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What every smart home buyer knows

When it comes to buying a home, there's no such thing as too much information.

Not only do you need the nuts and bolts of the properties you're shopping, you also have to consider the kind of life you want while you're living there.

"What are the goals for the home in your life?" asks Gary Eldred, author of "The 106 Common Mistakes Homebuyers Make (& How to Avoid Them)." "What do you want this home to accomplish for you?"

That's the approach Kevin and Kathleen O'Connor took when they bought their first home last year on Boston's North Shore.

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"The No. 1 thing that I have learned is that it is critical to think hard and understand how you live your life and separate that from the sometimes fiction of what you think you want in a house," says Kevin O'Connor, host of television's "This Old House" and "Ask This Old House."

The couple wanted a real neighborhood within walking distance of shops, parks and other amenities. They found their perfect home in an 1894 Victorian. "We paid a premium because of the location," says O'Connor. "But on the other hand, it doesn't have a garage or a driveway. It's a great house that suits our lifestyle very well. You forgo some amenities and get some benefits."

Robert Irwin, author of "Home Buyer's Checklist," advises focusing on two things: How is the home going to fit your needs? And how easy is this house going to be to resell?

"One of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that they will live in a house forever," says Irwin.

"It sounds counterintuitive because you're buying, why should you look at selling?" he says. "But it's also an investment, and from an investment perspective you have to be looking at selling."

Curb your enthusiasm
The most important advice for potential buyers? Don't get emotionally involved.

"A lot of people talk themselves into falling in love with something before they've really looked at it," says Stephen Gladstone, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors. "They really should be looking at quality as well as location."

So give that potential home the critical eye.

"It's very important for the home buyer to look at the outside of the house from the curb," says Kenneth Austin, co-author of "The Homebuyer's Inspection Guide." "Does it have curb appeal? That's going to give you a great clue as to how the rest of the house has been maintained."

"When I look at a house, the first thing I do when I get out of the truck is look at the overall location of how it sits on the lot," says Tom Silva, general contractor for "This Old House" and "Ask This Old House."

Silva eyeballs the roof line (dipped or crooked could mean rot, rust or a structural problem with a joist or rafter). Ditto the line of the windows. "If the sills are straight -- that's a good thing," says Silva, also a professional contractor with Mass.-based Silva Brothers Construction.

Silva also looks at the roll of the land in relation to the house, which can be an important factor for drainage problems. "Does [the lot] pitch to the house? And even though it does, is there means for water to get disbursed before it enters the house?"

Does the exterior show signs of water damage?

Savvy buyers also look at the roof, which can be expensive to replace.

"Look for signs of deterioration or damage," Gladstone says.

Some clues: Do the shingles look worn or warped? If wood, are they covered with mold or moss? Are they cracking or curling? If the roof is a flat membrane, is it ripped? Does it have an alligator skin-like appearance?

Check the siding too, Gladstone says. First check out the paint: "Is there peeling, bubbling or stain damage? Does it look worn or thin? Are there sections of the siding that look damaged? Are there holes or loose pieces?"

Do you see cracks in the exterior brick? "Ask why," says Strong. "What has settled that the brick should crack?" While it doesn't mean you should pass on the house, it is a sign that you need a qualified expert to examine the situation before you buy, he says.

Interior insight
"Beware of a home that has a lot of awkward features like a bathroom off a kitchen or a bedroom off a living room. They can be expensive to change," Irwin says. "You might be willing to live with it, but it might make it difficult to sell later on."

Other features that can affect resale: small bathrooms or less than two bathrooms; less than three bedrooms; (with some exceptions, like golf course condos); carports; one-car garages; homes that are atypical of the neighborhood, or a pool, which can be a plus or a minus.

When you tour the house, be nosy. Open closet doors. Walk through the attic, garage and basement. Note how well the yard is kept.

Those normally hidden spaces "are a barometer of how well it's been taken care of in the past." says James Katen, a home inspector and the owner of Benchmark Inspection Services in Gaston, Ore.

Check out the air filter and the ducts. If they're dirty, the house isn't being maintained properly, says Gladstone.

Walk corner to corner in large rooms and pace the length of long hallways or stairways. Feel any depressions or dips?

Check the condition of the floor, says Silva. "Is it bubbled?"

Inside, diagonal cracks above the interior door jams or windows and windows that don't open properly could signal a foundation problem, Strong says.

When you walk through the basement and stick your head in the attic, do you smell mold? Are there pots and pans to collect water?

"Magazines and papers stacked on the [basement] floor are a good sign -- no water," says Austin. On the other hand, fresh paint, rust on the furnace or everything up off the ground "may be telling you something," he says.

Test out the heating and air conditioning systems. "Something I'm finding in a lot of new construction are messed up HVAC systems," says Kurt Mittenbuler, a home inspector with Kurt Mittenbuler & Associates in Chicago. In trying to cram more space into a home, he says, builders are putting vents and ducts in less than optimal places. As a result, "people are building million-dollar homes that don't heat or cool properly," he says.

You're also looking for signs of quality, says Gladstone. What are the materials that are used in the home? Are they typical of the neighborhood?

Too many times, he says, potential buyers are focused on the wrong things. "Everyone worries about the furnace," says Mittenbuler. "But furnaces are one of the cheapest things in a house (about $3,000)," he says. "In the market I work with, a couple of broken windows can be $3,000."

And if you are planning on remodeling yourself, make sure the home is up to the job.

"Everybody worries about load-bearing walls," he says. "That's the easy part." The real test? "Where's the duct work? It's not so much about where the load-bearing walls are, it's about where are the mechanical systems."

Every house has its secrets
"Talk to the present owners -- what sorts of things have they done to the house while it's been in their care?" says Katen. If they've done a lot of the work themselves, "proceed with caution," he says. "Next to water, a house's greatest enemy is an eager homeowner/repairman."

You also need to find out about the environmental factors. "In houses built before 1978, the odds are they used lead paint," says Ron Phipps, principal broker with Phipps Realty & Relocation Services in Warwick, R.I. "The cost to cure can be significant. You need to know that going in, and you need to be aware of what the state laws are."

Ditto radon, mold and asbestos. What hidden problems are lurking? What will you need to do to feel comfortable with the house and what, if anything, will you be required to do?

Verify any ongoing costs like utilities and taxes.

"Get copies of the utility bills," says Eldred, who says the information is public for many utility companies. If that's not possible in your area, ask the seller to get them for you.

It's also easy to underestimate taxes. "Understand that last year's property taxes won't necessarily be the amount you pay as a new buyer," says Eldred. "Many states have caps on property taxes."

Instead, call the tax office, verify your rate as a new buyer and find out what exemptions you could claim.

And if you're buying a condominium, "beware of condo commandos," says Eldred. You want to talk to enough residents that you know the condo board has a smooth working relationship with the community. And you want to see enough financial information to be certain that the association is well funded and that there isn't a special assessment in your future.

Plumbing and electric
Even before the home inspector comes out -- and don't buy a home without one -- there are things you can do to detect problems.

"There is no reason in the world when you're walking through the house with the [agent] or owner not to do a mini-inspection," says Gladstone. "Most sellers are prepared for that."

So open those kitchen cabinets, the oven door and the dishwasher. Check out the refrigerator if it comes with the house.

"Go in the kitchen and turn on the microwave and see if the lights dim," says Strong. "Turn on the air conditioning and see if the lights flicker. If they do, that means the wiring is undersized."

How old are the pipes? If it has a new bathroom, or you're planning to install one, can the existing plumbing and hot water heater handle the job?

If you're serious about buying a particular house, tag along during the home inspection. "Ninety-one percent of our clients come with us," says Austin. "That means 9 percent of the people miss out."

Show some appreciation
Real estate professionals often sing the praises of location, location, location.

"Particularly in the higher priced neighborhoods, the value to the property is the dirt it sits on," says John Aust, president of the National Association of Real Estate Appraisers, a professional trade group. Are you near a shopping village and parks? Or is a superhighway going to be your new neighbor six months from now?

Phipps agrees. "It's not just having a nice address," he says. "It's analyzing potential for appreciation based on location, distance from adverse conditions and the likelihood that [the neighborhood] improves or stays the same."

Don't buy the most expensive home on the block. With property at the lower end of value in a neighborhood, "the chance of appreciation is greater," says Alan Hummel, CEO of Iowa Residential Appraisal Co. and past president of The Appraisal Institute, a trade organization of real estate appraisers.

You also want to see what your potential home is like on different days of the week, different times of the day and in various weather conditions. And don't forget to try out your commute, Eldred says.

Call your insurance agent. "Previously, if the home had a [water or mold] claim, it can be difficult or impossible to get insurance," says Irwin. Also ask about flood plains, earthquake zones and any other location-related risks.

And don't forget to talk to the neighbors. "People will be very open," says Austin. Ask: "Is there anything I need to know about what's happening in the general area?" Do the same thing at the local municipal office. Whether it's a new dump or a road expansion, "you don't know about these things, and you don't want any surprises," he says.

"The bottom line: do your homework," says Austin. For most people, "it's the biggest investment anyone will make in their lifetime."

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

-- Posted: March 15, 2004
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