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10 signs of a scary real estate listing

Photo courtesy of Zillow

If a real estate listing says a home is "definitely not haunted," it may not be a great purchase.

Horror movie buffs hoping to buy a home are probably already paying attention to the locations of nearby cemeteries and local legends about murderous neighbors -- especially this time of year. But what about less obvious warning signs that something spooky (or expensive) could be lurking in the shadows?

We talked to five real estate pros who weighed in on what buyers should watch out for when they first see a listing.

These 10 red flags could tip you off to potential nightmares lurking in the home of your dreams.

Lack of photos

Photo courtesy of Zillow

If you can't find interior photos of a home, you won't be able to see the skeletons in the closets.

"If there are no interior photos, there's something wrong with the house," said Bloomington, Indiana, Realtor Deb Tomaro. "A seller should be yelling at their Realtor if there are not any pictures [in the listing] and the house is show-ready."

A listing with no interior photos -- like this $7.9 million Victorian in San Francisco -- could be hiding problems, and there's no way to tell upfront. This should be a major warning sign for buyers, many of whom begin their real estate searches online.

Similarly, watch out for listings that offer no or very little description of the home.

"That means the agent either isn't very good at their job or they can't think of anything good to say about the house," Tomaro said.


Photo courtesy of Zillow

An abundance of do-it-yourself home-remodeling TV shows make it look easy to turn a dump into a dream home, but those shows are misleading.

"It only takes half an hour on TV, but that's probably not a good idea for most buyers," Tamaro said.

If you're hoping to save money by buying a "fixer" and renovating it yourself, take time to evaluate what kinds of projects you're willing to handle and which ones would require a contractor's help.

"The majority of the buyers I work with are comfortable with painting, doing new carpeting and possibly changing out the cabinets and vanities," said Jon Boyd, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, real estate agent and former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyers Agents. Projects larger than that -- such as fixing holes in the walls or structural problems -- are often too big for buyers to take on.

Take this two-bedroom home in Van Nuys, California. The listing says it's a "fixer upper," and the photos indicate that some updates are needed, including paint to cover graffiti and new kitchen cabinetry.


Photo courtesy of Zillow

"I think 'TLC' is probably the most commonly used description for when [sellers] don't want to say it's a fixer," said Elizabeth Weintraub, a Sacramento, California, real estate agent and homebuying expert.

"When they say it just needs a little TLC to make the home shine, that means it needs a complete remodel," she said.

It'll take a little more than TLC to get this home in West Palm Beach, Florida, fit for human habitation. All the love in the world couldn't fix the missing ceilings (although a contractor could).

"As is" listings

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Sellers often list a house for sale "as is" when they don't want to handle any repairs that may be needed.

"They feel they're putting their best price out there, and they don't want to get stuck with a buyer nickel-and-diming them for every repair," Tomaro said.

This might be OK for buyers willing to cover the repairs, but it might mean they have a hard time getting a bank to sign off on a mortgage.

Even seemingly small fixes -- such as a broken window or incomplete floor -- could be deal-breakers for the bank.

Even if sellers say a home is being sold "as is," buyers still have the right to do a property inspection and can often negotiate with the seller to have some of the repairs made, Tomaro says.

Take this lakeside chalet in Hoodsport, Washington. It's in a beautiful location with mountain views, but the listing warns buyers to take caution on the unstable-looking decks and it appears to need a lot of work inside.

Cash transactions only

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Like "as is" listings, a listing that specifies a sale will be cash only means the home could have some pretty serious issues.

"That's one of the most useful real estate lingo things [to watch for]," Boyd said. This means there could be an issue with the house that may make it difficult to qualify for a traditional mortgage.

This three-bedroom home in Hesperia, California, listed as a cash-only sale, doesn't specify what, if any, issues it has. But the red and green bathroom with a creepy picture of Santa staring at you from the shower tiles may be one of them.

Tenant-occupied properties

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While some rental units are well-maintained by their tenants, others aren't. Even with an attentive landlord, rental properties could have issues the owner isn't aware of.

"They're not going in every week to check on the condition of a rental," Tomaro said.

Tenants aren't going to invest the time and money required to fix things in the home, and if they don't notify the landlord, the issues will remain and could become worse, she said.

In these homes, pay particular attention to how clean everything is. "I do think that cleanliness goes a long way to show how the house is maintained," Tomaro said.

This tenant-occupied home in Columbus, Georgia, for example, looks like it needs a good scrubbing inside and out.

Vacant homes

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Homes that have been unoccupied for a long time may develop problems that would have been caught if they had a resident keeping an eye on things, Boyd said. Things like burst water pipes and mold can get worse if they're not caught quickly, and they might not be noticeable in the listing or a walk-through.

The listing for this three-bedroom farmhouse in Souderton, Pennsylvania, specifically warns buyers that the "property has been vacant and [the] condition of utilities is unknown." Before making a deal on a vacant property, Boyd said, buyers should have an inspection done and get the utilities turned on to check for issues.

Bring your toolbox

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What do you have in your toolbox? A hammer? A screwdriver? Some duct tape? You'll probably need more than that for the repairs needed in a "bring your own toolbox" listing, Boyd said. While this phrase makes it sound like there are just a few quick fixes to be made on the home, it often means the issue are larger.

"There was one house in my market that said to bring your own toolbox, and it had $15,000 in basement repair projects," Boyd said. "Those kinds of tools are not normally in anybody's toolbox."

You'll definitely need more than your standard toolbox to fix up this Limington, Maine, house. With a collapsing front porch, broken windows and apparent water damage, this home would be better off if professional contractors were called in.

Land lease buildings

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If you're shopping in a big city like New York, you'll want to watch out for buildings built on leased land, said Brad Malow, a New York area real estate agent and founder of

When a building's lease expires, the owner has to negotiate a new one, usually at a much higher price. This makes the monthly assessments -- maintenance fees apartment owners pay to the building -- increase dramatically, Malow says.

"Everyone's monthly payments skyrocket, and they have to reduce the purchase price so buyers can afford those payments," he said. This means you may lose money if you decide to sell the home later.

This three-bedroom Manhattan apartment, listed for almost $2.4 million, doesn't look scary at all, but the property's land lease could deliver a fright in the form of higher payments in the future.

"All work has been done for you"

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Watch out for listings that proclaim "all the work has been done for you!"

"That generally means it's a flipper," Weintraub said. Flippers are homes that investors purchase inexpensively (typically below market value) and then remodel and resell at a profit.

"They make cosmetic changes as quickly and cheaply as possible," she said. "All they have to do is put in stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, and someone is going to want to buy it."

These shiny facades could be hiding serious defects like water damage, mold or an unstable foundation.

Other phrases that can indicate a house is a flipper are "total remodel" and "completely rehabbed."

This home in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, sold just five months ago for $65,000 is now listed at $184,900. The listing boasts brand-new cabinets, countertops and appliances with fresh paint throughout. Although the listing doesn't mention any below-the-surface upgrades, Realtor Michael Santolupo said the renovations did include plumbing work in the kitchen and bathrooms and brand-new heating and air-conditioning systems.

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