Buying Your 1st House: Red Flags
As you go shopping for that first house, just what should you look for? or look at? Whether your first house will be newly-constructed just for you, or will instead be one that has had a previous owner (or multiple successive owners), there are certain red flags you can look for, to protect yourself, your family and your investment.
Try to avoid, or at least be very wary of, any house in or near a floodplain. (You can find out where flood plains occur at your local City Hall or Building Department, or even from real estate insurers.) Ideally, any house in a floodplain should have all of its living spaces elevated well above any expected flood level of relative frequency. (Areas within floodable levels should be limited to garages, storage or occasional-use spaces.) Check on the availability of — or the need for — flood insurance, and be sure you understand all of its provisions and implications.
Your new house should also ideally have site grading that falls gently away from the house on all sides, especially if it has a basement. Grades that fall toward the house will simply channel water toward the basement or foundation walls, allowing it to eventually seep inward any way it can. Inquire about perimeter foundation drains that might catch and divert such water. Note any graded swales on the property, and find out how much water they may carry, in what directions, and how frequently.
Examine any basement or below-grade living spaces carefully for signs of dampness or wetness. If a basement wall feels inordinately cool or clammy to the touch, it may be a sign of embedded moisture. If a previously-owned basement appears freshly painted or paneled, inquire about past water problems. Look for cracks or other flaws in any basement or garage walls or slabs. Floor slabs should best have control joints every 8 to 16 feet or so to allow for slight movement or settling while controlling cracking or worse.
Be sure to look around for basement floor drains — roughly one for each 400-500 square feet of area or so, and always near hot water tanks, laundries, condensate lines from furnaces or air conditioning units, and any other water source or appliance. If your new house is on a low site, in a low-lying neighborhood, or in any area prone to flooding, be sure that it is equipped with a sump with sump pump (as well as battery back-up for that pump to see you through power outages).
As you walk through the house, bob gently on the balls of your feet occasionally to test the ‘bounce’ of floor framing, especially in older homes, and especially near the centers of large rooms. This will give you some indication of the strength and sturdiness and resilience of the floor structure, and may point to potential problem areas. Pay close attention to creaks, squeaks or pops from flooring and stairs. They may point to movement and/or water penetration. Examine any first floor framing that is visible from a basement; ideally all lumber framing should be fairly clear, straight and true, with a minimum of laps, splices, patches or lumber knots or voids. Note any framing that has been cut away or cored excessively for the passage of wiring or plumbing.
By keeping your eyes and ears open, and being fairly inquisitive, you can diminish the unwelcome surprises that may face you once you occupy your first house.
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