Perspective Newsletter
Spring 2015
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Top 10 tips for buying a safe, solid home

home with for-sale sign

The springtime real-estate rush is on, and market watchers are waiting to see if homebuyer bidding wars erupt in some parts of the Northwest like they did last year. 

In 2014, as competition for scarce properties heated up, 23.3% of winning-bid Seattle buyers waived property inspections, as did 7.7% of Portland buyers, according to (Population growth and strong job markets have pushed both cities onto’s fastest-selling markets list.)

Only San Jose and Boston topped Seattle in the percentage of homebuyers willing to forego inspections.

There’s really no substitute for the practiced eye of a certified home inspector in spotting a potential money pit. Nonetheless, we asked our underwriters (who inspect thousands of homes each year) to share their top 10 tipoffs to trouble for homebuyers forced to play do-it-yourself inspector:

1. Roofs. Signs of disrepair or neglect include moss and curled shingles. A failing roof could be a big and unexpected expense and a precursor to interior water damage. 

2. Concrete and settling. Do you see widened cracks in the foundation? Uneven or broken concrete on driveways or walkways? Doors and windows that fit poorly in their frames? All can signal settling or earth movement. 

3. Electrical. Look for homes with circuit breakers (rather than screw-in fuses) and grounded, three-hole outlets, which indicate the electrical system has been updated. Older fuse-type panels might be overloaded by today’s electrical appliances. 

4. Plumbing. Look for newer plastic or copper supply instead of old galvanized pipes, and check for rust in sinks or tubs. It could indicate the supply pipes have lots of corrosion built up inside them. Also, check the age of the hot water tank. The older the tank, the more likely it is to leak, and it may need to be replaced. Water suddenly bursting from plumbing systems or appliances is the leading cause of claims for PEMCO (long-term water leaks may be excluded from coverage).

5. Heating. Not only is heating equipment a top cause of home fires in the United States, it’s a potential source of carbon monoxide, which is a deadly, colorless, odorless gas. Whatever the heat source, the home should have adequate heat to avoid using portable heaters. Be sure to ask for the heating system’s maintenance and operating manual, and look for records showing it was serviced within the past year by a qualified contractor. If the home is heated with natural gas, find out how recently the gas lines have been updated. If it’s heated with oil, be aware the tanks can leak, creating an environmental liability concern.

6. Landscaping. Well-maintained landscaping often correlates with the home’s interior condition. Shoddy yard repair can indicate other home maintenance has been let go, too. 

7. Soil stability. Is the house on a slope or near one? Trees and shrubbery can help prevent erosion. Not only do plants draw moisture out of the soil, but their root structures help bind it. Bare dirt on steep slopes may signal erosion. 

8. Drainage. Warning signs include water in crawl spaces or in basements. Excess water can contribute to soil instability and mold. 

9. Mold. Check around showers and toilets for mold stains and wall discoloration. Compromised tile and grout in showers and tub enclosures can allow water penetration into the walls. Often this leads to expensive repairs for rot in the structural members behind walls and under floors. Mold can be a harmless nuisance, or it could be a health hazard. Toxic mold and mildew have been linked to a growing number of illnesses. 

10. Pools. If the house has a pool or hot tub, make sure it’s protected from unauthorized access, especially by children. Unenclosed pools and hot tubs are a liability hazard and affect eligibility for insurance.