22 Questions to Ask Before Buying a House

Sep 13, 2019

Questions To Ask Before Buying A House

Whether you’re a first-time homebuyer or a seasoned pro, buying a house is a big undertaking. It’s easy to fall so in love with a property that you lose sight of the more practical considerations: does it have a termite infestation? Will the sewer back up every time it rains? Are the HOA dues astronomical?

To help you keep track of the many details that make a house a great (or not-so-great) place to live, we’ve put together this checklist of questions to ask before buying a house.

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Questions to Ask about Cost and Budget

For many people, a house is the biggest purchase of their life, which means you should ask a lot of questions before making an offer, including these.

1. What are your total costs?

Unless you’re paying cash, the sticker price of a house is not the actual amount you’ll pay. And even if you are paying cash, there will be ongoing costs you should consider to make sure your home fits into your budget. And one more note: you won’t usually know the final cost upfront because of the many unknowns that go into this process. But you can get a ballpark.

Typically, a house’s “total” cost includes the following:

  • Appraisal: One of the first expenses associated with buying a house, the appraisal amounts to an expert evaluation of the property’s value. Expect to pay several hundred dollars on this.
  • The property itself: This is the big fat number you’ll see listed on Zillow or Redfin. But be sure to consider the cost of both your down payment and your monthly payments: Yoni Pogofsky, managing broker with Pogofsky Real Estate Group, suggests asking how much you’re comfortable with as a monthly payment. “You don’t want to leave yourself house-poor by overextending your down payment,” he explains. Once you have a sense of what you can handle, ask your mortgage lender what your monthly payments will look like.
  • Inspection: The inspection evaluates the condition of your future home. More thorough than an appraisal, its goal is to identify anything that’s not in good working order (and therefore might cost you a lot of money in the near future). 
  • Mortgage interest: If you borrow money to buy your house (i.e., take on a mortgage), you’ll pay for the privilege (in the form of mortgage interest). Over the lifetime of your loan, your interest rate can have a significant difference on the total amount you pay for your home.
  • Mortgage insurance: If you opt for certain mortgage types that require smaller down payments, you may have to pay mortgage insurance every month.
  • Homeowners insurance: If you have a mortgage, your lender will likely require you to carry insurance. And even if you don’t, you’ll likely want a policy to protect your possessions and assets. Read more about what homeowners insurance typically covers.
  • Taxes: You’ll pay property taxes every year, though often on a monthly basis, rolled in with your mortgage payment. They cover things like local schools, road maintenance, and other essential services in your area. Make sure they’re in line with the taxes on other properties in the neighborhood. The current homeowner is probably your best source of tax information. 
  • HOA fees: Not every house has a home ownership association (HOA), but they’re gaining popularity and their fees can pay for anything from maintaining a communal swimming pool to insuring a common area. According to Terri Williams and Realtor.com, a typical HOA fee comes in at around $200 to $300 per month – but they can also be much higher for extreme luxury properties.

A few notes here: First, some of these costs are negotiable. In addition to knowing which questions to ask before buying a house, it helps to understand where you can use your bargaining skills to get a deal. If you’re new to the house-buying game, we recommend checking out Julia Dellitt’s guide to negotiable costs when buying a house.

Second, many of these costs roll into your closing costs. To get an idea of what your closing costs might be, try this handy closing costs calculator by SmartAsset.

Finally, be sure to ask yourself what your long-term plans are for the house and how long you plan on living there. According to Pogofsky, “This is an important question because it may dictate what type of mortgage you get, which can save or cost a lot of money in the long run.”

2. What’s included in the sale?

You know you’re getting the building itself, but beyond that, it’s not always clear. Before buying a house, ask this question to clarify what the sellers will take with them (window treatments? Appliances? Light fixtures?) and what they’ll leave. This helps you understand what costs you’ll have when you move in to make the home livable, and may affect what you’re willing to pay for the property.

Liz Steelman, real estate editor at Apartment Therapy, notes that, in most cases, “You don’t ask the seller directly. Most people ask their [the buyer’s] real estate agent, who then asks the seller’s agent.”

It’s usually best to get the sellers’ answer to this question in writing, especially if they promise to leave behind high-value items like a built-in sound system.

3. How long has the house been on the market?

Steelman recommends asking your agent right away how long the house has been for sale. “If it’s been on the market a long time, that often signals there are some issues with the property,” she says.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s not wise to make a low offer if the house has been on the market for 21 days or less. After 90 days, though, it may be safer to make a low offer (which, in this context, may mean something like 90 percent of the asking price).

Your real estate agent can guide you through best practices for houses that have been on the market for more than 21 days and less than 90, where the nuances of what to offer may be trickier to navigate for the uninitiated.

4. Why is the seller moving out?

This is a super-important question to ask before buying a house, as it can reveal a lot about the property or the neighborhood. Some reasons are obvious: the seller needs more space for a growing family, has to relocate for a new job, or is downsizing for retirement.

Other reasons are less straightforward. 

“Legally, the seller has to tell you if certain things are wrong with the property, and most things they don’t know about will show up during the inspection,” Steelman notes. “But it’s probably still a good idea to ask something like, ‘Do I have any reason to believe why the home inspection would have an issue?’”

5. How much have nearby homes sold for?

This question gives you a sense of how your house compares to the ones around it. If want the value of your home to increase, it’s probably better to buy the crummiest place in a nice neighborhood than the nicest place in a questionable neighborhood. So if yours is the most expensive home on the block, you may want to ask some questions about why.

To get a sense of what properties around yours are selling for, search Zillow, Redfin, or Realtor.com for recently sold homes. You can also ask your real estate agent.

6. How much do utilities usually cost?

Before buying a home, don’t forget to ask about heating, cooling, electric, and internet costs! (And water, sewer, trash, recycling, etc.) To make sure a house will truly fit into your monthly budget, it’s essential to understand what utilities cost in a typical month. 

If utility costs seem high, consider getting a greener power supply or investing in EnergyStar-rated appliances when existing equipment gives out. Both can reduce your total energy use and save you money.

Questions to Ask about the People You’ll Work With

7. Is the real estate agent familiar with your target market?

Pogofsky emphasizes the importance of working with an agent who genuinely understands the market where you want to buy. Without on-the-ground understanding, they may not be equipped to advise you on how to respond to various situations.

Brittany Anas, an Apartment Therapy writer, concurs, noting that when she bought a home in Denver, her mother suggested offering less than the asking price but her real estate agent vetoed that move, saying the market was too hot to make it a good strategy.

8. Is your mortgage broker responsive?

The average mortgage takes 42 days to close. During that time, your mortgage broker will be your primary point of contact with your lender and the person in charge of answering questions and making sure all your materials have been completed and submitted correctly. If this person isn’t responsive, your home buying process will be much more frustrating.

Questions to Ask about the House’s Risks

Once you have a sense of how a house will fit into your budget, it’s time to look at how it might expose you and your family to risks. These questions will help you do that.

9. Is the home in a floodplain? Is it susceptible to other natural disasters?

Every state has different flood disclosure laws that outline what sellers must tell buyers about the flooding history of their homes. Regardless of your state’s laws, however, it’s wise to look up your property on FEMA’s searchable floodplain map, which offers a by-address breakdown of properties’ exposure to hundred-year flood conditions.

(Note: typical homeowners insurance policies do not cover flood damage; for that protection, homeowners need a separate flood insurance policy.)

In addition to investigating hurricane and flood susceptibility, you’ll want to investigate a home’s exposure to earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, and blizzards.

10. What is this property’s history of insurance claims?

Unfortunately, a house’s history of insurance claims may affect your ability to get homeowners insurance and / or the price you’ll pay for that coverage. While this may sound like a major bummer, think of it as fair warning: if a house experienced past water damage, there’s a higher risk it could face mold problems in the future. 

Insurers are all about managing risk, so they may consider a property risky if they know it has a checkered past.

So how can you find out about that past? Great question. Heather Larson, who writes for Bankrate, explains that the easiest way is to ask the seller for a copy of their CLUE (Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange) report, which includes a seven-year record of insurable incidents that have happened to the house.

A few important things to note about the CLUE report:

  • If it’s blank, the homeowner either made no claims in the last seven years OR made them to an insurer that doesn’t participate in CLUE.
  • If the property has had multiple owners in the last seven years, you’ll need to get a CLUE report from each owner to see the house’s full history.
  • The CLUE report outlines claims made and amounts paid, but it doesn’t necessarily explain which part of the house was affected. For that, you’ll need to talk to the sellers.

11. Does the house pose any health or safety hazards that wouldn’t be found in the inspection?

This is a hugely important question to ask before buying a house. The presence of certain substances can pose a threat to the health of you and your family and may even mean your dream house is not worth the risk.

Common hazards to look out for:

While some of these may be included in your home inspection, they’re not all standard, so it’s important to ask. Most of these hazards require professional help to eliminate, which can be costly and time consuming. 

12. Are there any problems with the house? Have there ever been?

This is an important catchall question to make sure you’re prepared for anything that you haven’t asked about explicitly, that the sellers may not be legally obligated to disclose, and that wouldn’t turn up in an inspection. 

If damage has ever happened, ask who did the repairs and get their contact information if at all possible. Maintenance is a part of homeownership; the better prepared you are, the less stress it will cause you.

Questions to Ask about the House’s Condition

No house is perfect. When you’re thinking of buying one, these questions can give you a sense of the precise imperfections the property has.

13. Has the house seen any additions or major renovations?

Updates to a house may add comfort and value, but they’re also an opportunity for things to go wrong, especially if the owner at the time was trying to save money on the addition or renovation (and let’s face it, aren’t we all trying to save some money?).

If the property you're considering has had additions or renovations, ask the seller for details about who did the work and get their contact information. Even if you need to know something as simple as what color they painted the walls, you’ll be glad to have it.

14. How old is the roof? 

Roofs need regular repair, though frequency depends on what kind of roof a property has and what kind of wear and tear it’s seen. Ask this question before buying a house to get a sense of how soon you’ll need to invest in a new roof.

15. How old are major appliances and systems?

If you’ve ever moved into a new home only to have the water heater give out that very week, you know the importance of checking the age of appliances. Pogofsky recommends asking about the age of the condenser, furnace, and water heaters – and whether they’ve been regularly serviced.

As a bonus, ask the seller whether they have appliance warranties stashed anywhere. These documents can help you determine what kind of manufacturer protection your major appliances might still have.

16. Do you have the original plans to the house?

Not everyone will, says Steelman, but if you can get them they can be valuable. “Also ask if they have the original architect’s name and information,” she recommends – or the information of their firm if they’re no longer among the living.

17. How big is the water heater? 

Speaking of water heaters, it’s best to make sure yours is big enough to keep your family from having daily shrieking fits as the hot water gives out mid-shower.

The government’s EnergyStar program offers this calculator for estimating your water heater tank needs:

Use

Avg. Gallons of Hot Water / Usage 

  

Times Used within One Hour

  

Gallons Use in One Hour

Shower

10

× 

 

 

Shaving (.05 gallon per minute) 

2

× 

 

 

Hand dishwashing or food prep (2 gallons per minute)

4

× 

 

 

Automatic dishwasher

6

× 

 

 

Clothes washer

7

× 

 

 

 

 

  

Total Peak Hour Demand 

 

Source

Or try this simpler breakdown by family size:

People in Household

Hot Water Heater Needs

1 – 2

30 gallons+

2 – 3

40 gallons+

3 – 4

50 gallons+

5+

80 gallons (electric) or 50 gallons (natural gas or liquid propane)

Source

Questions to Ask about the Neighborhood

Good neighbors can make a new house feel like a home. But how can you know what your new neighbors are like before you buy a house? Ask!

18. What are the neighbors like?

As with the question about why the sellers are leaving, you can learn as much from how the seller answers as you can from what they say. A gushy answer with lots of details suggests close, warm relationships. Reserved responses or those that equivocate may be a bad sign.

But remember: the seller could be the neighborhood grump, so it’s important to take everything with a grain of salt. Get a feel for the place yourself by checking Facebook and NextDoor for neighborhood-specific groups. Follow along for a few days to see what residents are like.

19. How is the neighborhood?

An online search can give you crime statistics, but to get a sense of the neighborhood’s energy and feel, you’ll need to ask someone who’s lived there. Again, a limited response may tell you as much as a long response – most sellers who don’t have anything nice to say won’t say anything at all.

If you’re buying a home with an HOA assessment, one way to get a sense of the community is to check the HOA’s financial health, which can serve as a proxy for at least the financial stability of the community.

20. Any problem neighbors or local nuisances?

Keep in mind that unpleasant or unsafe behavior can be more than a minor irritation – it can put you and your neighbors at risk.

Smaller nuisances are also handy to know about, Steelman points out. “It might get really loud one weekend in September during a festival.” Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.

21. Does this house have any stigma associated with it? 

“Stigma” might mean anything from reports of haunting and paranormal activity to unsavory or illegal activity on the property. 

First, understand that houses with “stigma” typically sell well below what their fair market value would otherwise be. Second, know that state and local laws vary widely in stigma disclosure requirements. That’s why it’s a good idea to ask about these things specifically, whether you believe in ghosts or not. 

If, for example, a house has a reputation for being haunted, there’s a good chance it attracts the kind of attention most homeowners prefer to avoid.

22. What did you love most about living here?

Most of the questions you’re encouraged to ask before buying a home involve looking out for things that could go wrong. But it’s also smart to ask sellers what they loved best about the home, if for no other reason than it can help you discover everything the property has to offer sooner than you otherwise would have.

Questions Are a Homebuyer’s Friend

If you’ve never bought a house before, it can feel intimidating to pepper the seller or your real estate agent with questions. But for what’s likely the largest financial commitment of your life, you really can’t be too careful. Asking the right questions before making an offer on a home can prevent a lot of discomfort and save you a lot of money down the road.