How to Avoid Buying a Money Pit
There's an old saying that a boat is nothing more than a hole in the water that you pour your money into. Boats are expensive – from the purchase to the ongoing maintenance – and boat owners throw a lot of money into that hole.
If that's true, then it's easy to imagine a house being a hole in the ground, ready to swallow a fortune. Sadly, many of them are just that, but it doesn't have to be that way.
If you're house hunting, it's easy to be swayed by design features and miss the red flags that signal the home may just be a money pit.
Evidence of Deferred Maintenance
Ah, real estate lingo. Get ready to learn a whole new language as you go through the real estate transaction. One of the terms you may frequently hear, especially from your agent and home inspector, is "deferred maintenance."
Deferred maintenance is, simply, the putting off of routine home maintenance. Whether because of procrastination or lack of funds, many homeowners fail to perform the tasks that a house requires to remain in good condition.
For instance, failing to replace a cracked or broken wax ring on a toilet can lead to huge repair bills. Caught early, it's a relatively inexpensive fix. If not attended to, however, moisture will seep from the toilet, intruding into the flooring and even the subfloor. Mold may form. Before you know it, you're looking at not only fixing the toilet but replacing the flooring as well.
Let's take a look at some signs that a homeowner has put off performing routine but critical maintenance:
Cracks in the walls – Although this may be just a result of natural home shifting, a crack in the wall may be a symptom of a larger problem. Vertical cracks are typically harmless. Horizontal cracks, or jagged cracks that run at an angle, on the other hand, deserve closer inspection. These may indicate foundation shifting or water damage.
Ceiling stains – Stains on the ceiling are common and indicate a problem somewhere above the stain. The problem may be a roof leak or defective chimney flashing, allowing rain and snow to seep through.
Ceiling stains may also indicate condensation. If the stain is near the bathroom's exhaust fan, condensation is most likely the culprit, and an uninsulated duct in the attic may be the cause.
Then, there is the obvious plumbing leak. If an upstairs bathroom is located above the stain there may be a leak in the tub, toilet or sink. Press your toes around the floor along the edge of the toilet's base. If it feels spongy, the toilet may be leaking. A home inspector has a tool to test a stain to determine if it is wet or dry. A dry stain means that the problem no longer exists while a wet stain means the problem persists.
Firewood piles – If you live in a region where wood-destroying pests are a problem, such as California, the Pacific Northwest and Michigan, a pile of firewood acts as a magnet for them. If that wood pile is stacked against the side of a house, there is a chance that the home may be infested with termites. A pest inspector is your best resource if you suspect there may be wood-destroying pest damage in a home.
Musty odors – Many houses contain hidden health hazards, and one of the biggest is indoor air pollution. Some pollutants, such as radon gas, are impossible to detect by smell and require the help of a professional. Others, such as mold, are sometimes either visually evident or you can smell them. Mold is one of the most common indoor air pollutants, and we inhale the spores every time we take a breath. If the air smells musty, there is most likely mold somewhere in the home. Hire a certified mold inspector to go through the home before signing on the dotted line.
Sticking doors and windows – Open and close all interior windows and doors in the house. If they stick and aren't painted shut, it may be an indication of the foundation shifting. Look at the top of the sticking doors for a gap. This is another indication of the same problem.
While you can never completely eliminate risk when you buy a home, you can reduce it by exercising "due diligence," another of those terms you'll hear bandied about during the home-buying process. Due diligence simply describes your duty to investigate the condition of the property before you buy it. Many homebuyers rely on professional home inspectors to fulfill this aspect of their investigation, and there is nothing wrong with that. By knowing what to look for, however, you can guide your home inspector to those areas of the home that you think require extra scrutiny.
One final note: Certain types of deferred maintenance may sabotage your mortgage loan during the appraisal. Something as simple as broken or cracked windows can hold up an FHA-backed loan, and signs of larger problems, such as water damage and suspected mold infestations may cause a lender to demand further investigation and even repairs prior to closing.