There is so much potential wrapped up in the purchase of a fixer-upper: You get a new place to live, a sense of direction and purpose for years to come and the potential to create real financial gain. It’s a great thing! The process can also be nerve-racking. There are plenty of unknowns, and “what-if” scenarios in the minds of buyers can cause some serious angst. The more information you have about the property you’re considering, the better. If you’re evaluating a home for sale by owner, here are a few questions you might want to ask the seller.
Are There Any Problems I Should Be Aware Of?
It pays to start with a wide-open general question like this, especially if you’re in the position of talking directly to a seller, as opposed to a real estate agent. A seller will often start talking when presented with an open-ended question. It’s not uncommon for the first word to be “no,” then followed by a “not really,” quickly followed up by a “just that _______,” which of course reveals something.
A new owner can be forced to correct the wrongs of a previous owner, even multiple owners back, when certain work is done without a permit. Or even be forced to remove the work completely.
This is one of those times to leave some silence in the air. A seller will often fill that void and keep talking, generally sharing more and more of the information he or she has on the home. And more information is better for you! As the seller speaks, you can mentally or physically take notes of things you want to know more about. But try not to interrupt him or her. Let the person talk, then come back and address your concerns specifically.
Have You Done Any Work On the Property?
Again, it pays to be general. If you think you see some work that has obviously been done, you may be tempted to ask about a specific thing, such as, “Have you replaced this beam?” It’s usually better to be less specific because doing so will often result in more information for you. Asking if the seller has done “any” work on the property will often reveal things you might have missed, and sometimes those things are very important! In the answer to this question, be on the lookout for any work that might have required a professional. A short but incomplete list of such work includes the following:
- Structural repairs
- Deletions (took away a porch, etc.)
- Electrical upgrades
- Plumbing upgrades or relocations (moved the sink from here to there)
- Air conditioning replacement or heating work
Pay attention to what was done, and try to find out if a professional was involved.
Do You Know If They Pulled All the Proper Permits?
Anytime you’re asking a question that could reveal that something was done wrong, try to give the person answering an “out.” You know, so the seller doesn’t look like he or she cut a corner or made a mistake. Did “they” pull the proper permits is much more likely to get an honest response than “Did YOU pull the proper permits?” It’s important, very important, for you to know if any work that requires a permit was done without a permit. A new owner can be forced to correct the wrongs of a previous owner, even multiple owners back, when certain work is done without a permit. Or even be forced to remove the work completely. A room addition that extends beyond a building setback line, for example, can be a serious problem. If permits are pulled and inspections are made, then you’re in a much better position as a new owner coming in.
Are There Any Issues With … ?
- The Roof
- The Structure
- The Electrical
- The HVAC
- The Plumbing
Once you’ve started with the general questions, you can slowly work your way into more specifics about these major systems. Here are a few tips to consider:
- Try to keep it conversational. Don’t seem like you’re reading off a list or doing an interview or interrogation. Walk around the property and, when you get to the electrical panel, say, “Oh, electricity. Everything seem good with your electrical system?”
- Ask about the above five items specifically, even if you got “no” answers to more general “any problems” questions. It never hurts to double back as long as you do it in a non-offensive way.
- Play it cool when you hear something you don’t like. Now is not the time to turn off the seller. Once you have all of the information, you can decide if something is a deal breaker or not. So, just smile and keep moving. If a seller seems apologetic about something, it usually pays to make him or her feel like that “could happen to anyone” or “I guess that’s just homeownership.” Don’t put the seller on the defensive during a first meeting.
Once You’ve Gathered Information
After you’ve learned what you can, ask yourself, “Do I need to know more?” With big things, like the five items listed above, the answer is probably yes. You might learn more from your home inspector, or you might want to have a specialist, such as an engineer or an electrician, come take a look.
When You’re Working Through a Representative
It’s not always possible to talk directly to the seller. Sometimes all of your questions have to go through a third party, such as a real estate agent. That makes it harder to really get a feel for the owner’s first-hand knowledge of the property, so it’s really best to talk directly to the seller when you can. Remember, your agent probably won’t address the seller directly because he or she is compelled to deal with the seller’s agent. But that doesn’t stop YOU from talking to the seller, if he or she is present when you are at the property. If you don’t have the opportunity to speak to the seller, know that you can’t skimp on your due diligence. Get inspections, get professional feedback, check with the building department and check with zoning (often different than building). Even talk to neighbors, if you see them out and about!
Information is Power
In the end, your job is to gather information while keeping and even building a good relationship with the other parties involved. Ask questions but be easy-going. The last thing you want to do is put a seller on the defensive when you are trying to find out if any corners were cut. Learn what you can and do your research. Armed with all the information, you’ll be prepared to take the next step in the process of buying your first fixer-upper. Happy hunting!