First-time homebuyers may be the ones who use the term “dream house” the most. And they may also be the ones who then wake up in their new home and ask, “What was I thinking?!” about the property they bought.
Or, more accurately, “not thinking.” Real estate rookies are notorious for overlooking key aspects of a property before taking the plunge. And they may sometimes pay a steep price for it.
“Failure to look at all the details can have first-time homebuyers missing damaged or aging systems,” says Craig McCollough, a real estate agent with The Catalyst Group at Compass in Washington, DC. “A financial and often emotional cost comes when these systems break after closing and the repair or replacement is the burden of the buyers.”
To help you avoid this scenario, we asked the experts to point out what first-time buyers frequently forget to consider—and how to remedy, or better yet, avoid, expensive mistakes.
1. Electrical, plumbing, and HVAC issues
Problems with the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems are overlooked most often, according to McCollough.
“Issues with these systems might not even occur to a first-time buyer who’s never had financial responsibility for them before,” he explains. “They’re used to renting, and if a water heater or sump pump fails, it’s the landlord who’s on the hook for the repairs.”
The smart step: These kinds of problems might not be evident during a casual walk-through, so this is McCollough’s rule of thumb: “If there’s a panel, open it.” Scope out an electrical panel, for instance, to see if it’s been recently updated with new circuit breakers. Also, investigate the number of watts servicing the property.
“If a buyer ends up needing to upgrade the panel, it can cost roughly $2,000, but upward of $10,000 to $20,000 to rewire the whole house,” says McCollough.
2. Small cracks and structural flaws
“Glaring issues like a leaning column in the basement are likely to be noticed by first-time homebuyers, but smaller structural issues are almost always overlooked,” McCollough says. “Cracks in foundation walls can be missed and can cost about $2,000-per to repair.”
The smart step: An experienced home inspector should spot structural concerns, but the buyer-to-be should be present during the inspection, making sure the pro doesn’t neglect crawl spaces, chimneys, and other hard-to-access areas.
If the home has chimneys, consider getting a dedicated inspection by a chimney cleaning company for a full picture of what’s going on and what work may be needed. This can be a negotiating point during the homebuying process.
3. Crooked or off-center fixtures
Slightly askew “little things” could indicate larger problems.
“I once had first-time buyers who didn’t notice that all the light switches were crooked. Nor did they see that the sconce above the bathroom sink was off-center,” says Maria Demme, a broker with Ideal Properties in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, CA. “Flaws like that on the wall should make you wonder what’s going on behind the walls. Is it just the switch plates—or is the electrical work suspect?”
The smart step: Slow down and scrutinize.
“I once saw 30 houses in two days with a very motivated first-time buyer,” Demme recalls. “In such a whirlwind, you can’t tell one property from another and you’re bound to miss things.”
Take careful notes on fixture oddities so you can check in with your home inspector about whether these indicate bigger issues.
4. Open floor plans without ample privacy
Open-concept layouts can be enticing. Light! Air! But problems? Yup, often enough. Real estate rookies may be lured by vast spaces, only to find that their furniture is dwarfed and their coziness (not to mention work-from-home concentration) compromised. Think carefully in this era of working and learning remotely about what kind of privacy you need.
The smart step: Good interior design can carve nooks in an open plan. Often all that’s needed is the thoughtful placement of bookcases, plants, and other clever dividing elements to provide some privacy and a sound barrier without interrupting flow.
5. Not enough closet space
All house hunters believe they’ve got a handle on closet space needs. But when perusing properties, how many remember—much less compute—that every individual hanger requires an inch or more of space on a rod? Add the fact that an empty closet looks larger than a full one, and it’s no wonder that first-time buyers can underestimate clothing storage.
The smart step: Calculate how many closets you currently have and how many more you’d want. Then compare homes you tour to that number.
If you’re thinking of buying a house that’s storage-deficient, says Allie Mann, senior designer with Case Architects & Remodelers, in Falls Church, VA, consider stealing square footage from the primary bedroom.
“If there’s about 30 inches extra, we can construct an average 24-inch-deep closet or add to an existing walk-in,” she says.
Mann estimates the average cost of between $2,000 and $6,000, depending on the length of the closet, any electrical or flooring updates, and custom shelving.
6. Neighborhood noise levels
Even real estate first-timers will likely cringe over visual red flags like “messy neighbors” with a lawn that hasn’t been cut since the Obama administration. But they can easily miss what a neighborhood sounds like—and not just during daytime hours.
“Most people look at houses in the middle of the afternoon,” says Demme. Or many tour only on weekends. That doesn’t give you the full picture.
The smart step: If you’ve seen your dream house only on the weekend, go visit on a weekday. You may encounter an unexpected amount of, say, truck traffic cruising by. What’s more, it’s probably only at night, when everyone is home, that you can evaluate whether you can hear your prospective neighbor’s every word.