How to Spot the Most Expensive Repairs When Shopping for a Home

Avoid the repairs that will cost you the most before you move in with a sharp eye and the right inspections.

U.S. News & World Report

The Priciest Repairs for Homebuyers

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Georgetown Washington DC.

Historic buildings like those in Georgetown in Washington, D.C., appeal to many homebuyers. But before you buy, be sure you're prepared for the extra time and money many preservation efforts require.(Getty Images)

Choosing a new home often comes down to comparing the sale price to the condition of the property and any repairs or updates it requires. That comparison involves not only money, of course, but also the time and energy it takes to organize those repairs, plus the number of days you'll either be inconvenienced or unable to move into your new residence. Furthermore, there are some issues that are just so unwieldy or costly that buying the property is simply out of the question.

How do you spot the potential repairs most likely to turn a dream home to a money pit? A lot depends on the type of home you're considering and where it's located.

Here are seven costly repairs you may be able to spot before closing:

  • Cracks in the foundation.
  • High-rise updates.
  • Home additions that haven't been winterized.
  • Old or nonexistent air conditioning.
  • Hidden mold and drainage issues.
  • Historic home restrictions.
  • Termite troubles.

Cracks in the Foundation

Let's start at the bottom. If your potential new home sits on a foundation, you'll want to ensure that it's in terrific condition. Not only does this often-ignored bit of concrete serve as your entire home's underpinning, it's also far and away one of the most expensive repairs for single-family houses. Fixing a faulty foundation can run well into the tens of thousands of dollars, and this type of trouble can have a ripple effect throughout the entire home, causing damage to drywall, windows and even plumbing.

Bottom line: Ensure your new home is on firm footing with a thorough inspection that starts at the bottom.

High-Rise Updates

In cities where residential towers are reaching ever-higher heights, the floor on which your home is perched can have a huge impact on the cost of repairs. Not only may you need to replace the wiring and electrical panel if the existing wiring does not conform to current building code requirements, but say you also want to install central air conditioning or additional heavy-load appliances at your high-floor address. In New York City, it can run $20,000 per floor to bring up the necessary wiring. Want to update the plumbing in a prewar building? That copper won't be cheap either.

You may think you can avoid those financial setbacks by choosing a shiny new condo. While those glass towers offer undeniably gorgeous views, all that floor-to-ceiling splendor comes at a cost: High-rise windows can be incredibly expensive to replace, and the price rises with your floor number.

Bottom line: If you're looking at a top-floor abode, make sure it's in tip-top shape.

Additions That Haven't Been Winterized

For single-family homes in colder climates, updating or adding proper insulation can be more expensive than you might think. There's the cost of the insulation and installation, and there will frequently be several necessary steps before and after – sealing the roof, replacing windows or patching and painting.

When home shopping, be on the lookout for houses that have been added onto over time. Additions done on the cheap will often lack proper insulation, and this is especially true in bathroom additions which may need to be winterized. While the price to properly insulate your new home can be chilling, you will recoup some of these costs in reduced heating and cooling bills, and in your overall comfort.

Bottom line: Take the freeze off of your bank balance by making sure your prospective new home is winter ready.

Old or Nonexistent Air Conditioning

Installing or replacing central air conditioning is a costly job indeed. Those of you seeking a new abode in a sunny area code should take note of the age and condition of the current system. And of course, if you plan to upgrade from window units to central air, be sure to factor that significant cost into your budget. Adding air conditioning to a home without any existing duct work can run $30,000 or more depending on the size of the structure and number of floors, plus the number of vents and temperature zones. And then there's the cost of the air conditioning units themselves, which can vary widely based on, again, the size of your home and the efficiency of the unit.

Bottom line: Keep cool all year long by assessing your air conditioning up front.

Hidden Mold and Drainage Issues

Contrary to popular belief, dangerous mold is not restricted to homes in humid environments. Several arid states, including Arizona and Nevada, have ranked high in mold remediation. Turns out that some of the building materials used in homes for generations – drywall, for example – are quite good at attracting and concealing mold. Molds can cause a number of serious health issues, especially in individuals who are immunocompromised or allergic. It can also signal that there are structural or drainage concerns that need your attention. Beware of that French drain in the basement that looked so quaint when you visited the house — it is a sure sign that the house has had issues with seeping water at some point in its history.

Bottom line: If mold is on your mind, an additional look by a qualified mold inspector may be in order.

Historic Home Restrictions

Homebuyers in cities that have historic preservation restrictions on residential buildings should be aware of the dos and don'ts – and the added costs – of repairs in landmarked structures. While research consistently shows that homes within historic districts appreciate faster than their local markets as a whole, period-appropriate renovations can be pricey, and in some cases can only be performed by a limited number of artisans. That means you'll need to add on time for both the availability of craftspeople and the lengthy approval process required by the landmarking authorities.

Bottom line: If you have any reservation about preservation, look for historic homes located just outside of landmarking restrictions.

Termite Troubles

Did you know that some pest control experts estimate homeowners in the U.S. spend around $2 billion treating termite issues each year? Moreover, that cost is rarely covered by homeowners insurance. These insidious little buggers are eating machines, which makes them insanely efficient at causing significant damage before they're spotted by the untrained eye. While termites can be found in every state, they're especially fond of warmer weather and wood construction.

Bottom line: Tell termite damage to bug off with a specific termite inspection prior to purchase.

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