Having a list of what you want in your dream house makes house hunting fun and exciting. But to be a smart homebuyer and get the most for your money, it’s important to focus on some of the more mundane, nuts-and-bolts aspects of a house as you tour.
That way, you won’t overlook flaws that will potentially be pricey to fix. While home inspections play an important role in making sure you don’t buy a money pit, you can do a bit of detective work yourself. Follow this guidance on what to look for when buying a house.
1. The Exterior
While you’re focusing on where you might put a basketball hoop or admiring the property’s beautiful trees, you’d be wise to take a look at these things to consider when buying a house as well.
Your roof protects you and your possessions from sun, rain, and snow. And roof damage can quickly turn homeownership dreams into a pricey nightmare. To put a price tag on it, a new roof can run $10,000.
Check for obviously cracked or missing shingles. Look for signs of water damage on the ceilings inside, indicating that the roof isn’t keeping rain out. Later, since the roof is hard to see from the ground, you may want to have your home inspection professional take a closer look. You might also invest in a pro roof evaluation to determine how many years the roof has before it needs to be replaced.
You can also avoid future problems by eyeballing the gutters. Are there telltale depressions, muddy spots, or rust stains outside the house which might indicate gutters are leaking?
Be on the lookout for cracked or warped siding, or for blisters or bubbles that have formed underneath, which can indicate hidden water damage. Siding’s job is to prevent water from entering the house, so water stains on the inside could also signal siding issues.
Obvious cracks in the foundation or exterior walls are a warning sign, but pay attention when you step inside the house as well. Signs a foundation might be faulty include: floors that slope, crack, or sink; cabinets that are pulled away from the wall; interior cracks; and doors that stick.
Most yard issues can be fixed with a little landscaping muscle, but drainage issues can be more costly to resolve. Look for standing water or soggy, low-lying areas in the yard, signs that the space has drainage problems that can compromise the foundation or cause mosquitoes to invade.
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2. The HVAC
You’ll want to find out how the home is heated and cooled, and if possible, learn as much as you can about the annual or monthly cost. Then look for these red flags.
Damaged A/C Unit or Furnace
When touring with your real estate agent, ask the agent to turn on the heating and air conditioning system. Listen for any loud noises. Watch for water around the unit itself, a sign of possible drain line or refrigerant problems.
Locate the thermostat and confirm that it appears to be receiving power. If the heat or air cycles on and off in brief cycles while you are touring the home, there may be a thermostat or power issue.
3. The Plumbing
Problems related to water are one of the most important things to look for when buying a house. Be aware of these issues:
Strong Smells (Good or Bad)
As you walk through a potential home, give it a good sniff. Your nose might know if mold or a damp basement is present. If you notice air fresheners or potpourri, don’t assume the homeowner is just a big fan of floral scents. Scents could be a sign that a plumbing issue, water drainage problem, or basement leak will siphon away a lot of your hard-earned cash. Buying a house out of state? Ask your real estate agent to sniff around for you, but plan on visiting in person once you have narrowed the field.
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Water Spots and Stains
Look at the ceilings and walls, especially those adjacent to bathrooms, for hints of water seeping in. Do you smell fresh paint? It might be covering up mildew. Ask the seller’s real estate agent if any new color is covering up any old mold or possibly water-damaged walls or ceilings.
Rusty or Corroded Pipes
Poke around the basement as well as under and behind bathroom and kitchen fixtures. Look for rust stains in sink basins, or blue stains under pipes, which may be a sign of corrosion.
Low Water Pressure
Ask the real estate agent if you can run the water in the kitchen and bathrooms, then run the sink and shower simultaneously. You’re doing an informal check for low water pressure. If the water is coming from a well on the property, taste it. While unpleasant flavor or odor in well water isn’t always a sign of problems, you’ll want to be aware of it before buying, and you’ll also want to have well water tested for contaminants by a professional during a home inspection. Most well water issues can be fixed, but it would be important to factor the costs into any offer you might make.
While the water is running, check that it is also draining properly.
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4. The Electrical System
Particularly in an older home, you’ll want to have the electrical system evaluated as part of the home inspection. Here are some things you can look for before that stage.
Small Electrical Panel
Ask the real estate agent to show you the panel where the electrical service comes into the home. There is usually a number on it to indicate the number of amps the home has. (Ask the agent if you don’t see it.) An older single-family home, especially, may not have adequate service. To power a small home without electric heating, 100 amps could be sufficient. But 200 amps is the standard for newer homes and updated ones. And even that may not be enough power for an electric heating system, depending on the size of the house. If you plan to add electric heat, a home workshop, or do an addition, you’ll probably need 300-amp service. The cost to upgrade the panel can range from $1,300 to $3,000.
While you are at the panel, look for signs of rust or rodents. Are circuit breakers corroded? If you see visible wiring, is it free from cracks or other damage?
Outlets in the kitchen or bath that are likely to be exposed to water should be ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protected. (Look for “test” and “reset” buttons in the middle of the outlet.) Plugs that sit loosely in an outlet may indicate the outlets are old. Look for outlets with power strips or splitters plugged in, or with many electrical appliances crowded around them — all signs that the home doesn’t have adequate outlets for modern life.
5. The Functionality
Knowing whether a home would need costly upgrades, especially to the kitchen or baths, is important to your overall budget. If you’re in a hot real estate market and are likely to get into a bidding war, nailing down potential extra costs before you get into negotiations will be especially important.
Number of Bedrooms
Make sure the home has adequate sleeping space for your present needs, and don’t forget to think about the future (are kids in the plan?) as well as the occasional guest when you’re buying a house.
Kitchens are a big-ticket item, so survey the design and functionality of the kitchen, eyeballing the appliances and cabinetry especially. A major renovation, with new appliances, cabinets, and countertops, can run $14,000 to $40,000, according to home-improvement site Angi. To keep kitchen remodeling costs down, evaluate if the bones of a kitchen are good. Is there enough countertop space to do meal prep? Could you repaint or refinish the cabinets rather than rip them out?
One homebuyer’s cute retro tile and toilet is another’s remodeling nightmare. And adding a bathroom or moving plumbing lines can get time-consuming and expensive. So check to see if the home has the right number of baths and think about how much work, if any, they might need to suit your style.
Whether your taste trends to luxurious rainfall showers or you’re happy with fixtures from the local home center, it’s unlikely to be a low-budget endeavor to redo a bathroom that’s dated or worn. The average bath remodel can cost approximately $11,000 before special fixtures or features.
The price tag heads farther north if you are planning to add a bath. Moving plumbing lines around a structure can get quite time-consuming and expensive. You’ll need permits, and ratcheting up the number of baths can also send your property taxes soaring. Home-improvement shows may make bathroom remodels and additions seem like no big deal, but it could actually wind up being a major endeavor.
You probably already know whether a relaxed, one-floor ranch or a tall townhouse suits your style. But while you are touring a home, think about the number of stairs and how you might use the space in the house as you live there. Are the washer and dryer two flights down from the bedrooms, where most of the laundry originates? Is the main bedroom a flight below what would be the baby’s room?
Hardwood or Carpet?
You might tour a home that is fully carpeted and picture in your mind’s eye the gleaming hardwood floors you would reveal in a renovation. Don’t assume that hardwood hides under all carpets. Homes built in the 1950s and after may have carpet over plywood. Ask the real estate agent what is underneath the carpeting.
First-time homebuyers can
prequalify for a SoFi mortgage loan,
with as little as 3% down.
💡 Quick Tip: Not to be confused with prequalification, preapproval involves a longer application, documentation, and hard credit pulls. Ideally, you want to keep your applications for preapproval to within the same 14- to 45-day period, since many hard credit pulls outside the given time period can adversely affect your credit score, which in turn affects the mortgage terms you’ll be offered.
6. The Aesthetic
Creating your homebuying wish list can help you zero in on the things that are important to you in a new home.
There are as many ideal vistas as there are homebuyers, but as you look at a home’s views, think about the seasons. If trees lose their leaves, will the neighbor’s messy backyard be front and center? Especially in urban areas, think about who owns adjoining properties, what might be built there in the future, and how that could affect the view.
Take note of a home’s windows, and especially whether natural light is abundant in the rooms where you will spend the most time. You might love lots of natural light, but in the summer, it can mean high air-conditioning costs. Take window coverings into consideration in your budget.
A water view or water access might be a priority for you. Normally, water views are a good thing — picturesque and calming. But in this era of “crazy weather,” a tranquil bay or babbling creek could soon swamp your home. According to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rising sea levels are accelerating instances of flooding.
So before you feel as if you’ve got to have a home that’s near a body of water, do your due diligence. Check the home’s flood factor; also find out if your lender would require flood insurance (which typically costs $700 a year but can go much higher) in addition to homeowners insurance before approving a loan.
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You’ll want to listen as well as look when you tour a property. Can you hear the sound of cars on the nearby road? How heavy is the traffic? Is the house near a train track or an airport, which could mean low-flying planes? In an urban setting, who are your neighbors? A bar or concert venue could mean late-night noise.
Essential Questions to Ask When Buying a House
Most real estate agents will offer some basic information about a house right upfront. By law, they are required to disclose the possible presence of lead hazards if a residence was built prior to 1978; some states also require disclosure of asbestos. Ask these questions to dig a little deeper. If there are already multiple offers on a house, you’ll want to choose priorities from this list — asking too many questions could work against you if you decide to throw your hat in the ring.
• How old is the heating and air-conditioning system?
• When was the water heater last replaced?
• How old is the roof?
• If there is a septic system, when was the tank last replaced or inspected?
• What is the water source? Does the home have city water or rely on a well?
• Does the home have any history of flooding or mold?
• Is the seller aware of any materials containing asbestos on the property?
• What comes with the house? (Sellers sometimes remove fixtures, appliances, sheds, or play equipment so don’t rely on things being left behind.)
• Has the owner made any major improvements in the home since the last property tax assessment? (This could result in a tax hike on the next assessment.)
• What do you know about the neighbors?
• Are there any easements on the property? (For example, if power lines cross the property the local electrical supplier may have an easement which allows them to prune or remove trees.)
• Is there a homeowners association? If so, what are the annual fees?
• When touring a co-op or condominium, ask whether there are any special assessments currently in place or being discussed.
Becoming a Homeowner
Whether you’re a first-time homebuyer or a home-buying pro, you’ll want to be careful and comprehensive when buying a house. Keeping your eye out for potential problems can save you from falling in love with the wrong house.
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What are the five most important things to look for in a new home?
Make sure the home’s size, floor plan, and general aesthetic suit your lifestyle and budget. Then consider the amount of work a home might need and whether there are big-ticket needs such as a bad roof or foundation, or a kitchen or bathroom that require remodeling. Factor these into your overall budget.
What should you look for in an initial walk-through of a new home?
Don’t just look at a home: Use all your senses. Listen for dripping water or traffic noises. Sniff the air — does it smell musty or moldy? Feel the floor underneath you. Does it slope or squeak? And listen to your gut as you will likely feel quickly whether a home is right for you.
What are must-haves when buying a new home?
Must-haves are unique to every buyer. For one person, a great view is essential while another may require a certain school district. The important thing is to talk about these early in your home search, and revisit the list as you begin to see properties.
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