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We are in the process of purchasing a home that is over 20 years old. What are some of the most important things we should check/patch/do right away to make sure the home is running correctly and efficiently?

We live in Canada, so keep in mind that winter is (always!) around the corner.

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BEFORE you buy a home there's a long checklist. AFTER you buy? I'd say get insurance. –  DA01 Oct 17 '11 at 18:29
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@DA01 if they have a mortgage they probably have to have insurance in advance too. ;) –  The Evil Greebo Oct 17 '11 at 19:05
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Make sure everything that was there before you closed, is still there i.e. plumbing (copper is a high value target for thieves), appliances, furnace/AC. –  Tester101 Oct 17 '11 at 20:37
    
@Tester101 has a great point. I've seen homes hit on the day of closing, which suggests an inside job at some point. Have someone babysit the house that day, if possible. –  BigHomie Aug 15 '13 at 10:06
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10 Answers

Open a savings account and start regularly saving. Sometimes it's a good idea to fix things before the disaster rather than after.

My neighbor's dealing with a water heater experience and the ensuing internal house flood. Maintenance replacement from planned and available funding pre-emptively on your own dime instead of being cheap and waiting for the disaster to happen for insurance to pay is a really good idea.

Insurance does not pay for all the destruction that will happen, even if the house is thoroughly repaired "for free" by your home-owner's insurance.

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Play "what went off" — turn all of the lights on, plug radios, lamps, etc., into as many outlets as possible, then turn circuits off one at a time; make a list of which breaker controls what, and post it near the panel.

Make sure you know where the main water shutoff is, and test it to see if it works. If you have a water filter, check it or replace it.

Check the furnace filters/replace if not new looking.

Check gutters and leaders for blockage; clean if necessary.

If you have a fireplace, have the flue inspected by a professional.

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Ah yes ... and the 'try to figure out what this light switch does' game ... I still have two I'm not sure of, 10 years later. I'm not sure if testing the rest of the individual water shutoff valves is something to test now, or wait 'til you need them. (the one time we needed one, we had to drive to the 24hr Home Depot, as it was after 8pm on a Sunday when we tried replacing my neighbor's sink, and his wife wasn't too happy we had the whole house shut off. –  Joe Oct 18 '11 at 3:47
    
Mapping out the circuit panel sounds like a great thing to do before we have everything moved in and running, thanks! –  Mario Oct 18 '11 at 4:21
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@Joe -individual shutoffs can always be fixed if the main shutoff works, so I put them in a lower category. I try to do discretionary plumbing projects on Saturday morning when the most options are available if I need parts. –  TomG Oct 18 '11 at 13:32
    
If your main water shutoff is below grade or otherwise awkward to reach you can get a tool that will let you operate the valve from a distance. –  Ben Jackson Oct 18 '11 at 16:50
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I'm late to this question, but I wanted to share some hard-learned advice. In addition to checking batteries in smoke alarms and testing them (twice a year), do your family a favor and make sure you have a few fire extinguishers for the house.

We had a small fire in our utility room, and the fact that we happened to have a fire extinguisher nearby (which was actually a gag gift from years before) saved us from having a much larger fire, and probably saved us from losing the HVAC unit, washer, and dryer, if not the whole house.

I would recommend multi-class fire extinguishers, although I guess a simple class A/B one would be decent for the kitchen area. I also recommend getting more than one: one for the kitchen, one for the utility room, or at least one per floor/per side of the house. We know first hand that when you see a fire in your house, common sense goes out the window and you want that extinguisher to be right there in line-of-sight so your brain can find it when in panic mode!

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Two things I wish I'd done when I bought my house:

  • Plumbing inspection using a scope: My home inspector didn't do this service and suggested that I could, maybe, if I really wanted to, get a plumber in to stick a camera in the drains. I really regret not doing this as there was about $4000 in repairs waiting to be done that I discovered when the drains malfunctioned.
  • Arborist inspection of the trees: I have about 20 trees on my property and about 15 of them need to be removed because they were planted as a hedge 50 years ago but are now sky-high. These trees are pretty bad trees to have in your back yard as they constantly shed branches and little dime-sized leaves which clog pool filters. Most importantly, the trees needed several hundred dollars worth of pruning and there were a couple of trees that were actually dangerously slanted toward the house.

In both cases, I feel I could have negotiated the price of the house down a few thousand to cover those repairs. At least for the trees it would have been nice to have some advance warning even if the owner wouldn't budge on the costs. But the plumbing was, for sure, a defect that they would have had to fix or else give us the money to fix. And also, fixing a drain when it is about to fail is way better than after it has already filled your basement with sewage.

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I am not sure how the process is in Canada but generally speaking before even thinking of buying the house you want to do an intermediate survey which checks the integrity of the house. The surveyor will know the type of construction used and will know what problems to look for, cracking in foundations, degrading cavity walls, subsided foundations, water damage, incomplete or bad renovations. Then he should also briefly check if your boundaries are what they say on the planning permissions at your local governing body.This is a good report to have especially for insurance purposes.

Then when walking around inside the house your self notice if anything has been painted, renewed, fixed up so it looks like new. That is the where all the dodgy stuff begins! why? Because the previous people might want to mask something up. So you will be looking in the corners top to bottom for signs of cracks.If it was painted ask how long ago. If less than 2 months consider it suspicious.

Electrical- insist on looking at the main distribution board with the switches and possibly if it applies an electrical certificate(possibly you might have to invest in rewiring if no certificate is available- so deduct that from the costs of purchase!) Looking at the state of the DB board if it is the new slim type trip switches then you OK.. any old chunky fuses or screw type fuses and turn'y type ones.. old and needs replacing. If you are in a heavy lightning area make sure there is a lightning protector installed. Usually next to Earth Leakage breaker. It is not mandatory in may countries but highly advised!

Plumbing- go in the bathroom turn on the cold and hot water in the sink and bath together. the water should waste in both places- if one place continues to fill up it because the plumbing is incorrect.Listen for noises in pipes, look for discoloured in water. Outside ask where the inspection hole is and find where the supply pipe goes into the building and if any visible damage is there.If you in Canada its most likely underground and should be insulated. Ask where the main stopper is.

Heating -If it is gas heating then you need to do a boiler inspection first thing you bought the house! Allot of times things are burned, CO2 leakages, or gas leakages even. If electrical.. the same- change the heating element for piece of mind and make sure all copper wires are ground and test it!Usually putting something over 32volts onto the copper wire will trip the ground leakage isolator.If the electrical are certified you have to demand the certificate and tests carried out- earth continuity is very important.

Generally you want to walk around the house and touch, pull, push everything that will belong to you after the close. If anything falls over that is not supposed to..ooops.Not your fault and technically if you get hurt you can sue. But you can also deduct the cost of the final price for repairs from builders quotes.

During the process if you have the possibility it is good to ask your solicitor to run local checks for flooding,fires and earthquakes. There are extra checks like planning for new build that might affect you area. EG a large superstore across the road(maybe that is why the original owners are moving away) And importantly what kind of deed you are going to hold. In the UK there is mind blowing amount of deeds and deed commitments especially on lease holds. You want freehold/landhold deed which means the land belongs to you. There might also be right of way clause's for neighbours near your boundaries. All these might be optional and cost more- but it is worth knowing what has happening in this area in the past and if there any plans for the future. Recently it cost me £300 for a %75 report which even includes what kind of ground my land is made up of.And because i am near water a 100year reverse lookup for flooding revealed nothing. meaning the likely event of the reservoir near my house flooding is minimal and I can prove it to my insurance company, meaning my premiums have been reduced based on that search.

Another important thing is to lookup previous selling prices of houses and try to work out a simple trend to your price. If it has been growing and yours seems fair. Good. If several houses sold in the past few years at a massively decreased value than the expected trend! alarm bells! why? maybe there is something these people are running away from.eg every Sunday 100's of bikers on Harley rally down in your neighbourhood.

Look around the neighbourhood, what kind of cars are standing around, if people look after their gardens and general first contact impressions should be very important in your decisions.

Happy Buying!

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Lots of good advice so far from the others. Most important thing of all is to hire your own qualified home inspector, follow him/her around on the inspection and ask questions about systems you do not understand. I good inspector will be happy to explain problems or how items work or should be maintained. Under no circumstances take an inspection report from the seller, get your own and settle issues before you close on the house, you will have no recourse after you buy it other than to fix problems yourself. You are too far for me to come do an inspection for ya, but since you are in Canada, maybe Mike Holmes could stop by!

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Check/change batteries in smoke detectors. We bought our house a year ago and realized today that none of the smoke detectors had batteries in them.

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This is a sign of a bad inspector, or the previous owners took the batteries after the inspection. If the inspector does not take the time to press each test button, what else is he missing/skipping? –  Tester101 Oct 18 '11 at 10:59
    
Still a good thing to check –  The Evil Greebo Oct 18 '11 at 12:29
    
They weren't any batteries in them so it might have been the previous owners... –  stoj Oct 18 '11 at 22:39
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Check comps to make sure you are paying what the house is worth.

Do some research about the neighbourhood. Drive there in the night.

Check if there are any HOA/CPRA kind of fees associated with the house.

What is the roof age? Generally roofing is considered to be good for 5-6 years(i suppose).

Check if there are any warranties on Roofing / Waterprofing / appicances and are they transferrable?

Are there any sex-offenders living next door or near by? There should be a website that can give you that list.

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Most/all of these things should be done BEFORE buying –  gregmac Oct 17 '11 at 21:32
    
Thats right. Even insurance is also before buying the house. –  Asdfg Oct 17 '11 at 21:43
    
While useful in a real estate sense, only the roof remark really has anything to do with the general DIY topic. –  The Evil Greebo Oct 18 '11 at 12:29
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After you have closed change all the locks. You don't know who else the previous owner has given keys to over the years.

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Another option is to get the locks re-keyed by a locksmith. If you've got expensive locks, this is a much cheaper alternative. –  Doresoom Oct 17 '11 at 19:59
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Many big box stores (Lowes, Home Depot, etc) will also rekey the QuickKey and Schlage locks quite cheaply ($5 per where I live). –  qes Oct 18 '11 at 18:03
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First of all, they should be done BEFORE you buy the home - ie before you close.

Secondly, you want to have a fully qualified, thorough home inspector go over that property with a fine tooth comb. He/she should test all the appliances, verify the working heat and cooling, test outlets and light fixtures, and the like. They can't open walls but the GOOD inspector will test everything they can see, inside and out, including going up on the roof.

Now in the US, the contingency on buying is done in the contract - you have to get the seller to agree to an inspection (its pretty standard). I believe that in Canada you can get an inspection provided by the seller - don't if you can avoid it - total conflict of interest.

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Depending on the outside temperature, AC testing may have to be skipped. Most inspectors won't turn on the AC, if the outside temperature is below a certain point (between 50F-60F I think). –  Tester101 Oct 17 '11 at 20:01
    
That's OK - I've visited Canada in the summer many times. In Canada AC generally means "open the windows". –  The Evil Greebo Oct 17 '11 at 20:10
    
Yeah most AC work here is 15C and above. Our agreement is conditional on the home inspection going well. –  Mario Oct 18 '11 at 4:19
    
Greebo obviously hasn't been in Toronto in July. –  Chris Cudmore May 10 '12 at 13:26
    
Yes, I have. Sorry but a high of 80F at 4PM is NOT "OMG WE'LL ALL DIE W/O AC!!!!!" weather ;) –  The Evil Greebo May 10 '12 at 15:05
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