There’s nothing wrong with wanting to keep your secrets. But, if you’re in the market for a new house, your potential home shouldn’t.
This means that before you sign a contract or hand over a down payment, you should try to find out everything you can about your prospective home. Did the basement once flood, and is it now harboring mold problems? Is the roof just a few thunderstorms away from a major leak? Will you have rodents for roommates? The house knows – and you need to know, too.
Sure, home inspectors are there to protect you from buying a home with issues, but what if they miss something? And sure, some states have laws that obligate home sellers to disclose certain problems, but what if the house has defects the sellers aren’t legally obliged to report?
If you’re worried that you might purchase a home with issues, try these home interrogation strategies.
Talk to the Seller
No, it’s not likely that a seller will come right out and say, “Oh, yeah, I’d never buy this place due to the drafts.” And a lot of the time the home seller isn’t even around to show you the home – your real estate agent usually takes their place. But if the chance ever presents itself, talk about the house and look for clues in their language about the condition of the home.
“Don’t ask the sellers questions about the condition of the home as they are less likely to be fully forthcoming,” advises Rick Davis, a real estate attorney in Leawood, Kansas. “Instead, ask them questions that might lead to information but seems more innocuous. For example, ask why they want to move. You can also ask what it was like living in the home.”
Although the home seller probably won’t tell you about the drafts or the mold problem, maybe they’ll slip and talk about their allergies. You never know what you’ll find out until you ask.
Talk to the Neighbors
Try gathering your intel from the people who live nearby to the house you want to buy.
“Since you may be the new neighbor, they don’t want to start the relationship off by lying to you,” says Davis. “Even if they don’t directly tell you the issues, they may hint or give warnings about what to look at.”
And these potential neighbors may know a lot, even if they’ve never met the homeowner, adds Davis.
“They might be able to tell you that they see repair trucks in the driveway on a regular basis or there was the major issue last year where workers were at the home for days,” he says.
Morgan Franklin, a real estate agent in Lexington, Kentucky, agrees, saying that many people will share if probed.
“My secret weapon is to knock on the neighbor’s door,” he says. “If they tore up the yard last year to replace a sewer line, they will tell you. In my experience, the neighbors can’t wait to tell you everything they know about the house. From the condition of the house to the Jerry Springer-esque episode that occurred there, they will blab.”
Get a C.L.U.E.
All detectives need clues, and in this case, you might be able to get one – a C.L.U.E. report, that is. C.L.U.E. stands for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange. This report may list any homeowner’s insurance claims on the home from the last five years. If there was fire or water damage, for instance, or maybe a theft in the home, it possibly would be on the report.
The information might not be there, however, because not every insurance company offers up information to C.L.U.E.
Here’s an added complication: your home seller is the only person who can request a copy (from the database company LexisNexis). So, if you’re interested in seeing the report, ask your real estate agent to ask the seller to provide one. With any luck, there will be nothing on the report to worry you.
Inspect the Home Yourself
This sounds obvious, too obvious to even mention, and yet plenty of home buyers probably don’t think about it. After all, when the real estate agent is showing you a house, you’re imagining where you’ll position your bed and set up your workstation. You’re wondering about closet space and what it’ll be like to cook in the kitchen. Many homeowners aren’t thinking about possible cracks in the foundation, potential leaks in the roof or what the insulation is like.
But after you fall in love with a house and decide to make an offer, that’s what you should be doing–looking for reasons not to buy the home.
“The most relevant tactic [for finding possible problems] is to simply look for obvious flaws–cracks, water, malodors–as these signs can provide a window [into the] condition,” says Michael Kelczewski, a real estate agent with Brandywine Fine Properties Sotheby’s International Realty, headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware.
Talk to Your Home Inspector
If you decide to make an offer, and the seller accepts, it’s time to set up a home inspection. When the home inspector goes through the home, follow them (although you’ll probably want to skip the climb up to the roof) and ask a lot of questions. You’ll learn more about your home, and your questions may lead to a more thorough inspection.
Don’t forget to also ask questions after you receive the report, says Franklin.
“A home inspector will do their job, but your home is probably the third one they have done that day, and they just want to get home to their family,” says Franklin. “Look over the report carefully and ask questions. If you aren’t happy with the answer, make them go back and clarify.”
Focus on Additions to the Home
Did the home seller boast about a new room they added on? Or a deck they built? It may be worth bragging about, but Davis points out that’s where a lot of home headaches often start, especially if the seller is a do-it-yourselfer, or if they hired an unlicensed contractor who didn’t build to code.
“Ask the seller for copies of the permits,” suggests Davis.
Of course, the seller may not have them, especially if the home improvements were done some time ago, but the town may have a record of the building permits. In any case, Davis recommends that you make sure your home inspector looks closely at any additions or major improvements to the home.
Call a Second Home Inspector or a Specialist
If you’re really concerned (and especially if this is an older home), there’s no reason you can’t hire another home inspector to see whether their recommendations are similar to the first.
You can also bring in a specialist, like an electrician or engineer, if you have a particular concern, suggests Kelczewski.
You can even hire a mold inspection company, but that can be expensive. On average, a mold inspection costs $779, but if you’re this worried about the house, maybe you should reconsider buying it.
Look for Potential Future Problems
If you’re starting to feel good about what you aren’t finding, you may want to look into potential problems outside the home.
For instance, if you have children, you probably checked to make sure the house is in a good school district, but did you do any research on your neighborhood’s crime rate? There are quite a few websites that will give you a sense of what your prospective neighborhood is like, such as CrimeReports.com.
You’ll also want to check if your home is in a flood zone? You can check any address in the country on FEMA’s website to determine whether it’s in a flood zone. If it is, you’ll want to consider purchasing flood insurance, which is generally not a part of a standard homeowner’s policy.
So, what should you do if you do find something wrong with the house during your fact-finding phase? If it’s an issue that doesn’t seem fixable, is too expensive to repair or is too risky to deal with, like a rotting foundation or roof, it might be the time to look for another house to fall in love with.
But if the home’s issues aren’t insurmountable, and if you’re still interested, this would be the time for your real estate agent to bring your concerns to the seller, says Mindy Jensen, a community manager with BiggerPockets.com, a social media site for real estate investors.
She suggests getting a quote for the repair and asking the seller to either take care of it using a company you choose, or give you a credit or cash at closing so you can take care of it yourself.
Jensen adds: “I don’t recommend asking the seller to have it fixed without specifying a company to do the work. The seller will most likely choose the lowest bid, which is not necessarily the best person to perform the work.”
Of course, with any luck, you’ll look at every nook and cranny of the house without turning up anything worrisome at all. That’s the strange dynamic of home buying. The more boring and ho-hum your home’s past, the better the odds are that you and your house will have an exciting future.
Keep Reading: A Checklist for Home Buyers