When you are home-hunting, it is easy to fall in love with a house and to allow that emotional reaction to cloud your judgment about whether it is a sensible and realistic purchase for you, ignoring what may be important defects. It is sensible to get a proper survey before you sign any contract, but surveys cost money and you don’t want to pay out before you have considered likely problems yourself.
Roof and Walls
The main components of the house are its walls and roof. Carefully look for any cracks in the walls. Hairline cracks are probably cosmetic, but larger cracks may indicate problems.
A sound roof is essential to keep the elements out. Look from the ground, and from inside the attic, for signs that the roof is feeling its age: multiple missing shingles, water stains, light getting through, a sagging appearance.
Heating and Cooling
Heating and air conditioning systems generally last about 20 years, and old ones can be very inefficient. The sellers may have no idea how old their system is, so you may be able to check by finding the serial number and consulting the manufacturers.
Find out if the house is well insulated. Is there a good layer of insulation in the roof? Are the walls insulated? Are the pipes lagged and the windows double-glazed? Do all the windows open and close properly?
There is little worse than sharing your house with the local wildlife. Look for any signs that it is easy for pests to get in, like gaps around the utility pipes and windows. Inspect the roof space and basement for any signs of previous infestation, and the backyard for piles of debris. Don’t accept the sellers’ explanation that a couple of rodent smoke bombs were enough to deal with any problems.
Bringing an electrical installation up to modern standards can be expensive. Inspect the condition of sockets, and take a look at the fuse box. Old-fashioned fuses are indicative of an old system which will need updating. It should have at least a 100 AMP circuit breaker service, preferably 200 AMP in a modern house—you can normally check the service AMPs by looking at the main shutoff in the panel box.
Check that the faucets work with sufficient pressure, the toilets flush, and the sinks drain away easily. Get under the kitchen sink and look for any signs of leaks or drips.
It is worth looking critically at the backyard. A well-tended garden may indicate a well-tended house. A backyard that smells bad could suggest a problem with the drains.
Your Biggest Decision
Buying a home is the biggest financial decision most people ever make. By approaching your purchase with a bit of hard-nosed common sense, as well as starry-eyed optimism, you may be able to keep the stress to the minimum. At the very least, the fact that you know where to look will show most sellers that they cannot fool you into making a rash purchase.