We’ve been looking at a few open houses, and since we still have time left on our apartment lease, we’re in no hurry to move in. We have been contemplating buying a fixer-upper and doing the work while the lease runs out. What are the key things to check to see if it really is a “handyman special” vs. a “nothing-a-couple-sticks-of-dynamite-couldn’t-fix” special?
While home inspectors spend the majority of time during pre-purchase inspections looking at the various individual components in a home, they are trained to look at the entire house as a system. This may sound contradictory, but it is not, when properly addressed. If we use the analogy of a car, most of us know that automobiles contain various components such as an engine, transmission, wheels, brakes, etc. If all these systems are working properly, the car will run well and give us good performance. If one of these components, even a small item, is not in good shape the car will still operate but if left unchecked may cause more damage to the vehicle. We will use a brake pad as an example and if one is worn out and not replaced the entire braking system may be damaged or it could lead to a very dangerous situation. The individual brake pad, itself, is a very small component in the overall makeup of the vehicle, but can be very significant in the safety and performance of the overall system, the car.
If we think of a home in the same light and we have one or more components or systems in poor condition it may affect the overall performance and structure of the home. Evaluation of the function of each individual component in a house will be impossible for a purchaser, no matter how knowledgeable, to complete in one or two short visits to a home before purchase. Therefore, I would recommend taking the “house as a system” approach when checking out your “handyman special”.
When going to open houses or viewing homes for sale with a Realtor, you should try to stay away from using the “micro” approach. We will use the kitchen viewing as an example. Try to avoid the “Oh, isn’t that a lovely new fridge and stove” trapping. Instead, use your limited time to look at the entire kitchen, not just the appliances. Check for damage to cabinets and countertops, leaky plumbing, cracked walls, and sloping floors. Look at doorways, windows and rooms in general for overall squareness and level. If something seems quite out of whack to the naked eye, it probably is.
The primary concern of most homeowners, not surprisingly, is the structural integrity of the home and foundation. After looking at a dozen or so homes of varying ages, most buyers can get a general feel for the structural integrity. Start at the street, before entering the property. Stand back and look at the whole house. Does it look straight and true or does one or more items look crooked or out of place? Does the home look closer at the eaves to one neighbouring home than the other? Is one part of the roofline askew to the others? Does the house look slanted in one direction? Are there noticeable sags in the roof or bows in the walls?
Upon entering the home, walk all the floors and look for large bumps, slopes and excess movement or squeaking. This may or may not be an indication of a structural problem, but may give you some clues. In older homes you can be easily fooled by teleposts that need adjustment or wooden posts and basement walls that need trimming. To help verify this, look in the basement and see if older wood posts are still present or if rec rooms appear to be built before you were born.
Other than the initial exterior inspection, the most important place to spend your time during a “showing” is the basement. Most of the good stuff is down there. Look at the interior foundation walls, if visible, for large cracks, spalling or large amounts of mould or a white powder known as “efflourescence”. If one or more of these items are present it may be a “red flag” for structural issues. Look at the heating system for rust or damage to the exterior components. Look for leaky plumbing, stains on the basement floor below bathrooms or the kitchen and rot or damage to the floor joists. If these items are visible to you, they are likely worn out and require upgrading. After the structural and basement review, check the kitchen and bathroom areas for signs of moisture damage. Moisture is normally the biggest enemy to house components and well-vented, clean and solid kitchens and bathrooms are often the sign of good maintenance.
While many people can spot obvious problems with a home, there is no substitute for a complete pre-purchase inspection by a trained home inspector. Ensure you are protected by including a condition in the offer to purchase for a satisfactory home inspection. Visit the CAHPI Manitoba website listed below for members in your area.