September 28th, 2012 2:25 PM by Kathy McDevitt
Thinking of buying a newly built house? Check that the dishwasher has been hooked up. An older home? Make sure the attic doesn’t have critters.
As if purchasing a home isn’t stressful enough, buyers often wrestle with the looming dread that there’s a time bomb ticking somewhere behind those walls. To which home industry specialists have one simple piece of advice: Don’t assume anything.
First impressions can be deceiving, and failing to thoroughly inspect a home before buying it can lead to unpleasant and potentially costly surprises down the road, from mold in new basements to raccoons hunkering down for the winter in circa 1800s attics.
“The big danger of purchasing a home is to assume everything is working or reasonably up to date,” said Brian Pontolilo, editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine. “But whether it’s old or new, I’d really push a home inspector to look at things very, very closely.”
And while there are different issues to check in new and old homes, one problem has emerged from properties of any age that have been sitting empty for long periods of time: make sure the guts of the house are intact, especially copper pipes and other valuable materials.
With the price of copper skyrocketing in recent years, copper materials have become a favorite target for thieves, who are so bold as to yank heating pipes and basic plumbing fixtures right out of walls and sink cabinets, said Jay Rizzo, co-owner of Tiger Home Inspection Inc. in Braintree.
His inspectors now check that all copper materials and other routine household items are in place in properties that have been sitting empty.
“The copper issue is brutal,” said Rizzo, adding that even heating boilers, kitchen cabinets, door knobs, and other items are swiped from empty homes, old and new alike.
But new construction and older homes do have their own sets of issues that need thorough checking.
Don’t get blinded by the shiny new appliances and fixtures in a new property; some of them may not work.
Rizzo said his inspectors find a surprising number of cases where the builder hasn’t done something as simple as connecting new dishwashers to the drains. The new homeowner learns this the hard way: with water gushing out during the first use.
Also, check for plumbing vent pipes; those are the ones that usually stick out of the roof toward the rear of the home, and are necessary to help wastewater flow through the drains.
Rizzo said plumbers will often pre-install the venting pipes in an attic, but then either forget to finish the job, or aren’t called back, once the roof is completed. The result: the septic venting backs up — into the attic, not outside, and the whole house stinks, Rizzo said.
And not to pick on plumbers, but Rizzo also noted that sometimes when they plug pipes to test for leaks, they forget to pull the plugs when they are finished. Later, homeowners freak out when the plumbing in a bathroom doesn’t work.
More broadly, “water management” is a consistent problem in new homes, said Paul Eldrenkamp, president of Byggmeister Inc., a Newton home design and remodeling company. He advises buyers to check for early stages of peeling paint or rot on exterior wood trim. Sometimes exterior trim is located too close to the wet ground or it isn’t properly primed.
Although the foundations of new homes might be only a few months old, Pontolilo, of Fine Home Building magazine, said it’s still important to check basement walls for signs of stains from leaks, or moisture that can lead to the growth of mold.
Mold can develop in the space of a few weeks, Pontililo warned, so buyers should not assume that new homes are exempt from the problem.
By all means, carefully check to see if an older home’s electrical, plumbing, heating, and cooling systems are up to date or in need of costly upgrades. The same goes for roofs and chimneys.
Padraig O’Beirne, owner of Sudbury Home Improvement Inc., said a quicker and more comprehensive way to check an older home’s history is to head to the local town or city hall to review past building permits for the property.
Not only will potential buyers be able to verify past work that has been done on a home – they will also be able to see if other work has been done on the property without proper authorization.
In too many cases, O’Beirne said, he has discovered that prior homeowners never sought proper building permits for remodeling projects, or even entire additions.
They didn’t want to report it for various reasons, including not wanting to face higher valuations and property taxes,” O’Beirne said.
Such work should be scrutinized especially close for the quality of work and the materials used, whether it’s in a remodeled bathroom or an enclosed porch, he warned.
In older homes, check the attics not only for proper insulation and venting, but also for signs of raccoons, squirrels, and other pests that may have found their way into a home.
They usually leave claw marks as telltale signs, or droppings, Rizzo said. Their entryways need to be found – and plugged.
If possible, try to determine if there has been a fire in prior years in an older house. In the past, rebuilders sometimes wouldn’t replace all the charred wood studs — and they can become structurally unsound years or decades later, Rizzo added.
To O’Beirne, the bottom line is that people take a major risk by not hiring a competent home inspector before purchasing any property. “Another experienced set of eyes to spot all these [potential] problems is critical,” he said.
By Jay Fitzgerald, Globe Correspondent