Annemarie Kill and her husband, John Duffy, bought their
first house in Chicago’s Galewood neighborhood in
2003, the duo knew it needed some cosmetic work — in
fact, they were excited to redo the bathrooms and
kitchen to make the home their own.
did they realize that the back of the house had been
sinking for the last 75 years, and they would spend
hundreds of thousands on unexpected construction. Their
inspector hadn’t uncovered the rotting wood posts
supporting the back of the house; the couple had no idea
they’d eventually have to pour in new concrete to fix
the issue, or that they’d have to replace the posts
and jack up the back of the house a bit each week,
causing the new windows and tile floors they’d
installed to crack.
when Kill and Duffy — along with their two children,
now 11 and 14 — were house hunting in Oak Park in
2014, Kill said, they were determined not to land
another money pit.
got our dream house," said Kill, a divorce
attorney. They got an inspector, too, but didn’t
realize they should also consult someone who specialized
in fireplace inspections. As it turned out, the lining
inside their wood-burning fireplace was falling apart,
as was the top of the chimney. If they lit a fire, they
could get carbon monoxide poisoning.
few months after buying the home — and $20,000 later
— Kill, 48, and Duffy, 49, were forced to convert
their wood-burning fireplace into a gas fireplace.
was just like dominoes falling," Kill said of the
would be helpful to know about money pits well before
you fall in love with a home, spend the money on an
inspector — costs vary depending on the size and age
of the home and the region, but a typical inspection can
ring up between $300 and $500, according to the U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development — and
before you start to take on the major projects.
people — that is, those who don’t know anything
about construction or inspections — can spot a
potential money pit the first time they tour a house. We
spoke to realty agents, an inspector and a contractor
who shared exactly what to look for.
many people tend to look at the pretty aspects of a
house, there are many issues that can make it a money
pit," said Jerry Grodesky, managing broker at Farm
and Lake Houses Real Estate in Loda, Ill.
once looked at a 1960s brick home with a client who had
already visited the house with another agent. "We
got to see cracking foundation and a rusty electrical
box, amongst other issues," he said. "I
sobered the buyer up that the pretty kitchen was not
worth the price with all the potential issues that a
home inspector might find."
suggest that buyers keep their eyes peeled for these
flaws, which hint at more dire problems.
Doors that don’t close properly. This — or a crack
in the foundation, or uneven steps leading into the home
— can signal that the home has settled, and you have
an uneven foundation, said Joe Taylor, contractor and
owner of Chicago-based Taylor Construction. Most
commonly, foundation problems can allow water to easily
enter the home, leading to water damage. But an uneven
foundation also could mean that the house will need to
have concrete pumped into the slab (officially called
concrete leveling or mudjacking) to bring the home back
up to level and fix the water issues. Pipes also may
need to be repaired, along with anything else that is
altered during the settling or movement. "It’s a
mess," Taylor said. A cracked foundation could lead
to damages that might cost anywhere from a few thousand
dollars to more than $20,000, according to Taylor.
Discoloration. Water is your home’s No. 1 enemy, said
Steve Nations, owner of Nations Home Inspections, based
in Oak Park, Ill. "If you could keep your house
dry, at least the parts that are supposed to be dry,
then it’ll last for a long time," Nations said.
"If it gets wet, it’ll go downhill fast." To
easily spot water damage, Nations said to look at all
the walls and ceilings, trying to spot any discoloration
— yellow spots on a white wall — that might signal a
water leak. In the basement, scan the bottoms of walls
for any signs of water leaks. While you’re down there,
take a deep breath. Do you smell any hint of mold or
mustiness? That odor could point to a water problem,
Bad water pressure. Run the water in every bathroom
sink. "Or even better, run the water at the sink
and at the tub or shower at the same time," Nations
said. "Is the water pressure good?" Plenty of
older houses with old, galvanized steel water pipes have
bad water pressure that can only be fixed with a costly
upgrade to copper pipes.
Uneven stairs. Pay attention to these. In a flight of
stairs, all the riser heights should be the same, as
should all the tread depths. "In my experience, if
the carpenter didn’t get the stairs right, then he
probably messed up plenty of other things that are
likely to come back to haunt you later," Nations
Windows that don’t open. Very old double-hung windows
are often hard to open, Nations said. And plenty of
casement windows (the kind that are hinged on the side
and have to be cranked open) that are only 15 to 20
years old have problems with the crank mechanism that
makes them very hard to open and close, he added.
Replacement windows can be pricey, costing up to $1,000
Dead trees. If any of the trees on the property don’t
have leaves in the spring, summer or fall, they may be
dead. "Something as simple as a dead tree in a yard
in the spring and summer months may not seem like a big
deal, but the reason it died could tell another
story," said Kristin Trzoski, realty agent with
Prime Real Estate, based in Northwest Indiana. Have
beetles or ants taken over the tree? Those have plenty
of strength in numbers, and they can put the integrity
of the tree in danger, causing it to fall over and cause
damage to the home. An arborist should be able to offer
a free or low-cost inspection to let you know if the
tree needs to go — and why. "Something as simple
as knocking down a tree may be in order for a few
hundred to a few thousand dollars to prevent future
mishaps," Trzoski said. Also, making sure those
insects haven’t infested the home is important, and
isn’t always easy to know right away, she said.
An uneven floor. Many older homes have uneven floors,
which could point to settlement or other issues — even
termites, Grodesky said. Typical home inspectors won’t
be able to determine the exact cause of the uneven
floors. Potential buyers should seek out a structural
engineer before purchasing, Grodesky said — that’s
the only way to know for certain if there are big
problems in store.