windows and doors for smooth operation can indicate whether there has been serious shifting or changes in the foundations. Foundation problems may come for various different reasons including root invasion, soil changes due to underground water flows, earthquakes, and improper backfill methods.
These few guidelines can help you hone your observation skills when checking properties and quickly eliminate properties that obviously need more work than you wish to invest in above and beyond the cost of the home. Just remember, a staged home is set to trigger your buying instincts, so keep an impersonal investor outlook to keep your emotions in check and not impede your ability to see potential problems with buying the house.
Of course, if the home passes your cursory checks, you may be on to an excellent investment - so do make sure it has enjoyable features, such as a fireplace, relaxing back porch or cozy library! Finally, rely on the professional home inspection for a more detailed idea of how well the house stands.