Updated: Aug 22, 2020
The home buying process can get overwhelming really quickly. But, knowing the right questions to ask the seller’s agent, the seller (if you get to speak with them) or neighbors can be critical in helping you decide whether or not a home is right for you. Remember to treat the home buying process as an interview. It can be uncomfortable to pepper the seller’s agent with questions, but the goal is to gather as much information as possible so that there are no surprises later. The last thing you want is to move into your dream home only to discover a major hidden defect with the house, that you have nuisance neighbors, or find some sketchy activities going on down the street. Asking the right questions can help ensure that a home you might be falling in love with is the best decision for you. Plus, depending on the individual disclosure laws in your state, there are some things the seller’s agent or seller only has to disclose if asked! In addition, while you may already have the answer to some of these questions, asking again is a good way to cross-check to ensure consistency. The questions also assess how savvy the buyer’s agent is about the home and the area, which can be crucial in negotiation if you decide to make an offer.
General Questions and Price Assessment
1. Why is the owner selling the home?
This question can reveal a lot about the property or the neighborhood. The sellers could be moving for a lot of reasons. He or she could be looking to upsize, downsize, or because of something negative in the area. There is no guarantee you get a truthful answer here but watch for the agent or homeowner’s initial body language and response. These factors can be equally as telling. The answer can also potentially give you leverage in a negotiation, especially if you learn, for example, that the owner needs to sell quickly due to relocation.
2. How long has the home been on the market?
The amount of time a property has been on the market can be very telling as to the potential demand for the home itself. If a home has been available for several months, there is likely significantly more room for negotiating the price, whereas a home newer to the market may be less likely to be discounted. In addition, a home that has come back on the market, especially multiple times, can be a red flag. Sure, it could be a buyer finance issue, but it could also be something that popped up in an inspection or another issue related to the home itself.
3. What is included in the sale?
What is actually included with the house can vary significantly. Appliances, light fixtures, window treatments, and other items may or may not be included in the sale of the property. If they’re not, these are an additional cost to consider if you decide to purchase. The best practice is to remove any questionable fixtures a seller intends to keep prior to listing the home (a portable security system or vintage chandelier for example), but that doesn't always happen, so it is good to get some clarity. Most items can also be negotiated for in your contract, so if you really want that fridge, washer, and dryer, or vintage chandelier, let your Realtor know and he or she can help make it happen.
4. How much have nearby homes sold for?
Everyone wants to get the best possible deal on a home. You really should already have this information if your agent has run the list of the comparables on the home. Looking to see what nearby comparable homes have sold for can give you an indicator of what a reasonable price might be. But, it is good to see the seller or agent’s level of awareness and education on what is going on in the area. Be wary of homes that are priced significantly higher or lower than surrounding homes. You generally don’t want to be the nicest house in the neighborhood, because the other cheaper homes bring your property value down. Similarly, there is usually a reason a home is significantly cheaper than others around it. There could be some major repairs are coming up or some other undisclosed issues. Remember, the sellers generally want to get the best price too.
Maintenance and Other Potential Issues
5. Are there currently or have there been any problems with the house?
A seller’s disclosure should give you information on any previous issues or repairs done but it still doesn’t hurt to ask. A seller or his or her agent should disclose any known defect of the property. If there were previous issues, alerting your inspector to hone in on these problems will help ensure a thorough inspection process and ensure any issues have, in fact, been corrected. If any damage did occur, ask for the names of the individuals that did the repairs and get their contact information. Also, ask about any warranties on previous work that may still be active and if they are transferrable. This information could be a lifesaver (and money saver!) in the future.
6. Have there been any additions or renovations?
Updates typically add value but ensuring they were done correctly is crucial to prevent any future headaches. Cutting corners to save money isn’t uncommon but these shortcuts can lead to big issues later on. Ask for details about who did the work and get their contact information. research the contractor or vendor to make sure they have a good reputation, especially if they performed major renovations on the property. If they cut corners on other peoples’ properties, then there’s a good chance they did the same on this one too.
7. How old are the appliances and major systems?
No one thinks very much about their water heater or HVAC until it breaks. Knowing the ages of these systems and if they were regularly serviced can help you estimate their remaining life. If the systems are older, replacement is also something you’re going to want to budget for and should be taken into consideration if and when you make an offer on the property. In addition, getting any appliance or system warranty information can also protect you if something breaks earlier than anticipated. A good home warranty can protect you here as well!
8. How old is the roof?
Roofs are expensive and require regular repair. The lifespan depends on the type of roofing installed and the wear and tear it has seen. An inspection will hopefully identify any issues here but again, if it is at the end of its life, this is another cost to be considered and budgeted for.
9. How much do the utilities cost?
There are a lot of costs of homeownership to consider other than your monthly mortgage. Knowing a ballpark estimate for heating, cooling, electric, internet, water, and trash/recycling will help you get a better idea if this home truly fits into your budget. Costs can vary widely depending on the size and energy efficiency of the home. For example, old single-pane windows or less optimal insulation can make your heating and cooling bill go through the roof. It’s good to know the costs are a possibility before you get sticker shock from the bill.
Insurance and Health and Safety Hazards
10. Is the home in a floodplain?
A seller should disclose any previous flooding of the home but it doesn’t hurt to ask. It is also wise to look up your property on FEMA’s searchable floodplain map (https://msc.fema.gov/portal/search). Know that typical home insurance policies do not cover flood damage and you would usually need a separate flood insurance policy.
11. What is the property’s history of insurance claims?
Prior history of insurance claims on a home could impact your ability to get insurance and the price you will pay for that coverage. For example, a house with prior water damage has a higher risk of a mold infestation in the future and so the policy cost will likely reflect that. The insurer’s goal is to manage and mitigate risk so if they know a property has a history of damage, it will likely impact how much you will pay in the future.
12. Are there any health or safety hazards in the home?
The presence of certain hazards can pose major health and safety concerns to you and your family. And, depending on the severity, may or may not be worth the risk. Some hazards could include lead paint (common in homes built before 1978), asbestos, radon, mold, and infestations. Some of these hazards are not standard to assess on a traditional home inspection so it is important to ask. If you know or even suspect, there is a potential problem you can discuss your concerns with an inspector to be sure the issue is vetted thoroughly. Also know that these hazards generally require specialized professional help to eliminate them or even to complete indirectly related repairs or renovations, which can be very costly and time-consuming.
13. Does the house have any stigma associated with it?
“Stigma” can mean a variety of things from reports of paranormal activity, illegal activity, other crimes, and even death on the property. At least in Georgia, these things don’t have to be disclosed unless you specifically ask. Usually, the price of a “stigma” property will reflect the history of issues and will be well below market value, but not always. Potential red flags include the property changing hands very frequently, especially for continually reduced prices. Remember, your home is a huge investment, so it is good to have all of the information (whether or not you believe in ghosts). Plus, these homes tend to attract the kind of attention most homeowners are looking to avoid.
Surrounding Area and Neighborhood
14. How is the neighborhood?
You’ll want to do your own online research on crime statistics but you’ll be able to get a better sense of the neighborhood’s energy and feel if you ask someone who lives there. Honestly, a limited or reserved response tells you as much as a long gushing response, because most sellers that don’t have anything nice to say won’t say anything at all. They don’t want to scare you away! If you happen to see any neighbors out while you are viewing the house you can always introduce yourself and ask them as well. Also, if you’re looking at buying a home with an HOA one way to get a sense of community stability is by looking into the financial health of the association. This information can give you a general idea of the financial stability of the community itself.
15. What are the neighbors like?
Similar to asking about the neighborhood, a short or reserved response here will tell you as much as a gushy answer with lots of details that suggests many warm, close relationships. Take this information with a grain of salt though. The seller could also be the neighborhood grouch that doesn’t get along with anyone. Check Facebook or NextDoor for neighbor-hood specific groups and see if you can interview neighbors who are outside during your showing to see if their response is consistent with the seller.
16. What do you love the most about living here?
On a more positive note, asking the seller or neighbors what they love most about the home can give you an idea of potential assets or benefits of the area in general. Their level of emotional attachment to the area is something you won’t be able to research online and tells you a lot about whether or not you might fall in love with it too.
Once you've got the answers to these questions you will be much more informed about whether or not the home would be a good fit for you. However, as a bit of a disclaimer, always try to fact check any information you are given or ask your agent to look into specific details. While a neighbor or seller might genuinely believe what they are telling you is true about a specific area or feature, you want to be completely sure. For example, I once worked with a buyer that was told a nearby walkable area under construction was going to be a brand new restaurant with other attractive stores, only to find out it was actually going to be an industrial complex that would have negatively impacted their home value. If the buyer had just gone along with the neighbor's word without me checking in on the zoning information for the building, it could have cost her a lot of money! Still, a thorough interview of the agent, neighbors, or seller can give you vital information that may be impossible to find online.