- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

Realtors often tout a home for sale as having been “well-maintained.” But how can a buyer really tell if a home is in good condition?Experts say that, as in many other of life’s major undertakings, the devil is in the details.

Maintenance is a routine part of home ownership, but some sellers haven’t taken the time to make sure that their home is in tiptop condition before putting it on the market.

As buyers are taken from house to house, usually in a limited amount of time, it’s not always easy to see a home’s imperfections and to separate mere cosmetic problems from major issues that can cause problems down the line.

Industry professionals suggest that buyers evaluate each home with a keen eye to detect for themselves whether the house has been well-maintained. It’s often the overlooked details that can be clues to the home’s condition.

Kristin Gerlach of Gerlach Real Estate Inc. in Chevy Chase says prospective home buyers usually don’t get the big picture. It takes a little effort.

“People tend to look at a home on eye level and don’t look up and down,” Ms. Gerlach says. “Open the cabinets, especially under the sink. Check the furnace, and pull out the filter to see if it’s been changed; also, look at the baseboards because you don’t want to see water spots. Look outside. If they take care of the house, there should be clean gutters. But if you see trees growing in them, then that’s a problem.”

Stephen Gladstone, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors says, “I suggest that buyers crouch down and walk like Groucho Marx and get a step stool to get the perspective from a tall person.”

Many Realtors say that sometimes it’s obvious whether the homeowner has taken good care of a house. When a home is tidy and clean, it shows pride of ownership.

But at the same time, industry professionals say that although a home’s spotless appearance makes it an attractive find, it doesn’t necessarily translate into the home being well-maintained. The opposite also is true: A cluttered home might be structurally very sound.

Kathryn Holmes Johnson of W.F. Chesley Real Estate in Crofton says that if you see that the homeowners are lax on some areas, such as dirty air registers and appliances, it may portend problems in the home’s condition.

“People who sweat the small stuff sweat the big stuff,” she says.

However, James Kneussl Jr., president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors says, “If it’s a messy house, it might not be well-maintained, but it could just be cosmetic problems that can easily be resolved.”

In the hot market this region is experiencing, many homeowners are opting to not get a home inspection in hopes of presenting a more favorable offer in a war of escalating bids for available homes.

Industry professionals offer varying opinions on whether to have the inspection — a tool most buyers rely on to determine whether the home is truly well-maintained.

Home inspectors supply a summary of a home’s condition while pointing out major repairs and areas that can cause problems in the future.

“Don’t do a home inspection if it means you’ll lose the property,” Ms. Gerlach says. “Look around and pre-inspect” on your own, she advises.

Ms. Holmes Johnson agrees but adds that if buyers opt not to get an inspection before winning a bidding battle, “they should definitely get one after their purchase to see if there are any hidden dangers.”

She remembers showing a client an immaculate 26-year-old home.

When the inspector looked in the attic, he found that duct work performed by a licensed contractor was incorrectly installed.

It was a fire hazard.

Mr. Kneussl says that home inspections are important in pointing out problems that may not be visible or that the average person cannot detect.

“My biggest tip is for buyers to have a home inspection,” he says.

Even in a hot market, Mr. Gladstone advises, home buyers ought to get a home inspection.

Whatever problems turn up will require money, and the home inspection gives leverage to negotiate for that extra money in the transaction, he says.

The American Society of Home Inspectors Web site (www.ashi.com) offers a virtual home inspection so that buyers can have a better idea of what the inspector does.

Additional things to look out for when pre-inspecting your prospective home, according to Mr. Gladstone, include checking the basement to make sure it’s dry, looking at the foundation for signs of water and cracking, checking for signs of insects, and finding out if the heating and water-heating systems are in good shape.

These systems generally last 15 to 25 years before replacement becomes an issue.

He also adds that people should check the steel columns in the basement that divide the rooms to see if there is any dampness, mold or rust.

“I don’t believe that it’s people’s intent to deceive buyers or try to hide things, but it’s just the wear and tear on a home that can cause problems,” Ms. Holmes Johnson says.

“Like a car, [a home needs] routine maintenance; there’s no such thing as a maintenance-free house,” she says.

Preparation is key to a successful home search, and Mr. Gladstone says buyers need to prepare for house shopping.

“Put together a checklist so that you can evaluate each house fairly when looking at homes. Put things on the coffee table and see how did each one stack up against one another,” says Mr. Gladstone, who concludes: “It’s important to find out if the home is really in good condition, or are they just putting on a good show?”

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