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Red Flags for First-Time Homebuyers

Dear Ali;
My husband and I both grew up in houses, but we've been living in apartments for years. However, we want to take advantage of the first-time homebuyer tax credit, so we've decided to buy this year. What problems should we look out for when we buy our first house?
A: I show apartments all day long, and I swear the only people who really know what they're seeing are homeowners who have learned the hard way. Here are the things they notice:
  1. Water damage. One of the easiest ways to find this is to look up at the ceilings for signs of discoloration. If the area is dry to the touch, it might be an old leak -- but you'll still have to investigate.
  2. Tilts. Houses settle, so floors that are a smidge off-kilter are normal. Very tilted or sagging stairs, however, are a sign that there might be greater foundation problems.
  3. Critters. Look around the stove in the kitchen for the little droppings that are evidence of mice, and in the wet areas of the bathroom for evidence of bugs. Check the garage rafters and basement woodwork for signs of termites -- wood that looks crumbly, mud tracks, or tunnels the width of a pencil. Let me tell you, termites are such a hassle that it's worth getting a formal inspection done for them, just in case.
  4. Noise. You probably first see a property at an open house, which is when an agent wants you to see it. Drive by at a different time -- maybe rush hour or during the week -- just to check noise levels.
When you find the house you love, you should have a formal inspection done by a licensed inspector -- but that's no substitute for learning to use your own eyes and ears. Remember too that no house is "perfect." The point is not to avoid every flaw, but to make sure that you know what you're buying, and at the right price.
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