Before buying an old house, seek help

By Tom Gocze, BDN Staff
Posted Sept. 11, 2009, at 6:51 p.m.

Since I spend a lot of time looking and thinking about houses, my wife, Bonnie, and I are always checking out houses that are for sale online.

You may have heard that the housing market has crashed. Some pundits call it a “bubble burst,” some call it an adjustment, and some call it a loss of everything they own.

Many poor souls have been seriously hurt by what the real estate market has done over the past several years.

In the 1970s and ’80s, one thing that was really cool about living in Maine was the fact the cost of housing was fairly reasonable. Housing costs were in line with incomes.

More recently, Maine housing prices had been catching up with the rest of the country while incomes have lagged.

For some reason, we are suckers for old houses that are vacant. I think every house we have ever bought has been vacant. The older and longer it has been vacant and more needy the house appears, the more we tend to go for it.

Maybe there is a medication for this.

One thing that amazes me is the fact that there is always a new generation of homebuyers out there starting to do what we did when we were young — buying old houses and fixing them, that is.

Since we all are living with this burst bubble or adjustment to real estate prices, you should recognize that this is a great time to purchase a home.

It is my sense (like I have a clue about real estate pricing, but I do try as an amateur) that prices are not going to drop much lower. If they do, I think we might all be in a world of hurt.

If you are a first-time homebuyer, obviously you need to line up a banker you can work with. You need to find out how much you can afford, and it is prudent to get the financing in place before choosing a house.

One incredible tool that is now available to homebuyers is the Internet. Realtor.com and individual real estate agent Web sites can save you a ton of time when looking at houses. I find a quick drive-by separates contenders in short order.

Check out how the neighbors look — or at least their homes. You will be looking at them all the time if you buy the house. It would really be bad if you decide you have to move because of the neighbors. We have had great neighbors and also psychotic ones who were unbelievable. Fortunately, most of the loons moved away before we had to.

We were close to moving from what was then a dream house more than once because of odd neighbors. (I wonder whether anyone had to move away from me. One never knows!)

Finding a real estate agent you are comfortable with, who is savvy and understands the market you are shopping in, is really important. You should shop agents, like houses, with an eye toward compatibility and the agent’s experience.

A house inspection is critical. You need to hire someone who is extremely experienced in building construction and the problems that befall our homes.

A graduate from a home inspection course who has no real-world experience would not be my first choice. This is a person who is advising you to make the biggest investment you might ever make. You want experience as well as knowledge of building science.

If there are areas that are questionable in your dream house, bring in experts. Paying for an electrician or some other expert is worthwhile, especially if you really want the house.

After all this, you need to think really hard about heat and energy costs. Is there some budget for energy retrofits if necessary? I am not talking about solar or a windmill, but the basics: excellent insulation and efficient heating appliances.

You might be able to roll this investment into the mortgage.

Of course, it would not be my column without mentioning the energy thing, but the energy cost of any house, especially an old fixer, can overwhelm you if you do not plan for the future.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at www.bangordailynews.com/thehomepage.html

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/09/11/living/before-buying-an-old-house-seek-help/ printed on October 22, 2014