When it comes to purchasing property you can’t always judge a book by its cover. A fresh lick of paint and picture-perfect presentation can often hide costly flaws. If you’re not a seasoned renovator or this is your first home, you might not know how to spot a made-up monster that’s going to mortgage you into a money pit. We’ve got six ways to avoid buying into a dud that might be too expensive to fix.
Scratch the surface
‘Every day we see renovated properties that have been fixed up to cover problems,’ says owner of Trade A Management, Andrew Fenton, who has been building, renovating and consulting on properties for more than 20 years.
If an older property has fresh paint, ask yourself why it has been painted? For that fresh appeal or to cover something sinister? ‘A coat of paint can hide costly rising damp, moisture and mould issues,’ says Fenton, who is also a partner of The Mould Doctor, a company specialising in mould remediation services.
‘If your house has damp issues that need fixing you can expect to pay in the thousands,’ warns Fenton. And it’s not just your bank account that might suffer; living with mould can have health implications on the whole family, such as asthma and allergy complications.
Possible alarm bells for water damage are watermarks on walls, floors and ceilings; a musty smell; and rust on the gutters or downpipes.
Fenton also advises you look into water control. ‘If rainwater runs back onto your land instead of into the storm drains, water can trap against the property causing issues.’
Check for cracks and gaps
Scan the house for cracks, sags in the roof, and uneven floors – all of these can be a sign that the house might be moving.
A good tip, he says, is to look for gaps around windows and doors: ‘If doors don’t open and close properly, and there’s grabbing on the top corner this could indicate structural problems.’
When it comes to the perimeter it can be common for certain concrete materials to move, but major cracks, says Fenton, are a cause for concern as water can get into the steel reinforcements – this can lead to concrete cancer (concrete spalling) where the steel rusts and then expands, displacing the concrete.
Put walls under the spotlight
The best time for inspections is in full sunlight with the windows open. Or use a torch. ‘It’s easier to see structural elements with light bouncing off the walls,’ says Fenton. ‘If you look along the wall and see different textures you know that there has been patchwork done to cover cracks and movement.’
Factor in possible outsourcing costs
Some work, such as removing lead paint or asbestos, needs to be done by a trained professional.
‘The biggest problem when people buy to renovate is they wouldn’t know if a wall is made of asbestos until they start to open up the wall,’ says Fenton. ‘Pulling down the back of a house can turn from a job you do yourself for $1,000-2,000 to a job you’re not allowed to do yourself costing around $5,000-10,000.’
Also, check if the house has a clear, clean space underneath – this can indicate that building has been done in a professional manner and that asbestos and other building materials haven’t been left under the house to try and cut the cost of removal fees. ‘A clear space is also important for air flow underneath which reduces the chance of dampness and pests being a problem,’ adds Fenton.
Find out the history of the house
A quick Google search of your property will bring up details about the history of the house such as past sale prices and pictures of what it used to look like. ‘You can see if the walls have been painted and if there are cracks where a structure like a fireplace used to be you’ll know it wasn’t removed correctly,’ says Fenton.
‘Make sure everything that has been done on the property has been signed off and adheres to council regulations,’ advises Fenton. A good solicitor and property conveyancer should take care of this.
Get a professional look-over
Before signing on the dotted line Fenton urges you to seek a professional building and pest inspection from qualified inspectors – a word-of-mouth referral is best for finding someone, he says. ‘White ants [termites] aren’t always easy to find and you can be deceived by timber being filled and painted over, so you want someone who is going to climb under the house and in the roof and tap on everything.’
If the initial inspection points to issues that might require further investigation, he recommends extra inspections from the relevant professional, such as a plumber or electrician. ‘Unfortunately the headaches usually come after the exchange of contracts, when people get specialised trades in and start pulling things apart.’ Fenton estimates a cost of around $2,000-5,000 to get a broader range of professional inspections. This might seem like a lot, but it could cost a lot more in the long run if you buy a house with hidden horrors.