Six Signs That Could Mean Expensive (Hidden) Trouble

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This article was written by Stacey Lamirand.

Purchasing a home is a large investment and buyers are advised to do a careful investigation of the property.  There are six areas of potential trouble that should be thoroughly investigated by a licensed home inspector. Sometimes cracks, bulges and spots are an indication of trouble, sometimes they are not.  Better to be safe than sorry--hire a licensed contractor to inspect your property before you complete while you are in escrow.

1).  The first sign of trouble that you should look for is in the foundation.  When you first look at a home, the best place to start is in the basement or by examining the garage.  Walk around the exterior and look for cracks, bulges, mold, or tilting, these issues may indicate severe problems with the foundation.  Bear in mind that all concrete and asphalt will crack as it settles, some cracks are acceptable; some are not and are indications of problems.  These things could mean a large foundation settlement problem due to soil instability, or that the building was not constructed using steel reinforcements.  In parts of the Bay Area (San Francisco, for example), older foundations may be built of "unreinforced masonry" or brick which is not reinforced for seismic support.  A hidden cost of an older brick foundation may be in insurance costs--some insurance companies will charge more for insurance on a home with an older or brick foundation. 

2).  The second sign of trouble will require you look up high.  You are assessing the roof here and looking at the shingles: are they rough, cracked, curled, bubbled, warped, or split?  Look in the corners, are there rotted eaves, fascia, soffits?  Make sure to look for old, faulty gutters that can sometimes hide these problems.  Any of these sightings can indicate a leaky roof or one that will need to be replaced sooner, rather than later.

3).  The next or third sign of trouble is evident when you walk through the door.  How does the property smell?  If you smell Fluffy or Rover, or possibly the residual from last night's dinner, this can be fixed with a good cleaning, some time and a little fresh air.  However, a must or mold smell could suggest a problem of a different sort as can marks or spots on the walls.  This could be another sign of possible damage and you may need to ask your home inspector if you need an added inspection for mold.  

4).  The fourth sign of trouble becomes obvious as you walk through the house.  Are you walking on a slant?  Slants can be obvious but also suttle, so be aware.  Do the floors squeak when you step down?  Do you feel or see lumps, breaks, or cracks?  While you are looking at the floors, take note where the walls and floors join together - is there separation?  These signs can indicate a problem with the sub-floor or an underlying moisture condition - either through a leak or possibly a moisture problem under the floors.  In many older homes, the floors slant.  Is this a problem?  Ask your contractor to give you an opinion (and on occassion, they will want to refer to a structural engineer and/or a soils engineer or another inspector).

5).  This brings us to the fifth place to look for possible trouble: the walls and ceilings.  Walls that are cracked can indicate a problem with the foundation, especially around doors, windows, and ceilings.  Some cracking can be normal settling, but it is always worth asking a professional when you see it.  Cracking, peeling, and bubbling paint can also indicate mold or moisture in the walls or above the ceiling.  Take note if you see a round-shaped discoloration, this could be a sign of a past or present leak.  Is there any bubbling, cracking, or bowing in the sheetrock or paint?  Any of these signs can mean moisture or leaking as well.  Depending on how big or how long it has been there, it can mean damage as small as the discoloration itself, or as large as rotten framing timbers in the walls or ceiling.  This can be significant.

6).  The sixth sign is found in the bathroom.  Take the time to flush the toilets and run the water in each sink.  If the water pressure is overly high, or overly low (or changes when you flush the toilet while the sink is running), there's rusting, or poor drainage, there could be a problem with the aging pipes or sewerage. Your inspector might recommend you inspect the sewer line (they stick a scope through the system to make sure it is in good condition).

Again, these six areas to review when purchasing a home do not replace the value of a qualified home inspection, but should give you an idea of possible problems to look for when assessing a home to purchase.   Depending on how much time and money you have to invest, you can make decisions about what you are willing to tolerate in your investment plan.  It is always good to know what you are getting into before you are in it!  Best wishes on your search!

This article was written by Stacey Lamirand.  You can contact her at Stacey at ZephyrSF dot com.