Think you’ve found the home of your dreams? So did Hansel and Gretel.
The fact is, every property has its dirty little secrets that only the owner knows about.
In a perfect world, owners would come clean about the quirks and glitches in the old homestead when they fill out the property condition disclosure form that many states require. But as Hansel and Gretel found out, real estate is fraught with subterfuge.
Real estate agents routinely caution sellers to dummy up and clear out during showings lest they inadvertently spill information that might give the buyer leverage to negotiate a lower price. For this reason alone, it’s rare that seller and buyer actually get together prior to closing.
But if you happen to meet the seller or pepper the agent, as query intermediary, with the right questions, you may just wheedle enough information to satisfy yourself that you’re getting what you’re paying for — or justify trying to pay less.
Here are the top 10 questions home sellers don’t want you to ask.
1. Why are you selling?
Your first order of business as a buyer is to find out the seller’s motivation; that is, how desperate are they to sell?
“If you hear something like, ‘Well, we’d like to move out into the country,’ you don’t have a motivated seller and quite often you’re just not going to get a decent deal on a house that way,” says Tom Wemett, past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents and a buyer’s broker in Rochester, N.Y.
“But if you find out that they’ve already bought another house and are about to carry two mortgages, there’s motivation. A divorce, loss of a job or job relocation, now there’s motivation.”
Sometimes the seller will be forthcoming, other times not. In the latter case, says Wemett, “you need to use some intuition and gut feel. With divorce, for instance, you see women’s clothes but no men’s clothes. You have to take whatever is told to you by the seller or the listing agent with a grain of salt.”
2. What did you pay?
When the homeowners moved into their house and how much they paid for it are matters of public record, so it’s futile for sellers to try to withhold this information. Nevertheless, they don’t want you to know these particulars, again because they can help enormously when it comes time to write an offer.
Generally, if a homeowner has been in the house for many years, they probably bought it at a relatively low price, built up considerable equity and benefited from appreciation. Conventional wisdom holds that this seller may be more inclined to come down on their asking price than someone who has only been in the home a short time and built up little equity in the property.
3. What can you tell me about the neighborhood?
Such a lovely loaded question! By keeping it open-ended, you may stumble upon references to the garage band next door, the dog kennel over the fence, the upcoming picnic to raise money for the neighborhood class-action suit.
“You can also find out positive things,” says Wemett. “For instance, if you are a family with kids, are there other families with kids in the neighborhood?”
It’s always a good idea to drive, walk or bike through the neighborhood at different times of the day and night to try it before you buy it. And don’t forget to chat with the neighbors, especially about your prospective new address.
4. How old is the roof?
Aw, jeez, doesn’t every seller hate that one? The seller may have to disclose that on the property-condition form, but if the roof predates the current homeowner, he can truthfully say he doesn’t know.
Consider this follow-up: Who was the previous owner and how can I contact him? It’s cheaper to do a little digging now when you can still haggle over a full or partial roofing credit than to foot the whole bill yourself later.
5. When was the last time the furnace was cleaned?
Who cares? You do!
“That’s a huge gauge that I use,” Wemett admits. “Furnaces should be cleaned every year. If it has been and there is a nice service record on the side of the furnace, chances are the rest of the house has been cared for. If that furnace hasn’t been cleaned in three or four years and it’s just filthy and has dirt and dust and so forth, I would say the rest of the house is probably the same and has not been cared for.”
6. Is this house haunted?
Laugh if you like, but some home buyers will turn heel and exit promptly from houses that have been the scene of murders or suicides. Some states require sellers to disclose the presence of ghosts, poltergeists or paranormal activity on a property.
The seller likely won’t rush to disclose that the place shakes, rattles and rolls after dark, but you may be able to draw the information out of them gradually.
“It could be divulged by asking why the house is on the market,” says Wemett. If the answer is, “It’s an estate sale,” it’s reasonable to ask how the guy died. You just might get the reply, “Well, it was a young guy and he was murdered in the house.”
“Talking to neighbors might do the trick, too,” Wemett adds.
7. Has this property ever been rented?
Any landlord will vouch that rentals take far more abuse than residences. If the property was used as a rental at some time, it speaks to the general condition of the place and may convince the seller to dicker on the sticker price.
8. What is your impression of the area schools?
If real estate is all about location, a top priority is a quality school district.
“You get two types of buyers: Those who are school district buyers and will look at that priority first and choose their towns and even neighborhoods based on it, and house-based buyers who don’t need the absolutely top-tier school district but are looking for a certain housing level,” says John Herman of The Buyer’s Representative in Connecticut.
If schools are a priority for you, chances are you are already aware of the district’s strengths and weaknesses. By asking the seller about schools, you may gain additional valuable information, such as whether they send their children to public or private schools.
9. Do you mind if I schedule a few inspections at my expense?
Some inspections, such as termite checks, may be required before a home can change hands. Increasingly, however, buyers are asking for professional inspections of chimneys, furnaces, roofing, air ducts and to detect the presence of Radon and other household gases.
“This is your one shot to learn about this house,” says Wemett. “Litigation is expensive. Maybe the seller moves out of state. So you better figure out ahead of time and not rely on the seller to give you the information you need when it comes to the condition of the property. At least you have the opportunity to ask the seller to make repairs or write in a repair credit so you can go back and fix something.”
10. Would you mind showing us around?
This is the one that selling agents fear above all others.
“That gives an opportunity for my buyer to schmooze the seller and to start a relationship so that if that is a house they’re going to buy, it will help us in our negotiation,” Wemett says.
“I had one case where the seller fell in love with my client and ended up dropping the price five grand just so my client could buy the house, and it was solely because of the relationship that had developed between them. Listing agents should tell their clients to get as far away from the house as possible.”
Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Mississippi.