House-Hunting Deal Breakers

mop in kitchen
Photo: iStock
When you're looking for a new home, how do you know what's okay and what's a red flag? Read on to find out!

DEAL BREAKER: Buried oil tank

A buried oil tank is expensive to remove and could create potential environmental issues. If the tank leaks oil into the ground -- yikes! -- the cleanup and repairs could cost up to $40K. Since you can't see it, be sure to ask the sellers, or check if it's noted in the fine print of the home's listing information.

DEAL WITH IT: Old roof

An old roof doesn't necessarily indicate a bad roof -- so long as it's not leaking, you're okay to go. Just make sure you start saving money right away for when you do have to replace it.

PRICE TO FIX: $1,700 to $8,400 to replace asphalt shingles on a typical ranch home, depending on the location. Prices increase for a complete replacement as well as for different materials and types of homes.

DEAL BREAKER: Amateur plumbing and wiring
Novice plumbing could cost you big if you have to rip out pipes and replace walls and flooring due to leaks. There's also a higher risk of a short leading to sparks and fires if the electrical work had been done by a non-pro. Look out for exposed wiring in the basement as well as S-traps under the sinks (professional traps look like a "P").

DEAL WITH IT: Ugly wall-to-wall carpet
Consider the possibilities! You can rip it out and replace it with fresh carpet or gorgeous new tile. Or you could restore the original wood floor below by buffing or re-staining.
PRICE TO FIX: $13 to $20 per square yard for buying and installing inexpensive flooring.

DEAL BREAKER: water damage
See it low on basement walls where they meet the floor? The house may have huge drainage issues. These won't typically be solved with simple grading. Think: An expert to dig around the foundation or basement and install drainage pipes…expensive! If you spot water damage high in the corners of most rooms, buyer beware. It can be a sign of a leaky roof or years of pipe damage.

DEAL WITH IT: Electric stove instead of a gas one
Have your gas company run a line into your home from a gas line in the street or the propane tank in your yard.
PRICE TO FIX: Approximately $300.

DEAL BREAKER: asbestos
Asbestos poses a serious health hazard (it's a carcinogen). Check in attics and around the plumbing for asbestos insulation; it can either look chalky or like fiberglass insulation with little air chambers on the end. Pass on an older pad if the insulation is worn or disintegrating.

DEAL WITH IT: no central AC
Window units are a pain, but something you can live with until you get a system installed.
PRICE TO FIX: Installing central AC can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000.

DEAL BREAKER: bad school district
A bad school district is definitely a red flag if you want children in the future. Even if you plan to sell before your own kids are old enough to attend school, the majority of family-oriented buyers won't want to buy it, either.

DEAL WITH IT: gross wallpaper
This is a pretty easy fix. Pick up a wallpaper scorer at your local paint or hardware store and score the paper (to make holes). Use a mixture of white vinegar and warm water to loosen the glue, carefully peel off the pieces of paper and remove any excess glue from the walls once the paper is completely pulled down.
PRICE TO FIX: Under $50, unless the home's wallpaper is hiding a multitude of sins.

Nightmare #1: Shaky Foundation
Notice that the floor in your living room isn't flat anymore or your chimney looks a bit crooked? These can be signs of structural issues with your foundation and may have to be repaired (sorry!) depending on how hardcore they are. Other signs of structural issues include cracks in exterior brickwork as well as doors and windows that stick or have large gaps around their frames.
$ To Repair/Replace: A few hundred dollars to repair a small exterior foundation crack to tens of thousands of dollars for serious structural problems

Nightmare #2: Flash and Flickers
Plan on running your air conditioner and microwave at the same time? Make sure any house you're looking at has at least 100-amp electric service (200 is even better), or you'll find yourself flipping breaker switches in the basement 24/7. Before you buy, ask if the home has been upgraded electrically and check for potential problems, like exposed wiring or super-old lighting fixtures.
$ To Repair/Replace: A few hundred bucks for minor repairs; $1,500 to $2,500 to upgrade/replace the electric panel; $4,000 to $5,000 to rewire the entire house

Nightmare #3: Hot Water Worries
Sure, you love a steamy soak, but it's not the end of the world if your water heater goes bust. These units typically last about a decade if they have a tank; they'll last even longer if they don't. The good news? They're reasonably inexpensive to replace.
$ To Repair/Replace: Typically under $500

Nightmare #4: Heating and Cooling Crisis
Heating and air-conditioning systems can last for years with proper maintenance, but when they finally die, it's pretty dang expensive. A home inspector can tell you roughly how long these units will last, but that's still no guarantee. Boilers or furnaces can break, as can the condenser on central air-conditioning systems. On top of that, a boiler breakdown could potentially cause major flooring and/or wallboard damage if it causes a flood in your home.
$ To Repair/Replace: $3,000 to $4,000 for a typical boiler, furnace or condenser

Nightmare #5: Plumbing Problems
Long ago, homes were built with galvanized steel water pipes and cast-iron waste pipes, and both are known to deteriorate over time. Yuck! Unfortunately, leaky pipes can cause all kinds of problems, including sheetrock damage, wood rot and mold buildup. If you're in house-shopping mode, always be sure to check under all sinks before buying to see if you can spot copper and PVC pipes, a possible sign that the plumbing system has been upgraded, since newer plumbing systems will have copper water pipes and PVC waste pipes.
$ To Repair/Replace: $500 to $600 for a few minor repairs; several thousand dollars for major replacements

Nightmare #6: Creepy Crawlers
Pests can be a pain, especially when they're the kind that can chew through wood and cause structural damage. Some common wood-destroying insects include termites, carpenter bees, carpenter ants and certain beetles. Hard to spot (and trap!) on your own, you'll need to hire an inspector to check the home thoroughly before you buy and after if you suspect any problems.
$ To Repair/Replace: A few hundred (if caught very early) to potentially tens of thousands if unsuspected

Nightmare #7: Roofing Blues
Waking up to find shingles littering the yard or a waterfall inside your house is a total freak show. While roofs can last 20 years or more depending on what they're made out of, a lack of maintenance by the prior owners means you'll have to repair or replace things much sooner. If you haven't purchased the home yet, take note when you look: Loose or missing shingles, small leaks, dark spots or gutters filled with gravel are giveaways of roofing gone wrong.
$ To Repair/Replace: $18,000 for a new roof; less for spot repairs

Nightmare #8: Damp Dangers
Hate to break it to ya, but the roof isn't the only place where water can get in. H2O can also seep into basements or come in around windows and cause mold and rot. While mold can be treated with specially formulated products, if left unchecked, it can really rot wood structures. Treat mold and fix leaks pronto to prevent more severe problems.
$ To Repair/Replace: $200 to $300 for do-it-yourself mold removal kits found at home stores; tens of thousands of bucks for a severe problem with rotted structures.

The Couple: Diana + Jason
The House: A 14-year-old home in Round Rock, TX
The Nightmare: "The moment we moved into our house, we noticed cracks on our walls. The in-laws told us not to worry, but they've gotten worse," says Diana. "We haven't been able to open our front door for two months, and there are cracks where the ceiling and walls meet. The thing that really irks me is that Jason asked the inspector to look at our foundation before we closed on the house. The inspector said it wasn't necessary, so we didn't do it."
Damage Control: "This problem is popping up all over our neighborhood. The engineer can't make it to our house 'til the end of next month to give us an estimate."

The Couple: Lydia + Ted
The House: A 30-year-old home in Milton, NY
The Nightmare: "A couple of weeks after we bought the house, we learned that our deck wasn't structurally sound and needed to be replanked and supported. We also found a puddle of water around the boiler. The sellers never mentioned anything about the boiler," says Lydia. "Our repair guy told us it wouldn't last through the winter!"
Damage Control: "We had to open a new credit account in order to pay for the $4,000 repair to the boiler," says Ted. "Also, the tab for the deck was $4,500."

The Couple: Andrea + Ryan
The House: A 100+-year-old home in Womelsdorf, PA
The Nightmare: Our back bedroom had a drop ceiling that looked like it had water damage, but the inspector couldn't remove the tiles to inspect it," says Andrea. "After we moved in, Ryan broke a few tiles to peek. We found hundreds of pounds of bat poop and entombed bats lining the ceiling of the room. The smell was awful."
Damage Control: "We hauled one ton of bat poop and plaster into the dumpster," says Andrea. "Even though it's a nice guest room now, we'll always call it 'The Bat Room.'"