It’s every homebuyer’s worst nightmare: buying a home that looks fine and then turns into a never-ending litany of repairs, expensive ones. How can buyers avoid the ‘money-pit’ house? We asked some local real estate agents what you should keep your eyes on when touring a home.

“The first thing an interested buyer should do is read the seller’s disclosure very carefully,” advises Andy Dielmann of Dielmann Sotheby’s International Realty. “This will alert them about any current problems of which the seller is aware and will also provide information regarding past issues that have been corrected. During the inspection, the buyer can then tell the inspector about these issues. Also, the buyer should inquire whether any warranties on the work would be transferable if they buy the house.”

Telltale signs of previous repair to a house include mismatched or unequally worn roof shingles, ceiling tiles, siding, brick or cement patios and walkways, Dielmann says. He lists the top five ‘bad signs’ to watch for: structural problems, untreated termite damage, major plumbing or electrical problems, roof repairs required because of water damage, and outdoor drainage problems that could lead to water in the basement. Signs of water damage include stains on ceilings or walls and a damp, musty smell in the basement. Places where wood rot has been filled in and painted over indicate previous termite damage, Dielmann adds.

“Look at the condition of the walls, ceilings, floors and major systems,” recommends Tina Niemann of Prudential Alliance Realtors. “Buyers also need to check the age of the furnace, air conditioning and roof.” If the house is made of brick, she advises buyers to note the condition of the brick and mortar to see if there are major cracks in the mortar, a sign of problematic house ‘settling.’

“Also, look for drainage in the yard, paying attention to the slope of the yard, the driveway and the gutters,” Niemann advises. “The gutters should be free of debris, that is often a source of huge water problems.”

Carolyn Malecek of Coldwell Banker Gundaker suggests getting copies of heating and cooling bills from the past year. “Sometimes if there are older windows or an older furnace that is less efficient, your bills may go up quite a lot,” she says. “Other things to take a careful look at are the plumbing stacks in the basement. If they show barnacles of rust, that means they are rusting from the inside out, and if they spring a leak, it might mean having to replace the stack, which can be very expensive.”

Sometimes an inspection raises more questions than it answers, she says. “If you’re unsure at the end of a building inspection, talk with your inspector about a 10-year plan and what he sees as potential problems in the future,” Malecek recommends. “A lot of these older homes have had repair to their foundations, so make sure everything is structurally sound. Bowing of the wall shows movement of the foundation, or if the doors stick, that can signal movement in a house. Sometimes a structural company needs to pier the house on steel from the outside, which can get costly (around $1,500 a pier), but once it’s stabilized, it should stay stabilized.”

Another potential problem arises when buyers consider taking out a wall or adding a bathroom, notes Malecek. “Make sure what you think will be a simple change really will be simple,” she warns. “Get a contractor. If there’s an HVAC line going up to a second floor or a wall with duct work, those are not easy to change.”

Finally, Malecek suggests buyers pay attention to the roof and areas they can’t see. “If a second-floor ceiling gets too close to the roofline, there’s a chance of moisture damage because there’s not enough ventilation; there could be mold and mildew growing, and there’s no way to actually go in there and see it,” she says. Using a good inspector and leaving no pipe unchecked or surface unexamined can help guarantee the house you purchase doesn’t turn into a nightmare.

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