Heads Up: Look Out For These Things When Buying A New Home

Home-buying can be an exciting- but daunting experience.

There are many things to consider when looking at a home, and the less exciting aspect of routine maintenance and potential repairs can get overlooked or put aside as a "consider later". But a recent Bankrate survey found that more than a fifth of millennial homebuyers had unexpected maintenance costs as their chief regret after buying a home (maintenance costs were also the top regret among Gen X and Baby Boomer survey respondents).

With that in mind, we've put together a list of some things that you should look out for when buying a new home:

Lead paint

Lead from deteriorated paint has been linked to several health issues, especially among children. In 1978, the federal government banned the consumer use of lead-based paints. However most homes built before 1978 used lead paint during the course of their lifetime, and lead-based paint may still be part of the finishes on the property, either on the surface layer or under newer layers of non-lead-based paint.

When looking at a home built before 1978, pay attention to the condition of paint in the interior and exterior, and try to find out from the disclosures and asking the seller (or their agent) if any repainting or renovation work was done.

Machine measuring for lead paint with a screen that says "reading"

Old wiring, such as knob-and-tube

Another thing to look out for when buying a new home is knob-and-tube wiring. Knob-and-tube wiring was an early standard of electrical wiring commonly used in North America from around 1880 through the 1940s, but has since been replaced with new standards and is considered to be obsolete, as it has no ground wire and thus can't serve three-pronged appliances (appliances that have three prongs in the plug). While it is not inherently dangerous, due to age, improper modifications over the years, and situations where it is surrounded by insulation, it can create a fire risk.

When considering a home built before the 1950s, you should review the disclosures (especially any home inspection report) and any permit information to see if the wiring was replaced or upgraded at any point. If not, you should consider whether you are comfortable taking on the risk or the cost of replacing the wiring. If you really have fallen in love with the home, it may be a good idea to get an electrician's opinion on how much it would cost to update the wiring in the home.

A lack of ground fault circuit interrupters, aka GCFIs

GCFIs are small electrical devices that protect from severe electrical shocks by very quickly interrupting power if it detects that the current flowing into the circuit differs from the returning current by a very small amount. This is designed to prevent a lethal dose of electricity before it can affect your heartbeat. They can also prevent some electrical fires or reduce the severity of other fires by interrupting the flow of current.

The National Electrical Code, or NEC, established where GCFI protection is required in new construction and major renovations, with GCFIs having been required in bathrooms since 1975 and kitchens since 1987.

When considering a home built prior to 1975, you should review the disclosures (especially any home inspection report) and any permit information to see if the outlets in the bathroom and kitchens have been updated to use GCFI protection. If not, you should consider if you are comfortable with the risk and/or consult an electrician about the cost to replace the outlets.

Private sewer lateral age and requirements

A private sewer lateral (often abbreviated as a PSL) is the pipe that connects a home's plumbing to the municipal sewer line, usually located under the street or road. PSLs will fail over time due to natural erosion, buildup, and root intrusion, among other causes, and thus most will need to be replaced after 30 years or so. Pipe specialists normally use a camera on a long flexible cable to inspect the condition of a private lateral, and conduct pressure tests to determine the health of the lateral. If the lateral passes, the local municipal authority that oversees the wastewater pipes will provide a certificate or some other proof of compliance. These certificates usually have an expiration date of up to 20 years (for newly installed PSLs).

Depending on the local or county municipality (such as in many places in the San Francisco Bay Area), a home's sewer lateral (connection to the sewer pipe) may be required to be tested for compliance and/or replaced upon or before the sale of a home. If the home already has a valid certificate (ideally one the seller has included in the disclosures), you may be able to avoid a test and replacement.

Be sure to carefully read the disclosures and conduct some research to determine if the property will need to undergo sewer lateral testing and replacement. This is often spelled out in a form in the disclosures, but you can often check by searching for "sewer lateral" + "[the city and or county name]." If a compliance test and replacement are required, be sure to understand who will be responsible for the work. Normally this is the buyer's responsibility, but the purchase documentation should spell the responsibility out, and you may be able to negotiate for the seller to handle it or get a credit towards the cost at closing.  

Old pipes with corroding or outdated materials

Depending on the age of a home and the material, the pipes that serve the home may be outdated and require replacement. Old pipes that have deteriorated may start to leak or burst, leading to water damage and even unsanitary health hazards. The most common culprit is galvanized steel piping, which was commonly used in homes built prior to 1960 for water supply lines, and have an average lifespan of 40 years. Copper pipes have been the standard for residential home use since the 1960s and have a lifespan that can reach beyond 50 years.

When considering a home, especially one that is at least 30 years old, or built before the 1960s, you should review the disclosures (especially any home inspection report) and any permit information to see if there are any outdated piping or history of leaks and if the plumbing has been replaced or updated at any time.

An old roof

Perhaps the most important key system of a home, an old roof that is nearing or past its operational lifespan is at risk of allowing water intrusion into the body of the home, which can damage building materials and even be a cause of mold growth.

Different roofs will have differing lifespans depending on the material, but the most common type of roof is composite asphalt shingle roofing, which can have a lifespan of 15-40 years depending on the quality of the material.

When considering a home, carefully review the disclosures, (including any home and roof inspections) and permit information to see if there are any signs of water intrusion, roof problems, or a roof that is nearing the end of its lifespan. You'll also want to see if the home had a roof replacement within the last twenty years.

An old furnace and/or HVAC system

Another key system of a home, HVAC and heating systems are crucially important, especially when temperatures drop or spike. Most modern furnaces have an operating life of 20 -30 years before they begin to fail and need to be replaced.

As with other items in this list, carefully review the disclosures, (including any home inspections) and permit information to see the condition (and age, if an estimate is provided) of the furnace and HVAC systems, and if a furnace was replaced within the last 20 years. If you don't see any indications that the furnace was replaced, or the reports indicate the furnace is getting on in years, you should expect to potentially need to service or replace the furnace in the next decade.

An old water heater

Like the furnace and HVAC system, a functioning water heater is another important key system of a home. Tank water heaters have a functioning lifespan that tops out at around 15 years, while tankless water heaters can last for 20 years or more. As water heaters age, they can experience issues ranging from reduced efficiency (which means higher energy costs) to cloudy, discolored water, to leaking from the tank.

Once again, carefully review the disclosures, (including any home inspections) and permit information to see the condition (and age, if an estimate is provided) of the water heater, and if it was replaced within the last 15 years. If the reports, disclosures, or permit information suggests that the water heater is 12 years or older, you should expect to be replacing it before too long.

Asbestos-insulated ducts

Asbestos is a mineral fiber that was added to a number of materials, including insulation around air ducts, due to its excellent heat-insulating and retardant capabilities. Homes built in the 70s or earlier are likely to have asbestos-insulated air ducts. As asbestos materials degrade or are damaged, they may release fibers into the air. Studies of those exposed to long-term exposure to asbestos fibers found increased rates of lung cancer and other lung-related health effects. As a result, most products today do not contain asbestos, and those that do are required to be labeled as such and handled appropriately.

Asbestos in a home is not necessarily an issue, and in fact, the Consumer Safety Product Commission states that the best thing to do is to leave asbestos material which is in good condition alone, as the danger comes when there is damage and fibers are released into the air and inhaled. If the asbestos appears damaged or is deteriorating, or if a homeowner wants to reduce the risk of issues, they will need to get the asbestos removed by a qualified professional, also referred to as asbestos abatement.

If you are considering a home built in the 1970s or earlier, carefully review the disclosures and home inspection report for any mention of potential asbestos. When looking at a home, if you have the chance, visually look at what you can see of the ductwork leading to and out of the furnace and look at what condition the insulation appears to be in. If there is a mention of asbestos in the report, it should also mention the condition of the material. If there is damage or a recommendation for asbestos removal/abatement, you should obtain a quote for abatement work to inform your decision.

Brick foundations

Last but not least on our list of things to look out for when buying a new home: Brick foundations.

Any home built before the 1920s used brick and mortar to build up its foundation walls. Over time, these can weaken, with the mortar or brick breaking down or peeling. Such defects compromise the foundation walls' ability to support the home and can lead to bowing or leaning of the foundation walls. Repairs for brick foundations can range from mortar and brick repair to more involved and costly repairs or replacements.

When considering a home built in the early 1900s, you should review the disclosures (especially any home inspection report) and any permit information to see if there are any concerns with the foundation, or if foundation repair/ replacement work has been completed.

As you may have noticed, many of these items can be anticipated, or even avoided, by carefully reading the disclosures and doing some research. Hopefully, now that you've read this, you won't be counted in the next survey as among homebuyers with regrets related to unexpected maintenance and repairs.

And as a little bonus, here's one more thing to consider:

Aspects of a home can affect your homeowner's insurance premium...

Some home insurers may charge higher premiums based on certain features or conditions of the home and property. These include having a pool, a hot tub, proximity to water, an old roof, an older home, and the type of dog you own. Conversely, proximity to a fire station and being married can help lower the premium. For some more factors, check this explainer out from Insurance.com.

READ NEXT: Due-on-Sale Clause: Everything You Need to Know

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