Kuper Sotheby's International Realty's Shay Millheiser knows houses in a way that most Realtors don't. She's been renovating homes since college, taking dilapidated buildings and transforming them into stunning remodels, and now she regularly passes that DIY knowledge on to her clients and through her Instagram, @shaymillheiser.
Over the years — and more than 100 fixer-uppers — she's discovered a trick or two, especially when it comes to knowing what's a dealbreaker and what just requires a simple fix. Here are five of the most common home inspection results that tend to send buyers running, and why they shouldn't be feared.
1. Code violations
Picture this: You're buying the perfect 1960s ranch home and it checks all the boxes from your favorite HGTV shows. It's got big, original windows; all four sides are encapsulated with midcentury stone; and of course it has that semi-open floorplan that we all impractically dream about.
You'll get a million compliments on the place, but you know what else you'll get? A home full of very little features that are actually "to code."
Here's why: The phrase "to code" references current building codes for new construction. Codes are being updated constantly — to the point where some homes built in the last six months might have features that are no longer "to code."
"Don’t get me wrong — multiple systems in your 1960s home will need to be brought up to code," says Millheiser. "Examples include lack of GFCIs, having CO detectors, or handrails that small children could fall through. But a vast majority of code violations are way less severe than the "deficiency" notation implies."
2. Foundation settling
"A lot of us have physical attributes that affect our bodies, like food allergies, scoliosis, or arthritic joints," she says. "However, just because our bodies aren't perfect doesn't mean they aren't performing their necessary and intended functions. This same logic applies to foundations — some are imperfect, some are deviated, but not all deficiencies mean the entire foundation is failing."
Most Austin neighborhoods were built on soil that consists of an extensive amount of sponge-like clay. When clay gets wet, it expands. When it gets dry, it contracts. Considering the fact that last year consisted of 100-degree heat in summer and massive flooding in the fall, it's safe to say that our grounds are like the pre-teens of soil: regularly inconsistent and incredibly moody.
But it's important to remember that a foundation that has shifted is sometimes doing its job by moving with the earth. The old assumption that any slab that's out of level requires repair is wrong.
"Foundation companies often throw around phrases like 'acceptable guidelines' or 'within tolerance' as a tactic to make you think that there's some universally accepted threshold for how 'shifted' your foundation can be," says Millheiser. "You know who made up that guideline? The foundation company standing in your yard taking 'non-biased readings' while also trying to sell you on an expensive repair."
One of the most interesting things Millhesier has learned over years of working with foundation inspectors and companies is that water management is often the best prevention you can take when it comes to preventing shifting. In fact, water management can sometimes even fix a settled or shifted foundation. Imagine that one side of your house is consistently receiving all the drainage from the gutters, yard slope, and sprinkler system — that side is going cause that portion of the foundation to rise or sink.
Millheiser is quick to note, however, that she's not an expert and there are definitely cases in which the foundation of a home will need piers for support or correction. She leans on her favorite foundation inspection companies, like the Foundation Guru, to offer non-biased evaluations.
3. The "M word"
There are two things that send people running: a sketchy person sprinting after you in a mask while yielding a chainsaw, and household molds. One of these things is 100 percent dangerous, 100 percent of the time. The other … not so much.
"Let's make one thing clear about mold: it is everywhere," she says. "There is no such thing as a 'mold-free' house. There are merely homes with safe levels of standard molds and homes with unsafe levels of unsafe molds, and it is the job of a mold inspector to make that determination."
What they look for when assessing and measuring mold levels in a house is verification that the molds inside are similar in types and counts to what's on the outside. When those two are drastically imbalanced, there could be a problem. Particularly with "bad" molds caused from decay (like Stachybotrys) or water-based molds (like Penicillium, Aspergillum, or Cladosporium).
Now let's say one of the "nasty" molds does surface in an inspection — don't freak out, because it can be fixed with options like air scrubbers, dehumidifiers, encapsulation, and other techniques. More often than not, mold remediation plans are surprisingly cost effective, less intrusive than one might expect, and leave the air in better shape than before the treatment.
Millheiser has a few common talking points for her clients, thanks to her "mold pro," JP with ServPro of Hyde Park, and these include:
- Molds in shower/bath areas aren't a big deal and can be easily handled with bleach.
- Molds under sinks happen often.
- HVACs and ducts that look moldy often aren't. That black-ish surround can sometimes come from the condensation that happens when air in ducts at a cool temperature meets the warmer air of a room.
- HVAC filters are common culprits of mold. If your vents are toward the ground, change them every three months.
4. Varying degrees of house stink
We all know "house stink," the unidentifiable odors from a domicile that enter your nostrils and spend the day in a lawn chair next to your septum as a constant reminder of what hell must smell like. Examples include never-been-dusted musk, grandma's leftovers that have slowly rotted on the counter, humidity coupled with lack of aeration, dog pee in the carpet, casual in-home cigarette smoke, etc.
"I love these," says Millheiser, "and here's why: most homebuyers who tour a home that stinks will immediately rule it out. One of my favorite quotes to date from a client was, 'But, Shay… there could be a rat king rotting in the drywall!' Spoiler alert: there was no rat king."
Stinky homes are some of the best opportunities for buyers because often that's completely curable. Luckily other buyers don't realize that, thus giving you a competitive edge in negotiations. Millheiser always recommend leaning on your home inspector for guidance of smell sources (that way if it seems like a major headache to remediate, you can bounce during your option period).
Here are the steps she takes when de-odorizing a home prior to move-in:
- Windows: Open 'em, stat.
- Smoke smell: Kilz primer then paint everything in the home — walls, door frames, all of it. The Kilz will kill most of the smell, and the second coat of paint will prevent future stank from emerging.
- Musk: Get rid of all the existing curtains. Either send them for a spa day at the dry cleaners or donate/trash them.
- Garbage disposal: Rinse by pouring one cup bicarbonate soda, followed by two cups of vinegar and bicarbonate soda. Let it bubble for a few minutes, then rinse again.
- General air cleansing: Run an ozone machine in the house to help scrub all airborne smells. Ozone attaches to the chemical composition of many smells — like smoke — and helps to neutralize them.
5. An older HVAC system
People love living in homes from the '50s, driving cars from the '60s, and wearing clothes from the '80s, yet in the eyes of some buyers, an A/C unit made before 2010 is a kiss of death.
"I mean, I get it," she says. "There's nothing inherently sexy about an older HVAC system. But I will tell you this: A well-made HVAC system that has been well-maintained should live for 15-22 years without you needing to replace it. That saves you a ton of money, which kind of makes that 2006 HVAC system a little sexier than before."
Homebuyers should also keep in mind that, when buying a home, they will often receive an allowance from the seller to purchase a home warranty, which includes coverage for major mechanical systems, including the HVAC. This means that every time your HVAC fails during the 100-degree summer, you'll be able to pay a small fee to have the issue fixed or — in a worst (cough, best) case scenario — replaced.
"Let's be real: every homeowner prays that their system will take its last breath while covered by a home warranty," says Millheiser. "For a first-time homebuyer, this warranty can almost eliminate all fear you might have of purchasing an older HVAC unit."
With all that said, older HVAC systems can be less efficient, so pay attention to whether the home seems to be cooling to the proper temperature. To make your system last, it's important to keep up with maintenance necessities like servicing the unit regularly (every six months to one year) and changing air filters and vents every month to three months. With proper care and attention, you should have a good long run with an older HVAC, so don't let that be the dealbreaker.