Over the last several months, I've been gently leading resourceful home buyers through some of the practicalities of inspecting a house for defects before they buy. I hope much of the information has been useful for current owners as well.
Buyers may find it difficult to be truly objective about a house during a half-hour walk-through, even if they are knowledgeable about buildings and their various systems and about how buildings age. That first trip to the house is typically a fairly tense time, especially for tyros in home ownership. First of all, they're likely to be freaked about being indebted for 30 years with a payment that may seem larger than Slovenia's trade deficit, or at least larger than their current rent. If the house is at that happy confluence of factors that include reasonable price, neighborhood, cuteness (also called "curb appeal" in the biz), size, school district and convenience, other buyers may be chewing away at the lintels or at least breathing heavily in the background.
That first visit, as I've written earlier in this series, is the time to focus on the general fit of the house to the buyer. Even in a brief visit, look for or think about: condition of exterior and interior paint, floor coverings, countertops, furniture placement, who gets which bedroom, is the neighbor's Doberman actually a pussycat in disguise, why are there scented candles burning in every room, general cleanliness, etc.
If time allows, I strongly recommend a second, patient visit to the house. If I may preach a little, don't allow yourself, the buyer, to be rushed. Although most buyers will not feel competent to thoroughly inspect the mechanical systems of the house, there are a number of simple things you can do to assess the general condition of plumbing, electrical and heating systems.
The easiest thing for a potential buyer to cursorily inspect is the plumbing system. Take a small flashlight along, or a bigger one - mine is a police-style, 18-inch number that will fry eggs on a good day. Turn all sinks on for a few seconds, operate any mechanical stoppers, check to see that hot is on the left, and then look under the sink for leaks. In the bathrooms, flush the john and give it a shake to ensure its stability, turn on the sink, and then turn on the shower to see if there seems to be adequate water to rinse off soap with the other two fixtures running. In general, look for staining on the floor coverings around the tub, sink and especially the toilet, that might indicate water leaks. In any areas below kitchens, laundry rooms and baths, look up for signs of staining from water leaks.
The life expectancy for most standard water heaters is about 10-15 years. The replacement cost is about $375; don't forget they leak. Most water heater data plates have a recognizable date code in their serial number or an ANSI (American National Standards Institute) number that will indicate an approximate age.
There are few items for a novice to inspect in an electrical system. Look at the main breaker, typically found at the exterior meter panel. It should be a minimum 100 amps. If the wire above the exterior meter is not in conduit or is less than about 1 1/2 inches wide, or if the interior main breaker or main panel reads 70 amps, consider that the cost of an upgrade is about $1,000, and lenders and appraisers will not allow a sale to go forward without a 100-amp service. If the service is old enough to still be 70 amp, other deficiencies are likely to be present.
About the only other thing that may be appropriate or practical for a buyer to look at in the electrical system is the presence of GFI-type receptacles or outlets, the ones with little test and reset buttons. These personal safety devices have been around for about 30 years and save lives every day. They are strongly recommended in the baths, at the kitchen counter, in garage and exterior outlets, and at least one in the basement. GFI protection may be present at outlets when there are no visual cues such as the test buttons or labels identifying its presence.
A rough assessment of the heating system is possible. I'll skip discussion of hot water heat, though it is my personal favorite, because the gas-fired, forced-air furnace is by far the most common. The first step is to turn on the furnace, run it a few minutes and then check that there is air flow at all registers and registers are present in all habitable rooms. Often an older, two-story house will have no second-floor registers, as both of our daughters recently discovered. After second-floor heating duct installation at Rebeccah's, her older furnace keeps her toasty. Sarah seems to hang out mostly on her first floor, but she has a new furnace.
The life span of a gas furnace is about 20-25 years and, as with water heaters, there is typically a date code or ANSI number on the furnace. If the furnace is older than about 1970, there will be no ANSI number. Unfortunately, finding the data plate usually requires removing an inspection panel in front of the burners, an activity that may be frowned on by the seller or real estate agent, and in any case, should not be attempted if you're not pretty confident you can re-install it without making too much noise or bloodying yourself. As Dr. Science might say: Don't try this at home!
A city inspection tag may provide a date clue as well. If the furnace is approximately the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and the Missoula city inspection sticker is dated 1962 and signed by J.W. Verleek, you should be budgeting for the $1,800-plus replacement cost, as it may fail at any time. Newer furnaces are significantly more efficient. The cost of an annual service and monthly filter replacement should be assumed regardless of age.
I don't mean to imply that following the procedures discussed here the last few months comprise a full inspection. However, my hope is that these ideas might help buyers to avoid some of the more obvious problems or give them a leg up in negotiating with sellers. When in doubt, call a professional. Happy home shopping!