The Floor Plan
Find out how many rooms the house has and whether or not the number will meet your family’s needs. In particular, think about how many bedrooms and bathrooms there are. Is the layout awkward? The house on more than one level? Don’t estimate the room sizes in your head, actually measure their dimensions. Note whether the rooms are bright or dark. If you’d consider expanding the current living space, make sure first that there are no restrictions.
Bathrooms and Kitchens
We can probably all agree that these are the key rooms in the house. Look closely, whether you’re examining how much counterspace there is in the kitchen or if the bathroom has a shower or bath. Check the water pressure throughout the house. Look under the sinks in the bathrooms and in the kitchen for signs of former leaks.
Walls, Ceilings, and Floors
Here’s what you’re looking for: cracks, stains (which will tip you off to past leaks), and peeling paint. This is not the time to be shy—look under rugs to assess the condition of the floors and look in back of paintings to make sure they’re not covering up issues you’re not supposed to see.
Windows and doors get a lot of use in the home. See if they fit as they should—if they don’t, they’ll get caught and be the worse for wear. Wooden windows and doors expand in the summer and contract in the winter. While this is taken into account during construction, if the house has “gone out of square” or if the condition of the hardware is compromised, the issue will remain. Doors in older houses tend to be too tight or susceptible to drafts. Entrance doors that don’t work properly will be expensive to fix. As for patio doors, problems include streaking and frosting; while newer models use more appropriate materials and succeed better at keeping the heat out during summer and the cold out in the winter, their installation is expensive.
Windows these days are much more advanced than they were in the past. The windows in most old houses don’t work that well. The use of weighted sash cords meant that there were slots in the window frames, which let the winter air in. Not surprisingly, this didn’t help homeowners conserve energy. If you’re trying to tackle leaky windows in an old home, you can cover them with aluminum storm and screen windows. This can look out of place and is expensive but is the best functional approach.
Tip: Beware of steel casement windows. You’re unlikely to come across them but if you do, be forewarned that they’ll cause you trouble, rarely closing tightly, conducting the cold, and condensing moisture. They’re also difficult to find replacement parts for. It’s not a reason to walk away from a house that you’re considering, but know what you’ll be in for.
Details That Make a Difference
As you walk through your potential home, keep an eye out for:
- Electrical outlets. Make a note of how many there are and where they are located. Think about your specific needs.
- Closets and storage areas. There’s no such thing as too many closets. Keep in mind that if you bring in a free-standing one, you’ll be giving up 10 square feet of floor space.
- Skylights. In spite of the aesthetic value that these bring, they also contribute heat from the sun during the summer, as well as leaks if they are the kind without insulating glass.
- Fireplaces and heating stoves. Look past the charm and make sure there are no hazardous situations.
- Bulkheads and cellar entrances. It’s convenient to be able to enter your cellar from your yard. But unfortunately, what can enter with you are cold and water, and water can lead to rotting. If you’re inspecting an older home, the cellar doors are likely to be made of wood, which means that they’ll be heavy and susceptible to rot. You can replace them with steel but you’ll have to hope that standard sizes will fit. You may need to replace the cheek walls too. If you’re dealing with a bulkhead that’s been leaking over the years, the water will probably have reached to the stairs below, causing them to rot. Since it’s extremely difficult to get a proper seal between the cellar walls and the bulkhead opening, you should buy a doorway and door to keep out the cold.
Investigate whether any of these toxic situations are at play in the house you are considering:
- UFFI (Urea formaldehyde) insulation. While this form of insulation is one of the most effective, it was found to be a source of respiratory disease and other health issues in homes where it was not installed properly. Even if you are not concerned, a future home buyer might be.
- Asbestos. This previously popular form of insulation for pipes is most often found in houses that are over 40 years old. Asbestos becomes an issue if it dislodges and asbestos particles enter the air. Find out from a professional home inspector if there is asbestos in the home. Then look into removing it (not always the best way to proceed) or encasing it.
- Radon. This gas is released naturally wherever uranium exists in the soil. The presence of radon becomes an issue if it gets trapped inside dwellings. The good news is that it is an easy and inexpensive problem to fix. By improving your ventilation, you can most likely solve the problem. Your home inspector may recommend that you seal cracks in the basement floor and walls.
- Lead Paint. How old is the house you’re assessing? Lead paint is likely found in houses built before 1940. Between 1940 and 1955, there is still a danger, though less of one. After 1955, manufacturers of paint stopped using a lead base. But it wasn’t until 1970 that the use of lead was banned. It is expensive to remove lead paint. But it must be done if there are young children in the house. And even if there aren’t, you should do it so it doesn’t become an obstacle to your selling the home in the future.