Red flags you should never ignore when buying a house – and questions you should always ask

Red flags you should never ignore when buying a house – and questions you should always ask


Buying a new home can be overwhelming, not least because for most of us it’s as much an emotional purchase as a financial transaction.

With so much information overload during a viewing – especially if you have fallen head over heels in love with a home – it is possible, though, to miss important details.

So says Sandy Geffen, executive director of Sotheby’s International Realty South Africa, who cautions that overlooking certain red flags could have significant financial repercussions if not spotted and addressed before you sign on the dotted line.

“Certain imperfections may not be perceived as problems by all buyers, with many being happy to fix small problems once they have moved in, but there are a number of issues that cannot be overlooked.”

  1. Foundations and structural faults. The foundation of a house is arguably the most important part of the entire structure, and also one of the most costly repairs to a home if repairs are needed. Although minor cracking may only be a sign of settling in the home, large cracks can be a sign of serious structural problems with the foundation and these needed to be checked thoroughly.

The easiest way to check the foundation is from the basement, but if a home doesn’t have one or the basement doesn’t allow you to look at the foundation, another way to tell if a home is possibly experiencing structural problems is by looking at the door frames throughout the home. If door frames don’t appear to be square or the doors seem to have difficulty closing, it’s possible that the home has structural problems.

If you’re unsure, ask for a structural survey before proceeding.

  1. Poor drainage and gradient. Most water problems in a home are directly related to poor drainage or gradient but it’s not always easily detected. The most obvious sign of poor drainage is pooling water, but another is a bouncy bathroom floor that can be evidence of hidden damage such as leaking shower drain.

If the yard has mini lakes or continually muddy patches it likely has poor drainage, which can also lead to water problems inside the home. Other signs of poor drainage can include overflowing gutters, migrating mulch in the flower beds, water stains on basement walls, and cracking in the foundation.

Sue Alison, agent in the City Bowl for Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty says that rising damp is also often best spotted on the exteriors so look for bubbles on outside walls as this could indicate that the damp course was not put in at the building stage. This is much more difficult to fix later.

“Roof leaks are also serious and best determined before buying as water eventually finds its way down the smallest cracks. Look out for black mould or brown patches on ceilings where water may have pooled.”

She says buyers should always ask about the ages of the roof and the geyser.

Howard Hoff, agent in Highlands North, Savoy Estate and Glenhazel in Johannesburg, suggests going so far as checking the tiles on the roof.

“Slate tiles out of alignment or cracked roof tiles are often telltale signs of potential roof leaks so it’s worth climbing up on a flat roof to see where the water goes in heavy rain. If you don’t want to do this yourself, you can ask a builder to inspect the roof.”

Hoff says it’s also important to ensure that the pool isn’t leaking. “Having the seller say the pool is only topped up once a week isn’t enough, especially with older properties, so check the water bill and if necessary ask for a structural soundness report on the pool.

  1. Random patches of fresh paint. A coat of paint is undeniably one of the quickest and most effective ways to spruce up a home but if only portions of walls or ceilings appear to be painted, it’s definitely not to be ignored. It’s possible the seller is trying to cover up a problem such as damp, which should be a cause for concern.
  2. Electrical wiring. House fires caused by faulty electrical wiring are not as uncommon as one would like to believe, says Geffen, especially in older homes that often don’t have the ample supply of power and number of electrical outlets of more modern homes.

“It’s typical to see extension cords running from room to room in older homes which places a burden on the electrical system, outlets and cords and thus could lead to a fire.”

Another common electrical problem is exposed electrical wires, often the result of DIY repairs. Any wire that is exposed is susceptible to damage and if this occurs, it’s sure to wreak havoc. This is high priority and should be corrected by a licensed electrician.

  1. Poor overall neighbourhood condition. It’s important to remember that when you are buying a home, you aren’t only buying the specific erf, you are also investing in the neighbourhood. Buying a home in a suburb that is deteriorating or that has increasing criminal activity can be a costly mistake and will significantly diminish return on investment.

You should look for signs such as boarded up properties and a high number of vacant homes or shops in the area.

Stan Rosenberg and Marc Wachenheimer, agents in Morningside, Strathhavon and Sandown, stress that in a tough market such as the one South Africa is currently experiencing, it is imperative that owners try to sort out problems on their properties before putting them up for sale.

“Don’t give the prospective buyer any excuse to find problems with the house, because this is likely to reduce your sale price.

Geffen says: “Speaking from personal experience I can only advise that when do you fall in love with your dream home, don’t lose it over minor imperfections and live to regret it. Rather negotiate with the seller to reduce the price or fix the problem.”


SAVVY PURCHASE: Buying your dream home should be a wonderful experience, but it can become a costly nightmare if you don’t view the house with your eyes wide open to spot any glaring red flags before signing the deal.