Real Estate Buying

15 Warning Signs to Look for Before Making an Offer on a Property

Home buyers can gain a wealth of information about a property by attending an open house. Spotting problems that hide in plain sight can save trouble—and needless expense—down the road.
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The Open House

Every Sunday in communities across the country, you’ll find real estate agents hosting open houses for homes they’re listing. While some people attend these 2-hour events to get decorating ideas, and agents use them to network and make contact with potential buyers, open houses are also an excellent way for house hunters to get a low-pressure look at a property, ask questions, and suss out its suitability. 

Sellers typically go to great lengths to spruce up the place before an open house and, in some cases, they’ll endeavor to hide issues a home—particularly an older home—may have that can prevent its sale. The next time you’re at an open house, keep your eyes open for these seemingly minor house characteristics that might indicate the sellers are hiding something, or there’s trouble down the road for the new owner.

RELATED: 10 Things to Bring with You to an Open House

If the yard meets (or is near) the siding, the house is at risk for termites.

When first approaching a home, take a look at the distance between the bottom lap of a house’s wood siding and the soil. Anything less than 6 inches puts the home at risk of a termite infestation. These subterranean wood-munchers look for the shortest routes to enter the house and start dining on its structural members. Termites are destructive, and homeowners are encouraged to hire one of the best pest control companies (like Terminix) to take care of the issue. In all cases, the soil should never be piled up against the siding.

RELATED: How Much Does Termite Treatment Cost?

If there’s no railing on the steps, the house may not qualify for a mortgage.

Some non-conventional mortgages, including FHA, VA, and RD, require a home to meet specific conditions and safety requirements before a mortgage can be approved. This doesn’t mean you can’t purchase the house, but if there’s no railing on the steps, one will likely have to be installed before the sale closes. 

Other mortgage requirements may include no peeling paint and a roof that’s in good condition. If you will be applying for one of the above mortgages, it’s a good idea to get a list of property requirements from your lender before you attend an open house.

RELATED: 9 Reasons You Might Not Get a Mortgage

If the roof is slightly wavy, it may have two layers of shingles.

The best way to reroof a house is to tear off the existing shingles before putting on new ones, but some local building codes allow up to two layers of shingles. Not only will installing a new layer over an old layer void the warranty on the new shingles, but it also adds undue weight to the roof structure. The second layer of shingles may also indicate the presence of roof deck damage that wasn’t repaired.

RELATED: 7 Signs You May Need a New Roof

If the house has vinyl siding, it could be hiding damage.

Just because a house has vinyl siding doesn’t mean rot and damage lie beneath. Vinyl siding is not a cause of damage to siding beneath, and there are some very high-end types of vinyl siding on the market today. 

However, sellers may install inexpensive vinyl siding to hide a plethora of exterior house problems, including missing siding, rot, or other types of damage. The older the home is, the more likely there could be damage beneath the vinyl siding. 

Look for other clues to see how well the house has been maintained over the years. While it’s impossible to know what’s beneath it without removing it, evidence of rot or damage in an attic or basement might increase the likelihood of existing damage beneath the vinyl siding.

Trees growing near the house increase the risk of sewer problems.

Trees are an essential part of the landscaping, and if you’re looking at homes in older neighborhoods, odds are you’ll encounter tall, towering trees. Unfortunately, several popular tree species, including oak, maple, birch, and sycamore, all send out invasive roots that can work their way into sewer and drain lines, resulting in blocked drainage and expensive sewer line clearing repairs. 

To get an idea where a sewer line runs, look for a cleanout pipe near the foundation. Typically, the line will run directly from there to the municipality’s sewer main. If the home made your short list and you’d like to pursue it, it may be worth checking with the local Zoning Office to see if there are utility maps that indicate the location of sewer lines. Without that knowledge, it’s usually a safe bet for trees to be a minimum of 10 feet away from any buried drain line. Twenty feet away is even better, because many tree roots don’t extend that far.

If the yard slopes downward to the foundation, it creates a risk of leaks.

Water and foundations don’t mix. Building codes often require a 2 percent minimum yard slope away from the foundation to keep rain or sprinkler water from draining downward along the foundation walls. An inverted yard slope can usually be remedied by hauling soil and raising the grade next to the foundation. However, water may have already leaked through the foundation and caused water damage, resulting in leaks in the basement and the presence of mold or mildew.

RELATED: How to Level a Yard

If the open house is at an odd time, it could be a red flag.

Perhaps the real estate agent works a second job on Sunday afternoons, so she can only host an open house during the week. Be suspicious, however, when an open house is held at a non-typical time. The odd scheduling can keep potential buyers from noticing something such as a large freight train barreling through the neighborhood at 3 pm every Sunday afternoon. Do a little sleuthing around the immediate area to see if something undesirable happens during the non-open house hours.

Heavy use of incense or scented candles may indicate underlying odors.

Most sellers try to make their homes smell pleasant for open houses by cleaning and perhaps setting out a bowl of aromatic potpourri. However, suppose you’re hit with an overpowering aroma of scented candles or incense when you step into the house. In that case, the sellers might be trying to cover up other odors, such as mold, mildew, or animal urine. What are they hiding? If you’re interested in the home, ask the agent for a private showing and have her request that the sellers not put out scented candles or use air freshening sprays.

RELATED: The Best Candles of 2021

Too few electrical outlets might indicate old wiring.

Today’s construction codes require installing multiple electrical outlets—often one for every 8 feet of linear wall space—to handle all of today’s appliance and technology needs. Older homes may have just one outlet per room, which typically indicates the wiring has not been updated in a very long time. 

Another clue can be found by looking at the outlet. If outlets have just two slots—but not the round hole needed to plug in a grounded plug—it’s an indication of old wiring.

Low water pressure could be a sign that old galvanized lines need replacing.

Copper, PVC, and PEX are the current materials of choice for water supply lines, but older homes may still contain galvanized pipes that are prone to developing rust and corrosion. Galvanized water lines were popular in the 1950s and 60s, but they fell out of favor when they started filling with rust, resulting in low water pressure. In some communities, they were installed as late as the 1990s.

If you turn on a faucet and a wimpy trickle comes out—there’s a chance that whoever buys the house may need to spring for complete waterline replacement.

RELATED: 9 Dangers Lurking in Your Home’s Water Supply

Missing doors may be no mystery.

Poor room configurations are nothing new. However, when opening an interior door results in being unable to enter the room comfortably or interfering with the room’s function, sellers (and their agents) may take the door off its hinges during an open house. Poor door/room configurations are often found in bathrooms and laundry rooms, but they can occur in any room. If you come across a room with a missing door, there’s also a slim chance they removed it because something was wrong with the door. To be on the safe side, imagine it on the hinges to see if it would interfere with use of the room when in place.

If the interior walls are plaster, the home could be chilly in winter.

The wall builders of yesteryear who applied plaster to wood lath and created near-perfect flat walls were craftsmen, indeed, but older homes that still have plaster and lath walls are typically under-insulated. When older homes are updated, the plaster is usually torn off, new batt insulation is installed, and then the wall studs are covered with drywall panels. 

Before passing judgment, however, go outside and examine the exterior siding—if you find small round plugs near the top of the wall every 16 inches or so, it’s an indication that blown-in insulation was added to the stud spaces later.

RELATED: 5 Things to Know About Blown-in Insulation

Shared driveways can lead to neighborly disputes.

The old saying is “Good fences make good neighbors,” so it’s no surprise that shared driveways can lead to hard feelings. No matter how quaint or postcard-perfect the neighborhood, if the home you’re looking at shares a driveway with the house next door, it can lead to problems in the future when either you or your neighbor inadvertently parks over the centerline. Consider whether it’s worth the hassle.

Holes above or below a door’s strike plate could indicate structural settling.

Many potential homebuyers will notice a door that sticks or doesn’t open and close easily, and then they suspect the house has settled. If the door has been shaved off, it may open and close easily, and the sellers may think you’ll be none the wiser. When sticking doors are shaved, however, their strike plates often require adjusting for the door to latch properly.

If you notice holes above or below the strike plate, it indicates the strike plate has been moved, and there could be a structural reason for moving it.

RELATED: Solved! 4 Fixes for When a Door Won’t Latch

Uneven baseboards could be the result of a structural problem.

Large gaps in the inside corners of rooms can indicate the house has shifted, and there’s a structural issue. However, corners can be fixed and walls repainted to hide the problem from potential buyers.

Make it a point to look where the baseboards meet at the bottom of each corner because it’s more difficult to conceal the problem here. If the baseboards are not even, you may suspect that the corners have been repaired and that there may be a structural problem hidden beneath.

RELATED: 6 Signs of Structural Damage You Should Never Ignore