10 Vital Questions You Need to Ask Before You Buy a House

 February 14, 2017
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Buying a house is a big commitment.

Before you take that step, you need to know what you’re getting into. You don’t want unpleasant surprises tripping you up when you buy a house — or costing you extra money.

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Here’s a homebuying checklist of questions you should ask your real estate agent and others before signing the dotted line on any deal.

1. What is the home’s sale history?

Ask for the home’s sale history before you decide whether or not you’re getting a good deal. When was it last sold? How much did it sell for? Has it ever been foreclosed on?

A glimpse into the past can help you determine if you’re paying a good price. Compare your home’s cost and sale history to similar homes in the neighborhood.

Don’t forget to pay attention to how long the home has been on the market either. The longer the home has been on the market, the more likely it is to be overpriced or have some other problem.

You can also use tools like Zillow’s comparison tool to see how your potential home stacks up to others in the neighborhood.

2. What are the utility costs?

When you set out to buy a house, you’re probably not thinking of utility costs. But you should be.

Ask the real estate agent for information about the average cost of utilities for the home. Make it clear you don’t want the lowest rate paid one month. The average can give you a good idea of how much you need to budget for added homeownership costs.

Find out what kind of fuel is used for heating. Is it gas or electric? Does the home have a fireplace? How about summer time? Is there central air conditioning? Or will you need to make do with a fan?

Once you know what to expect from the home in terms of utilities, you can make a more informed decision.

3. How old is the roof?

Every year, Remodeling magazine puts out a list of the most and least cost efficient home improvement projects. The 2017 version sees the cost of roofing replacement growing in cost, but returning a slightly lower value.

You don’t want to be stuck replacing the roof in a couple of years, so find out how old the roof is. This will give you a good idea of how long you have until the roof must be replaced.

Also, it’s good to ask about a warranty. A roof is expensive. If something isn’t done right, you’ll be glad of that warranty.

4. What problems has the home had in the past?

Unless you plan to buy a house as a project home, you don’t want a property with a lot of problems. This is a question that belongs on your homebuying checklist so you can rule out homes with major issues.

Ask if the home has had any pest infestations (termites and ants especially). You should also ask about broken pipes and past fires or mold and mildew damage.

Don’t forget the home inspection, either. It takes a little longer to close on a home when you’re waiting on an inspection, but it’s worth it. The inspection can pinpoint glaring problems and provide you an “out.” At the very least, you can back out of a deal easier when there’s something wrong with the house.

If a home deal seems too good to be true, and you’re not in the market for a fixer-upper, ask what’s wrong with it. Then you can decide whether or not those are problems you want to be responsible for fixing.

5. How much are property taxes?

By now, you might notice that owning a home comes with a lot of costs. One of those costs is property taxes — unless you live in a state that doesn’t require property taxes.

Find out how much the taxes are, and create a budget so you can be prepared.

6. What’s the sewer situation?

In some areas, rather than hooking into the city sewer, the property has a septic system. Maintaining a septic system adds another cost, and can take time.

Find out whether or not the sewer has ever backed up into the home. If there is a septic system, ask when it was last pumped.

The answers will give you an idea of potential problems while you are in the home.

7. Is the electrical up to code?

Ask about the electrical system when you buy a house, too. Today’s lifestyle means more plugs are needed. Check for adequate outlets throughout the home, and make sure the electrical system can handle your usage.

Be aware that in some areas, “grandfather” laws allow homes with older electrical systems to stand, even if they aren’t up to current codes. If you decide to overhaul the system, that’s another cost you will have to consider.

8. What warranties are still in effect?

Every homebuying checklist should include a question about warranties. Is the HVAC system still under warranty? What about the appliances in the home?

From the roof to the water heater, you want to know what’s still under warranty. Ask for the records as well, and keep them all in a safe place.

9. Is the home in a flooding area?

If the home is located on a floodplain, you might be required to purchase additional homeowner’s insurance just in case.

Ask about the water table as well. Even if the home isn’t in an area that’s officially listed as a floodplain, it might still cause problems.

My home wasn’t in a recognized flooding area, but the high water table meant that groundwater ended up in the home more than once. We got a sump pump to help keep the water out.

You should also find out about other potential natural disasters. Is the home in an area of potential mudslides? Are there frequent earthquakes? How often are there tornadoes? These disasters often come with additional insurance costs, so be ready.

10. How is the home zoned?

Before you buy a house, find out what kind of zoning is in effect. For example, I live in a neighborhood that’s only zoned for single families. This means that if my landlord wanted to rent out the basement to a second family, he couldn’t.

Don’t forget to find out about zoning and other regulations if you want to use Airbnb to make money. Airbnb’s website points out that you should be aware of the regulations in your town. Some cities and states are starting to regulate short-term rentals and vacation rentals.

While you’re at it, find out about street parking. Will your guests be able to park on the street? Can you park on the street if needed? Depending on how many cars you have, and how often you expect guests, there could be problems.

You don’t want to end up fined by the city or stuck making unexpected repairs. Ask a few questions before you buy a house, and you can easily avoid costly mistakes.

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