How to Ace Your Walk-through like a Pro

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

Structural problem or a failing roof? Can you tell the difference?

"First Time Fixer Upper" is a seven part series on buying and financing your first rehab project, with new posts published weekly in January and February 2020. This is the third post in the series.

If you listed “buy my first property” on your 2020 goals this year, you’re probably already checking out neighborhoods, going to open houses, and possibly even starting your first walk-throughs with your realtor. You’ve evaluated your budget and set your target price range, you’ve carefully considered whether you’re looking for a move-in ready home or a fixer upper, and you’ve got yourself a top shelf realtor to help you find it. If any of these steps aren’t ringing a bell, you might want to check out my earlier blog posts linked here when you’re done with this one.

Buying a property, whether it’s your first or your fiftieth, requires a series of carefully executed steps with certain rules and desired outcomes. It’s a process like any other, and if it’s your first time through, the process can seem complicated, overwhelming, and designed to take your money at every step of the way. My goal with writing this series is to help all of you first timers out there know what to expect, what steps to take, and how to recognize a “good outcome” when you see one. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to know when you’ve found the right one, whether it’s a realtor, a property, a contractor, or a price.

This week I’ll be going over the rules of the game for evaluating properties, whether you’re looking for a freshly rehabbed home or a property that needs work. The builders of a brand new rehab should have already addressed each of these key areas, but if they haven’t, skip it. Whether someone else has done it for you in a rehab or you will be doing it yourself, these are all things you’ll want to look for before you make that offer.

1. Structural soundness.

Are the floors slanty? Are there cracks in the plaster or drywall finish? Is the front of the building bowing outward? If you can see any of these signs, they are a pretty good indicator that a building has foundation trouble, failing bearing walls, or rotting floor joists. While all of these signs of structural damage can technically be fixed, they will be costly repairs eating up large chunks of your renovation budget. Unless you are a building professional, these properties are better left alone. If you’re not sure if a property has structural damage, it can be helpful to consult a professional if you’re really interested.

A building’s structural system -- foundations, bearing walls, and floor/roof joists -- is like the skeleton on which everything else is attached. This is typically the longest lasting component of a building, with stone, brick and concrete buildings capable of lasting for several hundred years or longer (did you know that the Roman Pantheon, made of unreinforced concrete, has been standing for almost 1900 years?!). While other building components can more easily be replaced, a good structural system is the foundation, no pun intended, on which everything else must be built.

2. Water shedding roof.

The number one job of a building is to provide shelter from the elements, primarily water and rain. A good building envelope keeps water out -- including water vapor as well as rain -- and this starts with the roof. If the roof leaks, even the smallest amount of water will find its way into your walls, your floor joists, your drywall ceilings, and your window frames, and it will cause mold, rot, and decay everywhere it touches.

I once walked through a property in which the seller had begun a renovation but gave up half-way through, and in the few months that construction had ceased, so much water had entered through cracks in the roof, walls, and around the windows that black mold had started to form its own civilization on the brand new drywall. It’s never a good idea to start interior work without securing the exterior envelope first, and if you’re buying a property, look for one that already has a weather proof exterior envelope to give yourself the best possible starting point.

Inspect the roof for damage or pooling water if you can see it, and check the seller’s disclosure to see when the roof was last replaced. If they “don’t know,” this means they haven’t done any roof repairs during their ownership and therefore YOU will be doing roof repairs soon enough yourself. If you have an asphalt roof, check to see that it has been silvered recently, a silver coating is usually good for about three to five years. If you’re buying a recent rehab, make sure that the roof has been fully replaced in the project.

Major roof leak
Look out for pooling water on the roof.

3. Airtight, insulated envelope.

Let’s face it, those super cute masonry rowhomes with exposed brick walls are… not insulated. These buildings, mostly constructed between the late 1700s and the early 1900s, were constructed of brick and relied on the adjacent houses on either side -- separated by a double wythe brick “party wall” -- to insulate each other and keep warm. Earlier colonial rowhouses would have had a fireplace in each room for warmth, and later industrial-1920s era homes used an oil-burning boiler and hot water radiator system to provide heat. Both methods use an enormous amount of fuel, and today we typically use natural gas or electricity to provide our heat.