Real Estate News

What to look for at an open house — inside and out

Questions you should be asking yourself and the owners before you call in a home inspector.

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When the stay-at-home order has lifted, prospective home buyers will flock to open houses. A majority of people (65 percent) who attended an open house within the last year would do so now without hesitation, according to survey data the National Association of Realtors released on Monday.

An open house is the real estate equivalent of a first date. You want to look for validations of your initial attraction, but you also want to notice any potential deal-killers as soon as possible so you can focus your efforts on finding your dream home. Here are tips from me, a former home inspector, and other industry experts:

Before you go

■ “Google the address specifically,’’ said Dave Twombly, an exclusive buyer agent with 4 Buyers Real Estate in Cambridge. “Look at the property and neighborhood on Google maps. Read the town’s Facebook page. There’s a lot you can find out before you get to the open house.’’


■ In addition to Google, check your county’s Registry of Deeds website for information about the house, including what the owners paid for it and when. (Morrison)

■ If time permits, walk/drive by the property and check out the house and neighborhood. If there’s a school, a church, or a fire station across the street, this may weigh on your decision to buy. (Twombly)

On the outside

■ “Before getting up close and into the details, I suggest people step back and look at the big picture. Does the building look level and square? Is the house or the chimney leaning ? Are the doors and windows square?’’ said Mike Atwell owner of J. May Home Inspections in Newton.

■ Look at the retaining walls. Are they leaning noticeably? (Atwell)

■ Are there large trees/limbs growing close to or touching the house? (Atwell)

■ Ask the listing agent how old the roof is. Many asphalt shingle roofs need to be replaced after 20-25 years. If it looks bad from the ground, it probably is. (Atwell)

■ What is traffic like on the street? (Twombly)

■ Are other houses on the street well-kept? (Twombly)

■ Many rear porches are underbuilt. Walk on the deck and push on the railings. Does the floor feel solid or bounce underfoot? (Atwell)


■ Look at the topography. Does the property slope, send runoff toward the house or away from it? (Atwell)

■ Look for patched ½-inch diameter holes in the front stairs, paved surfaces next to the house, and the basement floor, said Galvin Murphy Sr., owner of Yankee Pest Control. This indicates that the house has been treated for termites. If you see them, you’ll want to ask the owner for more information.

In the basement

■ “Greater Boston buyers should be concerned about rodents,’’ Murphy said. “They’ve gotten increasingly worse with our mild winters over the last few years. It’s now rare that I go into a house that I don’t find some evidence of rodents in there.’’

■ Bring a flashlight and look around. Are there price tags on any pipes or electrical components. This is a sign the work was done by a nonprofessional. (Morrison)

■ Does it smell musty? That’s a sure sign of a damp basement. Similarly, if it is heavily scented with multiple air fresheners, it might be an attempt to cover up odors. (Twombly)

■ If the basement is finished, there will be a lot you can’t see, but buyers should ask the listing agent about the source of any water stains and obvious signs of repairs. (Atwell)


■ Look for cracks in the foundation. Most foundations have cracks, but a structural engineer should evaluate any cracks ¼ inch wide or wider. (Atwell)

■ Ask about the age of the heating system. Anything over 30 is on borrowed time. (Morrison)

■ If the house has central air conditioning, you should ask the agent how old it is. The average lifespan of the outdoor condenser unit is typically 15-20 years; indoor air handlers typically last about 30 years. (Morrison)

In the interior

■ “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and if you don’t get satisfactory answers, follow up,’’ Twombly said. “You should spend more than 20 minutes in a house before committing to buy it for $800,000. Spend as much time as it takes to feel comfortable you’ve been thorough.’’

■ Will this house work for you as the people in your household age/grow? (Twombly)

■ Are the floors sloping? (Atwell)

■ Are the windows old or newer? (Twombly)

■ Open the door and look into the closets, not to be nosy, but to ensure they’ll be big enough for your wardrobe. (Twombly)

■ Poke your head into the attic if possible and shine a flashlight around. Are there water stains on the wood around the chimney? (Murphy)

Take notes about what you see. They’ll help you make an informed offer and if your offer is successful, share those notes with your home inspector. Nearly every house problem can be fixed, but knowing about them upfront will help you craft a better offer.


Jim Morrison, a former home inspector, can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.


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