It was love at first sight…of those matte black finishes and quartz countertops. And the floors! Light gray oak, slightly weathered. This reno has every hallmark of your dream home…so how can you be sure, beyond the inspection, that what’s behind the walls is every bit as pristine as the new paint and appliances? Or that, in three months, things won’t start falling apart? Just because a house looks totally new doesn’t mean that is, which is why we turned to the pros to uncover what warning signs they look for, so you can avoid major headaches down the road.
1. The Exhaust Fans Are Just for Show
When you check out the bathroom, pay close attention to the exhaust fans. Do they exist, and if so, can you turn them on? Bathroom exhausts that aren’t properly vented—or nonfunctioning and “abandoned” in the ceiling, so it looks like an exhaust is there, but it’s really not doing anything—are a red flag.
“This is a very common occurrence. Abandoning things in the attic is often an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality,” explains Michael Humphrey, Sterling Properties founder and Wealth Secrets of Real Estate author. If the seller didn’t bother to have them replaced, it makes you wonder: What other areas did they not really care to fix?
In terms of the exhaust itself, your inspector can make sure it’s the right size and is functioning properly, but it’s something to have on your list and double check when you receive your inspection report.
2. The Bathtub Has Been Reglazed
There’s nothing wrong with reglazing a bathtub; it’s an affordable way to make it look brand new. But it also means that it’s hard to tell exactly how old—or beat up—it was before it was recoated. “You might use it for six months to a year, then the tub starts cracking or falling apart, and you’re left with a $3,000 or $4,000 bill to replace it,” says Christian Fuentes, broker and owner of RE/MAX Top Producers in Diamond Bar, CA. “If you see that, get in the tub and step on it—if it feels soft or moves around too much, especially if it’s an old fiberglass tub, know that you’re probably going to have to replace it soon.”
3. The Flooring in Every Room Is a Different Height
If you notice that the floors seem to be at different heights throughout the house, take a closer look. Often, it means new floors were simply laid over old ones, instead of having the old ones removed and professionally replaced, explains Alison Malkin, head broker and owner of RE/MAX Essentia in Avon, CT. It makes you wonder: If the seller didn’t care about installing the floors properly, what other—more labor-intensive and big-ticket—projects were neglected as well?
4. The Outlets Have Been Updated, But Not the Wiring
Upgrading all of the electrical work in an older house can be very costly, which is why some investors may upgrade the outlets—say, from two prongs to three-pronged ones—without doing anything else. “You see nice, clean plugs and outlets, but they’re not grounded,” Fuentes says, which means a power surge could destroy your electronics and damage your home.
It’s another reason to hire an inspector, and if you feel like things need a closer look, call in an electrician. “As a first-time buyer, don’t be afraid to bring in a plumber, electrician or foundation specialist to give you more details; sometimes inspector’s reports can be very vague,” he adds. “You’re making a huge investment, so it’s worth a closer look.”
5. The Paint Has An “Interesting” Texture in One Spot
Every expert we talked to cautioned about the wonders of a fresh coat of paint. “Paint can cover up a lot of issues, but eventually, those issues will come out,” Fuentes says. Issues like water damage, mold and rot, just to name a few. He suggests checking the disclosure agreement the seller sends you when you go into contract to see if the house has been painted recently. If it has, inspect it up close: “If you see any bubbles, stains, shadows or texture coming through, there’s probably something there,” he says. “Feel around that spot—if it doesn’t feel right, something’s there.”
6. There’s a Damp Smell
“If you ever smell anything funny, like a moisture smell, be careful, because there’s probably some kind of water damage in the house,” Fuentes says. While touring the home, open the cabinets and check under and around the sinks in the bathrooms and kitchen for bubbling or signs of damage. If the inside of a cabinet has been freshly painted, it may be worth finding out why.
Sometimes, though, mold can be lurking in areas an inspector wouldn’t find—and the seller may be totally unaware of—citing a recent case of a buyer who went to remodel the kitchen of the house she just bought, only to rip out the cabinets and tile, uncovering black mold everywhere.
If there’s a damp feeling to the air, it can be worthwhile to call in a mold inspector. “They can test the air and see if there are signs of particles and test the moisture levels in the house,” Fuentes says. “It might cost you an extra $500 to $600, but it could be worth it, especially if you have asthma or allergies.”