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What to Look for When Buying a House

So you’re buying a home—congrats! Investing in a house is an awesome way to build wealth. But buying a home can feel a lot like gambling if you’re not sure how to spot a potential money pit.

Good news is, knowing what to look for when buying a home is pretty simple. Of course, there are some general things to look for when buying a house, like size, school district and neighborhood vibe.

But once you’re settled on all that, you’ll need to know if a home has good bones—is it built to last or about to fall over? Here’s our list of the seven important things you should look for in a house to help answer that question—so you can feel confident you’ve got a rock-solid home.   

7 Key Things to Look for When Buying a House

Before we launch into the nitty-gritty of what to look for when buying a home, make sure you’re financially (and emotionally) ready to buy a house. Once you’ve got the green light to start searching for a house, look for these seven things.

1. Roof Condition

Unless you’re Shaq-sized or have a drone handy, you probably won’t be able to actually see a home’s roof during a showing. But that doesn’t mean you can just forget about it—after all, the cost of a new roof ranges from $5,000–12,000.1

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Avoid surprise roofing costs down the road by figuring out a roof’s condition with these questions:

  • How old is the roof? If you want to know how long a roof is going to last, you need to know what it’s made of. For example, asphalt shingle roofs should last around 20 years. Once you know a roof’s age, compare that to the typical lifespan of the material it’s made of to see how long it’s got left.
     
  • Does the homeowner have a roof certification letter? Contractors give roof certification letters after an inspection that estimates the lifespan of the roof over the next 2–5 years.2 Not all sellers will have this, but it never hurts to ask.
     
  • Can a roof inspection clear things up? If you’re concerned about the roof’s age and condition, you may want to get a roof inspection. Roof inspections are different from home inspections, since home inspectors don’t always check out the roof. If you go by the home inspection report alone, you could miss some costly repairs.  

2. Reliable HVAC

Unless you’re okay with potentially having to warm up or cool down your house the way they did in colonial times, you need to check up on the HVAC system before you buy. As you look at houses, you should ask about the type of heating and cooling system each one has and—most importantly—how old it is. You also may want to ask if there are any maintenance records you can look at.

Units typically last anywhere from 10–25 years. If a unit is broken, repair costs vary based on the type of system and how big it is. but you’ll spend $7,000 on average to replace an existing HVAC unit—and don’t count on a home warranty to automatically cover that.3

If a home’s unit is under a decade old and doesn’t have rust, water damage, suspicious-looking cracks or weird sounds coming from it, there’s a good chance you’re in the clear. But if you’re still worried, remember a home inspector should find any major issues. Then, you can work with your real estate agent on any repairs you’d like to request.

3. Plumbing Issues

If you’re not familiar with home plumbing, it’s easy to get confused and make a mistake. You may have no idea how much Drano is too much Drano or why the only way to get your toilet to stop running is to turn on the shower.

We get it. Luckily, examining the big three—sewer lines, toilets and water heaters—can help unclog (yeah, we went there) some of the confusion around potential plumbing issues. You need to ask these three questions:

  • How fresh are the sewer lines? If a home is 20-plus years old and the seller hasn’t provided any disclosures, get a sewer inspection. Pipe disintegration, obstructive tree root growth or some pretty righteous clogs can all jack up the system. Keep in mind that sewer line replacement ranges anywhere from $1,200–4,700—yikes!4
  • How do the toilets look? Check for leaks, unstable bases and discoloration. Yes, you’re allowed to flush the toilet during a home showing, so have at it! The same goes for making sure all the showers and sinks are in tip-top shape.
  • What’s the state of the water heater? A water heater usually lasts 10–15 years, and if you look closely, you might find an installation date written on the unit. A new one can cost from $800–1,600 depending on the type you need.5 If it’s making unusual noises when it turns on or it’s rusty, have a pro take a look.

If you’re think a house you’re looking at is good to go for now but may have issues down the road, make sure your homeowners insurance will help cover the problem—especially if it’s a big ticket item like a sewer line.

4. Water Damage and Mold

Untreated water leaks or water damage can cause a whole host of problems like structural issues, rot and mold—especially in basements. Pay attention to any musty smells in the home as well as water stains on floors or ceilings. If you do move forward on a home you suspect has water damage, your home inspector should be able to give you an idea of how bad it is.

The thought of mold lurking in the dark corners of a home is enough to trigger a fit of the willies. The cost of removal can be anywhere from from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on the size of the area affected. Yikes!

Because mold is a health hazard, you’ll definitely want to get it treated before moving in, but also be sure to find out the source of the moisture to prevent future infestations.

If you’re worried about negotiating water damage or mold repairs, remember: Your real estate agent has likely been on both the buyers’ and sellers’ side of the deal before. Ask about their experience and advice for situations like these.

5. Noise Level

One of the most overlooked factors is a neighborhood’s noise level. Just because things are on quiet mode during a showing doesn’t mean it’s like that 24/7. Think about these questions:

  • Is the home by a major road? If you’re really digging the place, make another visit during high traffic times to assess street noise. Even if the house is perfect in every other way, the constant zoom of passing Tahoes and Teslas may not be worth it.
  • Is it near an airport or railroad tracks? Same thinking here. How patient will you feel when a train steamrolls through your newborn’s nap time?
  • Is the property a condo or townhome? In a home where you’d actually share walls with neighbors, you definitely want a sound barrier. Do a walkthrough when neighbors are home to see if you can hear them rewatching season four of Friends or not.

Neighborhood noise isn’t just annoying, it can affect the home’s value. Ask your agent if homes in that neighborhood have a comparable value to the same homes in a quieter location.

6. A Good Foundation and Home Exterior

Remember the parable about the wise man who built his house upon the rock? If there’s one lesson we learned from that story, it’s that your foundation counts. Bulging or bowing foundation walls are a sign of structural weakness that can be expensive to repair. To fix a bowed wall, one steel reinforcement strip alone can cost as much as $1,000.6 

Other easy-to-spot foundation red flags include:

  • Cracks in the foundation, exterior, drywall or ceiling
  • Gaps above doors and windows
  • Sunken stairs or porches
  • Sloping or uneven floors or tiling

Keep in mind that not every crack means the home is about to fall in. Every home experiences some degree of settling, so some cracks are expected. Let a qualified home inspector tell you whether a minor crack spells major trouble.

7. Outlets and Appliances That Actually Work

That glossy refrigerator in the kitchen may look big and beautiful (and expensive), but does it actually make ice?

If the home you’re interested in includes appliances as part of the deal, you’ll want to make sure they work. This goes for dishwashers, washers and dryers, and even microwaves.

You also want to make sure that each of the house’s outlets is in working order. Hey, we know it’s crucial for that super convenient outlet right next to your bed to be able to charge your phone every night—otherwise, you’d have a crisis on your hands!

Your real estate agent may give you a funny look, but bring your phone charger with you when you look at a house to test each outlet as you walk through. If your phone starts charging, you’ll know the outlet is good to go! If it doesn’t, that could be a sign of a bigger electrical problem.

Red Flags to Look Out For

Alright, we’ve gone over a boatload of things you should look for when buying a house. We’ve also discussed several things you don’t want in the home you buy for you and your family.

So let’s recap the big points we talked about, focusing this time on red flags to beware of. You should be extra careful about buying a house with . . .

  • An HVAC system that’s over 10 years old or one with cracks and water damage (watch out for weird sounds too)
  • A roof that’s old or damaged
  • Toilets, showers or sinks that don’t work
  • Sewer lines with bad clogs
  • Leaks leading to water damage
  • Loud, noisy neighborhood (or neighbors)
  • Bulging, bowing or cracked foundation
  • Broken appliances

One Major Mistake to Avoid

You may have found a home that checks all the boxes we’ve talked about—and it’s clear of all those red flags. If so, that’s great!

But there’s still one major mistake you need to avoid as you’re looking for a place to live: buying too much house.

Because even if you buy a house that’s in tip-top shape with everything you could want and more, you’ll be miserable if you can’t afford it. Trust us, that “dream” house you’ve got your eye on will become a nightmare if those monthly payments wipe out a major chunk of your bank account.

How do you know if you can afford the house you’re looking at? You can afford it as long as your monthly payment on a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage is no more than 25% of your take-home pay. That includes HOA fees, private mortgage insurance (PMI), property taxes and homeowners insurance.

If the house fits into your budget and checks all the other boxes we’ve talked about, go ahead and sign the dotted line!

If not, then you need to pass and find a house that’s a better fit for your budget. Going back to the drawing board is no fun, especially if you’ve found a place you really like. But saying no to a place you can’t afford will save you a lot of heartache in the long run.

Struggling to find quality homes in your price range? We’ve put together a guide full of house hunting tips to make searching for a home a lot easier and less painful!

You don’t want your house to own you—you want to own it! The best—and only—way to make that happen is to choose a home that fits your current financial situation.

Get an Expert in Your Corner

Most homes you’ll look at, even brand-spanking-new ones, will have some flaws. But what gets tricky is knowing when to spend the money to fix an issue and when to negotiate a compromise with the seller. That’s why you need an experienced agent who can guide you through these rough patches and help you come up with a solution.

If you’re looking for a real estate agent with expertise, check out our Endorsed Local Providers (ELP) program. From searching for solid homes to negotiating repairs, our RamseyTrusted agents will be able to walk you through your questions and work with you to find a home you (and your budget) love.

Connect with the top real estate pros in your local market today!

Ramsey Solutions

About the author

Ramsey Solutions

Ramsey Solutions has been committed to helping people regain control of their money, build wealth, grow their leadership skills, and enhance their lives through personal development since 1992. Millions of people have used our financial advice through 22 books (including 12 national bestsellers) published by Ramsey Press, as well as two syndicated radio shows and 10 podcasts, which have over 17 million weekly listeners. Learn More.

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