House-hunting is an exciting time, but buyers need to also beware. Whether a first-time or eighteenth-time buyer, it pays to be cautious when shopping for your new home. A house is a big investment, and one that, given the current market trends, stands an excellent chance of building equity and appreciating in value for you. Home inspections can tell buyers many things, but the inspection often occurs on the way to closing. Here are some things buyers can look for when stopping buy an open house or on a showing with their agent.

You see dead trees.

Before even heading into the house, pause a moment to take in the scenery. And look for dead trees while youre at it, too. A dead tree, even if it isnt close to the house, can signify a larger issue at play. Ask your agent to check into it and, if you really think you might love the house, ask for an arborist to take a look. An insect infestation may mean the house is also affected. At the very least, the tree will have to come down and its best if it does so in a controlled manner. Having it fall during a storm on other healthy trees, your car, the neighbors car, or worse, the neighbors house, is not ideal. Either way, it is going to be expensive to take care of, so its best to find out now whats going on.

Recognize a roof in need of repair.

After checking out the trees, take a good look at the roof. If there are signs of sagging, missing shingles, or shingles that look decidedly new, it may mean its time for a new roof. Look, too, for gutter issues  clogged or otherwise not there  to see where the water goes. The roof may also look brand new, and that will be worth knowing as it may equal significant savings on heating and cooling throughout the year.

Spot uneven front steps and doors that dont close quite right.

As you walk up to the house, pay attention to the foundation, the front steps, and the front door. Any unevenness or cracks may signal a foundation problem. Inside, look for doors that either dont sit evenly in their frames or just wont close correctly. This could be evidence of a cracked or settling foundation. Releveling a foundation comes with a very large price tag and does not include repairing pipes or heating ducts that need to be repositioned. A cracked foundation allows water to come in, and this is turn can result in further settling, rotting wood, or other problems.

Investigate discolored walls and ceilings.

While admiring the new kitchen appliances in a home, be sure to also take a moment to look up at the ceiling and examine the walls. Yellow or other spots may be a sign of water damage. (Some yellowing can also be due to the presence of a heavy smoker, which may also be something to consider before going forward.) This is something to especially take note of in older homes in northern climes where snow and ice can dam up and melt. If the roof is new, it might be good to specifically ask about any water damage that may have occurred before it was installed. Venture into the basement, too, but this time take a good look at the walls near the base. If they are discolored, then it might mean there is a seepage problem. Also, take a good look around the windows for signs of leaking. Keep in mind, too, that if it smells musty, there may be a water problem lurking somewhere.

Check for uneven stairs.

Uneven front steps are one issue, and uneven inside stairs can be another. It could be another sign of settling, but it could also signal that there are other structural problems literally built in to the house. Whether its new construction or an existing house, pay attention to these details to make sure you have a solid investment.

Try opening and closing the windows.

Old houses often come with old windows, and that means they can be tricky to open and close. Layers of paint dont always help, either, but while it may seem charming at first, it may be trouble for later. Windows that dont open and close easily may also prove to be leaky when it comes to heating and cooling a home. Replacing them can also be very expensive, especially if it is not a common size. Check, too, to make sure that the frames arent pulling away from the walls. This could be another sign of a troubled foundation.

Eyeball the floors.

Uneven floors or cracked tile can be another sign of a foundation issue or a termite problem. While it is natural for some settling to occur, an overabundance of these problems  cracked foundation, windows that dont open, a musty basement, and uneven floors  may point to a serious foundation issue. Again, if you really love the place, find an inspector that has a background in structural engineering to take a look.

Look under sinks.

While it is not polite to rifle through drawers at an open house, it is perfectly acceptable to open cupboard doors in the kitchen and bathroom and check out the plumbing. Even the fluffiest of pretty-colored towels cant change a leaky pipe or a lurking mold problem. Its also a good idea to case out pipes when youre in the basement for signs of leaking or mold.

When walking through a home, take the time to play home inspector. Turn on lights and faucets and take a good look at everything. After all, if you decide this is the place for you and your family, then its in your best interests to find out everything you can.

Photo by Birmingham Conservation Trust

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