Most people when buying a home, walk around inside and out for an hour, fall in love and make an offer. If the offer is accepted, then they hire a home inspector to catch the flaws and create the sellers’ “fix it” list. Fast forward to the successful closing, the excited owners move into their new home. However, after the new homeowner honeymoon of about the first two weeks is over they start to notice things, a lot of things! That’s when unnoticed issues become real and hidden problems become expensive.
“What does this switch do?”
“Why does the water drain like that?”
“Who would put that cabinet there?”
“Why is this room so cold?”
The strange, odd, and broken things start showing up while the flow of the floor plan starts becoming a reality. Do you have to duck under kitchen cabinets to talk to someone at the dining table? Maybe you have to peak around a wall to see the little ones playing. Does your garage get a puddle every time it rains? Are you always tripping breakers or maybe your septic system can’t keep up and what’s that weird smell? The point is, buying a house takes attention. Having to get beyond the distraction of the beautifully staged home to search every nook and cranny in one fast hour is impossible. If a second showing isn’t possible due to high demand and offer competition then you HAVE to use your only hour wisely and strategically. I’ve categorized the 10 areas that I feel as a designer will cover the bulk of the hidden problems…
Before you even start house hunting, make this list. These are the deal breakers, the “don’t even walk through the front door if they’re not there” items. Make a list of your requirements for why you are even looking for a new house. Some examples might include: # of bedrooms & bathrooms, an attached garage, a bathtub or fireplace, central air, dedicated office space, open floor plan, master en-suite bath, private yard, location, and waterfront views. The point is to know your personal list and only look at those that qualify. Don’t waste time looking at a house that doesn’t tick your major must have boxes. Yes you can renovate, but buy your basics that you need already in the house.
2. Flow & Orientation
Once you’ve set foot into the house that fits your needs start looking at the flow and floor plan of the house. Is it open concept or a historic home with walled off rooms? Pay attention to the sight lines, especially from the kitchen and to the living room. Remember the kitchen is the hub of the home, how does it relate to the rest of the rooms? Is there a breakfast bar in the island or a separate dining room? How’s the home’s main entrance? Is there a “landing station” somewhere near for keys, mail, and chargers? What about a mudroom/coat area? As you walk around the flow of the floor plan, imagine how you would live in the layout.
The next step, and often missed, is to figure out which side of the house faces south as this side will get the most quality sun during the day. Not only is it your perception of your house being bright and sunny vs dark and dreary, sun orientation affects lighting needs (therefor your electric bill), heating/cooling impacts (your bill again), snow melting rate for your driveway, and growing success in your yard. Some people may disregard sun orientation however they won’t when they realize they have to have all of their lights on during the day and their living room is sweltering in the summer. In colder climates, south facing main activity areas are preferred. Giant windows facing north will be very chilly come winter time and large west facing windows will increase cooling needs come summer time. Learn the direction of the sun.
You’ve walked around the main floor, now are there stairs? Is it a split level? If so, how is it arranged room grouping wise? What floor is the laundry room? Where is the master bedroom in relation to the other bedrooms? For safety reasons, notice the stair railing spacing and height. If they’re too wide or low, they’ll need to be replaced. For outside access, are there stairs from the deck? If you have older pets that go out or young children to play outside, a flight of deck stairs might not be for you. Do you even want stairs? If you’re buying a house later in life, it may be wise to avoid multi story homes for ease of use in the long term.
First and foremost, don’t buy a house because of its storage. Purge your stuff before you move and preferably before you start house hunting. Do you have old sports equipment, out of date/outgrown clothes, rusty baking pans, old shoes, leaky hoses, rusty tools, old paperwork, or threadbare/stained linens? None of this should move with you! Many people get too busy at moving time and simply box it up and take it with them kidding themselves they’ll sort it when they move in. Do you know what happens then? People don’t sort it out, they shove that box in their walk-in closet, tuck it in their attic or by the furnace in their basement right next to the other boxes from previous moves. Thirty years later, those boxes haves accumulated and the storage monster has gotten out of control. Eventually, your storage nightmare will fall to your next of kin to handle because you didn’t. Love your loved ones and sort your own stuff.
Purge every season, every year, and before every move.
Now, analyzing storage needs that have purposeful functions including: garages, finished attic/basement, and walk-in closets. If you’re buying in a four seasons climate then a garage is a blessing, especially an attached one. Finished attics work great for offices, libraries, hobby rooms, and teen hangouts. Finished basements are great for wine rooms, home theaters, playrooms, rec rooms, and gyms. Walk in closets are typically coveted for master suites and fortunate in children rooms. However, based on your amount of clothing and whether you use dressers, you may be able to use standard sized closets found in older homes just fine. Is there a linen closet or a coat closet? What about a garden shed, third stall garage or driveway apron? All of these support additional storage areas for active needs and routinely used items, but NOT your old boxes of stuff.
5. Finishes & Materials
This item is usually what home buyers focus on the most. Rightly so, it dictates the feel and age of the home. For the interior, it can include: cabinetry, counter tops, lighting, wood trim, doors, metal hardware, tile, flooring, ceilings, paneling, skylights, window treatments, paint and wall coverings. For the outside, it includes siding material, deck vs. patio, windows, doors, garage doors, porches, roof and foundations to name a few. Buying a home that is still in a previous decade and not in a good way takes a lot of work and money to update. Know your limits and tolerances when buying a home like this. Maybe you don’t mind painting or want to install hardwood floor regardless. Can you afford a remodel or do you have time or tolerance for renovations? In more expensive real estate markets, buying an older home and renovating it can be the only way to get into that desired location and therefor necessary. However, build that construction cost into the price of the home to make sure its still comparable to the area.
All finishes have a lifespan and each material has its pros and cons. One may be easier to maintain or more efficient for utilities while another one is better for your lifestyle or aesthetic preferences. The point is, analyze the upkeep or replacement of these materials and take it into consideration when choosing the right home for you.
These are the bones and brains of your home. Unfortunately, when these system go, they require tearing apart your house. This category includes: wiring type, electrical panel amperage, structure/foundation, air conditioning method, oil vs. natural gas, solar panels, geothermal, radiant floor heating, radiators, mini splits, septic/plumbing, piping material, well vs. city water, fireplace and chimney, radon mitigation, sump pump, water heater and softener, kitchen and laundry appliances, and insulation. When touring a potential home you should ask yourself if you’re comfortable maintaining that type of system and equipment. New homes win hands down in this category for being built up to current codes and higher standards for energy efficiency.
A separate blog could be written regarding each one of these so I’ll just touch on a few key factors that perspective home buyers should take note. When touring existing and older homes, look for ones where systems have been updated and recently replaced. Ask about the type of heating source’s monthly cost, water quality, fireplace inspection, and age of all appliances. Are you familiar with the systems in the house you are touring?
A special note regarding radon as many people are oblivious to this danger:
Radon can be in any home in any location. Even if it’s not in your neighbors it can be present in yours. It is odorless, colorless and long term exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Ask for a test if a mitigation system is not in place.
7. Yard Maintenance
Now it’s time to turn your attention to outside matters. Stroll around the yard and take note of the landscaping. Do you like to garden or do you want minimal work? Are you looking at a condo or is there an HOA, as both have rules regarding the yard upkeep. Notice the trees in relation to gutters and in colder climates for fall raking. What’s the age and material of the deck or patio? Are there railings that need to be updated? Is there a pool to maintain and if so, a fence around it? In many locations a pool alters home owners insurance costs so be aware. Do you want a fence for privacy or security? Maybe you enjoy planting vegetables or herbs, where would they go? Does the property back into woods or conservation land? Are there utility poles visible or are they buried? Again, like the utilities and finishes, know what your capabilities are in regards to maintenance and upkeep. If you’re moving from an apartment to a house for the first time, the yard is definitely an area you’ll want to consider.
Unless you live in Arizona, you’ll have to consider drainage. Different soils in different parts of the country drain differently so know your region’s soil type. Driveway construction should be noted: gravel vs. paved, concrete vs asphalt, as well as slope if you live in an icy or rainy climate. Is the house situated at the bottom or top of a hill? Does it have retaining walls that you should check for cracks? Is there a body of water nearby and are you in a flood plain? What’s the yard slope and are there French drains installed? When inside, inspect the lower level corners and walls for past leaks. Walk the perimeter and feel the “squish factor’ of the soil, standing water is not your friend.
9. Neighbors & Roads
This one is a lot more subjective based on your lifestyle and preferences. Is the house located on a child friendly road vs. main road? Is it a connector street or cul-de-sac? Is there road noise outside that can be heard from the deck? Are there any barking dogs outside?
What are the neighbors’ houses like and how does your house compare to others in the neighborhood? Is it the most expensive, comparable or the least expensive? What are the nearby adjacencies? Are you a walker, if so, are there sidewalks? What are the neighboring streets like? What’s around you? Knowing your neighborhood will help you not only make a secure decision but also when its time for you to sell, the return on investment, knowing your house is comparable to the area and not drastically different.
If you lead a very active lifestyle and are always coming and going you’ll need to take note of where the house is in relation to all the places you need to go. These include schools, work, errands, leisure activities, friends and family. Do you travel for work or leisure frequently? Where’s the nearest freeway, airport, and commuter train station? Tolerable commute time is very subjective and up to the individual. Its a common choice between a great house and a great location. This item works as a tie breaker to choose between houses.
A problem in any of these areas isn’t necessarily a deal breaker as every buyer decides what they can learn to live with or fix themselves. The problem arises when many of these items are evident, then the buyer must think to themselves how much do they really love this house or can they wait to buy something later? No house is perfect, but the house you buy should tick many boxes and be a “wise buy”.
Buying a house is one area where your heart should not make the final decision, your head should make the ultimate call.
Check out my companion blog regarding preparing the inside of your home for a showing here. How to prepare your house for a showing.
Sarah Daricilar, NCIDQ
Studio Owner & Interior Designer
Daricilar Design Studio – Millis, MA