Red flags home-buyers should never ignore – and questions you should always ask

Buying a new home can be overwhelming, not least because for most of us it’s as much an emotional purchase as a financial transaction. With so much information overload during a viewing – especially if we’ve fallen head over heels in love with a home – it is possible, though, to miss important details.

So says Sandy Geffen, Executive Director of Sotheby's International Realty South Africa, who cautions that overlooking certain “red flags” could have significant financial repercussions if not addressed before buyers sign on the dotted line.

“Certain imperfections may not be perceived as ‘problems’ to all buyers, with many being happy to fix small things once they move in, but there are a number of issues that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.”

Geffen says among the worst culprits are:

1.     Foundation/structural faults

“The foundation of a house is arguably the most important part of the entire structure, and also one of the most costly repairs to a home if repairs are needed,” says Geffen, adding that although minor cracking may only be a sign of settling in the home, large cracks can be a sign of serious structural problems with the foundation and these needed to be thoroughly checked.

The easiest way to check the foundation is from the basement, but if a home doesn’t have one or the basement doesn’t allow for you to look at the foundation, another way to tell if a home is possibly experiencing structural problems is by looking at the door frames throughout the home. If door frames don’t appear to be square or the doors seem to have difficulty closing, it’s possible that the home has structural problems.

If you’re unsure, ask for a structural survey before proceeding.

2.     Poor Drainage/Grading

Most water problems in a home are directly related to poor drainage or grading but it’s not always easily detected. The most obvious sign of poor drainage is pooling water, but another is a bouncy bathroom floor that can be evidence of hidden damage such as a leaking shower drain.

If the garden sports mini lakes or continually muddy patches there is probably poor drainage, which can also lead to damp problems inside the home. Other signs of poor drainage can include overflowing gutters, migrating mulch in the flower beds, water stains on basement walls, and cracking in the foundation.

Sue Alison, Area Specialist in the Cape Town City Bowl for Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty says: “Rising damp is also often best spotted on the exterior so look for bubbles on outside walls as this could indicate that the damp course was not incorporated in the building stage. This is much more difficult to fix later.

“Roof leaks are also serious and best determined before buying, as water eventually finds its way down the smallest cracks. Look out for black mould or brown patches on ceilings where water may have pooled.”

She advises that buyers should always ask about the ages of the roof and the geyser.

Howard Hoff, Area Specialist in Highlands North, Savoy Estate and Glenhazel in Johannesburg, suggests going so far as checking the tiles on the roof.

“Slate tiles out of alignment or cracked roof tiles are often telltale signs of potential roof leaks so it’s worth climbing up on a flat roof to see where the water goes in heavy rain. If buyers don’t want to do this themselves, they can ask a builder to inspect the roof.”

Hoff adds that it’s also important to ensure that the pool isn’t leaking. “Having the seller say the pool is only topped up once a week isn’t enough, especially with older properties, so check the water bill and if necessary ask for a structural soundness report on the pool.

“My worst nightmare happened recently when the seller told the client there was a small leak in the pool but didn’t tell me before we began marketing. And when we filled out the disclaimer, the seller did not want any record of the leak mentioned in the immovable property condition report despite my advice to do so.

“This led to the purchasers conveniently forgetting they were told about the leak and they wanted to claim damages after the sale went through.”

3.     Random patches of fresh paint

A coat of paint is undeniably one of the quickest and most effective ways to spruce up a home but if only portions of walls or ceilings appear to be painted, it’s definitely not to be ignored. It’s possible the seller is trying to cover up a problem such as damp, which should be a cause for concern.

4.     Electrical wiring

“House fires caused by faulty electrical wiring are not as uncommon as one would like to believe,” says Geffen, “especially in older homes that often don’t have the ample supply of power and number of electrical outlets of more modern homes.”

“It's typical to see extension cords running from room to room in older homes. which places a burden on the electrical system, outlets and cords and thus could lead to a fire.”

Another common electrical problem is exposed electrical wires, often the result of DIY repairs. Any wire that is exposed is susceptible to physical damage and if this occurs, it's sure to wreak havoc. This is high priority and should be corrected by a licensed electrician.

5.      Poor Overall Neighbourhood Condition

It’s important for buyers to remember that when they are purchasing a home, they are not only purchasing the specific erf and the property itself, they are also investing in the suburb.  Buying a home in a suburb that is deteriorating or has increasing criminal activity can be a costly mistake and significantly diminish return on investment.

Buyers should look for signs such as boarded up properties and a high number of vacant homes or shops in the area.

6.     So How Do You Seal the Deal?

Stan Rosenberg and Marc Wachenheimer, Area Specialists in Morningside, Strathhavon and Sandown, stress that in a tough market such as the one South Africa is currently experiencing, it is imperative that owners endeavour to sort out problems on their properties before putting them up for sale.

“Don’t give a prospective purchaser any excuse to find problems with the house, because this is likely to reduce your sale price at the end of the day.

“We recently concluded a sale where the purchaser was very thorough and decided that he was going to pay for a concise report to be done on the home. Several major issues were found and the deal was almost cancelled before a settlement agreement on rights and responsibilities was drawn up between seller and purchaser. It is difficult enough in this market to sell homes, so don’t leave anything to chance that could jeopardise a good deal.”

Geffen concludes: “Speaking from personal experience, though, my advice is that if do you totally fall in love with your dream home but it has minor imperfections like chipped walls or missing door handles, don't walk away because chances are on some level you’ll always regret it. Rather negotiate with the seller to reduce the price and then get someone in to do the work the way you want it, or include a ‘snag list’ of items to be repaired by the seller in the sale agreement. That way everybody wins; the seller makes the sale and walks away happy, and you get to live in your dream space.”

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