Want to discover the tricks some sellers use when marketing a flawed property and learn the simple detection methods that expose their sneaky cover-ups?
Well...before listing a property for sale, it’s not unusual for a seller to give the home a fresh coat of paint, maybe rearrange the furniture, lay down a nice rug and put some pot plants here and there.
But don’t be fooled.
Note: While for some sellers these are perfectly innocent touch-ups to show the home in its best light, for others they double as cover-ups, or what building advisory service Archicentre refers to as “weapons of mass deception”.
So, how can you make sure your next property doesn’t come with unexpected problems that were deliberately hidden from you?
We ask a team of experts for the cover-ups they’ve caught homeowners engaged in and how buyers can uncover damage and structural defects.
But before we begin, you’ll need a ladder, a screwdriver, a torch, measuring tape, a mask and a power point tester.
And you may want to wear something old.
One of the most important things valuers pay attention to, according to a senior property valuer with Herron Todd White, Archicentre is not so much what they can see with their eyes but rather what they can feel with their feet.
“When you walk into a property and it doesn’t feel right, look harder,” says Kieran Clair, referring to the possibility that the homeowner has laid carpet over a stressed slab.
“I’ve walked into some properties and I can feel my sense of balance go.
If that happens, either see a doctor or look harder.”
Tips: If you can’t tell if the floors are level by sensation alone, Archicentre suggests looking for gaps between the floor and skirting.
“If stumps or piers are sinking, floors will always fall away from fireplaces or brick walls.
“This is an invaluable check in houses which have been recently renovated but not structurally upgraded,” Archicentre says.
For timber floors, it suggests buyers jump lightly at regular intervals “to detect any rotten floorboards, borer infestation or looseness in the floor framing”.
Tips: For concrete floors, buyers should look for signs of dampness, such as lifting or buckling floor tiles and rotten carpet.
“Dampness in concrete slabs can be hard to trace and expensive to remedy. If cracks in the concrete are millimetres wide, they could indicate a significant structural problem,” it says.
Externally, buyers should look for rotten sub-floors or stumps that may have been temporarily propped to prevent bouncing.
Timber rot to timber stumps can be concealed by not allowing access to the sub-floor, either by planting or the use of screens,” says Archicentre’s New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory manager Angus Kell.
Floor damage that has been patched and concealed under carpets is another trap to be wary of, he warns.
MBA Lawyers partner Rob Balanda can recount several stories about sellers trying to disguise leaks and water damage from buyers.
He told API of one case where the building inspector uncovered a serious water problem in the bathroom of a property that was listed for sale.
“The bathroom had been built on chipboard and over the years water had seeped through the grouting between the tiles causing the chipboard to swell and eventually resulting in serious enough damage to the bathroom to require it to be replaced,” he says.
“The seller had settled the problem down by simply not using the bathroom for three months before placing it on the market for the sale, re-grouting the tiles and replacing the water-stained carpet in the nearby hallway.
Unfortunately, the buyer wasn’t entitled to terminate the contract in these circumstances because the building problem didn’t reveal ‘structural unsoundness’, even though it cost approximately $10,000 to replace the bathroom.”
One of the lessons here, says Balanda, is to beware of clauses inserted by real estate agents in your contract that water down your rights under the pest and building inspection conditions.
Tips: Angus Kell says a fresh paint job immediately before placing the house on the market is another trick used to conceal water leaks, rising damp and rotted timber.
“A quick makeover of a property may see new tiles in the bathroom and kitchen, but a look behind the scenes often reveals rotten timbers, sub-standard plumbing and wiring which can run into thousands of dollars to replace or repair, and in many cases, requires the makeover to be pulled out and re-done correctly,” he says.
Archicentre advises buyers to check all plumbing fittings for cracks and leaks and to look for damp ground in the vicinity of the drains which could be caused by cracks or leaks in pipes that may need replacing.
To check the plumbing system is functioning normally, Archicentre suggests testing the water pressure in hot and cold taps.
“It’s worthwhile turning on several taps simultaneously to ascertain if there’s any appreciable pressure drop.
“Partially fill the bath or laundry tubs and observe whether or not the water drains away properly.
“A sluggish flow or gurgling in the pipes could indicate that the sewer drains are damaged or blocked.”
“The first thing valuers look for when looking for defects,” reveals Kieran Clair, “are splits around cornice work and expanding joints where walls join ceilings and where walls join each other.”
If you can see a fracture then that’s a tell-tale sign of a possible problem, he adds.
“These could indicate roof or wall-framing deficiencies, possibly illegal wall removal,” Archicentre explains.
Valuers also look closely at external walls.
“If you can see some warping or cracking, then the property may have shifted,” Clair says.
If a stress fracture occurs in a wall, he says homeowners will sometimes do a quick replaster to cover it up.
“How that gives itself away is that there will be an obvious over-paint.
No one ever gets their painting right when they do a repair, so ask the question.”
Large cracks in driveways are another sign of movement, add Clair.
According to Angus Kell, defects vary from state to state based on varying climatic conditions, building styles and construction methods.
“Some of the most common defects include cracking in the southern states, typically due to the dryer climate and soil types,” he explains, adding that “cracking can be concealed by wallpaper or additional wall linings covering the cracks.”
"So, for internal walls, look for patching and painting or a new wall panel.
Also, be aware that furniture and stacked boxes may have been strategically placed to conceal defects.
The same goes for debris stored in roofs and sub-floors."
Tips: For external walls, check behind plants and trellis.
An Archicentre checklist suggests buyers look for cracks beside chimneys and take note of doorways and windows that aren’t square or are jamming.
“These usually indicate structural subsidence.
Carefully inspect the walls to ensure that they’re straight.
Sagging weatherboards could mean timber stumps have rotted, or concrete stumps or brick piers have subsided.
Minor cracking in brickwork can often be ignored, but large cracks or bowed brick walls could mean an expensive under-pinning job may be required.”
Tips: When examining the brickwork, Archicentre instructs buyers to pay attention to the colour.
“Different coloured mortar indicates a repaired brick wall, which could be a shoddy patch-up.”
The institute also suggests lightly tapping walls and tiled surfaces with the handle of a screwdriver.
A hollow sound could mean loose plaster or tiles.”
“Illegal building is a growing problem except in Queensland which has strict compliance rules,” says Kell.
“Illegal building is a major investment hazard as people could lose thousands of dollars buying poorly renovated buildings or end up with serious legal settlement costs.”
If a house has been recently renovated or if extensions have been carried out, Archicentre suggests buyers check with the local council to ensure a building permit was obtained.
Searches conducted in the conveyancing process may sometimes uncover illegal building work, but not always.
“Illegal alterations could become your responsibility, particularly if they contravene the building regulations,” warns Archicentre.
According to Kell, NSW is the capital of rising damp “generally due to a combination of old houses and mature gardens”.
Rising dampness may cause skirting and architraves to rot and paint and wallpaper to lift, says Archicentre, warning that rising dampness or salt dampness can cause health problems.
Tips: To detect rising dampness, tap solid brick walls for a hollow sound or a change in tone.
“Both could indicate a plastered or rendered-over patch-up of a significant rising damp problem.
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Check to see that the earth is not excessively wet,” says Archicentre.
“Dampness problems accompanied by inadequate ventilation encourage rot, borer and termite attack.”
Again, a fresh coat of paint or strategically placed items can be used to try and cover this up.
The roof over your head should keep you dry, but how can you check that it will?
“Look for buckled, badly fitted or water-stained eaves which may be an indication of roof or gutter problems,” says Archicentre.
“Look for broken roof tiles and loose ridge and valley tiles allowing bird and possum entry as well as water leaks.
Check that corrugated iron sheets are in good condition and well nailed down.
Ensure that valley and eaves guttering are free from holes and rust.
Even small holes can create large leaks. Extensive replacement is often necessary.”
The tricks sellers could use to hide roof defects include:
- Painting roofing to hide rusted corrugated iron sheets, and
- Putting supports in the roof space to hold up broken or termite-damaged framing.
They say windows are the eyes of the home, so spend a few minutes looking into the eyes of your potential new home before deciding if this is a relationship you want to pursue.
“Make sure that the windows can be opened and check for broken window panes,” suggests Archicentre.
If you notice excessive condensation and mould growth on windows and walls, be suspicious.
These can be indications of poor ventilation or moisture.
While a neglected garden may not be a deal-breaker, it may tip you off to potential problems with the building’s structure.
“Make sure water run-off from the garden doesn’t flow underneath the house, causing excessive damp conditions,” explains Archicentre.
“Look for large trees close to the house,” it adds.
"These could cause structural subsidence, particularly in brick or brick veneer homes with timber floors.”
Tips: Growing tree roots can also interfere with underground plumbing and swimming pools that obstruct their path.
A sign of this is pavers that have lifted, cracked tiles or concrete, drainage problems and unexplained dampness.
Also, check the condition of fences and gates, making sure the base of posts and the junction where rails meet posts aren’t rotting.
Sometimes the person you hire to perform your building inspection will determine the quantity and quality, of the information you receive about the property, according to Rob Balanda.
And while it’s handy if you have a builder recommend to you, ask yourself if the person who made the recommendation has a vested interest in the sale going through.
“I recommend to all my clients that they engage someone who sold them the real estate agent who sold them the property so that there’s no tendency to skip over problems or look for ‘quick fix’ solutions to any building defects to ensure the continued referrals by the agent to the builder,” Balanda says, alluding to the fact that for real estate agents the more satisfactory building reports there are the more settlements they’ll have.
“The right man should prepare for you a separately typed report for your property and should have no problems meeting you on site to allow you to watch them carry out the inspection.”
By joining the builder at the property, buyers can often glean more information about the property than they’ll get from reading the subsequent report.
What sounds serious on paper may not seem so bad when explained in person by the builder, and likewise what appears to be a trivial problem in writing could turn out to be worse than first thought, so it pays to be by the builder’s side as they go through the property.
Remember, you’re paying for a service so make sure you get your money’s worth.
If a buyer is unable to attend the inspection, Balanda cautions them against using ‘tick box’ building inspectors whose report comprises a one-page typed sheet with a tick or cross in the appropriate boxes.
He knows of a buyer who came to grief recently when they accepted the agent’s recommendation to sue a tick box building inspector.
The inspector failed to detect a structural problem in the roof which ended up costing the buyer $15,000 to repair.
“The builder didn’t even take the lazy man’s way out, climb onto a ladder and shine his torch into the roof where the problem would instantly have revealed itself to him,” says Balanda.
“When challenged about his oversight, his only comment was that he undertook a fixed price service to look at the items mentioned on his one-page sheet (the roof wasn’t included) and if additional work was required it should have been requested and an additional fee would have been payable.
What a costly mistake!”
If you don’t know of a builder, you can locate qualified professionals through Archicentre, the Housing Industry Association or the Master Builders Association.
A recent Social Indicator Report by BankWest revealed that for 70 per cent of Aussie men, a shed was an important consideration when buying or renting.
To make sure the shed becomes a safe place of refuge and not an expensive repair job, Archicentre offers these tips:
Check the structural condition and water-tightness of the out-building by looking for water stains on timbers and metal sheeting, and
Look for fire hazards, loose or broken power points and badly wired electrical fittings.
These may be concealed by the seller at the time of inspection.
Finally, check that the power in the shed is connected to the main safety switch to help rule out dodgy DIY wiring.
If you’ve found a house that turns you on, make sure the power points do the same thing.
A simple flick of the switches and power points will tell you if the electrical system is working properly.
You can buy a power point tester from most hardware and electrical stores.
“This will indicate outlets that are incorrectly wired,” says Archicentre.
“The most common problem is unearthed power points.”
Archicentre says to look for signs of burn marks around switches, fittings and fuses which may indicate faulty wiring.
“If you are at all in doubt about the condition of the electrical system, you should have it checked by an expert.”
There you have it; a checklist to help you purchase your next home more wisely.
If you have an understanding of planning and building regulations, you’re already one step ahead.
“If you don’t know what you’re looking at,” says Angus Kell, “then make sure you engage an experienced person with a good understanding of building to assist you and act with a balanced point of view.
“Take a deep breath before you view a property and try not to let your heart overrule your head.”
For some investors, structural problems found with the property may be enough to frighten them away from closing the sale, but for others, it can represent a powerful bargaining chip.
“Many homebuyers who have commissioned pre-purchase property inspections are submitting the results with cost estimations as part of the offer for a property,” says Kell, “and others are making offers subject to a satisfactory building inspection report.
“This is placing the buyer in the driver’s seat to protect their investment against illegal building or superficial cover-up makeovers.”
Finally, Balanda says he can’t stress enough how important it is when buying a house to engage a qualified experienced builder to undertake a building inspection.
The same rule of thumb applies to pest inspections.
“A general rule is if you can’t gain access, either to a room or the roof or sub-floor, you should be concerned and where possible you should negotiate access with the vendor, adds Kell.
Editors note: We are republishing this article to help out our newer readers. This article was written by Eynas Brodie and has been republished with her permission.