What should we look for when purchasing our first home ?


The purchase of a home, whether it is new construction or existing, is a traumatic and confusing ordeal for many people. As contractors, it is much easier to identify various elements that help focus the purchase in the right direction. Unfortunately this focus only develops after years of experience in the building trades as well as several errors of judgment during our careers. Most individuals do not have the benefit of this type of experience, nor do they have any builders that they can honestly confide in . Let’s face it, if a builder is asked this question, they will more than likely, focus the answers to comply with their business plan, that is to ” get the job”.

This is why this conversation and discussion is invaluable to the average individual purchasing a home, and I will make it as clear and honest as possible. These comments are coming from a builder that is speaking honestly without the need to find the next project.

1.) Location / Although this is a clique that is repeated over and over again by parents, real estate agents and the like, it is absolutely true. Location is key to the real estate residential marketplace. Yes, there are developers that ” take the chance ” and purchase either an existing multi-family home or property in areas that are questionable. These are real estate developers who are experienced and educated and normally made of money. Their decision to take a chance, is based on their associations with other individuals that guide them in this decision as well as their past experiences and expertise in the real estate marketplace. You are not that person! Location is based upon the homes around you, and how they are priced and selling. It is based upon the school systems, the local government as well as the tax base. All of these criteria make up a valuable housing market based on location and will draw buyers to the location, not only as you look for a home, but in the future. The importance of a location that is based upon a strong real estate market that is on the upswing and not the downswing is the most important element of choosing the correct home. Always think about the sale of the home when you are the seller and not the purchaser. This is a healthy point of view that will focus the importance of location as you look for your new home. An added comment regarding location of the home is the actually proximity to a flood zone. The new requirements for construction within a flood plain are very expensive and strict, if an addition or expansion is planned for the new home, the awareness of flood zone compliance is mandatory. If the home already exists and there are no plans for renovations or additions, does the home comply with the latest and most strict flood zone requirements, if not, the homeowners insurance on the property will be substantial.

2.) Time on the market / When looking for a home, if you happen to find a deal that is too good to be true, it probably is. If you find a home that has been on the marketplace for several months, or even years, unless the price has been reduced to a ridiculous level, it is probably not for you. If a home is on the market for a long time now, it will be on the market for a long time if you purchase it and decide to resell it. As said previously, this thought process will force you into a healthy position as you look for the proper property to buy. Yes, there is a possibility that if the home or property is substantially improved, if the area becomes trendy, if the municipality becomes sheik or revitalized, there is a possibility that the property will become consumer positive. However, each of these factors are risky gambles for the individual. As a general rule of thumb, a property should not be considered as your primary home, if it has remained on the market for a long period of time. Chances are this property will also be on the market a long time, when you are the seller and not the buyer.

3.) Size / The physical size of a home is a characteristic that is of considerable importance to the average individual looking for a home to purchase. Unless the intent is to renovate, and add on to the home immediately, the initial size is extremely important. Assuming that the condition of the space is relatively adequate, the physical size will determine what type of living conditions will be available for the individual purchasing the home. A small home, will limit the ability of the purchaser due to size. If the home is too small and the intent is to expand the home, do the zoning laws allow the expansion, is there enough land for this addition, and when will the finances be available for this expansion? These are all questions that must be answered, to properly evaluate the purchase of a ” too ” small home. For the majority of purchasers, the size of the home should be adequate to sustain a happy household, as is, and not in the future.

3.) Number of bathrooms / The number of bathrooms is a characteristic that is an important element of selecting a home. The basic plumbing required for a bathroom, sanitary ,hot and cold water, is an important, basic priority. It really doesn’t matter what the condition of the bathroom is, they can all be redone eventually, but if the piping, or roughing is in the location, anything can be done in the future. I always inform purchasers, that they should look for the home with the most bathrooms, due to the ability to use the plumbing as needed. Granted, there is always the opportunity to add plumbing and reroute plumbing, however, the opportunity to already have the plumbing available, is a basic positive element when looking for a home. In addition, the space allocated for an existing bathroom does not have to be created if an addition or renovation is planned that includes a new bathroom. The size of the septic tank will also, at least be functionally sized, to accommodate the bathrooms if they already exist.

4.) Foundation condition / The foundation of the home is a very important element when considering the purchase of a home. The axiom has always been, the structure is only as good as the foundation that it sits on. This can’t be more true. The foundation of the structure is an element of the home, that if deteriorated, will cost substantial money to correct. In some instances, the existing foundation might be so deteriorated, that it cannot be fixed, and will need replacement. The foundation of a structure is key to its longevity. How can you determine what condition the foundation is in?

a.) If the foundation is concrete, stone, or masonry, check for cracks or obvious conditions of deterioration. Open joints between the block or brick, obvious deterioration of the masonry units, out of alignment or bowed walls.

b.) Observe the condition of the interior face of the foundation wall. If there is staining such as rust, water stains, or white effervescence, then there is water that is leaking through the foundation. This leakage will eventually cause foundation deterioration. If water is leaking through, eventually the masonry will erode itself and create an unstable or weakened condition.

c.) Height of the foundation walls. The physical height of the foundation walls, if adequate, will allow the eventual use of the basement area as a usable space, adding square footage to the home. If the foundation walls are too short to allow use of the basement space then this severely reduces your ability to increase usable square footage by renovating the basement level.

d.) Foundation interior supports, such as beams, columns, lintels, support beams, etc should be inspected for deterioration. If the columns are metal, they should be inspected for corrosion or rust, if they are wood, they should be inspected for obvious cracking of the wood and deterioration. Try to sight down the beams and floor joist to determine if they are straight or have deflected during their life cycle. Obvious cracking, holes, chunks of material that have fallen out or appear ready to fall out of the member is always reason to be concerned.

5.) Roof / The condition of the roof is important. The actual condition of the shingles or whatever material is covering the exterior of the roof is important, however, the condition of the covered space, attic or eave is more important. If there is visual water damage or obvious roof rafters or sheathing that has been compromised, this is important. These types of issues, will signify deterioration of the roof resulting in these compromises. The replacement of the roof will be subjected to the replacement of the structural elements that have been damaged. A simple evaluation of the roof, by observing if the shingles are cupped, missing, or overly worn looking, is fine, however, the real problem will be the deterioration of the structure below due to leakage. Reroofing is a common maintenance project for any home, the damages that occur if this reroofing was not performed as required is the real important issue to the home buyer. An inspection of the roof gutter and downspout systems is also important due to the fact that continued disrepair of these systems will lead to deterioration of soffit boards, siding, trim panels, etc.

6.) Eaves / The condition of the eaves is important. If the home is located in a cold climate, and ice and snow are common, the backup of ice and subsequently water, will cause substantial damage to the roof, roof sheathing, as well as the ceiling finishes around the perimeter of the home. Continual ice dams, winter upon winter can cause the buildup of mold and deterioration that can lead to serious consequences. Water is a common issue, however, the repeated existence of water without repair will cause substantial damage to a residential structure.

7.) Windows / The condition of the windows is, in most cases, somewhat secondary. Replacement windows have developed to such an extent, that their use, is in most cases, a better option than reconditioning the old. Windows in the past have been an important element purchasers should consider, but with new technology and replacement methods, the removal of old windows and the installation of replacement windows has become standard practice. The improvement of a structure by simply replacing the windows is considerable and should be a clever insight for home buyers that are trying to find a financial angle when purchasing the home.

8.) Existing insulation / As with windows, the installation of new and improved insulation systems has evolved, to such a degree, that the existence of good insulation is not as important as in the past. The use of exterior replacement sheathing, the development of spray foam and new technologies of insulating existing homes, has reduced the importance of the existing condition of insulation. Insulation is extremely important to the economical function of the home, however, replacement windows, attic insulation, exterior insulated sheathing boards and new and improved door and entry ways, allows a radical improvement of the insulation qualities of a structure without the need to destroy the interior walls to add insulation to the envelop.

9.) Water or moisture in the basement / Technology and new developments have solved the disasters of the past, in reference to water and moisture in the basement. In the past, to have water issues in the basement, was the first item of caution, that was preached to anyone purchasing a home. Today’s technology and the development of separate, specialized sub-contractors, devoted to nothing but the creation of a dry basement has also placed this negative element down the list. Water can be controlled with waterproofing systems and pumps and the solution to this issue has become less costly and more effective.

10.) Structural stability and integrity / The condition of a structure is obviously important. A structures structural integrity is important. Yes, there are numerous ways to strengthen, stiffen and add to the structural integrity of a home, however, not without considerable expense. I am discussing the overall skeleton of the structure. If the home is a wood framed home, the integrity of the framing is important, rotten or deteriorated framing is a condition that could cause issues in the future.

The best way to identify structural issues, is to hire a professional structural engineer or certified home inspector, to review the structural integrity of the building. If you are inclined to perform the inspection yourself, then it is best to have some idea of the rationale to the structural framing. Once the loading scheme is identified, how the roof load transfers to each floor, and eventually down to the foundation, you can start to evaluate the integrity of all structural members, in reference to cracking, deterioration, rotting, etc. The best means of testing any of the structure, for anyone who is not educated in the processes, is to simply stick a thin screwdriver into the structural member. Obviously this works for wood supports and if the screwdriver is easily buried, then this means there are issues with the structural integrity of the member. Unless you are cognizant of structural design, have constructed homes yourself, or can have an accomplished confidant accompany you on your inspection, I strongly recommend that a professional home inspector be hired to evaluate the structure.

11.) Interior feel / The feel of the interior of the structure is a personnel element that must be individually determined. Is the home too small, is it too large, are the ceilings too high or low, does the layout of the structure serve your way of life? These elements are all specific characteristics of a home that must be determined by the purchaser on an individual basis. Of practical importance is the width of the doorways, as well as the size of the stairwells. The movement within a structure is funneled through the doors and up and down the stairs. The sizes of each of these elements is important to the overall comfort and convenience of the structure.

12.) Plumbing / The plumbing fits into the category of items such as windows and insulation. It is extremely beneficial to have the plumbing top rate and in good shape. However, leaking pipes or malfunctioning fixtures can always be fixed. The primary element to identifying the status of the plumbing is not the plumbing itself, but the damages that have been caused by failures in the plumbing system. If a pipe has been leaking or a sink dripping for long periods of time, substantial damage to the structure and other elements, such as flooring, could have occurred. Plumbing can always be renovated and replaced, however the damages caused by lack of maintenance of a plumbing system can be wide spread and costly to repair.

13.) HVAC / Heating, venting, air conditioning systems / Like the plumbing, the HVAC systems can be replaced. However, as with the plumbing the damages that can occur if the systems have not been maintained can cause considerable damage to the structure as well as other elements of the home. A leaking condensate system off the air conditioner condensers can cause severe structural, flooring and ceiling damages. Improper ventilation of the structure can cause the buildup of mold and mildew in areas that are difficult to access. The HVAC systems can easily be replaced, reconditioned, or simply maintained, the damages caused by long term issues can be quite severe.

14.) Electrical / Once again, like the plumbing and the HVAC, the electrical systems can easily be updated and modernized. However, unlike the other two elements of the home, an inadequate electrical system, if it has not burnt the structure down, does not necessarily cause harm or deterioration to the other elements within the home. If the electrical service is inadequate, it can be updated, if the wiring is old and incorrectly installed, new wiring can be installed. The installation of new electrical systems may require the substantial opening of walls and ceilings, which will cause considerable expense. However, a new or modern, electrical system within a home, like the other mechanical systems, is a very nice element to have when buying a home, however, is not a deal breaker, due to the ability to improve the system in a methodical fashion that will not break the bank.

To summarize, a builders overall attitude in deciding what a purchaser should look for, when selecting a new or existing home, is basically as follows.

The location of the property is of ultimate importance. This is something that cannot be changed, no matter how much money is actually spent on the property, and is an element that will determine your happiness at the selection, for the length of time, you actually own the home. The ability to walk to downtown, the types of schools, the overall impression of the area, the value of other real estate, the growth of the area, as well as your own customized preferences, are the most important aspects of your happiness within a home. The structure of the home, especially in the opinion of a builder is totally secondary. Money and time can solve almost any issue that a home may have, or eventually develop, as the homeowner lives in the structure. To add space, rebuild kitchens and baths, add baths, replace windows, add or replace insulation, replace the roof, etc. are all items that can be done in the future if necessary or preferred, by the purchaser of the property.

Builders that are used to large commercial projects tend to identify residential issues within a home as minor nuisances that can almost always be overcome. In my opinion, this is not an incorrect way for the purchaser of a home to start off when looking for their home. This attitude will focus the purchaser on the much more important elements of the selection, location, location, location.

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