Let’s say you just moved into the house of your dreams and it’s everything you imagined… at first. But just as you’re about to send out invitations to your friends for the housewarming party, problems arise that turn your dream house into a money pit. It could be some poorly insulated windows or stress cracks appearing in the foundation. Perhaps you didn’t realize that living near public transit would be as loud as it is convenient. Maybe those beautiful oak trees surrounding the property play host to a family of flying squirrels. Or, the newly finished basement has a penchant for flooding.
At this point, you’re probably wishing the previous owner you bought the house from had given you a heads up on these unexpected repairs.
When selling a house, it’s common practice, if not legally required, for the owner or real estate agent to complete a thorough disclosure form. The goal is to ensure transparency and fairness in real estate transactions. In a disclosure form, for example, the owner provides facts about the history of repairs to the house, the general condition of the property and any other information that could affect the sale.
Most states require sellers to disclose any known material defects, such as a leaky roof or rotting wood. But having a conversation with the seller in person can have a lot of benefits. After all, who knows the quirks of your new home better than them?
Before rushing the seller out of the door, ask questions about your new home. While it can be a breach of etiquette to reach out directly, you may run into them when touring the house or at closing. And you can always send a message through your real estate agent or their agent. Chris Fikkert, the owner of Bottega Real Estate in Las Vegas, Nevada, offered tips on asking 13 questions essential for the prior homeowner to answer.
1. Why are you selling the home?
You may not always get the whole truth if the answer is “expensive maintenance” or “a difficult neighbor,” but in most cases it will be a personal, anodyne reason that will provide you with peace of mind.
Fikkert recalls a buyer who spotted a red flag when they realized the sellers listed the property after only owning it for six months. During the walkthrough, the sellers explained they were divorcing. The buyer was relieved to learn there wasn’t an issue with the property causing the owners to list and leave.
2. What are the neighbors like?
Difficult neighbors can make even the most beautiful home undesirable. When viewing a home, look for signs that could point to issues down the road such as properties positioned too closely together, barking dogs or a neglected front yard. The seller isn’t required to offer up any details, but you may get a hint about a particular neighbor or neighborhood dynamic.
3. What home improvement projects do you wish you’d done?
If you’d like to break the ice and get the seller to open up, asking this question is a great opener. Because they know the home and layout better than you, they may have insights you wouldn’t have considered. At the very least, they may be able to draw your attention to the areas that could use improvement, saving you the trouble of figuring it out first-hand.
4. When was the roof last replaced or repaired?
Any experienced agent will ask this vital question, according to Fikkert. A leaky roof will drown out the joy of homeownership and the age of the roof could affect your home insurance premiums -- some insurance companies may require you to replace your roof if it’s over 15 years old.
Most importantly, the cost of a new roof can be steep -- the average being $7,500, according to a 2019 report from The National Association of Realtors. Knowing the lifespan of the roof in advance can help you factor in the cost of an eventual roof replacement.
5. How much did you pay for utilities?
Finding out how much you’ll be paying for gas, electric, cable and water can help you budget your new monthly home costs. While you may be able to call the utility company and ask for a property’s historical costs, this information is usually limited to protect the account holder’s privacy. Companies might only be able to offer the lowest and highest bill over the past year. Asking the seller directly could provide you with a more detailed picture of average costs.
6. Are the appliances covered under warranties -- and do you have the manuals?
This is one question many homeowners don’t think about until they’re settled and it’s too late to reach out to the previous owner, according to Fikkert. He explains new homeowners are often lost on how to use an appliance or whether it’s still covered under a warranty.
Fikkert suggests asking the seller or your agent about extended warranties or protection programs associated with certain appliances, such as the stove or refrigerator, dishwasher or washer-dryer. He says it’s also worth asking the seller for manuals, which can come in handy when using your home’s new appliances.
7. Where are the water and gas shutoff valves?
Knowing how to shut off the water or gas line quickly can reduce major damage if there’s ever a leak. Unfortunately, many homeowners don’t know the location of these shut off valves. The worst possible time to figure it out is during an emergency when you need to act fast. To make matters worse, the valves aren’t always easily identifiable. Knowing ahead of time can save you money in repair costs, so be sure to add this to your list of questions.
8. Have any insurance claims been made on the property?
Claims can provide clues about a home’s trouble spots. Weather-related claims, such as water and hail damage, are among the most popular homeowners’ claims filed, and determining if your home is at risk might impact your home buying decision. It could also offer the opportunity to obtain better insurance coverage, as well as ask your agent, or even the home inspector, about ways to prevent damage such as keeping your gutters clear or adding pipe insulation.
9. Was the HVAC system serviced regularly?
The heating and air conditioning system may be one of the home’s most expensive and vital components. The average cost to replace a HVAC system is $7,000. Regular maintenance includes an annual inspection and regular replacement of air filters can extend its life. This question can help you determine if the system was properly maintained to keep it running as efficiently as possible -- or if it may need to be replaced in the near future.
10. Have you done any renovations or repairs?
DIY projects are popular but could cause trouble down the road, particularly if they weren’t repaired properly. Some renovations can even lead to code or permit violations. Even if a renovation or repair was completed by a pro, it’s good to know what types of updates have been made. In the case of a repair, the issue may have been fixed, but you’ll want to monitor the situation to prevent it from happening again.
11. How are the schools in the neighborhood?
Even if you don’t have kids, it’s important to look at the schools because the next buyer may have children. A good school could be a major selling point later as homes in desirable school districts tend to sell for higher prices.
And if you have kids, you’ll want to find out about the school system upfront, not after they’re enrolled.
12. Do you have contractors or repair services you recommend?
Finding a reliable handyman or contractor isn’t always easy, especially if you’re new to the area. The previous owners may have worked with a specific contractor for years who already knows your home. Ask for reputable contacts for common home repair services such as plumbing, gardening and even general contracting to keep your home properly maintained through the transition of owners.
13. What do you love most about the house?
Finding out the seller’s favorite aspect of a house can be eye-opening. Maybe there’s a feature many homes don’t offer, like a laundry chute or Dutch doors that the seller found useful or charming. Perhaps the location is a big selling point, which might be helpful if you’re new to the area. Finding out the answer might encourage you to see the home in a new light, while unlocking valuable information about the property.
When in doubt, your agent can be a resource
Talking to the seller directly can be valuable, but it’s not always possible. Your agent may be able to find the answers to many of your questions by reviewing public records and talking to the seller’s agent upfront. And don’t be afraid to voice additional queries for the seller to your agent -- an experienced agent will be happy to help and can even offer their own professional advice on potential property issues.