Buying a home is probably the single biggest purchase a person will make in their lifetimes. It requires a significant investment of time and money (the median price of a home in Westchester County is $622,500), and it can cause stress: two in five first-time homebuyers call it the “most stressful event in modern life,” according to a 2018 survey by Homes.com. Behind every successful transaction is someone with expert knowledge about the local real estate market, research, and due diligence.
So, how do you get the information you need to make an informed decision? What are the questions to ask when buying a house?
How you obtain the information depends on a few factors: If it is a For Sale by Owner, then Buyer Beware! You’ll have to do your own due diligence because there is no contract or fiduciary duty between a direct buyer and seller to protect you.
If it is a Multiple Listing Sale, that means there is a listing agent and possibly a buying agent, with each agent having a fiduciary duty to their client (to be truthful in due diligence). In this case, there is almost never an opportunity for the buyer to question the seller directly. You, the home buyer, may ask questions of your own realtor/buyer’s agent, and he/she should provide it to you.
Best Questions to Ask a Home Owner Before Making an Offer
- What is the history of this home? Get the basics, either from the listing or municipal records. You’ll want to find out the year in which the house was built, the number of previous owners, when and at what prices the home was traded, the number of legal bedrooms and bathrooms, lot size, and square footage. All of that information will either be in the home’s listing or found in municipal records. Also check for recent renovations, upgrades, and permits obtained.
- Has there been water damage? Has the home ever flooded before? What was the extent and cost? If so, you may also want to find out if the owners made an insurance claim, and what the extent and the cost of the damage was to the home. Learn about the flood mitigation, and if any steps were taken to prevent water damage in the future. In addition, find out if the home or property has drainage issues, or if extra drainage was installed on the property. Finally, ask if the home currently requires flood insurance from a lender if you are obtaining financing to buy the property.
- Is there a generator? With volatile storms increasing in the region (as well as across the nation), a generator is a good way to ensure you’ll have some power when the lights go out. If there’s one on the property, ask when it was installed, what circuits it covers when the power goes out, and if there’s a backup battery.
- Is there a whole house Certificate of Occupancy? (C of O) A C of O indicates that the local municipality has approved any construction on the property, and that it’s been done properly, in accordance with code and standards set by the town. If there is a finished basement, or any exterior buildings (a shed, perhaps) you may want to ask if they are included on the house C of O or if they have their own C of O.
- Is there room for a pool? Did the owner ever look into putting in a pool? Is there enough room, and are there any issues preventing putting one in?
- Have there been any environmental issues? Mold, lead, water and air quality all affect a home’s value — and its residents’ health! Ask about the history of environmental issues in the house, and if there were any, what was done to mitigate the problems.
- Is there or has there ever been an underground oil tank on the property? If there is an underground oil tank, has the area been tested for leaks? If the tank has been sealed up or removed ask for documentation.
- What home maintenance have you performed? Maintaining your home after you buy it is important. Find out where the home stands relative to upkeep: is the boiler brand new or on its last legs? How about the water heater and air conditioning systems? Any significant recent repairs or upgrades will save you money and time when you own the house. Will the homeowner share a list of the vendors and contractors they’ve worked with in the past?
You may also wonder about neighborhood nuisances or the quality of the schools. Neither the seller’s agent nor the seller is required to answer subjective questions like: “Is this a noisy street?” or "Are the neighbors nice?” or "Are the schools good?”
Your own Buyer Agent is not permitted to “steer” you in a particular direction or influence your decisions according to his or her subjective opinion. If you are working with an agent, give all questions to your realtor to ask. Know that she may ask for answers, but the seller agent may either choose not to answer (if the questions are not to her client's advantage), or may direct her and her client (you, the prospective buyer) to do their own due diligence. If they do answer, they must answer truthfully.