How to Look at a House
That’s a pretty silly title isn’t it? Well, you look at a house and you see, um, a house. It may be a pretty one, or a beat up one, or it may have awful colors, but what is there to really see? It all depends on your perspective. Perspective colors how we see things and what we really do see. If you have a growing family, you’ll notice how many bed and bathrooms it has, and possibly note whether there is room for expansion. If you’re an electrician, you’ll see the service coming into the house, the main breaker panel and wiring type, and a bunch of other details about the condition and capability of the electrical system.
But for the purposes of this discussion, we’re looking at the house as an investment… not a lipstick flipper sort of investment, where you do cosmetic repairs only, but the sorts of repairs/upgrades that make the home safe, durable, efficient and a pleasure to live in. And the work needs to be done based on your “exit strategy”, ie: rent out or sell, and your desire not to lose money in fixing it up.
Real estate investors refer to bad areas or neighborhoods as “war zones”. This is the sort of place that has homes for cheap, but you might also get shot. Perhaps you want to go for deals in war zones if you already drive a tank and wear bullet proof clothing! I prefer to find the worst home on the block, in a decent neighborhood. Neighbors appreciate that run down eyesore of a house being put right.
So, how does this contractor look at a home? I start (in a decent neighborhood) from the street. Look at the roof line. Is there any sagging? Are the walls actually vertical? If things are crooked, you know there will be a lot of structural work to straighten things. It may involve foundation work, termite work, or both. Or maybe the house was built before codes and doesn’t even have stud walls. If a house has “good bones” it means (to me) that the home is straight and true, is made with adequate materials, has a good foundation and no extensive rot or bug problem. Plumbing, heating / cooling, insulation, windows and electrical are all things that can be fixed or upgraded, but don’t really affect the bones of a house. If the bones are bad, the home will cost so much to fix, (if even possible) that it can’t be a good investment. That said, I look for homes that scare other investors off. I need to see through the bad stuff to know if the bones are decent.
The next thing I do when looking at a house is to get inside and look up. Are there water marks on the ceiling? Has the ceiling fallen in?!? Water is a home’s single biggest enemy. It can cause rot, invite bugs, undermine the foundation, and create the perfect place for mold. If you want to know a LOT more about water and buildings, go to www.buildingscience.com. It’s a big topic! But if we walked into the building and found good bones and no real water damage, that’s great.
Next is to look into the attic and crawl space, if they exist and see what’s there. These are places where the mechanical bits of a home live. Duct-work, wiring and plumbing are likely to be visible there. Crawling around under a house is sort of a time bender. You’ll see evidence of leaks that may have been fixed decades ago… or not at all. You may see old generations of plumbing that weren’t removed when new plumbing was installed. You’ll get a feel for how many different hands have worked on the place and how skilled those hands were… or weren’t!
Don’t forget to look at the roof and get an idea of how much life it has left. A new roof is usually the single biggest repair cost a home has. Composition roofing is far and away the most common type. If there are gutters, have a look in them for that fine gravel from the roofing. Is there a lot? If so, that suggests the composition roofing is getting old. Also look for broken tabs in the shingles, exposed felt in the shingles, evidence of repairs, rotted rafter tails and of course, evidence of leaks inside.
There is a lot more that could be said about inspecting a home, but good bones, meaning a solid foundation to work from is the most important thing. If this isn’t something you know how to do, hire an experienced contractor to tour the house with you and take notes. You’ll learn!
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Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.