Don't just look at the interior as a wonderful place to live, look for the clues that it can give about the rest of the house. Floors are not supposed to be unlevel, they should be solid and sturdy. Unlevel floors and doors that stick, bind or drag may indicate the structure has moved or settled. Are there cracks around the windows? Look for wear and tear and abuse. These may be indicative of how the owners maintained the property in general. If the appliances are damaged and old, the other systems may be also. Look at all stairs. Are they sturdy and easy to walk? Do they have good rails?
There are other concerns you may not be able to see. You may need to test for asbestos, radon gas, carbon monoxide, lead paint, formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, pesticides, or electromagnetic radiation.
If the electricity is off you should find out why, and have it turned on to allow it and everything it operates to be inspected. Most people prefer breakers over fuses. There should be smoke detectors and Ground Fault Current Interrupters (GFCIs). Look for exposed and antiquated wiring. Check for extensive use of extension cords. This indicates the house is under wired.
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Much of the plumbing is concealed, but there are some areas you can check. If the water is off do not turn it on. It may be off for a reason. If the incoming line is slightly rough gray metal with a bulge at the connections, it may be lead piping. Rock the toilets to see if they move. Loose toilets may leak at the wax ring. Turn on two or three faucets at the same time to see if the flow decreases. The plumbing may require all new pipes if the decrease is severe. Look for mixed types of metal and plastic piping. This may indicate amateur repairs. Does the water drain slowly? Water stains around fixtures or on ceilings may indicate active leaks.
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Have the owner run the heat for you. Do not turn on a Heat pump in the heat mode if it's above 75°F degrees outside. It may damage the unit. As with the other systems of the house, if there is no power or fuel, be suspicious. Look for soot, heat damage, rust, or physical damage to the equipment. Are there dangling or damaged controls or obvious amateur repairs? Is the system old or antiquated? With all air systems check for damaged ducts and missing filters. Oil fired systems usually have an underground tank that may leak with age.
Are the bricks in the fireplace loose or the mortar damaged? Soot up the face of the fireplace may indicate that it does not draw well. Look for cracks in the brickwork that might allow fire to escape. If there's a wood stove or insert you won't be able to see inside the fireplace or flue. Have it checked before closing. Look for weather damage to the chimney.
If the roof leaks the house will be damaged. Look at it from the ground or out the windows. Walking the roof is dangerous and may damage the roofing. If you can't see it, be suspicious. Asphalt shingles cupping or curling, and missing shingles or slates tell you the roof is aging or damaged. Tar on the roof or flashings may mean poor workmanship on repairs. Rust on metal roofing or flashings is not good. If the paint on the metal is flaking or peeling it is failing. Look for stained or rotted wood in the attic and stains on ceilings. These stains indicate either an active leak or one that has been possibly repaired.
As you examine the roof from the ground, check the exterior of the home also. Be suspicious of any part you cannot see. Look for cracks in the masonry and cracked, warped, or rotted wood siding. Is there aging or failing paint? Is the hardboard siding bulging or delaminating? Look closely around the decks, stoops, and at doors for splash or rot damage. Have the stoops or steps shifted or settled? Are there missing, loose or damaged rails?
Without a good foundation, the rest doesn't matter. Hire a Home Inspector to go in the crawl space to help you look for clues of damage in the concealed areas. If the crawl space or basement looks, smells, or feels damp or wet, you need advice on how to dry it. Standing water is surely a sign of trouble. Cracks or obvious settlement in the foundation or basement wall should be referred to a Professional Inspector or Engineer for evaluation. Rust or rot on basement columns indicates wetness. Look closely for rotted framing. Rot can be tremendously expensive to repair. As you check the exterior of the foundation notice the fireplace or chimney. Is it leaning away from the house? It shouldn't be! A properly built slab floor should be reasonably warm, dry, and solid. Check for slab cracks.
In most of the country insulation had become standard. It saves us money year round. Look to see that you have some in the attic and floors. You'll be surprised to find some houses have little or no insulation. Sometimes its blown or moved around in the attic, leaving holes. Is it falling out or tattered and hanging down in the crawl space? This may be a clue the crawl space is wet. Don't touch the insulation, many types will make you itch. There is a Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation that looks like soap suds and may give off formaldehyde fumes. An air quality test may be wise if your dreamhome has this type of insulation.
Water is your home's worst enemy. It does more damage to houses nationwide that fire, earthquakes and termites combined, yet 95% of the problems can be managed or significantly reduced with basic improvements to existing grading and drainage. The illustration shows many of causes of wet basements and crawl spaces. Nearly all water comes from outside the house and improvements should be made at the source. Talk to your inspector about reducing water problems. He may be able to point logical, low budget techniques that will help.