Five Tips For Buying a Home

There is probably no better way to become aware of the condition of a home than to have your home inspected by a licensed inspector. However, there are several considerations on which only you, as the purchaser, can decide. And, as I’ve said in other articles, it’s my belief there are some things you must do yourself: Manage your money.  Raise your children.  And, also… purchase your home!

1.    Location, location, location…

Probably the most important factor is that your new neighborhood is a good fit.  Take some time to drive around the area and make sure you like it. Check out the traffic at rush hour – if the home you like is on a main street, make sure the traffic noise won’t be a problem for you.

Additional location considerations might include: Where are the closest schools?  Having schools nearby can be great if you have young children yourself.  It can be rather annoying with noise or traffic, if you don’t!  Does the lot back to a wash? If you have cats or a small dog, they might be at risk to urban coyotes and other wildlife. Is there an alley? Alleys have both positive and negative features. They provide a buffer between you and the back neighbor, but they also give opportunities for clandestine behavior since they are relatively private.

You might want to check the crime statistics for the area, something you can find by googling “neighborhood crime data” along with the community of your choice.  You may also go to the county sex offender registry and make sure you are comfortable with your neighbors. In the Phoenix area, this information is on the Sheriff’s web site at http://www.mcso.org.

Check into nearby vacant lots. You never know when the lot your kids play on will be developed into something you might not want to have as a neighbor. You can find out who owns lots through the tax assessor web site; for Maricopa County it is http://www.maricopa.gov/assessor/

You can find your assessor using Google or your favorite search engine. Usually there is a way to search by map, and you might enter the address of the property you are interested in purchasing, then use the map to see what zoning and who the owners are of vacant lots. Generally your Realtor will do these things for you, if you ask.

You can even ask your Realtor to speak with your potential new neighbors.  Find out if there is any unreported crime; ask if there is a rock band that practices all afternoon. Find out if there is a problem neighbor at whose address the police have a reserved parking spot. Ask the immediate neighbors if they plan any major remodeling or additions. This could lead to a year of construction vehicles and noise from sunrise to sunset. A few minutes of due diligence can prevent an unhappy ownership situation.

Make sure the lot has good features; i.e. not located in a flood area, and not the lowest lot in the area (sure to be 3 inches deep in water every time it rains). Generally this is not a big issue because most municipalities will not give a building permit for such areas.
2.    What do I really need…?

The home you pick should meet whatever needs you or your family have. Think about the future. Having kids? Already have kids? Kids leaving? Getting married? How big a home do you need, how many bedrooms and bathrooms? For later resale, the most popular single family home is a 3 bedroom 2 bath home. Homes with only 1 bathroom or only 2 bedrooms are more difficult to sell than the more standard 3/2.

Take the family and spend a little time in the home. Spend a couple hours, especially during the morning or afternoon rush hour. Make sure the noise and activity levels are acceptable, and make sure the home has all the conveniences you like.

When I purchased my latest home, I replaced all the built-in appliances; they were more than 10 years old. I also like a gas stove, and our property has no gas, so I had a gas stove installed with a small propane tank outside. A 3 gallon tank lasts a year. This total expense was around $5,000 including having the line and tank professionally installed for the propane. The convenience of new appliances and a gas stove makes a huge difference in the utility and resale value of the home, at a modest cost.

Is a pool important? Somewhere to relax on those hot summer weekends? Be sure to inspect the pool closely, using a professional inspector. Pool maintenance can be quite expensive and time consuming. I personally do not have a pool service, instead I have an automatic chlorinator and an automatic pool sweeper. These items are a significant up front expense, but can yield years of virtually maintenance free pool enjoyment. Insist that all pool equipment be in excellent working condition.

3.    Last year’s remodel… this year’s nightmare?

Many older homes may have been converted from a one bath to a two-bath home. You can usually tell.  Make a careful inspection and see if this was done.

Sometimes a master bath has been divided and made into two bathrooms. If the remodel was done well and permitted (a permit was obtained from the municipality), this is a better situation than a poorly done, unpermitted change. You can often find permit information at the city planning office.

Sometimes additional square footage has been added to a home, either by converting the garage into a bedroom or office, or by enclosing the patio. Telltale signs of this might be: No garage, or a garage door that is still there but has no purpose; a slanting floor (garage floors and patios often slant to provide drainage); unusually low ceilings in one room; no air conditioning vents in the room; an outdoor carriage light on the wall of the room; a room with one cinderblock wall and 3 wood frame walls.

Some homes built with a carport have had the carport enclosed. This is an inexpensive and useful remodel, provided it was done correctly and with the proper permits. Things to check for: A window from the house into the garage; garage door is not self closing and/or is not  a solid core door; one garage wall is block, the other walls frame; no power outlets on the garage walls except on the back wall.

Look at the flooring in the home. Flooring is an upgrade many homeowners attempt on their own, but without sufficient skills. Often before selling, owners will rip out old carpeting and install laminate wood flooring. Look for the seams in the laminate; one of the more difficult things for the unskilled installer is to plan the job appropriately so that the seams in the flooring come out right, with no gaps. Further, many installations run right up to the baseboard – sometimes there are two baseboards, the old original and then the new baseboard to cover the gaps from the flooring!

The proper installation is generally to remove the old baseboards so that the flooring is seamless from wall to wall and only a single baseboard is installed. New baseboards should be installed – this minor step costs little and makes a big difference. You can often see a discoloration at the bottom of the old baseboard where the carpet used to be. And, most do-it-yourselfers are not good at mitering the corners and fitting the baseboards perfectly. Just look at the joints and the corners – you will be able to tell, easily, whether the installation was done well.

Tile is another homeowner do-it-yourself favorite, and again, without the proper skills, the job can look terrible close up. Uneven levels in the tiles, grout lines that are not straight, and poorly done corners are just a few examples. Just look at the work, you will be able to tell whether it was done professionally or not.

Finally, look for additions. This is often evidenced by one part of the home leaning away from another part – look at where outside walls meet. Look at joints in the outside walls and see if they are pulling away from each other. Look at the flooring in the home at the same point; if there is carpeting, it is harder to tell, but sometimes the addition will have a different slope from the main part of the house.

For information about remodel work, trust your home inspector. This sort of thing is often more cosmetic, but might make a big difference upon resale.

4.    Who built the ark?  OR….

How is the home constructed? Some older homes are slump block (in the Phoenix area), and this is a wonderful thing, as the utility bills will be substantially less than for a frame house. These homes stay warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

While my personal favorite construction is slump block, a close second would be block homes. With these homes, you may find the cable TV companies complain when they have to drill through the block to add an outlet! Block or brick, or some form of masonry, can provide a strong, stable framework that has inherently good insulating qualities.

For some time, homes were literally built by framing the home, wrapping it with insulation and chicken wire, and then using a gunite machine to spray stucco on the outside. I know I am not characterizing this very well, but it is probably the bargain basement construction method. Unless this process is completed carefully, the stucco can develop cracks. Newer homes are built with framing, then engineered wood (plywood or particle board), then insulation and stucco. This is much more stable than chicken wire over framing!

Any of these construction methods, done properly, are acceptable. My opinion is that the risk of problems is lower with masonry of some sort, although most homes in the Phoenix are frame/wood construction.

When I bought my most recent home, I did not check any of the electrical outlets. The inspector verified that they worked, but the brand used by the contractor must have been the very cheapest, because none of them will hold onto a plug – the spring action is so weak that the plug literally falls out of the outlets. I spent a day changing almost every outlet in the house.

Similarly, look at the valves under the sink and toilet. Make sure the lines are copper and not galvanized. Galvanized pipe, installed in the 70’s, will almost surely be rusty and possibly leaking now, 35-40 years later. Insist on a repipe to copper at the seller’s expense. Have your inspector make sure the plumbing is copper.

I like to make sure the inspector checks the shut off valves under the sinks and toilets, because in older homes, they are often frozen and impossible to use. If there is any evidence of leaking, have the seller replace them with new, preferably 90 degree cut off valves, which are less prone to freezing. When you have to have your sink or toilet worked on, you won’t have to shut off water to the entire house for half a day.

5.    Rules, rules and more rules…

Your Realtor should make sure you get a copy of any Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions commonly known as CC&Rs  These are rules associated with a property which are part of the deed and run with the land.  You should also request a copy of the HomeOwner’s Association  or HOA rules which govern your property. Some HOAs restrict the color and type of plants you have in pots on your patio. Some only care that your driveway be free of grease stains. Regardless, make sure you understand every rule. Is renting allowed? Are pets allowed? Can you park on the street in front of your home? Can you keep a boat in the back yard? Are evaporative coolers permitted?  All these things and more can be regulated by the HOA or by the CC&Rs.

HOA information is provided either by the homeowner (in smaller communities) or by the association (in larger communities). CCR information is recorded, at the public recorder’s office, and should be made available to you either by your Realtor or by the title/escrow company.

Either way, your Realtor should make sure you understand exactly what they say, what your obligations are for living in the property. These are just 5 quick tips of many, many more things that might be important to you when you buy a home. Other things to think about (this list is by no means complete):

–    Cost of homeowner’s insurance

–    Taxes

–    Utility costs

–    Garbage pickup / bulk pickup

–    Neighborhood watch

–    Internet service

–    Cable TV

–    Street condition, paving

–    Security system

–    Paint condition

–    Driveway condition

–    Roof condition

–    Age of air conditioners

–    Septic or sewer?

–    Age of faucets and other fixtures and their condition

–    Type of electrical wiring (aluminum, copper?), electrical panel, breakers

–    Condition of shower enclosure and tub area (mold?)

–    Insurance claims history

–    Street utility manhole in front of house?

–    Distance to fire hydrant?

–    Water pressure?

–    Condition of watering system for grass, shrubs?

Finding the perfect home for you and your family should be an enjoyable experience.  I hope these guidelines will help you in your search and home buying experience!

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