Before examining the potential house of your dreams, remember this one thing: Do not make purchasing a house an emotional experience. Do not develop an emotional attachment to any house. You may absolutely love a house, put in an offer, and someone else outbids you. It happens. The chances are, if you lived in a house two blocks over with similar features, you’ll be just as happy with that one (and probably several dozen others).
If you can, bring a friend, parent, aunt or uncle with you who knows about construction and who knows what to look for. Cast your pride aside — they may spot something that will save you thousands.
Some of the first things to check for are structural. Check the foundation for any cracks, bowing, shifting or anything outside of the normal function of concrete (or blocks, in some cases). A house with a bad foundation is something you always want to walk away from. Foundation repairs can easily begin at $2k, and can cost up to $30-40K, depending on the severity. Also, look at the joists, something many buyers forget to do.
The circuit breaker box is a good indicator of how well the home’s electrical system is. Older houses will have far fewer outlets, while newer ones will have several per room (I didn’t discover this until after I bought my house, built in 1887). Take a cell phone charger and test at least one outlet in each room to ensure the circuits are working. Flush the toilets and turn on the faucets for the same reason, unless the water is winterized. If the home has an unfinished basement, you should be able to see some of the plumbing and determine its status as well.
The air conditioner, furnace and hot water heater are also important to examine, and are often overlooked. If any are more than 10 years old, it’s wise to upgrade and budget for it now, rather than later. It’s also worth taking a close look at the deck or patio, as are gutters and windows (if they’re wooden frame or single pane). While you’re outside, check the shingles. It’s not necessary to go on the roof for this, but check the shingles that are clearly visible and peek in the attic for any holes or wood rot. In the attic, also inspect the insulation.
Remember to Take Your Time
Before you close the deal on any house, your lender will more than likely require an inspection. Consider buying a home warranty from the lender, or asking for it in your loan. It may pay off hundreds down the road. Additionally, you can negotiate with the seller to fix something prior to the sale. Finally, you probably won’t catch everything, and that’s ok. Just remember, when buying a house, you are inheriting all its problems since its construction — but you will also reap all its rewards.