A home is typically the largest single investment you’ll ever make, and you’ll likely spend a lot of time and energy searching for the perfect place. By the time you're ready to buy, you'll already know a lot about the house. All the same, a talk with the seller(s) can fill in details that help you make a better decision. Here are the ten most important questions to ask.
1. Why are you selling?
There are many reasons why people move, including job relocation, desire to get into a smaller/larger house, life events (marriage, birth of a child, death of a spouse, etc.) and retirement. While you may not always get a truthful answer, asking why the seller is moving can be helpful in determining how much room there is for negotiating.
Depending on the reason for moving, the seller may be willing to accept a lower offer if it means they can be out of the home faster. Of course, if the seller is in no hurry to sell, there may be little room for negotiation.
2. How long has the home been on the market?
One of the primary reasons a house ends up staying on the market a long time is that it was priced too high to begin with, often a function of a poor pricing strategy. The longer a house stays on the market, the harder it becomes to sell since the listing becomes “stale” and buyers inherently think there must be something wrong with the property (otherwise it would have sold by now, right?). If the home has been on the market for a long time, the seller may be motivated and more willing to negotiate.
3. How much did you pay for the home (and when)?
Knowing how much the seller paid is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, it tells you if values in the local market have gone up or down since the seller purchased the home. Second, it may help you determine how open the sellers may be to negotiation, and here’s why: If the sellers bought the home at rock bottom, they may be more willing to move down on price since they will still make a reasonable profit. If your sellers purchased the home for close to or more than the asking price, however, they probably won’t be willing to move much – if at all – on price.
If the sellers won’t tell you what they paid, you can find out by checking the public records. They are available at the Register of Deeds (or a similar office, such as Recorder of Deeds) in the county where the property is located.
4. What is included in the sale?
Anything that is permanently attached to the home (for example, faucets, cabinets and window blinds) is considered a fixture and is generally included in a home sale. Sometimes, legal definitions determine what is – and what is not – included in the sale, but sometimes an item can fall into a gray area.
When in doubt, and to avoid disappointment, ask what’s included in the sale and get it in writing. Pay close attention to items such as outdoor play equipment, sheds, lighting fixtures, appliances, window treatments, wall-mounted sound systems and anything else you would be upset to find missing if you moved into the home.
5. Are there any neighborhood nuisances or problem neighbors?
Neighborhoods can be affected by any number of nuisances including speeding on community streets, traffic congestion, noise (from traffic, neighbors, barking dogs and/or nearby businesses), crime, bothersome odors (including cigarette smoke), litter, poor maintenance, bright lights and problem neighbors who cause disturbances. While you may not get a particularly detailed answer, it’s a good idea to at least try to find out about any problems before going through with a purchase. In addition to asking the seller about nuisances, you can visit the local police department to research crime statistics for the neighborhood.
6. Are there any problems with the house?
Disclosure statements serve to inform buyers about a home’s condition and help protect sellers from future legal action if problems are found. While disclosures vary by state and even county, sellers must make disclosures about such items as existing liens, lead-based paint, natural hazards (e.g., floodplain), termite problems, history of property-line disputes and defects with major systems and/or appliances. (For further detail, read about the eight disclosures you must make when real estate flipping.)
Because there may be problems with the house that the seller knows about – but is not required by law to disclose – it can be helpful to ask point-blank: Are there any problems with the house? You might find out about problems ahead of time and be able to negotiate repair costs. Of course, you should still get a comprehensive inspection before buying the house since there might be issues the seller doesn’t know about or won’t willingly share.
7. Have you had any problems with the house in the past?
While disclosure rules vary from state to state, home sellers generally must tell you about any current problems with the property – but they don’t have to tell you about any past problems that have been corrected. If it’s already fixed, why is it important to know? Because it might lead to another problem in the future.
A leaky roof might have been fixed, but what was done about the water that ended up in the attic? Ask if the seller has had to fix any problems with the house – and what was done about it. It’s also helpful to find out who did the work in case there is a similar problem in the future.
8. How old is…?
Ask about the age and condition of key components of the house so you are prepared for any big expenses you could be facing. Start with the roof: Newer roofs may last anywhere from 15 to 50 years, depending on the roofing material. An asphalt roof lasts about 15-20 years, so if it’s already 15 years old, you might be looking at a fairly immediate large expense. Also ask about the heating and cooling systems, appliances, water heater, septic, plumbing and electrical systems.
9. Has the home had any major repairs or renovations? If so, who did them?
Bad renovations, sketchy plumbing and mediocre construction can end up costing you both financially and emotionally, and even in terms of your health. It’s important to ask if any major repairs and renovations have been done to the home and who did them: Was it a licensed contractor or a DIY project?
See whether the seller can produce a building permit for repairs and renovations that require one. Such improvements include any structural additions, installing a new roof, adding/relocating electrical outlets, adding/relocating plumbing fixtures, and installing/replacing an HVAC (heating, venting and air conditioning) system.
If the seller doesn't have the building permits (perhaps the work was done by an earlier owner), double check with the local building department. If a permit should have been issued – but wasn’t – the building office may have the authority to force the current owner (which could be you, if you buy the house) to obtain the permit and satisfy the current code requirements. This could turn into a very costly project.
10. What do you enjoy most about living in your home?
This question might put the seller on the spot, but it can get the seller talking about the home, neighborhood and community. You might learn something positive about the home or area that you might not have known otherwise – the tight-knit community, the friendly neighbors, the short walk to the library, the way the sun shines through the living-room windows in the afternoon, the low heating bills or the wildflowers that grow in the summer on the hill behind the house.
The Bottom Line
While the listing and marketing materials include lots of details about a house (the number of bedrooms and baths, and the square footage, for example) and the showing lets you see it firsthand. Talking to the seller can help you learn exactly what you could be getting into. If you have difficulty being able to connect with the seller, try to get some of these questions answered through your real estate agent.