Avoiding Costly Homebuying Mistakes: Knowledge is Power!

by Lawrence M. Kostaneski, PE

Those of you who read my articles in the 9/15 and 10/13 editions of The Dollar Stretcher have a sense for the technical complexities inherent in a home. Those of you who went to the book's web site are probably borderline overwhelmed. Yes, there are an amazing number of issues to consider when buying a home. But during my 10 year stint as a City Engineer, I was surprised and a little disappointed to see how many people bought a house with little or no understanding of these technical issues: often to their extreme annoyance in discovering that they had very low water pressure, had frequent flooding problems, were assessed for a sidewalk or road, etc.

This edition's subject deals with this very issue, but in general terms.

There is no better way to avoid expensive mistakes than asking questions. You must gather information relevant to the contemplated purchase if you want to get the best value for your dollar. People do this all the time when buying a car, but seem to think a house is somehow immune from defects.

Previous articles dealt with flooding, and soils with a tendency to damage a home. These are just two of the many technical issues that can cause a great deal of anguish and expense. All of the various potential problems associated with a house are easily catalogued and systematically evaluated. The trick is to know what the issues are, arrange them in a way that allows accurate evaluation, and knowing what agency to contact.

Regardless of the people involved in the sale of the house, there is NO substitute for objective information from someone who is not connected with the pending transaction.

The best source of information is the local government agency responsible for residential development. It may be necessary to contact multiple agencies, but usually one agency has overall responsibility and can direct you to the other agencies or departments that have the specific information you need.

This source is extremely important. The happiness and safety of your family depends on knowing as much about a house as possible, and one of the best sources for this information is the responsible agency.

Here is an example of how this works. A couple from Boston came to my office and wanted to know if the house they were interested in had a FEMA flood designation. I asked for the address and when they told me, I knew the answer immediately: Yes ! I could tell they were shocked. They had already put down earnest money on the house. Then they told me the rest of the story. They had specifically asked the realtor this same question and were told, "No". For whatever reason, they decided to contact the local agency. A good thing, considering the impact from this information.

The short ending to this story is that I contacted the owner of the real estate agency - who was a friend of mine - cleared up the "misunderstanding", and learned later that this couple got their earnest money back.. I would guess they chose a different realtor, although I didn't talk to them afterward.

Needless to say, I was happy to help these people: it's what I got paid to do. The sad part is that over the years I talked to scores of buyers about this very same subject, who didn't think to ask first: suffice it to say that these conversations were something less than pleasant. But there was nothing I could do. A couple of these people ended up in court over the issue.

This is just one example of the myriad of technical issues that require careful analysis. In this case, a simple 15 minute visit prevented this couple from learning an old truth the hard way: buyer beware. My guess is that they were well aware of this adage. Hopefully, you will consider this when you buy your next home. Remember, having good luck with your first experience is no guarantee.

Mr. Kostaneski writes about the physical aspects of homebuying. He is the author of A Home Buyer's Guide To Reality and a regular contributor to The Dollar Stretcher.

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