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Speak Up: What to Ask the Current Owner Before You Buy

By Courtney Ronan

When you're considering the purchase of an existing home, it's very easy to become blinded by your desire to close the deal on your dream house. The drive-up appeal is there, the layout is just what you wanted, and there's a nice, big backyard for the kids. Because you want to make this work so badly, you fail to notice (either consciously or unconsciously) the cracks on the walls, the rotting floorboards in the living room, that musty smell lingering through the halls.

To protect yourself and your investment, you'll want to make sure that you have a professional home inspection of the property before you even give a minute's consideration to buying any house. But you can conduct your own investigation as a prospective homeowner, as well. An informal "chat" with the current owners can be even more valuable than a professional inspection. Why? Nothing beats face-to-face conversation. Granted, the current owners want to sell. But if they want to sell badly enough, they'll respond openly and honestly to your questions, and they'll be willing to resolve any issues or conduct any repairs that stand in the way of your closing the deal.

So what should you ask the current owners? The following questions will provide you with a good start. And just like any journalist conducting an interview, as you proceed with your questions, you'll often think of other points you want to cover. These questions are merely a guideline; feel free to jump off the course occasionally. Whenever possible, ask your questions in "open-ended" style. "Yes" or "no" questions are too easy for the respondent, and they don't help you as a prospective owner. And as you listen to the owner's responses, don't interrupt. Let silence creep in occasionally. Your silence tends to lead to the owner's volunteering more information.

Start with the following questions:

 

  • Does the home have any structural damage, including rotting floor boards, cracks in the foundation, walls or basement floor?

     

  • If the home has a basement, has the owner experienced any problems with moisture creeping inside the basement? This is a pricey repair, so make sure you ask.

     

  • Has the owner experienced any problems, either recently or in the past, with a leaky roof? If the roof has leaked in the past, did the owner have the roof repaired or completely replaced? How long ago was the roof replaced? (A professional home inspector, of course, can help validate the owner's answer.) Even if the roof hasn't leaked in the past, you'll want to ask the owner how old the roof is. Most shingle rooftops (typically made of asphalt or fiberglass) have an average lifespan of 18 years. If the roof is approaching that birthday, you're looking at a tremendous expense to replace it.

     

  • Has the owner ever had problems with termites? The vast majority of existing homes sold in the United States have been inspected for termites prior to the sale, but knowing if the home has a history of termite infestation will be of help to the professional inspector and you.

     

  • Was the home built before 1978? Before 1960? Homebuilders routinely used lead-based paint in homes constructed prior to 1960, and although the practice had decreased in frequency by 1978, lead-based paint was still used to cover the walls of some homes constructed during the 1970s. Ask if the home has been tested for the presence of lead paint. If the owner has resided there for many years, a test probably hasn't been performed, and the owner may not have ever considered the answer to your question. Lead-based paint should be a particular concern if you have young children. If the paint begins to peel off the walls and children ingest it, you'll be tempting fate needlessly.

     

  • And while we're on the subject of dangerous substances, ask the owner if his or her home has ever been tested for radon. Consult both your professional home inspector and the local chapter of the Environmental Protection Agency about requirements for radon in your new hometown, and whether local residents have experienced high radon levels on average.

     

  • Are the air conditioning and heating systems in good condition? How recently were they replaced? You don't want to move in to your new home during the heat of the summer only to be greeted with a rattling air conditioner.

     

  • Has the owner ever conducted any home improvements? Was it a do-it-yourself job, or did a professional contractor perform the work? If a professional did the job, find out the name of the company and then check its credentials. Was the owner satisfied with the quality of the work provided by the contractor?

     

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