Red Flags To Look For When Buying A Home

Stacy Randall
by Stacy Randall

House hunting very well could be one of the most exciting yet stressful times of your life. You’re making a huge decision, spending a lot of money, and in many cases, you’re taking a lot on faith. This sliver of uncertainty is why it’s so important to look for red flags when buying a home.

Look for cracks, stains, flickering lights, and questionable odors when house hunting. Seemingly small problems often are a sign of a larger underlying issue. Other red flags are multiple “for sale” signs in the neighborhood, locked rooms, inaccessible areas, bugs, and poor maintenance. Confusing cosmetic upgrades are also red flags, since they could be hiding trouble spots.

Of course, home inspections and appraisals help ease your mind about many factors when you’re about to buy a house. But there’s an element of the unknown to every home purchase. Therefore, know how to recognize red flags in the first place.

Watch Out For These Red Flags When House Hunting

As you tour a house, keep an eye out for signs of mold, water damage, electrical problems, and structural issues. If you spot (or smell) questionable things, ask your real estate agent about them.

Some of the things might turn out to be nothing, but others could be a big deal. Depending on your situation and the issues, you’ll walk away or decide to use things to your advantage in negotiations with the seller.

But before you get to that point, you’ll need to know how to spot red flags in the first place. Stay observant and look for these potential signs of big problems lurking below the surface.

1. Too Many “For Sale” Signs

Before you even get to the house, scan the neighborhood. Do you see a bunch of “for sale” signs? If so, do some research to find out why so many people want to leave.

Don’t be shy. Knock on doors, ask questions, and find out what people like and don’t like. Look up the community crime map to assess the area’s safety level and see if there’s been a recent uptick in events.

Location is one of the biggest considerations when buying a home, and it’s not like you can change it with a can of paint. Remember, you’re not just buying a house, you’re buying the neighborhood.

2. Questionable Odors And Fragrances

You probably would curl your nose up at foul odors like mildew or cigarette smoke, knowing these smells are bad news. But bad smells aren’t the only ones that should make you raise an eyebrow.

If you notice an overload of pleasant smells, like scented candles, wax melts, and baking cookies in the oven, there could be a cover-up in the works. Sellers might be trying to hide bad odors with excessive fragrances, plug-ins, etc.

If you step through the door and get hit by a wave of intense florals or other scents, stay alert. Likewise, take note if there are a bunch of candles burning or bowls of potpourri all over the house. Check for stains on walls and ceilings that could signal water damage.

Keep an extra watchful eye out for possible mold, mildew, pet stains, and other problems. Of course, there’s always the chance that the sellers simply go heavy-handed on the air freshener, but it’s still worth paying attention.

3. Flickering Lights

One light flickering is likely just a loose or dying bulb. However, if you notice several fixtures flickering throughout the house, this signals potential electrical issues. (Unless you’re touring a haunted house.)

Multiple flickering lights typically signal problems with the electrical system. There could be old, faulty, or damaged wiring. It’s definitely something you want to ask about and bring to the attention of your home inspector.

4. Excessive Cracks

Hairline cracks in floors and ceilings are normal signs of a house settling over time. However, if the cracks are larger (you could fit a dime in them), there could be foundation and structural problems.

Vertical hairline cracks in a basement wall tend to be normal, but beware if you notice horizontal cracks. When cracks run horizontally across a wall, it tends to mean the house is shifting side to side (not a sign of normal settling).

5. Unexplained Stains

Common red flags when you’re house hunting are suspicious stains. For example, a single purple stain on the living room carpet from a toddler’s wayward cup of grape juice isn’t a big deal.

But what about multiple stains on the carpeting throughout the whole house? Was something happening beneath the surface? Were there cats or other pets in the home? Do you smell anything? (If so, know that cat urine is a bear to get rid of.)

When you look up, do you notice ugly brownish stains on the ceiling? Spot any on the walls? These could be signs of water damage from leaks or busted pipes.

In some cases, they may have fixed the cause of the leak but never got around to the cosmetic repairs. However, in some cases, the leaks are still there.

Do the spots feel damp or are they dry? Ask for an explanation and make sure your home inspector investigates thoroughly if you decide to move ahead with the house.

6. Poor Maintenance

Be on the lookout for signs of poor maintenance. If you spot things like dirty air filters and grates, burnt-out light bulbs, and cracked or loose tiles, tread carefully. These seemingly simple things are just that — simple to fix.

But if the sellers never bothered to do so, the odds are good they didn’t take care of the bigger things either. For example, maybe they never had the HVAC serviced, didn’t clean out gutters, forgot about those loose or broken shingles, etc.

A home requires constant upkeep to maintain it well and ensure it stays in tip-top shape. Houses with a lot of deferred maintenance are likely to have many issues and problems. Many of them lurk out of sight when you go to a showing.

7. Confusing Cosmetic Upgrades And Repairs

If you spot any repairs or upgrades that don’t seem to make sense, take a closer look. It could just be a DIY-obsessed seller that has unusual taste. But more likely, these weird changes were an effort to disguise or put a band-aid on a larger problem.

Some examples are trim in random spots, a large piece of artwork hung in an odd location, or even strange furniture or rug placement. Another potential red flag is only one or two newly-painted walls. If all the walls in the house or one room are freshly painted, the sellers were likely staging the home.

However, if you notice only one or two freshly painted walls, particularly in the same room, you might want to ask some questions. If something seems out of place, don’t be shy. Move it out of the way, open it, look under it, and talk to the agent. Do the sellers want to hide something, or do they just have quirky taste?

8. Bugs, Bugs, And More Bugs

Don’t worry about one or two random bugs. A stray spider or pesky mosquito likely followed you inside when the door was open.

But if you see multiple bugs throughout the home or lots of the same bug in one spot, there’s a pest problem. Maybe you notice a bunch of ants in the kitchen. Or a bunch of roaches scatter when you flip on a bathroom light.

However, as a rule, most real estate agents show homes with the lights already on throughout the property. When the lights are on, many bugs and critters stay hidden. So, look for other signs of a possible infestation, like droppings, dead bugs, or chewed-on containers and baseboards.

9. Locked Spaces And Inaccessible Areas

A big red flag when you’re looking at a house is a locked room or inaccessible spot. During a home showing, you should be able to see every part of a house since you’re thinking about buying it. It’s even wise to open cabinets, drawers, closets, and cubbies.

If a seller denies access to a room or particular part of the home, this is a major red flag. Even if it’s a spare room for storage, it should be open for you to see.

10. Windows And Doors That Won’t Close

Open and close windows and doors to make sure they close smoothly. If not, there could be issues with the house’s structure or foundation.

Don’t hesitate to start trying things out when you look at the home. It’s sort of like taking a car for a test drive before you buy it. Likewise, flush toilets, turn on faucets, flip light switches, and check out the attic space.

Don’t Ignore Red Flags When You’re Buying A House

If you spot red flags during your home search, talk to the agent, ask questions, and trust your gut. If you make an offer, find an inspector using the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) or get referrals from friends, family, or your agent.

Ask your insurance company to pull a claim report (sometimes called a clue report) that gives an overview of past claims on the property. A claim report is an especially good idea if the property is near water, like a river or creek. You’ll get an idea of any past losses, flooding, etc. if the claim was approved or denied, and a rough idea of the cost.

Buying a house is a big decision and an expensive one. You have every right to find out as much as you can about the property before you decide to buy it.

If there are glaring red flags, don’t be afraid to walk away. It might take some time, but there will be other houses — and you want to find your dream home, not a nightmare.

Related Guides:

Stacy Randall
Stacy Randall

Stacy Randall is a wife, mother, and freelance writer from NOLA that has always had a love for DIY projects, home organization, and making spaces beautiful. Together with her husband, she has been spending the last several years lovingly renovating her grandparent's former home, making it their own and learning a lot about life along the way.

More by Stacy Randall