You’ve done your research, you’ve been to too many open houses to count, and you know what you want. You’ve got your down payment ready, and you’re ready to make an offer. Whether you’re aiming for an already renovated home or a DIY project house, nobody wants to end up with a pile of expensive surprises two months into ownership. Whether a house obviously needs work or looks fresh from its photoshoot, it can be all too easy for home improvement and maintenance budgets to balloon out of control if you overlook some key sources of trouble. Here are a handful of tips to make sure you’re buying some proverbial “good bones” and don’t end up with a money pit.
1. Know a structural problem when you see one.
When walking through a property, keep an eye out for anything that looks out of square. Old houses are notorious for a lack of right angles: walls that slant, trapezoidal windows, uneven floors, etc. Though this is extremely common, it can indicate a problem with differential settlement or damaged structural support elements such as load-bearing walls or floor joists. Most commonly, differential settlement occurs because the foundations carrying the home sink very slowly into the ground over many years, and differing soil densities or erosion can cause this to happen at different rates in different parts of the house. This will result in non-perpendicular joints between floors, walls, and ceilings, making renovation considerably more difficult and messy for you or your contractors.
Though this is most commonly seen in 100+ year old homes, it can also occur in new construction if construction was rushed and the initial concrete foundations were not allowed to cure and settle before the rest of the home was built. This will result in brand new finishes cracking, gapping, and delaminating within just a few years, requiring expensive repairs or replacement. Rushed construction is notorious in Philadelphia and other rapidly redeveloping cities, so be sure to bring a critical eye. Building permits are public record, so you can do your research to find out when construction began on the property you are considering. If it was only three months ago, you might want to steer clear.
Sagging floors can also indicate a hidden problem with the joists supporting them. Water damage, cracked joists, or holes cut for new plumbing can all compromise the structural integrity of floor joists, which could result in future problems with cracking finishes or worse, a collapse. Building codes and inspections are designed to prevent catastrophic events, but not all construction is done with a permit and proper inspections. The first plumber to work on our house had no concept of integrating his work with structural safety, and we had to pay a carpenter to “sister” three floor joists where he cut notches for new drain lines -- removing up to 80% of the material.
2. A home is only as good as its envelope.
Keeping the elements outside where they belong is the number one job of a home or building’s exterior envelope. This includes temperature, wind, water….and critters. You’re going to want to make sure to thoroughly inspect the outside elements of a potential home to make sure that they are sealed and intact. Your visual inspection should include the roof and eaves, the windows and doors, the exterior brick or siding, the foundation, and the exterior area ways around the house.
When was the last time the roof was replaced or resurfaced? Is there any water pooling in areas away from the drain or gutter? Make sure to visit during or shortly after a rainstorm to evaluate how the roof and grading around the ground level of the house drain water -- and make sure it is draining off of and away from the house. Water is insidious. If there are any holes in the envelope whatsoever, it WILL get in. Water inside your house can cause damage and staining to drywall, wood floors and structural elements, as well as insulation, and if unable to dry quickly it will eventually mold. I once toured a house that had been put back on the market halfway through construction, and the previous owners had unfortunately begun their work on the interior framing and drywall BEFORE making sure that the exterior envelope was thoroughly sealed and repaired. The roof was leaking, broken windows were plugged with plastic to keep the drafts and insects out, and black mold was growing all over brand new drywall -- all of which would have to be replaced by the next owner. When evaluating a property to live in or renovate, make certain that the envelope has been renovated properly or you will be throwing good money after bad.
Take a look at the windows. If it’s an older home, have the original windows already been replaced? Are they single pane, double pane, or triple pane? Original windows in older homes are often single pane, which will significantly up your energy bill as they freely conduct heat and cold from the outside into your home, and they offer little acoustic dampening of outside noise from the street or neighbors. Newer double pane windows are better, and may last you another ten to fifty years depending on their quality. If they appear out of square (due to settlement mentioned above), you may have problems with drafts and air leakage. Triple pane windows are often used in homes and buildings renovated to the Passivhaus standard, an international standard for energy conservation and airtightness in a home’s envelope and an indicator of premium quality that will provide exceptional comfort and minimal energy use over the life of the home.
Paired with an airtight envelope, insulation is key to thermal comfort and minimized energy use for heating and cooling, but this can be difficult to evaluate if walls and ceilings are enclosed in drywall. Homes built between the 1920s and 1980s were often insulated with loose fill vermiculite insulation in the ceilings and exterior walls, but some may have no insulation between structural brick walls and interior plaster. In these cases, the plaster itself provides a thermal blanket, so if you remove the plaster and lath during renovations you’ll want to make sure you replace it with something else. Loose fill cellulose from recycled paper or batt mineral wool such as Rockwool are great options, but spray foam should be avoided.
Lastly, make sure to inspect the exterior of the house for any visible cracks, holes, or loose brick or stone. If you have a brick exterior, check to make sure that the mortar between the bricks isn’t loose or missing. If it is, you will need to “repoint” and replace the mortar to ensure structural integrity and watertightness. Holes in the wall or eaves can allow birds, squirrels, rats, and insects to make their home in the warm, dry cavities of your walls, which can quickly become an infestation that’s difficult to remove. We once lived in a house for over a year whose walls, floors, and ceilings were home to several families of squirrels, mice, and something I swear was the size of a raccoon. Nothing like a furious fight to the death in the ceiling over your breakfast table.