What to look out for in older houses with your buyer’s agent

If you’re in the process of purchasing a house, you and your buyer’s agent must look at many houses together before finally deciding on the one.  That is an emotion filled process as you have so many things to consider.  Hopefully if you see a house that you really like and you have zero construction knowledge, your agent can help you identify some common issues associated with the house so that you are aware of the conditions of the house.  If you work with an agent with enough construction knowledge, you won’t have to wait till you put in an offer and pay $400-500 for an inspection to find out the house needs major components replaced.

If during the first showing of the house, you and your agent couldn’t go through everything because you only have 30 minutes before you have to go see another house showing appointment, make sure you go back there for a second showing so you can look through things.  Now that our Portland housing market is slowing down, you will have time for a second showing whereas in the spring of 2016, you will be pressured to put an offer in after seeing it for 10 minutes because of buyer competition. This is important especially if the house is older.  Many important house components such as roof, furnace, and water heater have limited lifespan.  If the house is 40-50 years old at least, there must have been new roofing at some point as most roofing’s lifespan is between 20-40 years.  Furnaces can last around 15-20 years but not 40 years.  It needs replacing if that’s the case. Don’t buy a house with oil heating. Eventually you will need to replace that but there will be additional DEQ requirements for decommissioning oil tanks.  On your second home showing, look beyond the cosmetic issues like kitchen cabinets and paint colors and really look into the age of house components. 

1. Roof

Perform a visual inspection from the ground. You should be able to see what the roof looks like in most cases without a ladder.  Is it an asphalt tile roof?  Concrete tile roof?  If the roof is old, you will see the age as the roof will probably show discoloration, lack of granules, thick moss, and/or other physical damages. Most asphalt roofs last between 20-40 years.  Concrete tile roofs last about 50 years but they are rarer in the Pacific Northwest.  Replacing the roof is a big cost to a home buyer. If you are only replacing the shingles, it can cost about $10K for a 1500-2000 sf house. If you’re replacing sheathing, and underlayment, the cost will be much higher.  In many cases, a complete new roof can easily cost you $20K on a 3 bedroom house.  If the price point of the house you are looking at is already at the top of your budget and in the top range of its comparable homes in the neighborhood, maybe you don’t even want to put an offer in if you have this knowledge that this house will need a new roof.

2. Furnace

First find out whether it’s a gas furnace or electric furnace. The expected lifespan is different. Also maintenance can extend or reduce the lifespan of a furnace.  Many homeowners don’t realize they need to replace the filter every year or so or else it will overwork the furnace thereby reducing its lifespan.  If you look on the furnace, there is usually some information on when it was built. If not, pull the manual out and see when it’s dated. Chances are the date on the manual is the date of the manufacturing of the furnace.  If the furnace is old, it raises a concern.  You may need to look into hiring a furnace specialist inspector.  General inspectors don’t inspect furnaces in depth.  If you have a bad furnace, it needs to be negotiated with the seller. 

3. Drainage

In the Portland metro, we have a lot of rain.  Because of the rain, every house must be equipped with drainage systems that can divert rainwater away from the house.  For homes within city limits, houses have downspouts connected to storm sewers.  Make sure downspouts don’t pour water onto the ground close to the house.  There should also be French drains around the house and in the backyard.  Look for unusually muddy spots. 

4. Basement Water Damage

Many older homes have basements whether it’s a bungalow or a daylight ranch.  All basements are subject to some stress and potential damage from built up hydro pressure in the soil behind the concrete walls.  There are many ways of waterproofing basements but you won’t be able to see what’s in the ground.  Buying a house with a sump pump in the basement is an excellent idea.  If not, make sure you smell the basement and look for any water damages.  That includes discoloration of drywalls if finished. If unfinished, you may be able to spot past water damages on the concrete. 

5. Mold

Look for any mold growth.  Mold usually grow in the basement or in the attic.  During a home showing, you probably cannot access the attic.  However, in the basement, keep your nose open for moldy smell and also look around the bottom of walls to see if there is any mold growth.  Buying a house with mold is a bad idea.

6. Proper Construction Permit

I can’t believe how many houses I have looked into as a real estate agent have had some building permit issues.  The most common permit issue is when a house has 2-3 bathrooms, the county/city records only show 1.  That means a bathroom has been added at some point without a applying for a permit and passing for inspection.  Should you avoid these deals?  Maybe.  Permitting a bathroom can be done retroactively.  It’s not that difficult or costly.  Last time I had my seller retroactively permit a bathroom prior to listing his house and it cost him about $500 with the City of Portland. He had to draw the bathroom plan, show pictures of the plumbing connected the right way, and also install a bathroom fan to vent to the outside.  If you are a buyer, you will want the seller to take care of this prior to closing. 

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Peter Park

I'm a realtor with attorney experience representing buyers and sellers throughout the Portland metro area.
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