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5 Big Problems to Avoid When Buying a D.C. Home

The Secret Guide for Super Moms #1 Buying a Home John C. Flood

Welcome to the first post in our four-part series, "The Secret Guide for Super Moms” — tips, tricks and hacks for busy moms who need to know everything that’s happening in their house.

Are you in the market to buy a new home? Unless you have the money and the time to purchase a new build, you'll probably be looking at older, previously owned houses – and when you’re looking for an older house in Northern Virginia or Washington, D.C., you’ll have a lot of decisions to make.

Not only did we have the right mix of single-family houses, condos, rowhouses and duplexes to meet the varying needs of our diverse population, but we also had a deep reserve of blighted housing to draw from,” MRIS President and CEO David Charron recently wrote in The Washington Post. “This is the biggest reason our real estate activity didn’t come to a complete standstill during the downturn. Developers wasted very little time switching their approach from building new construction in the suburbs to upgrading the low-priced existing housing. During the market’s lowest ebb it was the fixer-uppers in need of extreme help that we relied on to prop up the real estate market.”

If you've owned a home before or just can't wait to get out of your apartment – apartment living can get pretty cramped in the D.C. metro area, especially when you have a growing family – you may know exactly what you want in your new house. You’d love enough space for an office. Your kids could use a real playroom. Everyone wants a bigger, better kitchen.

On the other hand, there are a lot of things you don’t want, too. Here are some home buying tips to help you avoid stumbling into a new house with thousands of dollars or more in hidden costs.

5 Issues to Avoid When Buying an Older D.C. Home

Many homes – and not just those built before the turn of the century – have unique issues you need to understand.

"The 1950s, '60s and even '70s houses can be deceiving," according to Rob Anzalone, co-founder of Fenwick Keats Real Estate in New York City. "They share many of the same problems [as really old homes] but just appear to be newer."

These problems can include:

Wiring.  The wiring in older homes is often out of date and can’t supply enough juice for the products we use daily, including appliances, lighting, and personal electronics.

"The circuits in these older homes weren't designed to power the many gadgets of modern life," says master electrician Allen Gallant of Gallant Electric in Massachusetts, who works on project houses for WGBH-FM's This Old House.

Check to see if the house you like has a fuse box or circuit breakers, and make sure you examine them for overload. Watch for flickering lights, oddly placed outlets and outlets that are hot to the touch. Having to have your new home completely rewired could cost thousands of dollars.

HVAC. If the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system doesn't work correctly, you could find yourself dealing with mold, high energy bills, and even fire.

When you find a house you like, make sure you're not buying a home with poor venting, faulty equipment or any signs of corrosion. Keep an eye out for signs of water leaks, outdated equipment and inconsistent temperatures across different rooms in the house.

Finally, find out how old the furnace is. The average furnace lasts for 16 to 20 years.

Separate Window Units. If the house doesn't have central air and uses window units instead, look for signs of water damage, which can lead to mold and other problems in windows and walls.

And make sure everything works! Turn down the thermostat and see if the unit runs. Then, make sure air is blowing through all the vents, and listen for any strange noises.

Separate Heating Systems. Homes that are 100 years and older – and there are a lot in the Washington, D.C. region – are full of charm and character, but if they are warmed with oil-burning heaters, they may also be full of extra expenses. These systems are expensive to run and repair and are inefficient to boot.

Check carefully to see if the system was maintained properly and consistently, and if the chimney is clean and in good shape.

Plumbing. One of the first things you'll want to ask about an older home is what the pipes are made of. Many older homes were built using galvanized piping, which deteriorates from the inside. Some have pipes made from concrete or cast iron; concrete will shift and move under the foundation of the home, while cast iron will deteriorate over time and eventually disappear.

Time is not kind to plumbing – look for evidence of leaks, corrosion and clogs. Do you see leaky pipes, dripping faucets or water stains? How is the water pressure? Run all of the taps and any showers, and flush all of the toilets, too.

Just like the furnace, it’s important to find out how old the boiler or the hot water tank are— a boiler is usually good for about 15 years, while a gas hot water heater should last anywhere between eight to 12 years. An electric model should be good for 10 to 15 years.

According to the National Association of Realtors, members of Generation Y and Generation X comprise the largest group of homebuyers, creating 59 percent of the homebuyers' market. They also tend to buy older homes. Knowing what problems those homes may have, and which would need to be addressed, can put you ahead in the game.