real estate

Peek past the flash when buying a house

Hand holding magnifying glass in front of house
Highlights
  • A house built at a low level can mean water damage and other troubles.
  • A truss roof lets homeowners rearrange interior walls to their liking.
  • A nice view could be blocked by construction or a neighbor's remodeling.

Homebuyers are easily dazzled by big rooms, granite countertops, double-paned windows and pretty bathroom accessories. But lots of square footage and clever staging don't mean that a house is solidly built or that it's a good buy. That's why buyers need to look past a home's size and accouterments and focus instead on the prosaic parts that really matter.

Buyers today can take their time and be cautious and picky, says Sloan Ritchie, founder of Cascade Built, a homebuilder in Seattle. That's because many housing markets have plenty of for-sale homes from which buyers can choose.

"It's a buyer's market, and that's probably not going to change anytime soon," he says. "Remodels are very expensive, so if you can find a house that's already what you need, that's the best scenario."

With that in mind, here are some important factors to consider:

Sun exposure

The number, size and location of a home's windows can make a huge difference in the interior temperature and cost to heat and cool the rooms throughout the seasons.

"If you're in Arizona," Ritchie says, "you want as little sun as possible on your home. In Minnesota, maybe you want to maximize your exposure."

A swimming pool on the south side will get the most afternoon sunshine, says Stephen Jaron, owner of Echelon Construction Company, a homebuilder in Naples, Fla.

Elevation

A home situated on a rise is a better pick than one seated in a valley because water from any source will flow toward the lower elevation -- and that can mean foundation damage, mold and subterranean termites, says Michelle Lohr, president of GnM Lohr Homes, a home builder in Austin, Texas.

"If a home is sinking in the lot and you can see that in heavy rains the water will flow toward the home, that will create a lot of long-term problems," she says.

Any accessible subgrade space can be a good place to look for signs of humidity, moisture or water damage. Even there, however, drainage problems can be difficult to detect.

"A finished basement might look fine," Ritchie says, "but maybe it was done only five years ago, and the big flood doesn't happen except every 20 years and it wipes out all of that space."

Construction quality

Experienced contractors can evaluate the quality of a home's original construction many years after it was built. Two components to inspect first are the framework, visible in the attic, and the doors, which should open and shut properly, Jaron says. A professional inspection by a building contractor can produce more intel.

Lot lines

Houses that are built with shared walls or very close to one another tend to be less desirable than houses on larger or better-proportioned lots due primarily to space and privacy issues. Jaron says homes in such higher-density communities can offer less yard work and convenient access to local shops and restaurants, but these big-size, small-lot homes also exist in gated communities far from commercial areas.

Roof type

A truss roof, identifiable by the triangular shape, is a big plus because it means buyers can remove or relocate interior walls to change the size, number or configuration of rooms. A truss system, Ritchie says, carries the roof's weight to the exterior walls, so the interior walls aren't load-bearing. Any other style of roof might preclude major remodeling.

Floor plan

Families typically prefer homes that have multiple bedrooms. But the location of those sleeping spaces and their number relative to the number of bathrooms can be important. A downstairs master bedroom suite, Lohr says, is particularly desirable because it allows parents some privacy from their children. A home with two bedrooms probably doesn't need three full bathrooms, whereas a home with four bedrooms should have three or four bathrooms.

Views

An ocean, mountain or city view can make a home highly desirable, but view-homebuyers should research whether local laws protect that view from being blocked by future construction. Sans any law or easement, a neighbor's remodel could be built upward into the line of sight. Buyers who want to build higher themselves also need to find out whether that will be permitted, even if someone else's view would be ruined, Ritchie says.

Neighborhood noise

Few homes are free from sound effects, whether that means roaring freeways, circling helicopters, rumbling trucks, whistling trains, barking dogs or screaming children. Consequently, buyers are advised to visit a home at different times of the day from early morning to late at night and on different days of the week and during the weekend to assess the transportation patterns and other potential annoyances.

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