HOW TO BUY A HOUSE: Four Simple But Important Tech Issues to Look At

What makes a house good to buy on a technical level? It’s a question that not enough prospective homeowners ask themselves properly, especially as they’re dealing with the fact that buying a house is usually a surprisingly large amount of work. You’ll often have to wade through dozens of seemingly bad places offered at high prices and still get no closer to a purchase, though it doesn’t have to be this way for you.

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The internet has made the “finding” part of the job easier. One example I discovered is houses for sale in Los Angeles. There are other websites like this for cities all over the world.  They’re easy to find. Other sites specialize in  find and buying condos or other specific housing types, regardless of the city they’re in. Without some help like this, the process can be tiring, discouraging and you’ll typically be making a big decision with limited knowledge. Then there’s the technical side of discerning a good house from a bad one. That’s what this article is mainly about.

Even most great-looking homes still warrant a close look at the details. Basic knowledge like this won’t take the place of a proper home inspection, but it does act as a kind of coarse “filter” that let’s you rule out places and avoid wasting time on them.

One thing you can do is arm yourself with technical insights that let you discern between deal-breaking problems and deficiencies that can reasonably be fixed. It’s always wise to get the opinion of an accredited home inspector before any actual purchase, but before that happens you’ll need to separate the good, the bad and the ugly. Besides the obvious considerations about appearance, location and price, there are four important technical issues to consider. The thing is, as important as these are, it’s also easy to overlook them as you shop, especially if you’re enthusiastic. Don’t let your enthusiasm get the better of you.

How to Buy a House Checkpoint#1: How’s the Roof?

I live in North America, and about 75% of roofs here are covered in asphalt shingles. Assessing their condition is easy. If shingles look curly and rough from where you stand on the ground, they’re bad (or are rapidly approaching “bad” status. If shingles are universally flat and clean looking, they’re good. This isn’t brain surgery. And while it’s possible that a roof with good shingles can still leak, this is rare.

The shingles on this roof are currently in decent (not great) shape, but the moss is shortening their life big-time. Notice how the area downstream of the zinc-coated chimney is clean. Zinc always keeps moss off roofs.

A new asphalt roof for most homes costs between $5K to $15K, and every home will need a new roof from time to time. That’s why a bad roof should never be a deal breaker on its own. The question really is do you want to pay for a new roof now (or soon)? Will the seller spring for a new roof as part of the deal? Consider the cost of a replacement roof as you shop and make your offer accordingly. Click here to learn more about how to ensure you get a good new asphalt shingle roof installed.

How to Buy a House Checkpoint#2: Is The Basement Wet?

Not all homes have a basement, but if the place you’re considering has one, you need to pay attention. Wet basements are tricky on two counts. First, basement water leaks can be hard to spot during dry weather. Second, fixing a wet basement can easily cost $10K to $50K or more, plus a lot of disruption to your yard and your life. Also, some basement leaks can never be fixed reliably because of a high water table or other site issues.

Do you see brown, dry water marks on wood or stored items in the basement? Are boxes and shelves strategically raised up off the floor? Wet basements usually show tell-tale signs (even when they’re dry), but you need to pay attention. A little suspicion is a good thing when it comes to assessing how dry a basement is. Don’t let hope and smiling assurances from jacket-clad real estate agents calm your suspicions. And understand that at no time should a basement ever be finished unless it’s 100% dry, 100% of the time.

Ineffective, clogged eavestroughs like these can be the cause of a leaky basement. Pay attention and every house for sale will tell you a story.

Eavestrough cleaning is not optional, as you can see above, but it often has something to do with leaky basements. Besides reducing water handling capacity, excess debris will break eavestroughs and cause rot. Something like this can easily be the cause of a wet basement, too. If a basement looks like it has leaked, it’ll almost certainly leaks at least somewhat regularly. Why does this matter?

Two reasons. A wet basement should never be finished into living space, and a wet basement can lead to indoor air quality problems throughout the whole house. Mold needs moisture to grow, and a wet basement offers that moisture. Even a basement that only gets damp in the summer should never have cardboard boxes or any kind of wood or cloth on the basement floor.

How to Buy a House Checkpoint#3: How Energy Efficient Is This Place?

Energy efficiency often boils down to the age of the home. Houses built 50 or 60 years ago will certainly cost more to heat and cool than a house built today, most things being equal. Unmodified houses built before World War II are absolutely primitive energy-wise. I love the charm of many older homes, but recognize that efficiency problems in heritage homes always extend right down to the design level.

Even fully retrofitted, expect an old house to consume at least twice as much energy as a leading edge home built to today’s typical standards. There’s another issue, too. Homes built to the standards that were current even a few years ago could use 20% to 30% more energy than homes built to standards that kicked in more recently in some places. If you do decide to buy new, ask and verify that the home is built to at least E80 standards if you’re interested in energy efficiency.

How to Buy a House Checkpoint#4: How are the Windows?

Windows are like roofs. They’re a normal wear item in any home. Eventually all windows need to be replaced. Ratty old peeling windows look terrible, but replacement is not that big a deal in the larger scheme of things. Obviously, bad windows may actually be a good thing if they scare away buyers, letting the price settle lower. New windows for an average home can cost $10K and up, so figure that in to your offer. And when it comes time to replace windows, check out Window Wise (800-813-9616). It’s a free quality assurance program that offers certification of window installers and technical assessment of window products.

What's Behind Today's Best Windows
Bad windows are not a deal-breaker when buying a house, but replacing windows can easily get into five figures of expense. These modern windows are new.

Are you actually looking to sell a home quickly? That’s another matter. Outfits like are worth considering. There are many sites like this online.

Like I said, there are many things that can be wrong with a home, and the information here is no substitute for a proper inspection completed by a properly accredited home inspector. But still, ordinary people can make reasonable assessments of things like roofs, windows, age and condition of the basement. Houses aren’t as complicated as they seem, just big. Specific bits of hands-on insight translate into a surprising amount of confidence when it comes time to make an offer. A little technical knowledge goes a long way.

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– Steve Maxwell