In today’s day and age, buyers start their search online. In fact, I often have clients search for homes online on their own and send me the ones they like, which I then go over and filter through. But more often than not, I don’t even have to hop on MLS to notice the red flags and get it knocked off the list. But why is that? What exactly am I seeing that raises flags that my clients don’t seem to catch? Here are a few common home search red flags to keep an eye out for.
The common red flags…
1. It’s in a flood zone
Being in South Louisiana, I have never had a client NOT ask about the flood zone. Ever. And with good reason! It can greatly increase your monthly housing expenses. Which is why the flood zone is the first major thing I check when I’m pulling potential listings from MLS. But if you’re looking for homes online yourself, either to send to your agent or “just look”, do yourself a huge favor and check the flood zone.
While I will always double check this for my clients, most of them don’t realize I use the same free flood zone search tools that are available to them. Simply pop in the address to FEMA’s search tool here or (if you’re in Louisiana) use the more user-friendly search from the LSU Ag Center here.
2. Location, location, location…
If I had a dollar for every time I bumped a house off the list because of it’s proximity to something my buyer clients specifically said they didn’t want…I’d have enough money to buy the coffee it took to write this post! But in all seriousness, if you’re picky about apartments being nearby, neighbors seeing into your backyard from their second floor, or trains/railroads, do yourself a favor and search up the home on Google Maps or take a quick drive around the area before requesting a showing.
3. There are very few interior photos or none at all
If a listing is chock-full of images of the neighborhood, community, land, or views but fails to have many images of the actual home itself, you can assume the home may not be in the best condition.
Alternatively, if the listing has already been live for a week or more or doesn’t mention that the home is tenant-occupied and still doesn’t have any photos at all, it’s either completely horrible inside or there is something preventing photos from being taken (renovation work running late, difficult tenants, sellers or listing agent don’t care).
Whatever the case, it doesn’t look good as a potential purchase.
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4. The photos look…off.
Real estate photos can be absolutely magical. They can make a fixer-upper look more move-in ready, a small home look much larger than it really is, or a dark house look like it has tons of light. To combat being tricked into believing any of these, look at the outlets and switch plates along the walls, or the windowsills, to see if they appear wider than they should. If you see the photos look a little too exposed (bright over-saturated colors, streaks of light coming from lights and windows), then you can bet the photos were brightened after-the-fact.
And it is amazing what a wide-angle lens can do for a space. It can turn a cramped, tiny area into a wide open concept. Be mindful of this when looking at pictures that show a huge open space, especially in homes that have smaller square footage.
5. The windows or curtains are all closed
Most real estate photos will show the curtains open to take advantage of the natural light. If the listing you’re looking at has photos with the curtains closed, the house probably looks out on something unsightly.
6. It’s a short sale or foreclosure
Properties up for short sale or that have been foreclosed may not have been well-maintained. That’s because if the owner couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage, there’s a good chance they couldn’t afford regular maintenance either. And while that can be used as negotiation leverage for a foreclosure, that is not the case for an all-cash auctioned property.
In our market (Baton Rouge), foreclosures show up in MLS like any other home for sale, and are priced at market value. Contradictory to popular belief, there is no deal to be had on these homes (at least in our market), and the process to purchase one can be challenging and time consuming. Short sales typically head to auction, and are a completely different (all-cash) buying process.
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7. The asking price is well below fair-market value
Ever heard of that phrase “it’s too good to be true”? That can be applied to homes priced below market value. If you’ve been house-hunting for a while, you’ve likely been scouting real estate listings night and day. If you come across a home with an asking price well below any surrounding homes you’ve seen, it could be an indication that there’s a major (and costly) problem with the home.
I actually saw one recently in our MLS – gorgeous home, looked recently renovated, and listed for close to 30% less than the rest of the neighborhood. As it turned out, all of the drywall used in the recent renovation was the toxic Chinese drywall (how on earth they found some in the first place is beyond me), and would need to be removed and replaced prior to occupation. In the entire. huge. house. No thank you!
8. There are a lot of homes for sale in the neighborhood
If there are a high percentage of homes for sale in a particular neighborhood, it may indicate that people are leaving instead of staying… which begs the question: Why?
If you encounter this situation, do some digging. Has crime spiked in the area? Is there some kind of development going in that will change the feel of the neighborhood? Or is it one of those neighborhoods that typically have a ton of listings during the summer months and it isn’t an issue at all? Either way, ask around before you make an offer on the home.
Common yellow flags…
While none of the following are inherently an issue, if there multiple “yellow flags” happening, that isn’t usually a good sign!
9. The home has been ‘updated’ or had a ‘facelift’
Many buyers are looking for an updated home, but keep in mind that the terms “updated” and “facelift” don’t really mean anything concrete. With trends always changing, it’s very common to see homes freshly painted a light neutral color before listing. It looks better in photos and appeals to the most buyers. But the owner could slap a fresh coat of paint on the walls and call the home “updated,” so be sure to ask about specific updates that have been done to the home, especially if the home is older.
10. There’s an HOA
Most homeowners are trying to stick with a budget and keep the total cost of their mortgage within a certain range. If a real estate listing notes that the property you’re interested in has an HOA fee, that’s a small yellow flag that the monthly cost of living in the home could be a lot higher than your mortgage calculator says it will be. And I’ve personally noticed that those fees listed online (Zillow especially) aren’t remotely correct. Always ask your agent to double check if you aren’t sure!
At least here in/around Baton Rouge, there aren’t many HOAs that have crazy high fees, but there are a few that have fairly complicated restrictions. If you are hoping to rent the apartment above the garage on Airbnb, build a pool, put up a fence to keep Fido from wandering away, you’ll definitely want to check the covenants, conditions, and restrictions before signing on the dotted line. Thankfully that can be done during inspection period, or discovered with a quick google search for the neighborhood.
11. There is overly flowery language
Everyone likes a good novel, but real estate listings shouldn’t read like fiction. If the listing is filled with overly flowery language or lots of unnecessary adjectives, it could indicate that there aren’t too many great things to highlight about the home.
12. The home is ‘cozy’ or ‘quaint’
Tiny houses are fun for some, but if you’re looking for something a bit bigger, the words “cozy” or “quaint” may indicate that the home you’re eyeing isn’t as big as you want it to be. Pay special attention to the square footage – if it seems significantly less than average, it’s probably going to be cramped!
13. There’s a typo-ridden listing description
Look, we all have our off days. But writing up a listing description riddled with typos is a pretty clear indication that the home is far down on the priority list if the list agent couldn’t take the time to proofread. And if the listing agent doesn’t care about something simple like a description, then they unlikely will care about anything else far more complicated in the process.
14. The listing says the house “needs TLC” or is a “fixer-upper“
These phrases to me, as an agent, scream “for investors eyes only”. Obviously, only you know the amount of money and elbow grease you’re willing to invest in your new home. If you come across a listing that says it “needs TLC,” is a “fixer-upper,” that often means that the home needs a lot more work than you’re thinking. Less “needs some painting and new cabinets” and more of “needs entirely new everything, and a new AC”.
15. It’s described as a “great investor opportunity“
Any home listed as an “investor opportunity” is most likely a rental home with a tenant in it, or something that is so bad inside (and priced low for the area), that only investors will want to deal with it. While this isn’t fundamentally a red flag, it could mean the home may be in rough shape.
16. The home or property is described as ‘unique’ or ‘custom’
This is another description that could go two ways. A home described as “unique” or “custom” could be a great find…or it could be a nicer way to say “weird” or “makes no sense”. Pay special attention to the pictures and details to see how the rooms/spaces “flow” and determine quality of work.
17. The house is described as “vintage” or “meticulously maintained”
If you’re looking for a house that is frozen in time, “vintage” may be the word you want to see. Otherwise, be aware that “vintage” or “meticulously maintained” may just mean that the home has never been updated.
18. The location is ‘secluded’ or ‘quiet’
Solitude sounds glorious, but it may start to get old when you have to drive twenty miles just to reach a grocery store. Check the amenities around your “secluded” or “quiet” home before you commit.
19. The house is ‘back on the market’
“Back on the market” can mean a lot of things, and most aren’t bad at all. Treat this one as a yellow flag. Sometimes the buyer’s mortgage falls through, sometimes it’s an inspection issue. You usually don’t know if you’re looking online, so if it is a top contender have your agent contact the seller’s agent and ask.
While none of these real estate red flags necessarily mean there are hidden problems with a home, staying aware of them will help you approach the homebuying process with eyes wide open. Happy house-hunting!