Monday, February 17, 2014

Advice for 1st time buyers (from a home inspector)

In my 17 years of experience, I have inspected homes for many first-time home buyers, some of whom are now on their 3rd home.  I have seen the pitfalls many home buyers fall into and I know the mistakes to avoid. 

From a home inspector’s point-of-view, my advice is to buy simple and buy smart.  Buy what you can afford, not what will make you look good to others.  Keeping up with Jones’” is not reasonable in real estate.  You can no longer expect a fast-rising market to bail you out of a purchasing mistake, as was often the case in the past.

For New Construction
When I say buy simple, I mean select a home of good, quality construction. When I say buy smart, I mean choose the features you need.  Do not be lured into closing by extravagant upgrades that you will not use anyway. Think Honda, not Jaguar.  Fancy trim on the outside = more painting and places for rot.  Lots of crown molding and fancy trim inside = more dusting, more painting, and more cracks as the trim shrinks. 

By all means, upgrade to the stone countertop, it will last.  Forego the Jacuzzi that you will use only until the novelty wears off.  If you do purchase a Jacuzzi, be sure to get the optional heater; otherwise, the water cools too quickly and you will likely only use it once a month.

Despite what the flooring representative claims, solid hardwood floors are always a better choice than pre-finished hardwood veneer. Most of the homes I inspect are not new.  I SEE what lasts and what does not.  Often you get flooring installed after you buy cheaper than the builder wants for the upgrade, but you will not be able to roll it into your mortgage, so there is trade off.

The fancy double oven is very appealing in theory.  In reality, however, most individuals spend very little time cooking. Restaurant sales in America prove this, as does my experience of seeing 4-year old homes with ratty microwaves, while the 2nd oven still has the Styrofoam factory shelf retainers.  Spend upgrade money on something you will use, such as better drawer closers, a better faucet/sprayer, or bigger sinks.

Get the garage door opener first, as you will likely be buying curtains and furniture for your new home after closing.  Besides, most people don’t have the tools, ladders and other things that you will eventually have to buy, even if you do not want to.

Here is the best advice I can give (though most individuals tend to ignore it): Opt for the most energy efficient furnace and a/c unit you can obtain.  Pay a bit more for extra attic insulation.  These items pay you back over time.  If you are really into energy efficiency, look at water heaters next.    Nothing else you can buy in the home can pay for itself and then put money in your pocket as these items can.   You do not see these items every day, so they don’t have show appeal, but to a smart person these are better use of money.

For Resale’s
Evaluate the outside of the home and the surrounding neighborhood.  This is what visitor’s see first and what buyers will look at when YOU go to sell.  I do not recommend the practice of buying a home in a bad neighborhood because it is cheap. It is cheap for a reason.  When it comes to buying in “up and coming” neighborhoods, be very careful.   Because of changes in how homes are financed, speculative “gentrification” of bad areas has all but stopped.  Renovation of bad homes in good neighborhoods is much safer financially for investor/renovators.

From a home maintenance point-of-view, water is the biggest concern.  Water will destroy your home far quicker than termites.  Leaks, rot, and mold go hand-in-hand.  Elaborate roof lines with valleys and gables cost more to re-roof and tend to leak more. Once again, simple is better. 

Siding is also a top home maintenance consideration.  Brick is best, followed by Hardiplank (cement), vinyl is ok, but it depends on the grade (vinyl is almost never painted, so if you do not like the color, walk away).  It is also important to note that starter homes were often built with cheaper (thinner) vinyl.  Stucco is a mixed bag.  There is hard stucco and EIFS.  Both can have problems if the original installation was poor.  Wood will require more frequent caulking and painting than any other siding. 

Homes with particleboard siding should be avoided.

Some homes (80’s and early 90’s) had polybutylene piping.  This piping develops leaks over time. It is best avoided.

Many realtors will tell you that homes with particleboard siding and polybutylene have that defect priced in, so the home is discounted to reflect it.  That may be true, but when the plumbing starts springing leaks, the 10 grand you saved on the front end won’t do you any good when you need $9000.00 cash NOW to pay the piper (or this case the re-piper).   

If you want to buy a fixer upper, do it in a good neighborhood, and take a good inventory of your personal skills.  Many guys like to think they can do anything, when in reality they are very poor at renovation.  And buying the tools to get started will set you back a couple grand before you even really get going.   

Remember, if you do a poor job at renovation, it is worse than no renovation because a buyer will be told the work you did wrong (or poorly) will have to be torn out and that raises his cost for further upgrades.  Do what you can do WELL and do not cut corners on products you install or the installation itself. 

Once you buy, here is what you need to know: Homes are not throwaway items.

That statement seems simple and almost stupid to put in print, but you would be amazed how many new home buyers treat it as if it was.  Young people are the worst.  They have grown up in a throwaway world, and tend to think homes are built so well that no maintenance is needed for 10 years.  That is simply builders BS.  And do not be fooled by warranty claims.  A good warranty does not mean the item is well built.  It is a numbers game; they know few claims will ever have to be paid.

Simple repairs become big repairs if left for too long.  Some can even become a nightmare.  Clogged gutters can become a basement/crawlspace water problem, and if left even longer, this can cause a mold issue.

A little drip from the icemaker line can ruin floors, cause mold problems, and damage the floor on the other side of the wall.   Leaking drains underneath kitchen sinks will quickly ruin the cabinet bottom.  All cabinets are particleboard these days and can not withstand water exposure for extended periods of time.

Wet wood not only rots, but it draws termites.  So water problems can be a double whammy. 

Once per year, go around the outside of your home and touch-up any caulk that is cracked, hard or has peeled free.  Pay attention to window frames and sills.  Wood windows on all homes made after 1969 are probably soft pine that rots quickly so extra care must be paid to these.  Replacement vinyl windows are set in the original wood frames, so if you have newer replacement windows it is still important to keep the frames sealed.  

In addition, annually inspect the functionality of your downspouts during a fairly hard rain - check to see if the gutters are overflowing and note where the water runs.     

Physically look at your water heater every 6 months.  All water heaters get pinhole leaks that drip and re-seal themselves.  This process goes on for 6-10 months before the tank bursts with a large leak.  So simply looking for sign of small leaks (that might not be dripping the day you look at it) can save you from a disaster 6 month later.

In terms of the furnace and a/c unit, do not buy those 59 cent mesh filters with the flimsy cardboard frame. If you spend the extra money for the $5.00 pleated paper filter, your home will be cleaner, your a/c will work better, and you won’t be paying to have the a/c coil cleaned in 4 or 5 years.  Change a/c filters once per quarter, not every month.  Ensure you have the correct size; just because the old one in there is 16x20 does not mean that it is the right size.  You may need a 16x25.  Look inside the slot or furnace where the filter goes to determine the correct size.

Watch your garage door open and close from the inside.  Check for loose hinges, as this is common.  Does it go up crooked or jerky?  The track may be loose, bent, or the springs may be misadjusted.  Chain drive garage door openers often get loose and will cause jerking movements if the chain is left un-tightened.

In the bathroom, keep the shower curtain inside the tub and tight against the wall at the shower end of the tub.  Over time, water escaping from the shower will pop the floor tile loose, rot the floor, and create mold in the ceiling below.

Reseal wood decks at least every 2 years.   Wait a minimum of 4 days after preparatory pressure washing to give the wood sufficient time to dry before sealing. Double or triple coat the end grain of the lumber.  Darker wood preservatives have less protection and red has the least of all.  More color means less oil, and oil is the active protection in wood preservatives.  Unlike paint, preservatives are more like skin cream.  They seal by soaking in.   

Build up of pine straw and wood chips over the years will often give termites and water an entry point into a home.  Do not allow it build up to the siding above the level of the band joist or slab level.  Also do not allow it build up to the level of crawl space vents or around A/C units.  It will clog fin coils and reduce air flow, which reduces efficiency.   When mowing the lawn, keep grass clipping ejector chute facing away from the a/c unit. 

You should flush the a/c coils with a garden hose every spring.  You should also perform annual Freon level checks. To do so, run the unit and check to see if the large diameter copper line going to it gets cold and forms condensation after 10 to 15 minutes.  If it does not, it is likely low on Freon. 

This quick test assumes the filter is changed and air flow is good (meaning filter is clean and fans are running) on the inside and outside unit.

Running an a/c unit with low Freon is the leading cause of compressor failure.  It is equivalent to running a car with insufficient water in the radiator.  If the unit is low on Freon, call an HVAC guy and get it topped off. 

Test the T&P (safety) valve on the water heater annually to ensure it does not get stuck closed.  If you are not sure what/where the T&P valve is; your home inspector can show you.  I take the time to show all of this and more to my clients.

There are a few more items that are more specific to certain homes and so I cannot hope to list every possible maintenance item, but most of the items above I often find were ignored.

Best wishes in your quest for a good home at a good price….