22 questions to ask when buying a house

Mon Jan 08 2024

A young couple stand arm in arm before their new home

Buying a home is an exciting time, but it also comes with a lot of stress. After all, you’re investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a property – and weighing at least as many details: Are there termites? Does the sewer back up? What are the HOA fees? 

The pressure is on to get it right, so we talked to real estate experts to find out what questions to ask when buying a house. Read on or click below to skip to the topic you’re most interested in.

Cost and budget | History & risks | Home’s condition | The neighborhood | People you’ll work with

Questions to ask about costs

For many people, a house is the biggest purchase of their life, which means you should ask a lot of questions about what you're getting before you make an offer.

1. What are my total costs?

Unless you’re paying cash, the sticker price of a house is not the actual amount you pay. Even if you are paying cash, there are usually ongoing costs you should consider to make sure the house you want fits in your budget. The many unknowns that go into the process of buying a home usually mean you don’t know the final cost upfront, but you can get a ballpark figure.

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

  • 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.  Shaun Martin of WeBuyHousesinDenver says “Cash reserves are king because it means that if you lose your job or hit a financial hurdle, you can still afford to pay the mortgage.” He recommends keeping three to six months of expenses on hand on top of what you pay for the property

  • An appraisal. One of the first expenses associated with buying a house, an appraisal amounts to an expert evaluation of the property’s value. Expect to pay several hundred dollars for this.

  • An inspection. The home 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. When you borrow money to buy your house (i.e., take on a mortgage), you 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. Certain types of mortgages require smaller down payments, and that sometimes means you may have to pay mortgage insurance every month.

  • Homeowners insurance. If you have a mortgage, your lender will likely require you to get a home insurance policy. And even if you don’t, you’ll likely want a policy to protect your possessions and assets.

  • 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 homeowners association (HOA), but they’re gaining popularity. HOA fees can be paid for anything from maintaining a communal swimming pool to trash removal for the community. 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. 

Many of these expenses can be rolled into your closing costs. This handy closing costs calculator by SmartAsset can give you an idea of what your closing costs might be.

Finally, ask yourself what your long-term plans are for the house. Is this your forever home or a starter home? The answer 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 what’s included when you buy a house. This question helps clarify what the sellers are taking with them (Window treatments? Appliances? Light fixtures?) and what they’re leaving behind. Once you have the answer, you can get a better handle on what you’ll need to spend to make the home livable, and that may affect what you’re willing to pay for the property.

Liz Steelman, real estate editor at Apartment Therapy, notes that you don’t typically 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 much have nearby homes sold for?

This question gives you a sense of how your house compares to the ones around it. If you 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.

4. How much do utilities usually cost?

Before buying a home, don’t forget to ask about heating, cooling, electricity, and internet costs. (And water, sewer, trash, recycling, etc.) You need to know what utilities cost in a typical month before you can decide if a house truly fits your monthly budget.

If utility costs seem high, you may want to look into greener alternatives in your area or invest in Energy Star appliances when existing equipment gives out. Both can reduce your total energy use and save you money.

Questions to ask about the property’s history

Once you have an idea of how a home is priced and what it costs to own, it’s worth looking deeper to understand whether any factors might be motivating a seller. Depending on your answers to these questions, you may be able to get a discount from a home’s list price. 

5. 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.

6. Why is the seller moving out?

This is a super-important question to ask before buying a house because 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, according to David Reischer of LegalAdvice.com. He says a seller is “a conflicted party” who usually only reveals defects that they’re legally obligated to disclose. Reischer goes on to say that “it is very unlikely to get a truthful answer by asking vague or general questions related to whether there are any problems with a house.” 

Even though Reischer believes that the home inspection is the best way to get this information, it is possible to ask, “Do you think there are any problems that will arise in the inspection?”

7. Does this home have a history of claims?

Insurers are all about managing risk, so they may consider a property risky if they know it has a checkered past. Unfortunately, a house’s history of insurance claims may impact the price of your home insurance or even your ability to get a policy. 

While this may sound like a major bummer, think of it as a fair warning: if a house experienced past water damage, there’s a higher risk it could face mold problems in the future.

So how can you find out about that past? Great question. 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.

  • CLUE reports outline 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.

8. Should I be worried about floods or other 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, 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.)

Floods may be the most common natural disaster, but they aren’t the only weather event to investigate. You also want to ask about the area’s propensity for hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, tornadoes, and blizzards.

9. Have there ever been any problems with this house?

This is an important catchall question to make sure you’re prepared for anything that: 

  • You haven’t asked about it explicitly

  • The sellers may not be legally obligated to disclose

  • An inspector might not look for.

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.

10. Has this house ever been renovated or remodeled?

Updates to a house may add comfort and value, but they’re also an opportunity for things to go wrong – especially if the owner 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 major 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.

11. Can I see the original plans for the house?

Not everyone will show you their original house plans, 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.

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

“Stigma” can 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 their fair market value. Second, 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.

Questions about the home’s condition

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

13. How old is the roof?

Roofs need regular repair, though how long a roof lasts depends largely on the materials and the 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.

14. How old are the 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. You should also ask about the age of the condenser, furnace, and plumbing – 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.

15. 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.

This chart below provides an estimate of how big your water heater should be based on your family size:

Water Heater Capacity by Family Size

People in Household Hot Water Heater Needs
1 – 2 30 gallons+
2 – 3 40 gallons+
3 – 4 50 gallons+

80 gallons (electric)

50 gallons (natural gas or liquid propane)

Source: Total Home Supply. Water heaters sizes: A guide, Accessed 12/20/2023.

16. Are there any hazards an inspection might miss?

This is a hugely important question to ask when 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.

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? The answer’s simple: ask!

17. What is the neighborhood like?

An online search can give you crime statistics, but to get a real sense of the neighborhood’s energy and feel, you’ll need to ask someone who’s lived there. As with the question about why the sellers are leaving, the type of response you get may tell you a lot. Most sellers who don’t have anything nice to say may not 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. It can serve as a proxy for at least the financial stability of the community.

18. Do you like your neighbors?

As with the question about why the sellers are leaving, the answer to this question can tell you a lot about the neighborhood. 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. Do you know of any problems with 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. But 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.

20. What do you love 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 to ask about the people you’re working with

Real estate agents and mortgage brokers are two of your most important allies during the house-buying process. Ask these two questions to ensure you’ve made choices that are compatible with your preferences.

21. Are you familiar with the area?

The importance of working with a real estate agent who genuinely understands the market where you want to buy cannot be emphasized enough. Without on-the-ground understanding, your realtor may not be equipped to advise you on how to respond to various situations.

A real estate agent who knows the area can do a better job of matching with homes that meet your needs, whether that means it’s near good schools or in your favorite neighborhood. They are also better judges of what the market in your area is doing, which means they can come up with a strategy that can put you in the home of your dreams.

22. How responsive is my mortgage lender?

The average mortgage takes 30 to 60 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 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.

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