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When buying a house, many home buyers walk though the open house, checking out the layout of the rooms and the name brands on the kitchen appliances. Smart buyers, on the other hand, know what’s really important to look for when buying a home, and it’s the structural details and the mechanicals of the home.

In competitive markets, an open house will show off a home that has been deep-cleaned, upgraded, and staged with stylish furniture. That’s nice, but it can also be window dressing that hides a multitude of problems. It’s far less important that a house looks and smells nice than that it’s been well-maintained and has good, solid bones.

Things to look for when buying a house

If you’re a first-time home buyer looking for a starter home, or if you just need to find a house you can afford, be careful not to lose sight of your goals in the home-buying process. No matter how hot the market is or how anxious you are to get an offer in before someone else buys a home you like, be sure that you also like the neighborhood and that aren’t taking on a fixer-upper you may regret.

Think of the open house as a first date. You don’t have to be a professional home inspector to decide whether a property is worth considering—or if you should move along and never look back.

Here’s what to take note of when you are shopping for a house—and the red flags to look for.

Red flag No. 1: Too much scent

Don’t let the smell of fresh-baked cookies or mulling spices simmering on the stove distract you. The more aggressive a scent when you walk into the house, the greater the likelihood the seller might be trying to mask a more telling odor, says Denise Supplee, a real estate agent with Long and Foster Real Estate in Doylestown, PA.

“When there’s too much going on in the scent department—plug-ins, wax warmers, and candles, for example—I have to wonder what that overkill is hiding.”

Take a deep whiff in every room you enter, from bedrooms to basements. Sniff outside, too—it’s hard to fix smells if they’re coming from the neighborhood. Look closely at walls, ceilings, and flooring for signs of water damage, pet accidents, mildew, or smoke, before you decide a property is your dream home.

Red flag No. 2: Poor tiling

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Inspect the tile in kitchens and bathrooms, suggests Eugene Gamble, a real estate investor and owner of We Fund Your Flips in Tampa, FL.

“If the gaps or tiles are slightly uneven, it may indicate a DIY job, which will make me think twice, especially if I know this house was flipped,” he says. Lazy tiling could indicate that multiple fixes have been done on a fixer-upper property, possibly by someone who isn’t really in the remodeling business and had no clue what they were doing. You could be looking at big bucks in potential costs to do it over.

Red flag No. 3: Foundation issues

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Most houses have hairline cracks, which simply indicate that the house is settling as it ages, but large gaps signal a bigger issue with the house foundation, says Gamble. Other tipoffs: sticking doors or windows, visible cracks above window frames, and sloping floors. How do you know if the floors are uneven? Bring a marble or golf ball in your pocket and when you have the chance, set it on the floor and see if it rolls.

Red flag No. 4: Signs of deferred property maintenance

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“When I walk through a home, I look for signs that the homeowner might have neglected routine home maintenance,” says real estate agent Malcolm Lawson, with Keller Williams Select Realtors in Annapolis, MD. He cites issues such as burned-out lightbulbs, long grass, leaky faucets, or faded paint.

“These signs indicate the seller may have ignored other ongoing home maintenance tasks that can cause real problems down the road.”

An attentive homeowner is going to flush the water heater annually, change air filters monthly, clean the chimney, inspect the roof for leaks, and regularly recaulk around windows and doors, for example, which will keep all those systems in good working order.

If the seller couldn’t afford the time or money to fix maintenance issues you can see at a cursory glance, just think what your home inspection will reveal.

Red flag No. 5: Nearby water

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That neighborhood creek might look picturesque now, but it won’t when it comes cascading through your back door.

“The increasing unpredictability of weather means that it’s vital to consider the possibility of flooding,” Gamble notes. He’s seen people unable to insure their house against flood risk, which can create giant damage bills on a regular basis.

Red flag No. 6: Wonky windows

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Another one of the most important things to look for when buying a house? Take a second to pull back the curtains to check for lopsided frames, and then give the windows a try. Open a few up, to make sure they slide easily. Windows that get jammed in the frames could be a sign of foundation issues, as noted above, or just poor installation.

The only fix for that—and it’s an expensive one—is new windows, says Supplee, who knows from personal experience.

“A home I purchased boasted ‘new windows,’” he says, “and it was only after living in the home for several months that I realized many had been installed wrong, and I had to replace them.”

Red flag No. 7: MoldFree Person Spraying a Tiles Stock Photo

To detect possible signs of mold while wandering through an open house, discreetly open bathroom and sink cabinets and take a look around water pipes or drains, suggests Frank Kirschner, a real estate broker in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Even small black or gray spots indicate that more serious issues with the property may be lurking. You can also check the caulking around faucets and tubs for black spots, and look for patches on the ceiling.

Red flag No. 8: Water damage

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A musty odor can indicate water damage, even if you don’t see standing water on the property, says Supplee. Check walls and ceilings for water lines; they probably indicate flooding from a leak or a burst pipe that may have caused internal damage. Also, take a peek at exposed piping in basements or laundry rooms, and check for rust, water stains, or leaking, she suggests.

Red flag No. 9: Cosmetic enhancements

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That one freshly painted wall could be an accent wall, or it could be hiding a deal breaker, like a patch of mold, Gamble cautions.

Supplee lifts up area rugs to check hardwood flooring, making sure it isn’t stained or damaged by pets.

Red flag No. 10: Improper ventilation

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Without adequate interior ventilation, moisture never evaporates, which can cause a room to become a breeding ground for mold—and you really don’t want that if you have allergies. The tipoff: Look for condensation on windows or slightly bubbled or peeling paint around windows, doors, or vents, says Kirschner. This can indicate moisture in the walls or ceiling drywall.

The bottom line: Don’t stroll casually through an open house the way you might walk through a museum, says Gamble. It’s true that a home inspector is likely to detect many of these problems down the line, but being attentive to these red flags in an open house will ensure that you’re not wasting your time on a home that isn’t the one for you.

** Post from by Cathie Ericson 3/30/2022