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House buying tips

By MSBob in Op-Ed
Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 07:53:49 AM EST
Tags: You Know... (all tags)
You Know...

So you've decided to buy your own house. Good. It's something that most people in this world want to accomplish at some point in their lives. Just make sure you approach it with a cool head. Don't listen to a typical realtor mantra who tells you that you'll find a 'perfect house' for yourself. There is not such thing as a perfect house. It's a multi-variable equation and you must do the math. Basically you must consider the house's structure, location, updates and visual appeal... in that order!

Most of the time you know the area you want to live in so the process of buying a house boils down to finding something that is solid and won't give you headaches two months after you move in.

Because my knowledge of construction is limited to North America this article is heavily USA/Canada centric. I am not a building contractor (although my father is) but I'm just someone who went through the process of buying a house a short while ago and have some tips to share.

When you first approach the house you're thinking of buying take a look around. How busy is the road? How does the neighbourhood look like? Is it mature or new construction? Is the area roughly in your income bracket? An area too expensive for you might make you feel poor and put you in a crowd you consider snotty while a very cheap area might be downright dangerous - unfortunate but sometimes true. Are there any pollution sources nearby that might be of concern? Asthma sufferers shouldn't buy their homes next to refineries.

Any establishments that might not be to your liking (I have a church of Latter Day Saints nearby but I'm not too bothered). If the neighbourhood checks out OK it's time to take a look at the house.

First of all look at it from the outside. Does it seem solid at a first glance? Are all walls visually straight and at right angles? Is the roof line straight? If the roof is sagging in the middle just drive on. The house potentially has some serious structural issues. It's not worth getting involved in that mess. Take a look at the siding and the windows. Old leaky windows are a nuisance but usually can be repaired with some elbow grease. The exception being severe rot and warping. Do the doors and windows appear straight? Take a look at the foundation wall from the outside if there is anything visible. Check for any severe cracking or misalignment. Check the walls of the foundation with a plumb from the outside. If you can't see any foundation walls because the siding goes all the way to the grade level move some dirt with your hand and reach for the sill plate. Touch it with your hand and see if it feels solid. Poke it with a screwdriver or a pen knife. If any sign of deterioration is present you should thank the realtor for their time and move on to the next house. Take a look at the roof again. Is there any flora growing on it? Except for some very unusual cases any sort of plant habitation on a roof spells imminent leakage trouble.

Time to take a look inside the house. Walk through the front door and notice if the doors close properly. If they seem on a tight side check if it's weatherstripping or friction. If it's friction then the house has settled and the doors are no longer aligned with their frame. Not a red flag yet but a yellow one. Go around the hall and the foyer. Notice the position of different rooms (north/south/east west) to see if it's to your comfort.

What follows next applies to all habitable rooms in the house: Check for signs of cracking on walls or ceilings. Minor cracking might be OK but lots of cracks especially horizontal ones that are near the ceiling may be a sign of a structural defect. Big vertical cracks that run vertically in a 'V' shape might mean excessive settling. Check for paint peeling from ceilings. Usually peeling paint indicates moisture underneath or old calcimine paint. Both problems are curable but neither is particularly fun to do. Personally I'd worry about moisture much more. Check if all floors are level with a marble ball. The ball should stay put once it's on the floor. Check if any doors tend to open/close by themselves. Check for doors having too much friction. If so try to figure out the leaning pattern. Look at power recepticles. You want three-pronged outlets throughout the house although an old house won't usually have those unless wiring was updated. Turn on the lights and plug in a hairdryer and turn it on. Did the lights flicker or dim? If so the circuits may be overloaded or grounding may be inadequate. Rewiring a house is a semi-expensive job though not prohibitive. Repeat the test in all power recepticles.

Notice the heating/cooling system. There is probably a prevailing (in terms of popularity) system in your area. That is the one you want to get because it is usually the most cost effective one to operate. Where I live it happens to be electric baseboard but I know that is highly unorthodox. Yours is most likely to be a gas powered forced air system or something like that. Ask the realtor for the heating cooling bills from the last couple of years. If the only thing you get is a verbal figure phone the utility company to double check. People routinely lie about their heating/cooling costs. You don't have to have a super/megaefficient/R2000 house that will cost you a fortune. Just look for something that is not out of whack for the area you live in. In very cold climates auxiliary heat sources tend to save a bit of money. Where I live wood heating is a big supplemental heat source. It is nice to have at least a stove in the basement or preferably a fireplace that can be converted to an efficient heat source through a fireplace insert.

If the house has a basement or crawlspace get in there. If it's an unfinished full basement take a look at the floor joists. Is there any detectible termite damage? Any rot? Try poking a hole with a screwdriver in one of the joists. If your screwdriver goes through the wood, move on to look at another house. Observe the space where floor joists meet the top of the foundation. Any wood discoloration there? Are all joists resting firmly on the sills? If the basement is unfinished and you can take a look at the concrete walls that's great. Examine the walls for signs of moisture such as stain marks and discoloration. The white stuff on concrete walls is called efflorescence and it's not good news. It means that foundation walls are moist and release minerals as water flows through them. Remember to look at the floor and see if any moisture is or was present. Now approach every wall in the basement with your plumb and make sure they are completely vertical. If any of the walls has more than 1/4" difference between top and bottom across the height of the wall run away from the house not to come back again: the house's structure is probably compromised. If any of the concrete walls seems to have even a slight horizontal bulge (often accompanied by a horizontal crack) the walls are being pushed inside. Run as fast as you can before the house collapses! Vertical hairline cracks that aren't excessive are usually OK. Horizontal cracks are mostly NOT OK unless they've been inactive for a long time and there is no detectible bulging or leaning. Horizontal cracks however, always require further investigation. Concrete blocks basements are more susceptible to cracking than poured concrete. Old houses shouldn't normally have any active cracks if they are healthy.

If the attic is accessible and unfinished climb the attic and take a look at the roof's condition. Examine the sheathing and rafters for signs of moisture. Likewise examine the joists. Also check for bowing or misalignment. If you don't live in a moderate climate notice the amount of attic insulation. Attic insulation of R55 is not considered excessive in very cold areas.

In the bathrooms open faucets and flush the toilets and take a notice of pressure drops when the toilets are flushed. Significant drops in pressure may spell dry well periods if the house has its own well. Open vanities and look around the pipes for signs of moisture. Leaky pipes are easy to fix but you might as well check them upfront.

Check for any signs of remuddling (that's the professional term) of the house. Pretty much every house has been a victim of some 'remuddling' at some point. Always have a good look at any 'improvements' made by previous owners. Having said that, most people in North America get an urge to work on their houses. Some make out OK while others engage in absolute D.I.Y. disasters. It's important to be able to differentiate between benign disasters that are easy to fix (such as majority of botched paint jobs) and very serious ones that could compromise your house's structural integrity. It's also good to research stuff like wiring and plumbing permits issued for the house and ask for installation certificates for things like furnaces and gas or wood stoves. I'm always concerned about cowboy woodstove jobs that can poison your family with carbon monoxide. Chimney lining is actually more difficult than it appears. Best left up to a licensed installer.

Now that you've checked all of the above and more you can make an offer contingent on the house passing a professional inspection. The inspection is a must if you don't want to have any heartbreaking experiences. A professional inspection also gives you someone to sue if things do turn awry (smirk). The guidelines listed here are only meant to save you money on needless inspections of obvious lemons that your inspector would trash anyway. Hoewever, if everything looks OK to you a professional inspector is still extremely highly recommended.

I don't want to discourage anyone but buying a house is a complex decision. Not because the procedure itself is complex but because it's easy to get stuck with a lemon. So be careful out there and best of luck, hope you find a great house.


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Money spent fixing up your place (USD)
o 0 - 1000 45%
o 1001 - 10000 24%
o 10001 - 100000 21%
o > 100000 (ouch!) 9%

Votes: 33
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o solid at a first glance
o visually straight and at right angles
o sagging in the middle
o feels solid
o flora growing
o very unusual cases
o cracking on walls or ceilings
o calcimine paint
o detectible termite damage
o Any rot
o resting firmly on the sills
o effloresce nce
o have even a slight horizontal bulge
o Horizontal cracks
o Also by MSBob

Display: Sort:
House buying tips | 141 comments (139 topical, 2 editorial, 1 hidden)
Not really a.. (1.12 / 16) (#1)
by gyan on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:07:24 AM EST

 ..k5 article. Write this up on a web page and link that here as a MLP.


Err.. why not? (4.00 / 2) (#2)
by MSBob on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:09:19 AM EST

We seem to have recipe lists here that made it to the front page... What's wrong with having something that dosen't discuss steak, Iraq or orgies? Just about anything makes it to the front page nowadays.
I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
don't worry (3.00 / 1) (#3)
by adiffer on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:28:03 AM EST

I wouldn't have picked Op-Ed for this, but I won't quibble about it.

I appreciate teaching articles anyway they come to be.  Thank you.
--BE The Alien!
[ Parent ]

Seems ok for K5... (4.00 / 2) (#21)
by SPYvSPY on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:05:00 AM EST

...but I would sure like a printable version with inline images for my archives. I won't be buying anytime soon, and I'm always skeptical of the longevity of linked images.

Anyway, *great* article.

By replying to this or any other comment in this thread, you assign an equal share of all worldwide copyright in such reply to each of the other readers of this site.
[ Parent ]

Good article (5.00 / 6) (#4)
by Work on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:29:07 AM EST

House renters may also want to take note. While the cost of doing repairs won't fall on them, they're the ones who will have to live with the various problems!

I currently rent a 90+ year old house, which while in okay condition, could be better. Lots of settling. I had to prop the head end of my bed up 2.5 inches to correct for floor slope, as I could actually feel it when I lied down.

Power issues were another. While some of the wiring is new, alot is old. The old was on 20 amp breakers and tended to have one breaker serving several rooms. Early on moving in we tripped them alot until we figured out which plugs went to the newer 40 amp breakers and adjusted appliance locations accordingly. And at least a couple of plugs (including the one our kitchen fridge is plugged into, scarily) are ungrounded.

most minor repairs I do myself, as calling the landlord and waiting a few days for someone to be sent out is usually more trouble than its worth. If I spend a good sum of money on the repair, I forward the receipt along with the rent. This is another thing house renters will likely have to do, since most houses are rented by private individuals who do not have maintenance employees at their disposal.

I'm a little confused (4.00 / 1) (#59)
by a humble lich on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 02:01:30 PM EST

From my brief experience doing electrical work I was under the impression that nearly all household circuit breakers were 15 or 20 amps. Most household wiring isn't designed to take much more than that. If I remember right, most interior wiring is 10 or 12 gauge which is rated for (quick google search) 20 to 30 amps respectively.

Unless a large portion of the house is wired on a single breaker, 20 amps is good enough for anybody :-) Seriously that gives you like 2.2 kW, so as long as the hairdryer and popcorn popper aren't on the same circuit you should be fine.

[ Parent ]

large portions were on 20 amps (3.00 / 1) (#69)
by Work on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 03:37:04 PM EST

All upstairs bedroom lights/fans and most wall plugs, along with most kitchen plugs, were on 1 20 amp breaker. It used to trip alot in the mornings, when the toaster and microwave was in use, and sometimes when a minifridge upstairs turned on. This plagued us for a good 2 weeks until the owner was like 'oh, forgot to tell you, each room has new plugs on their own breaker...'

Each bedroom upstairs, along with the kitchen, has a 4-outlet that has their own individual 20 amp breaker, we found out. I just checked, don't know why I thought they were 40's. We quickly learned to plug high amp devices into these outlets and leave the others alone. Oh and we have 2 breaker boxes. The older breakers are in a box about 40 or 50 years old, and the main is much newer. Those old breakers are those crappy republic types that slip as they age. Had all kinds of problems with that too, and it wrecked the circuitry on the upstairs A/C, in the middle of texas august.

Before we'd moved in, the house was used for a business, and they'd done some wiring upgrades (hence the 4 outlets in most rooms on their own breaker) for those needs. Still kind of annoying having to run extension cords around from things like TV's and minifridges to those.

[ Parent ]

Alternatively... (4.66 / 3) (#5)
by yicky yacky on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:38:15 AM EST

Hire a reputable surveyor (they're not that expensive) and go for a beer.

Good article though: +1

Yicky Yacky
"You f*cking newbie. Shut up and sit in the corner!" - JCB
Due dilligence always recommended... (4.00 / 2) (#49)
by MSBob on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:36:57 PM EST

Some housing inspectors in North America are beer buddies with estate agents so you can imagine how thorough your inspection will be if you happen to run into a liason like that...
I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Surveyers and urban lots (4.50 / 2) (#85)
by Eric Green on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 08:25:53 PM EST

Surveyers are most important for rural lots which are not pre-surveyed and not fenced by the builder at the lot lines. For urban lots, where typically the builder surveyed and built fences at the lot lines, typically all you want to look at is the plat number and description (especially noting easements and setbacks) and the records at the tax office and county recorder's office as to who owns the property and what liens are outstanding on the property. The latter is especially important, because all liens will have to be discharged by the seller prior to a clean title being issued, including any past tax liens. In my state a title company handles this actual transaction -- my mortgage bank pays into the escrow account at the title company, the title company pays off all the outstanding recorded liens and certifies such to the recorder's office along with the transfer of title document and mortgage lien/deed of trust, and the remainder of the money after all liens and real estate agents are paid goes to the seller. I don't know how other states handle this.

The county recorder's office will have a lot of information about a given property, including foreclosure information, tax liens, etc. There are some houses where the history is so suspicious that you maybe want to avoid. For example, I found out that one house I was interested in was cheap, but that was because it had been a rental, was foreclosed upon, was being sold by a bank, and the former owner lived next door. The house itself had been stripped pretty badly, and was missing all sorts of stuff. That was *not* a situation that I wanted to put myself into!
You are feeling sleepy... you are feeling verrry sleepy...
[ Parent ]

You still need one! (5.00 / 1) (#95)
by duffbeer703 on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 11:58:43 PM EST

There are all sorts of situations where a surveyor may be needed in urban areas.

Things like community driveways, sewer, water and access easements, neighbors who extended their back fence, you name it. If your bank discovers something strange about the property, they won't lend on the property and you lose your security.

[ Parent ]

Maybe in your area... not in mine. (5.00 / 1) (#101)
by Eric Green on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 01:42:37 AM EST

In my state, that doesn't happen. Hell, the banks don't even bother doing a proper appraisal nowdays unless the numbers look fishy... they just pop up a few comparables, send an appraiser by on a drive-by to make sure the house actually exists, and that's pretty much it. I do agree that there *are* situations where you might want a surveyer, but a typical detached single-family home on a suburban street with fences placed on the lot-lines by the developers isn't one of them.

Regarding losing my security -- the standard Arizona residential real estate contract (put out by the AZ Board of Realtors) says that if you cannot obtain a loan, the security deposit shall be refunded. That's why nobody in this state will accept an offer unless you include the preapproval letter from the bank saying you're pre-approved for $X. Obviously there's a good faith part here (you can't just simply refuse to sign loan papers and invoke this clause), but the deal is that if the title search turns up something fishy and the bank refuses to loan the money, you're out nothing -- it's the other person who's lost 2 to 3 weeks of their time that they could have been selling the house. As it should be, given that the only way you'd fail to have your mortgage funded is if the other person screwed something up.

If your contract didn't include such language, why not? Everything's negotiable, including the terms of who gets the security deposit if the mortgage company refuses to fund the loan due to issues with the property.

You are feeling sleepy... you are feeling verrry sleepy...
[ Parent ]

"Remuddling" (3.00 / 1) (#8)
by TheOnlyCoolTim on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 02:40:19 AM EST

I think I have the strangest "finished" basement...

Two concrete walls, one plywood, one half and half, tile floor (surplus from an elementary school), pipes to hit my head on, and the weirdest ceiling ever, made from a combination of mostly 1x4 wood and ceiling tiles.

All quite structurally and electrically sound, though.

"We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death."

Great story (5.00 / 5) (#9)
by blisspix on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 03:18:42 AM EST

About a year ago my partner and I were in the market and fell in love with a house that from all external appearances was wonderful, but inside was a nightmare. Sagging roof, rusted outer roof, termite evidence everywhere, borers in the foundations, bad electricals, you name it. Amazing what a quick coat of paint by the previous owners could cover up.

We lost money on deposit and inspection, but would have been much much worse off if we had bought that house.

We're still looking a year later. Kind of jaded about the whole process, but it's better to own in the long run.

Don't discount the effects of stress when buying too - the pressure from real estate agents is unbelievable. Almost as bad as that from family and friends. Don't make any rash decisions. If you lose a place to someone else because you waited to think it over, then that's ok too. It happens. Better than rushing the biggest purchase of your life.

Another great tip... (4.33 / 3) (#10)
by theforlornone on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 08:02:57 AM EST

My brother just bought his first house. It's the night-marish sort of house one buys when they're in their 20's, single and wanting desperately to move out of the parents' house. He chose to find a house that was located within a reasonable distance from his place of work. But there was one problem with that... it turned out that the most reasonable price range for him was in an industrial area that was on the very borderline of the crime-ridden inner city. After finding a house that met his standards, he called the local police department and had them run a check on the crime in his neighborhood. Surprisingly, there was little other than the occasional domestic dispute.

Chatting with the neighbors in the area in which you plan to purchase a home is a good idea, too. You'll know what kind of people you are going to have to put up with for a while, or for the rest of your life. No matter how bent you are on not having anything to do with the neighbors, eventually, you'll find that you're either going to come into contact with them, or that they'll be a constant source of headaches.

It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!

The neighbors (3.00 / 1) (#11)
by wiredog on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 08:54:55 AM EST

Several years ago, in Salt Lake City, the police busted a meth lab that was being run by a biker gang. The Iron Horsemen, IIRC. The neighbors were upset. Y'see, the bikers kept to themselves and didn't cause trouble for the neighbors and their presence ensured that no one else caused trouble either.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

[ Parent ]
Good one. (3.00 / 1) (#23)
by SPYvSPY on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:08:42 AM EST

That reminds me of Third Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. On one side of that street is the NYPD local precinct. On the other side of that street is 'Mother's Messengers' -- the Hell's Angels' messenger service.

My friend lives there, and I always joke that it is either the safest or the most dangerous block in NYC.

By replying to this or any other comment in this thread, you assign an equal share of all worldwide copyright in such reply to each of the other readers of this site.
[ Parent ]

Trouble? (3.00 / 1) (#61)
by PullNoPunches on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 02:23:55 PM EST

"the bikers kept to themselves and didn't cause trouble for the neighbors and their presence ensured that no one else caused trouble either."

They sound like decent neighbors. What's the problem? As usual, it was the police that caused all the trouble.

The biggest reason to be concerned about meth-lab-operating neighbors is that they might get busted some day. I guess one point in the main article that is relevant here is to look over the neighborhood for undesirable institutions nearby, like a police station, or worse, a federal agency of some sort.


Although generally safe, turmeric in large doses may cause gastrointestinal problems or even ulcers. -- Reader's Digest (UK)
[ Parent ]

Well, there's also (none / 0) (#90)
by ZanThrax on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 11:21:22 PM EST

the whole potential exploding house thing to be concerned about.

We're a generation of adrenaline junkie twitch freaks with the attention span of gnats; to be considered fast paced, entertainment needs to approach sensory
[ Parent ]

Busted means short time for ROI (4.00 / 1) (#92)
by PullNoPunches on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 11:49:33 PM EST

When you know your equipment (not to mention your hr) has an effective economic lifespan little longer than the time it takes your first batch to clear off the store shelves (so to speak), then you tend to skimp.

Quality costs money, so does safety. The severe market distortions introduced by the government's war, on drugs, ensure that quantity trumps any and all considerations of quality and safety. Hence, yet another class of innocent third party victims of prohibition.


Although generally safe, turmeric in large doses may cause gastrointestinal problems or even ulcers. -- Reader's Digest (UK)
[ Parent ]

Like the mob (3.00 / 1) (#79)
by TheOnlyCoolTim on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 05:32:37 PM EST

My mother, growing up, lived in a neighborhood with heavy mafia presence. There were no cops around, but no crime either, and the schools and churches were very well taken care of financially...

But the mafia did do things worse than brew meth, I guess.

"We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death."
[ Parent ]

* Definitely * (4.33 / 3) (#48)
by johnnyfever on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:35:28 PM EST

We just moved out of the first house we owned because of the neighbours. This was a nice, middle class neighbourhood, lots of young families etc. Everyone we met on that street was really nice with the exception of the one house, which happenned to be next door to ours.

I mean, this was pretty bad, these people were criminals and pigs. In the 3 years we lived in this house we saw their 3 young children taken away permanently, saw the cops break the door down literally countless times, had the street and the alley cordonned off by police cars several times, saw two people beaten in the street, had regular visits from the police helicopter....you name it. And let me reiterate ... this was a nice neighbourhood. You can't be too careful, all it takes is one asshole. It got to the point where either I was going to break the law (by way of burning their house down or beating them to death), or we had to move.

[ Parent ]

Not quite the same, but still funny.... (4.50 / 4) (#63)
by kellyrae3 on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 02:53:43 PM EST

Check out this guy's site, it's hilarious. I swear the neighbour used to own our house....

[ Parent ]
that has to be... (3.50 / 2) (#76)
by theforlornone on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 05:08:37 PM EST

the most hysterical thing i've seen in a while! thanks for the good link. i'll have to pass that one around!!!

It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!
[ Parent ]
Paint.... (3.50 / 2) (#12)
by duffbeer703 on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 08:55:55 AM EST

If you are buying a house that's been a rental for years or are planning to have kids or become a landlord, be aware of the finanical liabilities of lead paint.

In my area, a 24 year old slumlord had a $2,000,000 judgement against him because a tenant's children ate a large quantity of lead paint from the windowsill. The home was a 120 year old flat that he bought for $3000 at county auction and he was renting out 4 apts at $500-700 month.

If you are planning on becoming a landlord, use caution.

lead paint and renting houses (3.00 / 1) (#56)
by camel bawlz on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:51:29 PM EST

When I lived in San Diego a few years ago, my wife and I rented a house that was build in the 1920s. Before we moved in, we had to sign a paper stating that we are aware that there may or may not be lead paint in the house. I'm shocked this isn't standard practice, but now that I think about it, I never signed a similar paper for the house I'm in now.

[GO TO HJELL!] They may be little bitches to kill, but I could spend hours lusting after their dead bodies - Parent ]

Sometimes its not that simple... (none / 0) (#94)
by duffbeer703 on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 11:55:54 PM EST

It is pretty normal these days to sign an affirmation like that. It doesn't provide the landlord with any real protection though.

But, lead paint & Mold Infestion are the current hot topics for ambulance-chasing lawyers. Under many circumstances, the affirmation that lead pain may be present is not enough to protect you against liability.

In the case that I was referring to, the landlord in question handed out a notice that the tenant could not understand (as she left school in the 8th grade and was illiterate).

The lesson: don't become a landlord if you aren't prepared to accept alot of liability.

[ Parent ]

lead paint (none / 0) (#96)
by yankeehack on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 12:03:59 AM EST

I live in a neighborhood with old houses dating from the 1900s. All of these houses have lead paint in them.

Let me tell you that there is not one incidence of lead paint ingestion or poisioning in my neighborhood. (And yes, I even asked the busiest pediatrician in the area and a noted lead paint expert.)

The reason? Because the houses are kept in reasonably nice shape.

The slumlord got spanked because he was a slumlord. If you keep your house in a nice, reasonably clean condition, you won't have problems.

No one who was bad in bed has ever been good in life (i.e. liberals, I've never had sex with a liberal woman who knew how to use her body.) Keeteel :-P I'm *right*!
[ Parent ]

I agree with you... (none / 0) (#125)
by duffbeer703 on Sat Feb 08, 2003 at 01:33:27 AM EST

I despise slumlords and feel little sympathy for this guy. The case was still BS because the people lived in the house for about 3 months...

However, even if your home is well maintained, if you rent it to someone sitting around watching law firm commericals all day, you are liable to this sort of thing.

[ Parent ]

Lead paint hysteria (none / 0) (#126)
by MSBob on Sat Feb 08, 2003 at 01:47:40 AM EST

I can't believe the hysteria surrounding lead based paints. I mean it's not good to ingest lead and we've known that for a while. I don't know many people though who sprinkle their paint chips over their salads! If it doesn't come in contact with your mouth it's harmless! I've seen hundreds of people who grew up in old houses and show no signs of lead poisoning and given that a lot of cuttlery used to be made wih lead content I think the lead thing is blown way out of proportion. Almost as bad as asbestos.

I'm just waiting for EPA to annuonce that fiber glass is ReallyBadForYouTM. Imagine the mess we'll be in then! Some more work for the men in space suits to rip out your pink stuff and replace it with rockwool. Who cashes in on those pointless conversions?

I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Today its mold (none / 0) (#129)
by Work on Sat Feb 08, 2003 at 07:22:17 PM EST

You should see the ridiculous hysteria surrounding mold in houston. It's unbelievable.

[ Parent ]
And asbestos and UFFI and lead pipes and... (5.00 / 1) (#97)
by bigbird on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 12:08:31 AM EST

The worst places for lead paint are:
  • old slider windows, where opening and closing the window creates leaded paint dust;
  • other wear surfaces;
  • furniture (old cribs which infants will touch with their mouths, chew on, etc); and
  • peeling paint which toddlers will eat.
Of course, environmental hazards of building materials are not limited to lead paint. Asbestos is not a big deal, except for when it is both friable and likely to be disturbed (such as during renovations). Oh, and of course, the impact of asbestos on house value can be considerable due to paranoia, ignorance, and remediation costs. Potential abestos containing materials (ACMs) were ubiquitous before the 1970s, and include:
  • linoleum made before ~1975;
  • drywall tape through to the present-day, surprisingly, based on a recent e-mail at work from an asbestos analysis lab;
  • roofing shingles, and possibly roofing felt (tar and gravel roof);
  • pipe wrap on forced air ventilation systems, chimneys, exhuasts; and
  • almost any fireproofing material;
  • more which I have forgotten. Some are surprising, items which you would not expect to be ACMs.
For some ACMs, removal could generate more dust than encapsulation or leaving it in place. Asbestos is only a problem when you create dust, and as long as the dust is around, so is the asbestos. An asbestos removal project completed at my high school likely exposed the student population to higher levels of asbestos than would have leaving the material in place, even with engineering controls in place.

Urea formaldehyde foam insulation is another late 1970s concern. A blown-in foam insulation, linked with some health effects, IIRC. Many houses were remediated in the early 1980s.

Lead was used in solder through the 1970s, and may be present in piping in very old homes. Lead has a greater impact on children, due to higher intake based on body mass, and interferes with neurological development. I recall hearing of a house in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the owners had to run the water for 5-10 minutes each morning, just to (literally) get the lead out (concentrations in water are based on temperature, pH, hardness, residence time, etc, and water in lead pipes will have a higher concentration after sitting overnight).

There are more concerns, such as PCBs (older fluorescent lamp ballasts, only a concern if you eat / have skin contact / burn the material), lead stabilizers in older vinyl blinds (or any vinyls), imported soils containing pretty near anything under the sun (worst case scenario is soil from an industrial or US Superfund-type site), and, for very sensitive people, offgas from new materials.

I find the last one to be one of the most interesting. While it is unfortunate for those who are hyper-sensitive, I find it to be somewhat ironic that some of those looking to escape possible health impacts from older buildings suffer even more in a new one. Hypersensitivity only impacts a relatively few people, but materials such as new carpet, carpet glues and underlay, fresh paint, plastics, new foam in furniture, etc, all give off a small amount of organic compounds, mostly in the first few days, weeks, or months after production / application.

I don't think building inspectors get into too much of these type of concerns. I wouldn't lose too much sleep over them, as some of the risks are negligible with the prominent exception of the lead - watching your kids get developmental disorders just by living in your house is not something any parent should have to go through. These materials can /will have an impact on resale values, so it is better to identify the materials at time of purchase, get a written estimate for remediation costs, and adjust the price accordingly.

Energy efficiency should be a factor, as well. R2000 homes offer more than low heating bills, they have some of the best ventilation systems available, which is great for asthmatics and those with allergies. I am looking into installing geothermal heating and cooling, partly because it is neat, partly because I can get the drilling done quite cheaply by one of our subcontractors, and partly because burning natural gas is going to get very expensive in the future (search for k5 stories discussing Hubbards peak).

[ Parent ]
Oops, typo (none / 0) (#98)
by bigbird on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 01:02:40 AM EST

Not the only one, I'm sure. Possibly even a factual error or two, but hey, ya get what ya pay for. Hubbert Peak is the correct spelling, as introduced by ajduk in his excellent article. Many of his responses to comments in the Hubbert Peak story are interesting, as are his responses to another k5 article on energy

[ Parent ]

I'm looking for a place... (3.00 / 2) (#13)
by wiredog on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 08:56:42 AM EST

But I live in Northern Virginia, where housing prices are insane. $60,000/year may not be enough for me to get even a small town house within half an hour's commute of where I work.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

I'm with you (3.00 / 1) (#19)
by nosilA on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 09:55:00 AM EST

The plus side is that I live with my boyfriend and the two income thing is helpful.  The downside is that between the two of us, we're way too picky.  I have certain things that I won't do without, such as easy access to the metro.  He has certain things he won't do without, such as a basement (I'm with him on this one, but not quite as adament on getting one for our first home).  He's also picky about neighborhood, for example Fall Church, Vienna, Annandale, and Bethesda are good, but Tysons, Wheaton, and Alexandria aren't (I still haven't figured out the Alexandria part).  

In some ways I think it would be easier to find a home on one income...

Vote to Abstain!
[ Parent ]

I need (2.00 / 1) (#24)
by wiredog on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:11:32 AM EST

Less than 30 minute commute to Dulles Town Center/Cascades and 45 to McLean. So I'm pretty much restricted to Rt7 from Leesburg to Tysons. Or Rt28 out to Centerville.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

[ Parent ]
Lordy... (3.00 / 1) (#28)
by DeepOmega on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:20:15 AM EST

You want Vienna or Bethesda? Hope you're willing to sell a couple organs...

Peace and much love...
[ Parent ]

Exactly... (2.00 / 1) (#30)
by nosilA on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:26:22 AM EST

I mean, looking through the post, there are some single family homes in these areas that are within our price range, but the selection is very limited.  I have a feeling if we go to look at these, we'll figure out why they are "so cheap."  It's about 6 months until our lease expires, so we're about to start seriously looking.

Vote to Abstain!
[ Parent ]

Annandale ? Good ? (2.00 / 1) (#55)
by sasquatchan on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:49:42 PM EST

Wow. I mean, I grew up there, went to the FCPS's, left in the early 90s and hate going back to see family. Yeah, you are inside the beltway, and 236/braddock has plenty of metro access, but ugh.. In many ways, Annandale was the ghetto of Fairfax County, at least when I was there.
-- The internet is not here for your personal therapy.
[ Parent ]
I know (2.00 / 1) (#58)
by nosilA on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:59:54 PM EST

That's another one I don't understand... he likes Annandale, but not Arlington.  I grew up in Arlington, and I also thought of Annandale as being the ghetto of Fairfax county.  I think it's really the "inside the beltway" thing, coupled with relatively cheap single family homes, and the proximity to his work.  (I work in the district, so all I care about is metro, not direction).  

I think we both really want to live in McLean or Bethesda, but only one of us realizes that's not too realistic.


Vote to Abstain!
[ Parent ]

McLean (none / 0) (#111)
by wiredog on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 11:40:37 AM EST

My hometown.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

[ Parent ]
It seems like... (4.00 / 2) (#25)
by SPYvSPY on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:11:40 AM EST

...everywhere that prices are 'insane' (e.g., NYC, Seattle, SF, D.C.-area) the banks will give you a 3% down, 50 year mortgage. Funny how that works, isn't it?

By replying to this or any other comment in this thread, you assign an equal share of all worldwide copyright in such reply to each of the other readers of this site.
[ Parent ]

Or 80/20 (3.00 / 1) (#29)
by nosilA on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:22:16 AM EST

A lot of places are doing their own 80/20 loans. You get one mortgate at 80%, (low interest, no PMI) and a second mortgage at 20% (potentially a shorter term, probably higher interest, with PMI).  You still need some money for closing costs and incidental costs, but it's a lot more doable.

Vote to Abstain!
[ Parent ]

Va Loan (2.00 / 1) (#31)
by wiredog on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:39:36 AM EST

0 down, market rate +1%, no mortgage insurance required.

It maxes out at 250k, but since my income is only 60K I don't have to worry about that.

For 250k you can get a real house in Winchester, but that's too far to commute.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

[ Parent ]

How it works is... (4.00 / 1) (#65)
by smithmc on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 03:17:49 PM EST

...everywhere that prices are 'insane' (e.g., NYC, Seattle, SF, D.C.-area) the banks will give you a 3% down, 50 year mortgage. Funny how that works, isn't it?

"How it works" is that unless you've got a lot of money to put down, you don't buy your first house to stay there forever - you buy low, flip it a few years later at a high point in the market, and use the profit to put down on the house you really want.

[ Parent ]

Right... (3.00 / 1) (#81)
by SPYvSPY on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 05:47:30 PM EST

...and I'm sure the bank never forecloses when you miss a few of those gargantuan monthly payments.

My reaction to your smarmy response is best expressed as: duh.

By replying to this or any other comment in this thread, you assign an equal share of all worldwide copyright in such reply to each of the other readers of this site.
[ Parent ]

Well, that's what banks *do*. (none / 0) (#137)
by smithmc on Tue Feb 11, 2003 at 01:16:39 PM EST

...and I'm sure the bank never forecloses when you miss a few of those gargantuan monthly payments.

Uh...? In what way does this have any bearing on my previous post? If you can't make the payments, then don't buy the house. I still don't see how that's got anything to do with what I said, though.

[ Parent ]

Uh, but... (none / 0) (#104)
by skim123 on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 03:15:16 AM EST

"How it works" is that unless you've got a lot of money to put down, you don't buy your first house to stay there forever - you buy low, flip it a few years later at a high point in the market, and use the profit to put down on the house you really want

But the house you "really wanted" has appreciated just as fast (if not faster) than the lesser house you bought... so now how are you going to afford it? Or do you wait a few years and buy 50 lottery tickets each week? ;-)

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

[ Parent ]
Um, well... (none / 0) (#136)
by smithmc on Tue Feb 11, 2003 at 01:13:50 PM EST

But the house you "really wanted" has appreciated just as fast (if not faster) than the lesser house you bought... so now how are you going to afford it? Or do you wait a few years and buy 50 lottery tickets each week? ;-)

Well, presumably in the time between you buy the first house and sell the second, you've made some money.

[ Parent ]

Depends where you work (2.00 / 1) (#39)
by rusty on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:05:33 PM EST

If you work in DC, a half-hour's commute is halfway across the 14th St. bridge. ;-)

My sister bought a house down there a couple years ago, and it wasn't all that expensive, but it's pretty damn far out in the country. Like, well past Potomac Mills. My brother in law works in the city, and we always joke that if he got a job in Richmond he'd cut his commute in half.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

I work by Rt 7 and 28 in Va (2.00 / 1) (#50)
by wiredog on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:37:27 PM EST

But I go into McLean several times a week. So Winchester's out. As is Maryland.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

[ Parent ]
nova (3.00 / 1) (#80)
by chunkwhite84 on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 05:47:02 PM EST

I know the feeling. I'm in Crystal city, and I just bought a FIXER UPPER for $670k. Thats right, $670k for a home that needs $40k in repairs before it's livable. What's this world coming to??

[ Parent ]
jeezuz... (none / 0) (#135)
by chopper on Tue Feb 11, 2003 at 11:10:52 AM EST

me and my roomates rent a house in Crystal City, and while its old, it aint much.

you must have one of those big-ass houses up north.

give a man a fish,he'll eat for a day

give a man religion and he'll starve to death while praying for a fish
[ Parent ]

One worse. (none / 0) (#121)
by aphrael on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 03:24:22 PM EST

I live in Santa Cruz, where housing prices are unbelievable. $100,000/year isn't enough for me to buy a small house anywhere nearby without paying more than 50% of my after-tax income in mortgage payments.

[ Parent ]
I can only imagine... (3.25 / 4) (#14)
by olethros on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 09:07:06 AM EST

...the look on the proprietor's face when you go around the house, poking things with screwdrivers, rolling marble balls on the floor, plugging a hairdryer in all the outlets and examining crack patterns.

-- Homepage| Music
I miss my rubber keyboard.
Great (4.00 / 2) (#15)
by MSBob on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 09:12:37 AM EST

I may look like a dork but if the house has a story to tell I'll find out about it. It's people who 'analyze' the paint colors and window dressings or god forbid listen to what realtors have to say that end up with dodgy houses.
I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Owner (3.00 / 1) (#17)
by nevertheless on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 09:40:03 AM EST

The owner may frown on that, but it's in his interest to sell the house, so they'd probably let you do it. However, you normally pay for a "qualified" home inspector to do that sort of thing. They run around and turn on all the appliances to make sure they work and poke around iwth screwdrivers and stuff. By looking at some beams in the cellar, they found there had once been a pretty major fire in my building, but it was quite old. They also check out the pipes and sewer lines to see if they're up to snuff.

But be really careful with home inspectors. Although there are some good ones, many seem to have gotten their "qualifications" off a matchbook cover.

This whole "being at work" thing just isn't doing it for me. -- Phil the Canuck

[ Parent ]
Inspectors (3.00 / 1) (#22)
by ecopoesis on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:06:18 AM EST

But be really careful with home inspectors. Although there are some good ones, many seem to have gotten their "qualifications" off a matchbook cover.
Or off of K5...

"Yachting isn't just for the wealthy. :-)" - rusty
[ Parent ]

In that case... (3.00 / 1) (#26)
by SPYvSPY on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:13:35 AM EST

...can you recommend a good 'home inspector' inspector?

By replying to this or any other comment in this thread, you assign an equal share of all worldwide copyright in such reply to each of the other readers of this site.
[ Parent ]

shrug (3.00 / 1) (#18)
by akma on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 09:45:04 AM EST

In many areas in the US, if you are financing your home, the bank and probably the insurance company is going to make you hire someone to go around and poke and prod stuff like that anyway. Find someone good at the job, and they'll be able to find problems that have no obvious visible signs, as well as things you just probably wouldn't think of to look for. They can also ease your mind about things that may look bad, but that aren't really a big deal.

Those in the world shouting "Yankee go home" should bear in mind that the people of the South have been saying the same thing for over 100 years now, but the damned bastards won't leave.
[ Parent ]
Yeah... (none / 0) (#105)
by skim123 on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 03:19:26 AM EST

In many areas in the US, if you are financing your home, the bank and probably the insurance company is going to make you hire someone to go around and poke and prod stuff like that anyway.
I was present when the building inspector came through. He did most of the things the author of this story listed - checked the roof, the electrical sockets, ran the faucet while running the shower while flushing, etc., etc., etc. One thing he didn't do much of, though, was poke and prod the foundation or other areas. In fact, no poking occurred. Also, the guy seemed to have the mental capacity of a retarded orangutang, so it seemed, overall, like a waste of time and money.

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

[ Parent ]
Actually (4.50 / 4) (#36)
by jabber on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 11:17:06 AM EST

You can learn a lot about a house by watching the expressions of the people trying to sell it, as you poke at various things.

It's like a game of "cold, warm, hot".

Same goes for looking at used cars.

There's a whole thesis on psychology here. If you get real good at the game, you can observe their reaction to your reaction, and through that, learn what the problem areas actually are.

I've not bought a house yet, but I have bought several cars. "Has it been in an accident?" is a typical question, and is usually met with a "No" or "Just a few shopping cart dings". But if you ask the question while shaking a crooked bumper, or looking at an area of mis-matched paint, the answer might be different. Further, if the answer is the same, but the tone is tense, or the next thing out of the seller's mouth tries to direct your attention to some other aspect of the car, you know you're being lied to.

I imagine the same goes for houses.

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"
[ Parent ]

If the real estate agent knows her job... (4.50 / 2) (#46)
by sphealey on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:31:39 PM EST

the look on the proprietor's face when you go around the house, poking things with screwdrivers, rolling marble balls
If the real estate agent knows her job, the owners won't be anywhere near it when you walk through. That is both to prevent them from being upset when you start peeling up the carpet, and to prevent them from giving away information they are not legally obligated to give. That's my problem in fact: as an engineer I would feel duty-bound to answer the question "does the foundation have cracks?" with a truthful "yes". Whereas the real estate agent can legally say, "oh, if you like the house your inspector will tell you if there are any crack problems". Same answer but the agent's is more likely to result in a sale.

Now, I did know a guy who was selling a house in a flood zone. A prospect knelt down to look at the wall about 1 m above the floor and asked "any water marks down here"? My acquaintence responded quite truthfully "No", all the while gazing at the water mark at the 2.5 m level! That state has since passed a very strong disclosure law!


[ Parent ]

Having bought two houses in the last 5 years... (4.25 / 4) (#16)
by edremy on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 09:35:18 AM EST

I'm constantly amazed at the horrible things people do to them in *very* short periods of time.

My favorite: a two year old house in a pretty upscale neighborhood. It's at the very limit of our price range. Beautiful floor plan: spacious, airy. We'd love this house...

Start by noticing the dozens of nails and nailholes in every single wall. Ok, new paint. Oh yeah, the carpet is going to need to be replaced as well.

Hmm. Crack in the kitchen countertop. Toilet upstairs cracked, lid broken in half. Rods in closets broken. A couple of electrical outlets have failed. Lots of other little things that indicate the people simply didn't care about the house at all.

Then we start noticing the stuff that's going to be *really* expensive to fix. Why do they have a screen on an octagonal window that doesn't open? Oh: it must be the 1/2" gap on one side that was letting bugs in. Check the rest of the windows: all wood frame (in a two year old house?!?), all already with gaps in the frames and dryrot around the edges. All new windows, check. Attic insulation practically missing in places. Garage concrete walls (partly belowground) showing water damage.

Hmm, cement basement floor not level. Crack running all the way across the floor. Go outside and notice that the bricks are slightly misaligned in various parts of the house. House settling out of true, check.

This was in a two-year old house, one owner. Dear God. Some poor sod is living in it right now: I hope they got a serious deal.

People or contractor? (4.00 / 2) (#37)
by MSBob on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 11:24:25 AM EST

It could be that the house's quality was just terrible. We saw a lot of houses that were very young but you would never have guessed by looking at their structure. We saw one house less than ten years old with a horizontal bulge in one of the basement walls, just like I described in the article. We told the realtor that they must have a structural engineer come and have a look at it becuase the house is a danger to its habitants. I hope she did her duty and reported the problem to the owners... Some new construction is frighteningly bad.
I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Crap contractors (3.00 / 1) (#38)
by rusty on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:01:11 PM EST

Two big problems are bad contractors and spec-built houses. There are builders out there who are just idiots. Believe me, I've fixed some of their work, and watched them screw up houses day by day.

The other thing is spec houses. If you look at a relatively new house, try to find out if it was built for someone, or built by a builder and then sold to someone. There will be a huge difference in quality. When builders are building homes on their own dime, they will cut every corner they can because there's no owner looking over their shoulder, and they know that when it's finished they can paint over and cover up most of the flaws. They've got to wring a profit out of it somehow, and there's no guarantee, so they build cheap to cover their own ass.

There are also really good builders out there, and spec houses that are built top-notch, but IMO they're the exception, not the rule.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

Agree (3.00 / 1) (#40)
by MSBob on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:18:02 PM EST

I always aimed for a house built buy a carpenter for themselves and that's what I got. I have a 50 years old cape cod that doesn't perhaps have the latest chrome kitchen but the thing is like a rock. It's built with solid lumber on a great foundation and with nice plaster work on all interior walls. My only real complaint is that the owners did some 'updates' that I'd rather they didn't. That included painting my beautiful old oak cabintes with white oil paint. I stripped one drawer front and some beatiful wood emerged. I can't get over that someone ever wanted to paint those. Some 70's upgrades were particularly hideous...

My other issue is that my oil furnace is fifty years old. It's still going strong but not very efficient (heating costs 20% more than average for the size of the building). I can't say that my inspector didn't warn me though.

I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Good call (3.00 / 1) (#43)
by rusty on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:26:33 PM EST

That's probably the best of all possible houses, really. Congrats on finding one!

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]
70's upgrades (3.00 / 1) (#51)
by wiredog on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:44:58 PM EST

Avocado tile, mirror covering the entire wall, pink painted wood cabinets. Oh yeah, love that 70's aesthetic.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

[ Parent ]
Re: 70's upgrades (3.00 / 1) (#52)
by minusp on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:07:35 PM EST

SPECKLED avocado (and pink, not together, thank Jeebus) tile, but with "antique oak" (read black, almost) cabinets. Got. To. Go. I dunno, may keep the mirror wall, just because...
Remember, regime change begins at home.
[ Parent ]
mirror walls (4.00 / 2) (#53)
by wiredog on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:25:17 PM EST

suck. Yeah, the first few times you get laid in front of one it's fun. Well, if you or she are that narcissis narcisis narsicis like watching yourselves. But they are a pain to keep clean.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

[ Parent ]
Well.... (3.00 / 1) (#68)
by minusp on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 03:36:28 PM EST

The aforesaid wall is in the dining room, and in all likelyhood will join the gaggy tiles in the dumpster, more sooner than later. Also, the wall between the dining room and living room has got to go, it completely cuts off the view to the mountains.
Remember, regime change begins at home.
[ Parent ]
Good Finding! (3.00 / 1) (#71)
by minusp on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 03:48:42 PM EST

That's really the best house to find - we are closing (soon) on one built in '75, straightforward ranch without the gee-gaws and $20/ft moldings, etc. High on a hill, 30 mile views west to the Catskills. The inspectors walked around saying, "Wow, we don't get to see many built like this." Six inch walls, 2x6 & 2x8 trusses, not a piece of OSB within 100m.
Remember, regime change begins at home.
[ Parent ]
"You're building over a spring." (4.66 / 3) (#60)
by tmoertel on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 02:21:09 PM EST

A friend of mine lives in a rural area where the recent trend has been for housing developers to buy up large tracts of farmland and convert them into cookie-cutter housing "communities" where the houses sell for insanely high prices. One developer in particular recently bought up land behind my friend's house, parceled off tiny lots, and began speedily erecting fat, uniform houses on each lot.

My friend observed that the builders had dug the basement for one house in land that was known to the locals to contain a natural spring. Since it was the second drought year in a row and the spring was then dry, my friend figured that he ought to tell the developers about the spring, in case they hadn't noticed it from inspecting the land or from their surveys. He walked over to the construction site and told the crew that they were building a house directly on top of a spring. They told him to mind his own business.

Soon the house was finished and sold to a family who moved in during the Winter. The following Spring, the rains returned. The drought was over. The basement flooded.

My friend walked over to the house and let the family know that he will be happy to testify on their behalf in the lawsuit they recently brought against the developer.

What I'm wondering is, How on Earth did the developers think they would get away with that kind of crap? Just how much hubris and disregard for fundamental human decency is required?

My blog | LectroTest

[ Disagree? Reply. ]

[ Parent ]
Dumb cunning (4.66 / 3) (#70)
by rusty on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 03:48:19 PM EST

What I'm wondering is, How on Earth did the developers think they would get away with that kind of crap? Just how much hubris and disregard for fundamental human decency is required?

You've never met these guys. A few of them are genuinely crooked and know full well exactly how badly they're ripping someone off. But the majority are just kind of dumb but cunning, and know just how much they can skimp and get away with it. Every once in a while this second type makes a huge mistake like your story, but my guess is that it was stupidity rather than evil.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

Got that right- (4.00 / 2) (#73)
by minusp on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 03:55:16 PM EST

I work with a lot of developers and builders, the vast majority are not EVIL, really just smart enough to see the shortcut, but not enough to see the inevitable unintended consequences. The truly evil ones tend to go out of business very quickly, as the word gets around. The few who don't take the shortcuts may have a finer margin at first, but all the ones I know around here are booked through next year.
Remember, regime change begins at home.
[ Parent ]
Another great point (4.00 / 2) (#74)
by rusty on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 04:40:08 PM EST

The few who don't take the shortcuts may have a finer margin at first, but all the ones I know around here are booked through next year.

You're totally right. The guys who do the minimum job they can get away with are always struggling for the next job, but good builders have to turn away work. Word gets around. A friend of mine does pickup carpentry -- a deck here, some shingling or a doorsill there, and so forth. He's not building houses, but he does some pretty big sub-house-sized jobs. He doesn't have an official business in any way. No office, no yellow pages listing, no advertising, nothing. Just him and a set of tools. But he's constantly got his choice of work because his background is in furniture and cabinetmaking, so he does an unusually good job for house carpentry.

I keep trying to convince him to come up here to Maine and do it full time, but no luck so far. :-)

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

the good ones are very, very good (none / 0) (#128)
by janra on Sat Feb 08, 2003 at 04:39:02 PM EST

I always have to shake my head when I hear people refer to construction as "unskilled labour." I've seen both skilled and unskilled carpenters working, and seen the results they produce.

My mother is a carpenter, and she turns away jobs regularly. Her truck doesn't have her info displayed on it anywhere, she doesn't have a business card, and as far as I know, she's not listed in the yellow pages.

Last time I was visiting my parents, I overheard her turning down a job - the other bids the customer had gotten were 2/3 what she could do the job for. She told him that she just couldn't ethically do the job for that little money, she'd have to cut too many corners. Kind of scary that the customer didn't pick up on the implication that the low bid (which he was looking for) would be for shoddy workmanship with too many cut corners.

She has no lack of work though - finding time for her own projects is often tricky. She also built the house they live in now. 10 years old this year, and not a single problem.

Discuss the art and craft of writing
That's the problem with world domination... Nobody is willing to wait for it anymore, work slowly towards it, drink more and enjoy the ride more.
[ Parent ]
Spec houses (3.50 / 2) (#83)
by BenJackson on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 06:54:21 PM EST

The worst thing about spec houses, from my observation, is that they are the houses the contractor works on when he has free time. No matter what stage the house is in, it will sit for a few months while the contractor goes to work for a paying customer. Later the framing that sat in the rain for 2 months will be covered and invisible to the eventual buyer...

[ Parent ]
My realtor advised me... (none / 0) (#103)
by skim123 on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 03:13:30 AM EST

Not to buy a house or condo that wasn't at least a few years old for this very reason. (Very costly) Builder errors might not yet be present. Also, if the builder was at fault for a condo complex, it could take years to work its way through the court, and buying into such a property would be silly.

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

[ Parent ]
This is timely... (3.50 / 2) (#20)
by paepke on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:01:58 AM EST

Good article.

We've never owned a home. My wife and I have rented for the last nine years, so over my wife's holiday break from school we decided to start looking at houses. Our goal was to just look and get a feel for the market in our area. After looking at a lot of dumps and money pits, we found our dream house by the end of the second week. We didn't expect that to happen.

We close at the end of this month and move in early March.

Our realtor has been great because she really understood our needs and desires for a place to call our own. Of the half dozen or so realtors that we've talked to in the last year she was the only who "got it" from the get go. That said, when we found the house she really tightened the thumbscrews to get an offer out of us ASAP. We made an offer really quickly, but I was p.o.'ed for weeks because I felt like I had been pressured into it. Thankfully, things are moving along quite smoothly now, I've cooled down, and I think that we found a real gem for a great price in our neck of the woods.

Until you go through the house buying process, there is no way to understand how freakin' stressful it is. My recommendation to all you first-time home buyers: Take your time! Take it slow and don't move too fast. Ask lots of questions about everything and research the heck out of every aspect of the process so that you feel informed and comfortable. Also, make sure that you feel comfortable with your realtor (and that the the feeling is mutual). After going through most of the process in the last two months I hope to never have to do it again; kidney stones would be more fun. But, I'm really looking forward to our new home and can't wait to get moved in!


A few more good tips (5.00 / 13) (#27)
by tmoertel on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:18:07 AM EST

When you look at a house, bring the following:
  • pen and notebook
  • camera, instant or digital
  • handheld GFI tester / circuit tester (about $10)
The pen, notebook, and camera are important. When you start looking at houses seriously, you will look at tens of them. Soon, you won't be able to remember if the kitchen you liked was in the Tudor on Parker Street or the Colonial on Wilkins Ave -- unless you take notes and snapshots. So take notes and snapshots.

When you arrive at a house, take at least one exterior photo. In your notebook, start a new page and record the house's address and the indexes of any photos you've taken. Write down the asking price, phone numbers of sellers/agents, and any other information that might possibly be relevant later.

Now, before you go inside, take a good look at the neighboring houses. Record your observations. If "your" house looks much better than the neighboring houses, it may be out of the neighborhood price range. That means you might have a difficult time selling it later or recouping the cost of any improvements you might make. If so, make a note.

During your inspection of the house, make note of any flaws you discover. Plug the circuit tester into outlets. Ground fault? Hot/neutral reversal? Note them. If you find any structural or visible flaws, take a snapshot.

Equally important, if you see something you like, make a note of it. Take a snapshot of that great kitchen; get a photo of the whirlpool tub in the bathroom.

After looking at a dozen houses, they will all blur together in your mind. The only reliable memory you will have is your notes. So take good notes.

Be sure to point out any flaws you discover to the seller's agent. In many areas, sellers are required by law to disclose any serious flaws of which they are aware. Because of this, some sellers become "forgetful" when filling out disclosure forms, and some seller's agents are less that thorough on their pre-listing inspections. So when you find a flaw, make an obvious note of it and ask the seller "Did you know about this?" From that point on, the flaw is established as known. Even if you don't intend to put down an offer on the house, you might save somebody else from having to discover the problem the hard way. And, if you do want to make an offer, the sellers will be more likely to accept a lower offer from you if they know they can't pass off the flaws on somebody else who isn't as careful as you are.

After a day of touring houses, collect your notes into a binder along with the photos you have taken. As you look are more houses, the binder will grow into your most useful house-hunting tool.

The only other advice I can give is to take your time and have fun.

My blog | LectroTest

[ Disagree? Reply. ]

Three words: (4.00 / 5) (#32)
by thomp on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:43:06 AM EST

Location, location, location. Fall in love with a location before you fall in love with a house. My wife and I spent several months walking and driving through neighborhoods, talking to people, studying maps before we purchased. And make sure you know what the city planners have laid out for future development if you're moving into a newer subdivision. I've met a few people who thought they found the perfect location, only to discover adjacent property had been zoned for strip malls or enormous apartment complexes. Do your research. An ideal location raises the value of your house tremendously.

You can't be too careful. (3.60 / 5) (#33)
by Wolf Keeper on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 11:04:44 AM EST

I'm one of those people that made mistakes.  COVER YOUR ASS.  I can't say it enough.

My wife and I bought our house in April.  We've fixed, replaced, installed or plan on fixing, replacing, and installing: all of the windows, the supports to the garage roof, the garage roof, additional braces inside our roof crawl space, insulation in two bedrooms and half the attic, the well piping, the well cover, a water softener, acid neutralizer, and filtration system, half of the electrical wire, the bannister to the stairs, one set of basement steps, some of the phone wiring, the plumbing for one of the bathrooms, releveling the patio, one of the doors, the lock on the other door, and about one third of the siding.

My wife and I knew we would have to do some of this when we bought the house, but we just didn't sit down and map out how much it would all cost.  We bargained the sellers down $10K from the $190K selling price.  Now I know better, and if I had a chance to do it over again I wouldn't have offered more than $150K.  As it is, with our mortgage as astronomically high as it is, we can barely afford one major repair a year.  

We spent $550 on our professional home inspector, a fee we thought was astronomical - but still the cheapest we could find. Well, the guy caught many (but not all) of our problems.  I don't know anyone else's experience with inspectors, but for that kind of money he should have sat us down and explained in detail what kind of repairs we were looking at.  Instead, he just gave us a list of what was wrong and that's the last we heard of him.

Unless you're hideously wealthy, a house purchase is a major economic drain on your income for years to come.  Shop around like you've never shopped before, check, double check, and triple check everything.  Get *every* *single* *statement* about the house from the seller in writing, and I kid you not, make sure you read every receipt they gave you.  Trust me, I thought I covered myself and I ended up with my own personal "Money Pit".  

Inspectors (3.00 / 1) (#41)
by johnnyfever on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:23:03 PM EST

We've had great experiences with home inspectors. I can't remember the cost, but it was certainly less than $500 by quite a margin. I guess that depends on your locale more than anything. Our guy wanted us present when he went through the house, pointed out every little thing to us, tagged all important things like water shutoff, etc etc. THen he printed off a copy of his report on the spot with a little portable printer and went through it with us. We then got a more complete, bound copy of the report with all kinds of useful maintenance information in it in the mail....

[ Parent ]
My method.... (3.00 / 1) (#44)
by MSBob on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:26:48 PM EST

When we started shopping for a house inspector I asked a friend who had a really solid built house who they got for their inspection. Once I got the guys name I was really impressed how nervous the realtors were getting when I mentioned him! Great guy and frequently pointed out stuff we ourselves would never have discovered such as an improperly installed woodstove in one of the houses we looked at.
I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Mortage cost (3.00 / 1) (#86)
by Eric Green on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 08:34:22 PM EST

Tip: Never buy as much house as you can afford. It will soak up your budget and you won't be able to do any of the cool stuff you want to do anymore. Buy a house that's slightly less than what you can afford. My mortgage broker said I could afford a house $40,000 more expensive than the one I bought. I basically said "Maybe so, but *this* is what I want to pay", and made it so.
You are feeling sleepy... you are feeling verrry sleepy...
[ Parent ]
Keep one thing in mind about houses... (4.75 / 4) (#34)
by sphealey on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 11:08:27 AM EST

Good article, but when looking at houses keep one thing in mind: houses are not machine-shop products. They will not be perfect to 0.001 inch, as people have come to expect from automobiles and other machined products. Houses will have cracks, out-of-square corners, low points, areas of settlement, etc. Even a brand-new house (not that I would recommend buying today's new construction) will have some imperfections.

The reason I mention this is because people tend to get obsessed with small, inconsequential flaws in a house to the point where they kill a potential purchase with demands for repairs or credits. Or they talk themselves out of a perfectly good house because it has a high spot in the floor. Well, that high spot has been there for 50 years according to the neighbors - it isn't going to hurt anything.

This has gotten worse with the development of the home inspection industry. While professional home inspections are a good thing, remember that the inspector MUST find something "wrong" to put on his report to justify his fee. That doesn't mean that anything on the inspection report will cause you any kind of problem - continue to use your judgement and common sense.

When buying a house my spouse and I typically make a mental reserve of 3-5% of the purchase price for repairs and modifications after we move in. That is something you should consider as well.


A couple of suggestions (4.85 / 7) (#35)
by wurp on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 11:08:47 AM EST

I've had good luck with the houses I've bought, but on the latest one I have a concern not mentioned in the article... layout. Our living room is long and narrow, with lots of openings in the walls (doorways & open areas), windows, etc. So we don't have much wall space to put storage furniture.

Likewise, the doorway to the utility room has the fridge immediately on one side of the door, the pantry door on the other side, and to top it all off the utility room door opens inwards into our 5x8 utility room which has the washer & drier in it. You have to squirm around the door to get in.

On another note, may I strongly recommend buying a house beneath your means. Find something cozy, with just enough room for you & yours. I recommend avoiding ostentation. Then take the $100s per month that you're saving vs the other house you would have bought and invest it in things you care about. Maybe that means putting in a storage shed to put your things, maybe it means putting the improvements you like instead of paying for the ones someone else liked. Maybe you prefer to save your money and take more vacation. But I really do recommend choosing something that you can make your own, rather than paying for something that someone else made their own, or for a huge house that you don't need, or for a neighborhood you're only going to see as you go to & from work.

I bought a house with a pool, and I regret it. It was expensive, the pool's a pain in the ass, and I could visit the city pool instead. It's far better to know someone who owns a pool than to own a pool.
Buy my stuff

Everyone here read this line 100x over: (5.00 / 6) (#42)
by lb008d on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:26:06 PM EST

I strongly recommend buying a house beneath your means

This is the best advice here. Mortgage sellers will always try to lend you more than you can comfortably afford. A long time ago your home monthly payment couldn't be more than 25-28% of your total monthly income. Now lenders will gleefully go over 30% - I should know, I write software for one of them.

Take your monthly take home pay and divide by 4. That should represent your maximum monthly mortgage principal and interest payment.

[ Parent ]

I couldn't agree more... (4.33 / 3) (#54)
by jasno2 on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:43:40 PM EST

Excellent advice, however if you follow it you'll find you probably can't buy a house. Three years ago I took a job in San Diego, CA. My wife and I looked at home prices and knew we'd need to both work for a while to save up. After two years of seeing housing prices rise faster than our savings account(which wasn't growing very fast due to other costs of living) we knew we had blown our only chance to get a house. Fortunately, 9/11 came and brought down prices just enough, but had it not been for that we never would have been able to buy a house around here. Fast forward 1 year and now we're sitting on a fat pile of equity. Our mortgage is insane, along with PMI(mortgage insurance), but we manage. So the moral of the story is that sometimes you just HAVE to spend more than you can, simply because everyone else is, and that drives up prices. I once heard that the finance companies only looked at the husband's income to determine the lending amount, but in the early 70's they started looking at both incomes. This drove up the amount they were willing to lend, and hence drove up real estate prices accordingly.

[ Parent ]
CA housing market is spooky (4.00 / 2) (#82)
by RevLoveJoy on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 06:15:29 PM EST

Coming from CA, as a 4th generation Californian, I can honestly say the CA housing market scares me to death. Granted, I do not live in CA any longer (I expatriated to Oregon, highly recommend it - $200K goes a LONG way here).

Regardless, I think it is important to keep a close eye on the boom / bust economy that has been the southern California housing market the past 40 years. In 1992-4 and particularly in the mid 1980s you could not move a home in SO Cal to save your life (or your business, or your car, you get the idea).

I have a number of friends who are currently juggling two three and some upwards of 5 homes in San Diego and also Orange County. It would scare me to death to have such overhead right now. It is my opinion (and I believe history backs me up here) that the so cal housing market is drastically overdue for a serious correction.

I will not try to convince anyone else of what to do with their growing home equity, but if it were me, I'd have my real estate agent on speed dial.

Best of luck,
-- RLJ

Every political force in the U.S. that seeks to get past the Constitution by sophistry or technicality is little more than a wannabe king. -- pyro9
[ Parent ]

Real Estate Bubble (3.00 / 1) (#89)
by jasno2 on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 10:14:49 PM EST

I'd say half of my brain agrees with you, but the other half sees diminishing amounts of usable land, diminishing water supplies, a strong economy, and a large influx of immigrants as propping up the California market for years to come.  Oh, and did I mention the near perfect weather(minus the occasional earthquake, of course!)?

I've been eyeing Oregon for a while, though.  Coming from Seattle, I definitely miss the slower pace, dramatically lower cost of living, and smaller population.  Having been hit by a recent round of layoffs I'm tempted to take my equity and run if I can't find anything soon.  Its a shame there isn't more in Southern Oregon, but Portland could be tolerable.

[ Parent ]

Portland / Southern Oregon (none / 0) (#138)
by RevLoveJoy on Tue Feb 11, 2003 at 04:11:49 PM EST

Portland / Vancouver is great if you can find work close to home or near the light rail system. Otherwise, picuture a small-scale version of LA traffic. It is my understanding (I have a good deal of family as well a number of friends who live and work in Portland) that wages have not quite kept up with housing cost increases over the past 5 years.

Medford / Ashland has some industry but the job market is suppressed by students coming out of OIT and SOU. However, if you want to go into education, it would be a good place to look.

Eugene is green socialist hippy paradise. It is the weirdest US city I have ever visited (I'm reasably well traveled - there are 10 states I have not visited in the continental US). I have a hard time taking Eugene politics seriously. People there will accost you on the streets for such things as wearing a Nike sweatshirt (this has happened to me). Regardless, there are a fair number of jobs in Eugene if only because most of the hippies cannot pass a drug screening.

The rest of OR is sparsely populated and offers few employment opportunities. The coast is beautiful, but like most of Southern Oregon, is still reeling from the 1980's timber industry cut backs. Where I live, Douglas County, we have among the highest unemployment in the country. Notwithstanding, there are jobs out there if you have experience. This is not, however, an employment environment in which I would be looking to begin a new career.

Best of luck,

Every political force in the U.S. that seeks to get past the Constitution by sophistry or technicality is little more than a wannabe king. -- pyro9
[ Parent ]

Yes but..... (5.00 / 2) (#108)
by merops on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 10:13:17 AM EST

In a booming real estate market, by borrowing as much as you can and buying in a growth area you can leverage. Let me explain: about 10 years ago my wife and I bought a victorian terrace house close to the Sydney CBD (in Australia). We didn't spend as much as the bank wanted to lend us because we were young, and taking out a large loan scared us. For the 7 years that we held that property, the Sydney real estate market exploded. We paid off the house in 7 years, and we made a tidy profit, but our profit would have been greater if we had been a little more courageous and borrowed more. If we had borrowed more, and bought a better property, perhaps we still may not have fully paid it off, but we would have made one hell of a profit. The bottom line is this: if you max out your borrowing potential, you run a risk. If the market booms, you stand to make a greater profit. If it tanks, then you stand to lose a whole lot of money. We decided to err on the conservative side, and we only made a modest profit in a booming market. I guess it all depends on how risk averse you are, and whether you like playing with fire. But to say that it's better to not borrow as much as you can is oversimplifying things, IMO.
"Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power." - Benito Mussolini
[ Parent ]
For dealing with Realtors (3.50 / 2) (#45)
by Tannim on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:28:53 PM EST

Make sure you set up in advance that you want your Realtor to work as a Buyer's Agent. Otherwise your Realtor is working for the seller of the house, not you. This needs to be set in advance, there's a discolsure form you have to sign for it.

One problem (4.00 / 2) (#47)
by MSBob on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 12:31:53 PM EST

We noticed that our buyer's realtor who was from Remax tried to push us towards a Remax house and detract us from viewing any RoyallePage houses. I got burnt on a buyer's agent. They all seem to work on selling you a house (any house) as fast as possible. Best not to listen to them at all. They are as much 'professionals' as used car dealers only more pushy!
I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Buyer's agent? Buyer beware. (4.50 / 2) (#66)
by tmoertel on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 03:28:37 PM EST

I have four problems with buyer's agents, and all have to do with money and its corrupting influence.

First, in order to retain a buyer's agent, usually you must enter into a binding agreement that requires you to pay the agent a commission, typically around 3 percent of the selling price of any home you purchase. You will often be told that this is "free" because the buyer's agent can negotiate to take this commission out of the selling agent's end. In the event that this doesn't happen, however, it comes out of your pocket. Keep this in mind if you want to consider for-sale-by-owner homes.

Second, most of these agreements require you to pay your agent's commission regardless of whether your agent actually helps you buy your house. Even if you terminate the agreement, you will usually be required to pay the agent if you purchase a house within a few months thereafter. This is a big problem. The agents will say this is to prevent unscrupulous buyers from cutting out a hard-working buyer's agent at the time of purchase in order to avoid paying a well-earned commission. It also means that your buyer's agent can be deadwood and there's little you can do about it. If you find a better agent, and that agent finds your dream house, you'll still have to pay the deadwood agent. The same applies if you find your dream house on your own.

Third, because buyer's agents usually don't get paid unless you buy a home, they are motivated to convince you to buy. They have just as much incentive to convince you to offer more for a house as they do to convince the seller to accept less. If the agent perceives that it's easier to do the former than the latter, you may pay too much for your new home.

Fourth, and finally, using a buyer's agent may limit your selection of homes. The agent may try to steer you toward homes listed by his or her real-estate agency before considering other agencies' listings. Also, if you ever get a chance to look at the "raw" home listings before they are sanitized for presentation to potential buyers, you will usually find a number like 2.25, 2.5, or 2.75 somewhere on each. This number represents the percentage of the selling price that the selling (listing) agent has agreed to pay another agent up front, if the other agent makes a sale on the home. Thus, a buyer's agent has incentive to steer you toward homes having higher percentages. This is especially troubling when you realize that selling agents are apt to offer higher percentages on homes that they think will be harder to sell (e.g., problem homes, homes priced too much for the neighborhood, etc.) This also means that buyer's agents may be reluctant to show you for-sale-by-owner homes, where no such up-front commissions are offered.

Therefore, if you are considering a buyer's agent, be careful. Read the fine print. Ask the agent to explain in detail how he or she is compensated. Ask what happens if you are not satisfied with the service you receive.

The idea of buyer's agents is great. The common implementation, however, seems flawed. I have no doubt that excellent buyer's agents do exist. The hard part is finding them. The best method I can think of is using a trusted friend or close relative who is also an able real-estate agent.

My blog | LectroTest

[ Disagree? Reply. ]

[ Parent ]
Find a good buyer's agent, then (3.00 / 1) (#84)
by Eric Green on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 08:11:55 PM EST

My buyer's agent and I spent a couple of days feeling each other out and looking at general neighborhoods before we started looking at actual properties. I did not sign an actual contract with him until right before putting in the offer for the house. A lot of that was because I was doing most of the work, I was the one scanning the MLS every morning to see if new properties had come in at my target area or whether someone had dropped their (unreasonable) price to something reasonable and so forth (via the Microsoft home buying site). All he was doing for me was connecting the MLS numbers from the Microsoft site to actual addresses so that I could do the initial drive-bys.

He did not steering me to properties because I was always on it first thing, so he said he didn't feel right making me sign a contract before he had done any real work for me. I'd already told him that most of the reason I was retaining him was to preserve my sanity during the actual negotiation and contract phase after I'd found the house I wanted (something he did very well). It was a matter of trust on both our parts -- he was trusting that I wasn't going to try to cut him out during the negotiation phase, I was trusting that he wasn't going to try to steer me wrong just to get a quick commission. From my perspective, as a buyer, it was a no-brainer -- filling out that 6" stack of paper sitting on the top shelf of the cabinet above my family room nook desk and getting everything done in the right order, on time, meeting all those strict deadlines, doing everything in the right order, in the correct format, was something that really needed an expert to do, and I was quite happy to have the seller pay him his 3% for the help in getting me through the home buying process with sanity intact.

Regarding the guy who said "I resent giving the enemy 3%" -- my philosophy is that a transaction of this magnitude should be fair to both people involved, and if either person goes into the transaction with the notion that the other person is the "enemy", then they're going about things wrong. If a deal can't be reached that both people feel is fair, then it's not worth doing. That philosophy may be naive, but I go to bed with a clear conscience, and that's worth something too. (BTW, if anyone wants the name and number of a good buyer's agent in the Phoenix AZ area, drop me a line via EMAIL).
You are feeling sleepy... you are feeling verrry sleepy...
[ Parent ]

Re: Buyer's agent? Buyer beware. (none / 0) (#134)
by protogeek on Mon Feb 10, 2003 at 04:37:14 PM EST

Well said. A lot of people treat buyer-agent agreements as some sort of miracle cure for bad realtors. The painful truth is, a buyer's agent is working for the commission, same as any other agent.

We had a buyer's agent when we bought our current house. By the time we finally got to closing, we were only communicating with her through the lawyer we had to hire to try to retroactively clean up some of the horrible mess she'd gotten us into. If she'd had a shread of human decency, she wouldn't have even shown her face at the closing. But we couldn't ditch her and get someone competent, because we'd signed that damned agreement.

If you find a good, honest realtor, you don't need a buyer-agent agreement. If you don't have a good, honest realtor, such agreements will only screw you.

[ Parent ]
Money (3.50 / 2) (#57)
by akp on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 01:53:29 PM EST

You really shouldn't overlook the financial considerations in buying a house. For instance, the general rule of thumb is that, in order for buying a house to make better financial sense than renting, you should plan to stay in the house for at least 5-7 years. Given closing costs, possible depreciation in value, repair costs, etc., then it's likely that you'll be better off monetarily if you just keep renting for a little while longer. Sure, if the housing market keeps getting hotter, and you buy on the way up and sell before the next dip, then you could end up making money even if you only stay for a couple of years. But given that the housing market hasn't fallen along with the rest of the economy over the past couple of years, that isn't a bet that I'd want to take right now. (Of course, if you're in an area without much of a rental market, or where rents are significantly higher than mortgage costs (such as many suburban or rural communities), then it's possible that it makes sense to buy a house even if you're only going to stay for a few years.)

So the first thing that I'd say to do is to figure out whether or not you really are in the position to buy a house. The second thing that I'd do is figure out how much you can afford to pay for a house. Again, rule of thumb is that you can afford a house between 2x-3x of your annual income. That should work out such that your mortgage payments are at or less than a third of your gross income. You're also a lot better off if you can pay 20% down so as to avoid PMI (basically an extra insurance on your mortgage if you're considered a risky investment by the bank). Once you have a good idea of how much you can pay for a house, and you've figured out what size house you want, then you can look around and find out what neighborhoods have the kinds of houses you want for a price that you can afford. Once you've done that, then you can actually start looking at houses.

I know that this is a post about buying an individual house rather than figuring out whether or not it's right to buy a house in general. Still, you're probably better off getting a house that you can afford that has a few minor issues (as opposed to major structural problems), or that isn't in your favorite area of town, than you are if you get a house that you can't afford. You'd be surprised at how much too-high mortgage payments and plummeting resale values can take the charm out of even the best house and neighborhood.


(Oh, and I should also mention that I am just recalling most of these numbers from when I bought a house a couple of years ago. You should really find a web site or book or something that has more accurate information.)

A third of gross income is high (3.00 / 1) (#67)
by p3d0 on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 03:34:11 PM EST

I have heard 25% is better. 33% is quite high.
Patrick Doyle
My comments do not reflect the opinions of my employer.
[ Parent ]
Some thoughts (5.00 / 5) (#62)
by borful on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 02:51:03 PM EST

The Budget

If at all possible, as has been mentioned below, try to buy your first house "below your means". I put that in quotes because there are a lot more costs than you realize. It's pretty easy to budget for mortgage, taxes, PMI, and homeowners insurance. You can make pretty good guesses for the monthly bills - water, power, garbage, etc. You may be able to put something down for a maintenance budget item. You might even put down a discretionary "house stuff" line item. These last two expenses will be higher than you think. I and everybody I know who bought a house - even the cheapest penny-pinching tightwad - spent more money on "house stuff" in the first couple of years than they expected. Leave yourself a cushion.

The Hunt

This can be time consuming, especially if you're right on the margin of affordability. The key is to understand the real estate market in the neighborhoods you're considering. If you're relying on the real estate professional for your price and value information, you are taking a risk. Their motivation is to sell houses. The entire industry is set up by the real estate people for their own convenience. They're not out to cheat you, but they are not your friends.

When you've picked out some candidate houses, go back and look at the neighborhood at different times and on different days. Take a walk around the block on Friday or Saturday night to see if it's a rowdy party block. Make sure you walk the block behind the house. The house behind your backyard is also a neighbor.

The more time you put in looking at houses and neighborhoods, the more data you gather on market value, the better off you will be. Some houses "show well". They have features that the local market likes; they have no defects that are especially disliked by the local market. A house that shows well will get offers. It may or may not sell quickly - it may be priced too high. You need to know how to evaluate houses for this quality. If you find the dream house, and it "shows well" you will not have much time to decide and you'll have competition bidding for it. On the other hand, if you can find a house that doesn't "show well" but that has nothing wrong with it that can't be fixed before you move in - that's a winner. It's probably better for you if you can make these judgements yourself - don't rely on the real estate agent's word. Their aims are not your aims.

The Deal

Here is where you need to make your agent work. I advise spending little time with the agent while hunting houses. You can do a better job just working from print-outs and driving yourself around. If your agent has spent hours and hours as your taxi driver, they may well feel their job is done when the offer is submitted. This is, however, where you really need them to work for you. The real estate contract is complicated but read it. There's lots of deadlines and requirements and if you miss them, you could be lose your deposit and the house. Your agent (or their assistant) needs to chase that paper and get everything initialed by certain dates. It's boring work that they will want to blow off. There's clauses in that contract to the effect that "If you don't sign by this date, you agree that the house passed inspection" so if you're waiting for some report and that date is getting close, somebody's got to do something. It's good to have an agent with experience helping here.

The Move

It's easier to work on an empty house - try to schedule as much repair as possible after the previous owner is out and before you move in. If you can leave a couple of weeks, do it. Get bug-bombing, cleaning, painting, and whatever floor and closet work you want done before your stuff goes in.

My thoughts

The house takes up way more time and money than I ever thought it would. There's a big disadvantage in a down job market - it's a lot harder for me to move to a new job. If I had it to do over, I'd look a lot harder at condos and townhouses.

Good hunting!

Money is how people with no talent keep score.

Before buying, take a look at the housing market (4.57 / 7) (#64)
by composer777 on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 03:05:14 PM EST

I posted this in another article that hasn't been submitted, but I also think it applies here.  It's very important to examine the recent housing market bubble and ask yourself if you can handle what might be a 20-30 percent decrease in the value of your newly purchased home.  There is quite a bit of evidence to indicate that housing prices are in a bubble right now.  I'm not trying to spread FUD, the numbers that are presented by the Center For Economic Policy research seem to be very reasonable and their arguements are rational and cogent.  My advice is to hold off for a couple of years.  If you plan on staying for a decade or two, fine.  But how many people can realistically plan on staying in the same place for that long with the realities of our migrant economy?  Your job might seem stable today, but don't count on being able to weather a 20 percent drop unless the money is in the bank.  

Here is a link to the CEPR report, and below that is a link to itulip, which also describes the evidence that we are in a housing bubble:



For the second link, scroll down to the section labeled, "Yes, it's a Housing bubble".  What I think makes the site above alot more credible is that they predicted not just the fact that the stock market would crash in 1999, but they also predicted to a high level of accuracy the level of inflation that the stocks had.  

I hope it's a housing bubble (none / 0) (#102)
by skim123 on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 03:10:50 AM EST

Otherwise there's zero chance of me ever owning a home in the part of San Diego I'd like to live in (Pacific Beach) unless I win the lottery. :-) I overheard someone mentioning they bought a 1,500 sq. foot house about 6 blocks from me for $710k. Insanity. I bought the condo I live in know a couple years ago, and already, these condos (~1,100 sq ft. and a good mile from the beach) are selling in the mid $300s.

I'd like to upgrade to a home in the next 1-3 years, but I worry, unless there is a major correction, that will mean moving way inland.

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

[ Parent ]
You'd better not (none / 0) (#106)
by composer777 on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 04:39:08 AM EST

I wouldn't hope that it's a housing bubble. If you're only thinking about yourself, it sounds great, but if you start thinking about how everything in the economy is connected, you will realize that it will only help those who are insulated by enough wealth to weather the storm and take advantage of the falling prices. The kind of people with that kind of wealth are people with large amounts of liquid assets. The problem with a market correction of the magnitude that would happen in the housing market is that what you're hoping for is something akin to economic collapse. It may sound nice until you start thinking about who buys the products of your employer. Well, chances are they live in a house. What happens when they lose 30% of the price of their home, which could be huge chunk? I think the answer is obvious. You will see many people who are over their head in debt go into bankruptcy. These people will have no credit and have to start over. At that point consumption will go down and cause further job losses, which will cause the economy to go into a tailspin. Right now we are witnessing the effects of the stock market correction. Imagine what will happen if over-valuation of homes gets corrected, and on top of that, the over-valuation of the dollar(we're running on a large trade deficit) gets corrected. It's not going to be pretty.

[ Parent ]
But (none / 0) (#120)
by skim123 on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 03:21:00 PM EST

I am someone who has a lot of liquid and liquidable assets. If such a crash occurred, think of the property I could stock up on. Wait 5-15 years for things to get booming again after the crash and then think where I'll be.

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

[ Parent ]
Radon Radon Radon Radon Radon Radon Radon (3.66 / 3) (#72)
by sllort on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 03:51:14 PM EST

Nothing like buying a house full of an invisible carcinogenic gas to poison your kids.
Warning: On Lawn is a documented liar.
Well... (5.00 / 1) (#109)
by Kintanon on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 10:15:33 AM EST

How else do you get rid of the little bastards without getting arrested? No one believes that "I forgot they were in the back of my 10 ton SUV" story any more. And "I just looked away for a second!" has been on its way out for years. How are irresponsible parents going to get rid of those pesky extra children if they can't buy radon filled houses?


[ Parent ]

No place for honesty (3.50 / 6) (#75)
by rho on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 05:01:05 PM EST

I recently sold my house and moved into my wife's house, which she had just recently bought. I.e., in the past 6 years, I've been party to buying two houses and selling one, and I learned something.

Honesty is worthless.

My house was new construction in a cookie-cutter neighborhood (where all the houses are one of a half-dozen layouts, and all the styles are similar). It was about 5 years old when I sold it. The construction was typical first-time home buyer construction, but not bad. It was a corner lot, so more yard, but busier traffic.

When I went to sell it, I did everything I could to be completely up-front about things. Yes, I had had a termite problem, Orkin came and fixed everything. There's a crack here, and here. The water pressure is fine, but the hot water heater is slow.

I got nit-picked to death. I probably left $5K on the table at closing, due to nit-pickery. Pressure from friends and family to sell didn't help, so the whole thing left a sour taste. Cover everything up, and make the buyer find everything. They don't appreciate shit, so don't bother. One prospective was looking at some swell bubbles in the fiberboard on the outside siding next to the hose bib, and asked if I was going to replace that. I looked at them and asked if those bubbles would kill the deal for them. I mean, really.

The other issue is real estate agents. They are the finest practitioners of the buttrape bonanza bingo game there are. The Agent Gets Six Percent. To my knowledge, an agent's job is to bring a buyer and seller together. My house sold in a week and a half. I paid 6% for MLS--it was a house in a hot area, in a hot price range, during a great time for low interest home loans. I needed the agent's help like a crack dealer needs a billboard budget. That was probably the easiest money the agent ever made.

BTW, that 6% is split between the buyer and seller agents. It's nice to know that I was paying the fee for the "enemy's" agent. I say bullshit to that--let the buyer pay their agent's fee.
"The thought of two thousand people munching celery at the same time [horrifies] me." --G.B. Shaw

hmmm (none / 0) (#93)
by yankeehack on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 11:54:35 PM EST

depending on your location and whatnot, you could have sold the house FSBO or for sale by owner and not paid any fees at all (depending on how hot your seller's market was).

I was in a hot seller's market when I bought my house, during a few bids, I offered to pay my buyer agent's fee just to get a crack at the house.

No one who was bad in bed has ever been good in life (i.e. liberals, I've never had sex with a liberal woman who knew how to use her body.) Keeteel :-P I'm *right*!
[ Parent ]

Home prices (3.50 / 2) (#77)
by chunkwhite84 on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 05:23:36 PM EST

Not sure about other areas, but here in northern virginia, just across the river from washington dc - home prices are so high I couldn't afford to make a mistake in buying. I just bought one of the least expensive homes in the neighborhood. It's a 4 bedroom 4 bath, and it needed roughly $40k of "fixing". New paint (inside and out), new flooring, all new appliances (they were all ~20 years old), completely new bathrooms (all wiring, plumbing, and fixtures), new water heater, new furnace, new ceiling fans, upgrading from 200amps to 400amps to the house because it was wired improperly inside, and a bunch of other things. The house was $670k and again, it was one of the least expensive homes in the neighborhood. If this same house was 40 miles to the north out in the country in maryland - it would be a $290k house, not a $670k house.

Point is, location is the single largest influence on the price of a home. !NOTE!: If you are moving a new location to take a job - check home prices in the area BEFORE you discuss salary with the employer! Very important!

there's always the failsafe. (3.71 / 7) (#78)
by somasonic on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 05:31:10 PM EST

I always ask people to give their houses a "test drive" for a couple days to make sure everything works out fine. They give you the keys, and in the meantime they spend the night at a nearby hotel.

You'd be suprised at how many people don't take their spare keys with them whenever they go to the hotel. Just make sure all of the doors and windows are locked tight when they're set to return, and as long as you've got a nice supply of food and water until those saps get tired of laying seige - hey, free house!

Remember: Cops respond best to buzzwords and legal jargon such as "squatters rights" and "indian giver."

Try claiming on the insurance (none / 0) (#127)
by omrib on Sat Feb 08, 2003 at 08:45:23 AM EST

After someone smashes the house for fun and walks without any obligations (or just has a great graduation party).

How many people agree to take their stuff, their kids and their dog to a hotel? I wonder... (and how many hotels agree to have the family's snake, iguana and parrot?)

Have you found anyone who would do the same with his/her car? Just hand it over for a few days (you can rent a car for the time being), and I'll return it, smashed or not, and say whether I'm satisfied.

[ Parent ]

A comment on cracks, and more (5.00 / 11) (#87)
by Eric Green on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 09:26:56 PM EST

For those of us in the Southland who have slab-on-grade foundations: All slab-on-grade foundations develop cracks. What you want to look for is whether the two sides of the crack are at different heights. That's what detirmines whether you have a foundation failure. Also, if you can stick your pinkie into the crack, obviously you have a problem!

Also look at your masonry walls (if you are looking at a brick house or concrete block house), they will show clear signs of foundation failure.

Virtually all modern houses develop cracks in the drywall at the top of the interior partition walls due to a phenomenon called "truss uplift". This is normal, caused by the fact that houses are now built with trusses, not with joists and rafters, and the top part of a truss is up in the attic weather while the bottom part of the truss is under the thick blanket of attic insulation. So the top and bottom of the truss expand at different rates, which, because the connecting members of the truss, pulls the bottom member upwards slightly in an arc between the exterior walls, causing the wall to crack where the ceiling joins the partition wall. This is not a structural problem, the house won't collapse because of it, this is just one of the "advantages" of modern materials and methods. The usual way of coping with this is just putting a wood coping along the tops of the walls and forgetting about the fact that there's a crack behind it. It's cracks in the outside walls that you have to worry about with modern houses.

One of the sucky things about slab-on-grade is that you can't inspect the base plate. So that advice won't work with slab-on-grade.

For modern houses built with surface-mount windows (as vs. the double-hung casement windows of old): *flashing* is the most common failure. For some reason contractors think that window flashing is optional. You want to push underneath the windows HARD to see whether the wall is rotted under there. You probably have a 50% chance in most modern cookie-cutter subdivisions of 10-20 years in age that when you push on that wall under the window, it'll feel like a sponge, rather than like a solid wall. Don't walk, *RUN* when you see that.

Insect inspections: These are the most overrated nonsense around for folks with slab-on-grade foundations. Typically the termites come up inside the walls, through those inevitable slab cracks, and never put tubes anywhere outside that the inspector can see them. Unless you have wooden kick plates that they can get into (where the kick plate getting eaten up serves as an early warning system), the first thing you'll know about a termite infestation is when you lean on a wall and it crumbles :-(. The good news is that, after ten years of termite hell and billions of dollars of termite-caused damage after the banning of Chlordane, there is *finally* an effective termiticide back on the market. It's called Termidor. If somehow the mortgage-company-required termite inspector actually spots a termite, make sure this is the chemical that your home is treated with. That still won't repair the termite damage, but virtually all houses built south of the Mason-Dixon Line will have termites eventually. You can't avoid houses that have been treated for termites in the past, because that's all of them, you can just try to figure out whether they've caused structural damage that will be expensive to repair (good luck!). One reason I bought a house built with concrete block walls is that termite damage is not a structural issue with my house, they got into the kick plates but the walls (plaster-on-block) are impervious to the beasties.

For a first time buyer, look at smaller homes in older neighborhoods. They're often better-built than the new homes, and if there are structural problems, they're well evident by this time. I bought a 40 year old home built by a quirky and individualistic builder back in the days when builders weren't Fortune 500 companies slapping up cookie-cutter homes that fall apart in 5 years, and while it is going to be expensive to upgrade the electrical system when that time comes, this thing is built solid -- slam your fist into the walls, your fist breaks, not the walls (plaster-on-block construction, remember?). An older home can be a money pit, but if it's structurally sound, habitable, and you can schedule the repairs out over a matter of years, and the neighborhood looks like it's going up and not down, it might be a bargain in the long run.

One thing about an older home: think and wait before you start tearing things out. For example, my bathroom cabinets are the original solid wood cabinets installed 42 years ago, under a hideous coat of paint. Rather than replace them with modern paste-board cabinets and sucky plastic laminate countertops, it makes far more sense to simply re-finish these cabinets and, when the sparkly 1950's laminate gets too tired, tile the countertop into a funky 50's looking tile countertop (which was an option on this model house, and I can get the pattern for doing it from one of my neighbors who still has her original 50's vintage tile countertop). The deal is you want to try to preserve the character of the house as much as possible, within reason. By tearing out the original stuff and replacing it with Home Cheapo stuff, you're destroying what makes these funky older homes so cool to own.

Regarding muddling: that's exactly what you do when you tear out the original stuff and put in Home Cheapo garbage. If you're gonna do things, try to keep them as much in character with the house as possible, and do them *right*. It still irritates me that the prior owner of my home put a heat pump unit on the thing, rather than a gas heat unit. This house is supplied with natural gas, why did he put a heat pump? Apparently an over-eager contractor had a spare heat pump and didn't feel like running a gas line to the roof. (Homes in this area have package units on the roof, rather than seperate heating/AC units). This is a prime example of muddling making things worse.

Setbacks and utility sheds: My utility shed, attached to my house and used to store lawn equipment and such, not only is a piece of crap built out of OSB and 2x4's with a very bouncy floor, but also technically violates deed covenants regarding setbacks. I doubt that my neighbor is going to sue me to enforce the setback (her utility shed has the same issue!), but this is just another example of how muddling not only creates a lousy end product, but also can cause legal problems. Yes, I knew about this potential legal problem, if a court complaint is ever filed against me I'll tear the thing down and file papers to get the suit dismissed because the complaint is satisfied (and build a new shed in a LEGAL place), but you get the picture.

HOME OWNERS ASSOCIATIONS: These have gone *WILD* in my part of the country. The State basically says that they have all the powers of government, with none of the checks and balances -- no review of fines with a court of law, the ability to seize and sell at sheriff's auction your home if you refuse to pay the fines they impose, and they are almost inevitably run by House Nazis and busy-bodies who have nothing better to do than to go around and fine people because they painted their front door without notifying the architectural committee or left their garbage can at the street for five minutes too long. If you are going to move into an area with an HOA, *FIND OUT WHAT THEIR FEES ARE* before you do so. In one area I looked at, they charged *250 a month!* to do nothing but mow the grass in the medians of the roads! And because they're not public bodies, you have no way to find out where they're spending this money, or who's embezzling it, because "these are private records and we don't have to show them to anybody nyah nyah". Also interview some neighbors in that area to see whether there are problems with the home owner's association being a bunch of House Nazis. I finally solved my HOA problem by moving into an older neighborhood that doesn't have an HOA.

Plumbing: You want to find out whether the plumbing is basically good. In my case, my housing inspector reported that the potable water system had been re-worked to copper from the original galvanized, and that the waste pipes were iron and in good condition. My potable water is run in the attic (as was the original galvanized -- it was abandoned in place) so it would not have been expensive to repair and leaks would be immediately visible (!), but if you have slab-on-grade and the potable water is run through the slab, you may have leaks under the slab. Those are expensive to fix. You can test by turning off all the water in the house, looking at the meter, go away for 15 minutes, and come back to the meter. Has it moved? If so, and the plumbing is under a slab, walk away, it'll be expensive to fix it and there's other houses without those under-slab leaks.

Anyhow, 'nuff ramblings... hopefully some of this was useful to *someone*.

You are feeling sleepy... you are feeling verrry sleepy...

that is true about the damn HOAs (none / 0) (#99)
by gt2313a on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 01:15:57 AM EST

[ Parent ]
California Purchases - Propositions 58/193 (4.50 / 4) (#91)
by wgiese on Thu Feb 06, 2003 at 11:21:50 PM EST

This tip only applies to California residents, but it's a doozy...

Propositions 58 and 193, passed in 1986 and 1996 respectively, offer a huge benefit to folks lucky enough to be in a position to take advantage of them.

The propositions exclude primary residences from re-appraisal and supplemental taxes when the transfer takes place between parent and child (Prop 58) and grandparent and grandchild (Prop 193).

The longer your parents/grandparents have owned their primary residence, the better this benefit is for you. In my case, my parents retired out of state, but prior to doing so, I purchased their home (at fair market value). However, they owned the home since 1964; given the protections of Prop 13, their assessed value was less than $75K. This is the tax base I "inherited" by purchasing their home. Anyone else would have been re-assessed, typically at the purchase price ($600K+ in this neighborhood.)

The tax savings are huge - I'm saving about $9,000 a year in property taxes compared to folks who have recently purchased in this neighborhood.

Since both of these propositions apply to the transfer of property, it doesn't matter whether you pay full market value, inherit the property, or it is gifted to you.

Some details are here (PDF).


CA only? (none / 0) (#110)
by BrendanL79 on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 10:26:46 AM EST

Does anyone know what other states, if any, have similar provisions?

[ Parent ]
structure vs. location (4.50 / 2) (#107)
by merops on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 09:49:06 AM EST

My wife and I live in a real estate boom town (Sydney, Australia). It's a no-brainer to make a profit in real estate here (at least until the bubble bursts, that is). Under these conditions, what matters most is the lot in which the house is built. In other words, location DOES beat structure at times (contrary to the claims of the article). There is some real estate here which essentially gets sold based on land value. The house built on it is immaterial, since the lot can be worth so much more than any house built on it. In fact, in some affluent areas with older homes, it is expected that the new owner will come in, demolish the old house and build a new one. Under these conditions, the state of the house on the lot is irrelevant. I must emphasise that this is only if the lot is worth much more than the house. In our case, the house is probably worth 25% of what the lot is worth, so we didn't worry to much about the state of the house (as an aside, our house is in good condition anyway, so we plan to extend and renovate). It's location, location, location, as the saying goes.
"Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power." - Benito Mussolini
Next up--Building Your Own Home! (4.00 / 1) (#112)
by sudog on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 12:21:24 PM EST

'Twould be very nice if someone would make an article just like this but aimed more at people who are aiming to build their own home from scratch.

Build your own? (none / 0) (#114)
by MSBob on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 01:43:59 PM EST

You mean get a contractor to build it for you or do you mean actually go out and frame it and side it and wire and plumb etc?

If you mean the latter there is a hell of a lot of stuff out there (try searching for 'cordwood house' for instance) and it'll give you lots of info.

As far as getting it built by a contractor the most important step is finding a reputable one, I guess...

I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Don't forget broadband availability (5.00 / 2) (#113)
by pin0cchio on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 12:29:09 PM EST

When buying a home, don't forget to check whether or not your favorite high-speed Internet access provider serves the area. You don't want to be stuck without broadband "until 2007" as some cable and phone companies have stated in their broadband timelines.

Or am I talking out of my

Controversial (3.00 / 1) (#115)
by Phillip Asheo on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 01:56:50 PM EST

structure, location, updates and visual appeal

Certainly these are all worth considering, but in the UK at least, there is only ONE thing that really matters: location.

All the other factors you can exert some degree of control over after purchase. In the UK however we are not in the habit of putting our houses onto low-loaders and hauling them cross-country as seems to be the fashion in the USA.

So, decide where you want to be first, and indeed, this will pretty much decide all the other factors for you.

"Never say what you can grunt. Never grunt what you can wink. Never wink what you can nod, never nod what you can shrug, and don't shrug when it ain't necessary"
-Earl Long

Most UK's housing is old (none / 0) (#117)
by MSBob on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 02:43:59 PM EST

I think most houses in the UK are already over 100 years old and hence stood the test of time so structural issues would have already cropped up in most. Same cannot be said of North American housing.
I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
I doubt it. (none / 0) (#118)
by Phillip Asheo on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 02:56:47 PM EST

Most houses in the UK were built after WWII when they were bombed flat by the Nazis. Admittedly there are some old properties, but I would be surprised if they are in the majority.

The thing about the UK housing market is that building regulations are so strict about where you can build and where you can't, that land has become really scarce, especially around London, where nearly everyone wants to live, because its the only place in the UK with any decently paid jobs.

"Never say what you can grunt. Never grunt what you can wink. Never wink what you can nod, never nod what you can shrug, and don't shrug when it ain't necessary"
-Earl Long
[ Parent ]

Worst house in the best street (5.00 / 1) (#124)
by merops on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 11:14:54 PM EST

Exactly! Here in Sydney (where real estate is the national sport), the saying is "buy the worst house on the best street". The idea is that by extending and renovating a bad house in a good street you can bring its value up to the best houses on the street (and stand to profit by it). If you already buy the best house on the street, any renovation is money down the toilet since you aren't going to get your money back when you sell (known as overcapitalisation).

I shake my head in disbelief when I drive past the poorer areas of Sydney and see the occasional mansion with all the trimmings. These things just won't matter to buyers, since no-one would want to live in these areas unless they had to. Who is going to spend a premium buying a mansion in an impoverished, crime-ridden area? Whoever spent the money developing the mansions is just never going to get their money back.

Also, remember that land (usually) appreciates, whereas buildings depreciate. Just put as much of your money into assets that appreciate (i.e. land).

It's land that counts, so again it's location, location, location. Buy a modest house in a good level block in a good, safe neighbourhood, next to amenities, transport, schools, with the backyard facing the sun. These are things you can't change after you move in. There'll be plenty of time to fix the plumbing later.

"Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power." - Benito Mussolini
[ Parent ]

Very timely... (4.66 / 3) (#116)
by digitalamish on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 02:36:38 PM EST

Since I just signed a 2 year lease on my apartment (my landlord was desparate, and gave me a good deal), I am planning on BUILDING a new house to be finished by the time my lease is up. I have already semi-decided on the location (about 200 yards from where I grew up). The nice thing is that I know more about the neighborhoood, and the lay of the land than the developers and agents do. My head is already spinning just trying to figure out martgages.

One piece of advice I saw on The Motley Fool that I thought was brilliant: You don't want the best house on the block, you want the worst. Why let everyone elses property drag down your value, when you can let your neighbor's do the work. Great!


God speed to the crews of Columbia and Challenger.

This American Life (5.00 / 1) (#119)
by coljac on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 03:15:29 PM EST

This reminded me of an episode of This American Life (Suckers,1 September 27, 2002 Episode 222) that featured a couple who got screwed when buying a house and how it changed them. Pretty interesting. You can listen with RealAudio here.
Prologue. Ira talks with Adam and Wendy, a couple whose worldview was changed when they bought a house. Adam and Wendy were the kind of people who believed that most people by and large were good, and their motives by and large honest. But when they found that the former owner had lied about all sorts of things in their new house, they were forced reluctantly, to change their view of things. The former owners were the types who believed in suckering the other guy before he suckers you, and now Adam and Wendy were starting to think that way too.

Whether or not life is discovered there I think Jupiter should be declared an enemy planet. - Jack Handey
Geologic Hazards (5.00 / 3) (#123)
by ToadBoy on Fri Feb 07, 2003 at 08:39:39 PM EST

I attempt each quarter to get this through the heads of each and every one of my students: always pay attention to any geologic hazards before purchasing a property.  Look at the land around you, and the type of environment you are in.  There are some places that most people should just not live in!


1) Settlement due to loose fill soils, quick clays, organic-rich soils, etc.  As the organics in the soil underneath the house decay, the soil will settle, causing damage to the house.  This is hard for the layperson to detect; your best bet is to talk with realtors and neighbors, especially in  areas with a lot of new construction. Having seen the crap most contractors will try to use as structural or non-structural fill, I'll always be careful looking at houses built on or near steep artificial slopes.

However, it's not impossible to remediate a settling house.  There are a variety of reinforcement measures, including pin piling, helical anchors, and cast piles.  However, all are   expensive to install.

2) Earthquake-induced liquefaction.  If you live on the West Coast anywhere in the flood plain or on reclaimed land (I.E. the Marina district of San Francisco), you could be at risk of having the ground liquefy and settle underneath you in an earthquake.  Basically, the water in the underlying soil helps to contribute to the overall stability of the site. Shake it, the water gets driven off, and the soils, without the benefit of pore water pressure, will settle into a more dense configuration, taking your house with it. Areas with shallow water tables and loose sediments are most vulnerable.

Most states, counties, and cities are required by law to have an inventory of liquefaction and seismic hazards in their jurisdiction.  Contact your local Planning and Urban Development department for more information.

3) Earthquake damage (non-liquefaction).  Not much you can do about this. As usual, the West Coast is at the highest risk; however, the New Madrid Fault zone runs across the central Mississippi Valley, through Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, southern Illinois, and western Kentucky.  If you're in a high-risk seismic area (once again, check your local planning office, or consult a geologist), seriously consider purchasing earthquake insurance, if you can get it.

4) Steep slopes.  People have a habit of building next to very steep slopes. There are reasons that slope is there; they are called erosion and mass wasting.  I personally would avoid any house near a significant slope.  However, if you're set on it, look for the following things:
   a.  Is there any disturbance on the slope? Downed trees, 'pistol-butting', raw exposed soil, etc.
   b.  Where is the water? Is is streaming out of cracks or springs on the slope? That's bad.
   c.  What is the toe of the slope like? Is it stable, or is it next to the ocean or a river.  Undercutting of the toe is a common cause of landslides.
   d.  How far back is the house from the edge of the slope break?  Most cities and counties have a requirement for the minimum distance a house must be from the slope break (setback).

If you choose to buy a house near or on a steep slope, you MUST take the following steps to ensure long-term stability.
   a.  Keep water off the slope!  Make sure all roof gutters and runoff from impermeable surfaces is tightlined to the storm sewer, and not drained onto the slope.  Make sure your property is graded  so that water runs away from the slope break, instead of towards it.
   b.  Keep the slope well-vegetated!  Vegetation, especially a combination of extensive ground cover  with deep-rooted trees, has a very positive effect on slope stability.
   c.  If you're on septic, maintain the system.  Don't allow any sort of a pressure head to build up on the upslope side.
   d.  During periods of extended or heavy rain, keep an eye on the slope. Just in case.
   e.  Don't let the downslope neighbors mess with the toe of the slope. Ever. Even if you have to take them to court.

Once again, check with your local government officals to determine what they consider a steep slope, where the problem areas in your neighborhood are, and what the legal setback requirements are.

5) Landslides and rockfall.  This one is a pretty easy one.  Don't buy a house next to steep cliffs of punky looking rock or underneath an avalanche chute.  Avoid houses on existing mapped landslides, even if the seller tells you it's been 'remediated'.  Once again, contact the city / county for the location of known mapped landslides.

6) Wildfire.  This used to be a distinctly Western US problem, but I've heard of it in the South too. I lived in Southern California, and I know people who have been burned out by brush fires.  Wildfire really becomes a problem when you live in rugged terrain that dries out during the summer.  Often, it's tough to get in and out to fight the fire.  Plus, fires move fast, and there's always a chance you won't have time to escape.  Talk to the local fire department during the home shopping process.  Get their feedback about what areas are more hazardous to live in from a wildfire standpoint.

Finally, if you do choose to live in an area where wildfires are a potential hazard, I'd recommend the following:
   a.  Always have 'go' bags with essential supplies such as clothes, medicines, and copies of important documents.
   b.  Always keep the area around your house free and clear of brush and combustible debris.  Take whatever the local fire department suggests as a suitable buffer zone and double it.

7) Radon. Somebody already mentioned this.

8) Sinkholes and Karst Terrane.  Karst occurs when acidic groundwater dissolves away limestone bedrock.  It results in a landscape pitted with shallow lakes, caves, and occasional collapse sinkholes.  You can't get insurance (as far as I know) to cover this, so be careful where you buy.  Karst is common throughout the South, from east Texas across to Georgia.  Much of Florida is also underlain by limestone, which is vulnerable to dissolution.

The good news is that if you're really worried about karst, it's fairly easy to detect whether or not there is a problem.  Call your local consulting geologist or geophysicist.  We can come out with various instruments (ground-penetrating radar, microgravity, electrical imaging), and give a fairly confident 'thumbs-up', generally in less than an hour.  Costs money, tho.  Once again, contacting the county or city would be a good move before buying.

9) Floods.  Don't buy houses within the 100-year floodplain. Unless you're ready to take the risk of getting flooded out.  It's that simple.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has published a series of flood hazard maps that insurance companies use to gauge premiums for flood insurance.  Most libraries have copies of these maps. If not, the city or county planner will have some.  It's a good thing to look at before you close.

Keep in mind that many of the events described above occur infrequently, and maybe not at all in your lifetime.  However, they can be catastrophic, and are generally not covered by standard homeowners insurance.  It's become more and more difficult (and expensive!) to obtain earthquake and slide insurance, as when claims do occur, they not only occur in bunches, but also tend to be for total losses.

Finally, if you have the money to spend, there are professionals out there who specialize in pre-purchase site assessments (I'm not one of them...I mostly worked construction).  Costs range from $500 - $1500, depending on time involved and the desired end product.  If you're looking at a $300,000 - $500,000+ house, $500 may be a good investment. YMMV.


Note: I am not a licensed geologist in any state yet, so this is for information purposes only.  Still a git (G.I.T)....

Don't forget groundwater level (none / 0) (#133)
by orsino on Mon Feb 10, 2003 at 03:22:33 AM EST

9) Floods. Don't buy houses within the 100-year floodplain. Unless you're ready to take the risk of getting flooded out. It's that simple.

It doesn't need to be the river flooding your basement, groundwater is almost as nice. If there is a river within several miles, check the groundwater level!
Depending on ground composition groundwater level can vary drastically with the swelling of the river. If there were any water engineering projects (especially dambuilding) in the area within the last years (or are planned for the future) be especially careful. It can take decades for the final consequences to develop.
My parents house stands 5 miles from a river in an area that was not flooded since time immemorial. 20 years ago a series of dams were built along the river in our area. Since then the mean groundwater level and especially the seasonal maximums have slowly risen by several meters!
Trouble started 10 years ago and by now groundwater enters the basement through the floor almost every year when the river carries high water. Heaven knows when the groundwater will find a new equilibrium and stop rising. You don't hear about stuff like that on the news as it looks far less impressive than a flood, however, its not uncommon and its no fun at all.

You want to keep a safe distance if authorities are messing with water, believe me.

[ Parent ]
Great summary (none / 0) (#140)
by JonesBoy on Wed Feb 12, 2003 at 01:44:25 PM EST

A lot of people neglect the issues that you bring up, and pay dearly.   I remember when the California wildfires were burning down entire communities.   The news kept showing one guy who saw the problems, and built a house that was relatively fireproof.   It had stucco siding, a clay roof, and all vegetation was cut back away from the house.   Every house around him was in flames, and he was standing in his back yard, non-chalantly hosing off the roof.

As far as water problems, alway visit a house when it is raining, to check for drainage issues, and during rush hour for traffic patterns.

Speeding never killed anyone. Stopping did.
[ Parent ]

Testing Electrical Outlets (5.00 / 1) (#130)
by mlepage on Sun Feb 09, 2003 at 12:18:01 AM EST

Go to Home Depot and buy a little thing you plug in three prong outlets that tests them by lighting lights. This will only work for three prong outlets of course, but it will tell you whether they are properly wired: grounded, correct polarity, no open hot or neutral, etc.

Won't test overloads (none / 0) (#132)
by MSBob on Sun Feb 09, 2003 at 09:34:31 PM EST

that's why it's good to plug in something like a hairdryer to see if there is any visible effect on other electrical devices. This mostly applies to older homes though.
I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Bought 5 months ago... a few tips (5.00 / 1) (#131)
by Theaetetus on Sun Feb 09, 2003 at 03:21:44 AM EST

Though I can't add too much to what others have said, I will add a few things:

1) Make friends with your realtor. I didn't have a buyer's agent, she was a seller's agent, but I talked with her extensively about my plans, my needs, and my lifestyle. As a result, she showed me a place before it went on market! and the following morning (when it actually went on the market) I made an offer which was accepted, and now I'm in my own place. She knew I wanted these particular features (size, style, etc.) and knew it was within my price range. The sellers were happy, I was happy, she gets her cut, and she also gets the recommendation from me to all my friends.

2) Make friends with your home inspector. Mine gave me a free radon check 'cause I impressed him by knowing that the switch on the ceiling fans was to reverse their direction for summer vs. winter. Silly thing, but if you make him your friend he'll do more work. He also lifted ceiling tiles in the basement to check for termite damage as well as snuck (illegally) into the neighbor's basement (I'm in a townhouse) to check for termites. All at no charge.
We're techs, they're techs, albeit in a different field - make them feel like you're on their side rather than on some strange realtor's side, and you're golden.

3) Finally, make friends with your mortgage broker - they want the sale, and they want your business more than the bank does... and they can also smooth things over with your insurance broker if things are taking too long. Remember - though you might be on a deadline ("Oh my god, if I don't have a house by Friday, I'm homeless!"), so are they ("Oh, if I don't have this sale, I lose money!"), so they really are on your side, though they don't seem it.

4) Oh, and really finally, after you close, be kind to your realtor and your home inspector, 'cause they helped you and goodwill and karma are important. However, screw your mortgage company as much as possible, 'cause they're going to collect as much in interest on your loan as they actually loaned you. For instance (through a Google check for "mortage early payment calculator"), this site lets you see how much early payment screws your mortgage company. On my 30 year loan, paying off an extra hundred a month (piffle!) gets me out of my loan 8 years earlier! As soon as I get a raise, I'm going to go to an extra hundred-fifty per month, and that will get me out almost 15 years early! Remember, screw your mortgage company, 'cause they're trying to screw you.


Redefining "location" (none / 0) (#139)
by wytcld on Tue Feb 11, 2003 at 10:06:28 PM EST

After 20 years of renting in various places, I'm finally buying - and the tips on how to inspect here are timely, as I do the walk through with an engineer in a week. But as a renter over so many years, I suggest a revision about what "location, location" should mean.

On the one hand I've always looked for location, in terms of access to the stuff I care about (views, culture, coffee shops, transit, walkability); on the other I've always looked for real affordable rent. What that means is that I've always ended up in the neighborhoods that were natural for people with similar values to end up in. And even without the housing bubble, any of these would have been good investments. On the other hand if I'd moved to the spots which already had recognized "good location" in terms of already rating high rents and reputations high enough to get press attention, an investment there might still look good in the current bubble, but would have been no where near the return if I'd bought in the unfashionable (at the time) places I've rented.

Plus, there's something about the feel of a place on the way up that's nice, socially. Whereas once it gets to the plateau of being a "good location" in real estate terms far too many of the wrong sort of people (who live for nothing but to earn the mortgage) swamp out the sensibility of the place.

Currently I'm in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It used to be a cool place a decade ago, a more relaxed pace than Manhattan. Then it got hot, and now where the main shopping street used to have about 6 realtors on its one-mile stretch, there now are about 3 real estate offices per block. A townhouse that went for $400,000 8 years back is now typically at $1,400,000. Can this be real? Unemployment is way up in NYC, Wall Street bonuses have disappeared, the city budget's in a hole that will result in the worst breakdown in services over the next year or two - including police and fire protection - seen since the 70s. And can anyone say "terrorist target"?

So what counts for location now? I found a small town with good transit links, good broadband, a living downtown, decent politics, and just beyond the edge of currently trendy for its region. And a house that's only about 20% overvalued compared to inflation over the last decade - so not that much to lose when the bubble bursts.

Anywhere prices are several times anything real people can afford is not good location.

Some books you might find helpful (5.00 / 1) (#141)
by sphealey on Sun Feb 16, 2003 at 12:10:04 PM EST

I have read and own the following books and have found them very helpful in the process of understanding / buying / rennovating / building houses.  Some are no longer in print but all had big press runs so you should be able to find them one way or another.


Tracy Kidder
ISBN 0618001913
Kidder-style narrative of the experiences of a couple and their contractor in building a custom house.

The WellBuilt House
James Locke
ISBN 0395629519
The contrator from "House" gets his revenge!  Seriously, a lot of good information from the contractor's point of view - crucial for you as the contractee to understand.

This Old House Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning
Trethewey et. al.
ISBN 0316852724

This Old House House Kitchens
Thomas et. al.
ISBN 0316841072

OK, so you hate and despise "This Old House" - I can respect that!  But these two books are very good.  The guide to HVAC in particular explains a lot of issues that modern heating contractors would prefer you not know but which are critical for a comfortable living space.

House buying tips | 141 comments (139 topical, 2 editorial, 1 hidden)
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