12 Crucial Things Homebuyers Overlook at Open Houses

by Carrie Kirby on 11 June 2015 (3 comments)

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I yell at my TV. I can’t help doing this when watching reality real estate shows, where home shoppers seem to always be rejecting houses for things that could easily be changed. “You can paint over that hot pink wall!” I advise them. “You could replace that light fixture in an hour!”

They never listen, but you should: When you are home shopping in real life, it’s important to look beyond those little things to take note of things that would much more difficult — or even impossible — to change.

1. Layout

Think about how one room flows to another, and look for wasted space or awkward areas that would be hard to make good use of. Quirks that might simply seem odd during an open house may become downright annoying if you have to live with them.

“Before deciding that a bad layout can be improved by moving walls, ask a contractor to tell you if the walls you want to relocate or remove are load-bearing walls because, if so, it might be impossible or financially unfeasible,” real estate broker Elizabeth Weintraub writes.

Common layout problems include stairways or long hallways at the entrance (not welcoming), bathrooms visible from the front door or dining table (ew), and bedrooms right off the living room or kitchen (too noisy).

2. Major Systems

If the house is on the market during the summer, you may not think to ask about the furnace. If it’s an older home being sold by a longtime occupant, you can bet the wiring is not up to powering big-screen TVs or computer monitors. Even if a house was modernized for the market, a quick job might include installation flaws that compromise the system’s efficiency.

Thoroughly testing major systems will be your inspector’s job, but there is nothing wrong with taking note of the following warning signs of outdated systems:

  • Window air conditioners, indicating a lack of central air
  • A furnace made by a company that went out of business years ago (Do a quick search for the company while you’re there to find out)
  • Steel pipes rather than new copper, probably indicating poor water pressure. (Run the hot water or get a look at the pipes in the basement to check)
  • Knob and tube wiring in the attic; outdated outlets and DIY wiring extensions, which both could be fire hazards

3. Structural Issues

You know a problem is going to cost you when an engineer is involved in fixing it. Whether it's drainage, foundation issues, or just a bad roof, you’ll need a professional to diagnose the true extent of a structural problem. But there are a few signs that can tip you off: Large cracks in the walls or foundation, doors that stick or won’t close, a swayed or sagging roof line when viewed from a distance, and wood joists that crumble with a jab from a screwdriver.

4. Water Leaks

Look up at the ceiling corners and see if you can spot discoloration or spots of peeling paint due to moisture. A leaking pipe, damaged roofing, an improperly finished chimney or other vent, or just a bathtub that overflowed long ago could cause water spots. Find out the source before you buy; some issues could be a quick fix, but a longtime problem could have caused extensive damage or mold.

5. Old Paint

Open windows and examine the sills for peeling paint. If the house was built before 1978, this paint could contain dangerous lead, which can be expensive to remove safely. If old layers of lead paint are thoroughly covered by newer paint in good condition, it’s less of a concern.

6. Location

“You can always change what’s inside your home, but you can never change what’s outside of it,” warns the website New House Flip. It’s too easy to focus on a beautiful home to the exclusion of its surroundings. Ask yourself how the location would affect your driving time to work and friends’ or relatives’ homes. Find out how much crime the neighborhood has, and whether there are any parks or businesses you’d like to frequent. Are the yards in the neighborhood and parks well maintained? Are the schools good?

Also note the home’s position within the neighborhood. Some people realize they don't like being on the corner, with pedestrians walking along two sides of the home and potentially more sidewalks to clear after a snowfall. An alley running alongside the house can be an eyesore and a security risk. And note what is directly across the street from you: This is what you will see every day when you look out your front window.

If you attend a weekend open house, you might also want to swing by the block on a weekday. It may not have been apparent on Sunday that a nearby business attracts tons of weekday traffic, or that the warehouse across the street uses a loudspeaker to direct workers, or that the house is along a popular walking-to-school route.

7. Homeowner’s Association

You might think to ask about the HOA for a condo, but keep in mind that single-family homes can be part of associations too. Find out how much the dues are, and take a look at the books and meeting minutes. (Are the meetings frequently contentious? You may be walking into a toxic interpersonal environment.) Have transparent and detailed records been kept? Does the HOA have adequate reserves? If the group is in debt or facing unexpected expenses, a fee hike might be imminent.

8. Neighbors

Don't be shy. Knock on a few doors while you're there. Talk to the people you may potentially be living next to. Find out if they have children or pets, how long they have been living there, and what they think of the neighborhood. Did they like the sellers? Does their basement flood? Does the power in the neighborhood ever go out?

You are not just looking for information here. You’re also testing the waters to see if these guys are going to be your future barbecue buddies or a daily thorn in your side. Does this seem like a household you would like to interact with on a daily basis?

9. Noise

Did you notice rail tracks on your way to the house? Is the real estate agent playing music or white noise during an open house? Ask for it to be turned off to find out what it’s masking: Traffic noise? Barking dogs? A rattling furnace? 

You can also test to see how noise carries within a house by having a companion go to other rooms and stomp around or play music.

10. Odors

Breathe deeply in every room of the house and in the yard. Cigarette smoke and pet odors may call for the tearing out of carpets, but outdoor odors from a nearby factory or farm is something you would just have to learn to live with.

11. The Basement

Don’t ever skip the basement when touring a home, whether it is furnished or not. Your primary concern is whether the basement stays dry year-round. Just because it is dry now doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Sniff for musty smells. Look for water stains, mold, or efflorescence (ashy or sparkling salt deposits) on the walls.

Basements can be a pain to dry out, and it can be expensive to stop the problem from recurring. These concerns are especially relevant if the basement is finished or if you plan to finish it, because once you have invested in flooring and furnishings, you don’t want them to be ruined in a flood.

12. Resale Value

You never know what the future holds. Things you might not mind, like a very small backyard, a hillside lot, no garage, or only one bathroom, could have a big impact if you have to make an unplanned move and sell quickly.

Make sure that the home truly has the number of bedrooms it advertises. To most buyers, that means that the room has a window and a closet, at the minimum. Some will not consider a serial bedroom, which you have to walk through another bedroom to reach, to be a true bedroom.

Most homes aren’t going to be move in ready. You’ll have to do a little bit of preparing, repairing, or upgrading. What’s important is that you sort between the stuff that’s simple and the ones that are costly. Do you have any additional tips to share about what can’t be overlooked during an open house?

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Guest's picture

A good list, but I've got to say, I'd be freaked out if someone knocked on my door and started asking me for personal information about my family - and maybe that makes me a bad neighbor, though I'm not. I don't know where the author is from, but around these parts I wouldn't be sharing that kind of data with someone at the door [or at an open house etc]

Guest's picture

I would have to agree with the comment about knocking on doors. In this day and age that seems like a bad idea. Most people are uncomfortable about giving personal information to strangers.

Guest's picture

Come to think of it I have not actually had to knock on doors when checking out a new neighborhood, I have just chatted with people who are out in their yards or nearby. But I have never found that people are shy about sharing the kinds of details I mentioned with a potential new neighbor. People love to talk about their neighborhoods and they are usually very interested in who is going to move in to an empty property, especially if they live next door.