Make this Empty House a Home

As more and more vacant properties hit the Greater Cleveland housing market, bargin-hunters can face unforseen opportunities and hidden pitfalls.  A home inspector can help inexperienced buyers spend their money wisely.
When first-time homebuyers Chris Moneypenny and Jennifer Moore saw the cornflower-blue, Cape Cod-style home last September, just a block from Lake Erie on one of the last brick-paved streets in Euclid, their reaction was immediate.

“I knew this was ‘the house,’ ” says Moore, a 21-year-old chiropractic assistant, after looking at more than 100 homes on the Internet and eight in person. She and Moneypenny, a 25-year-old concrete finisher, loved the charming details of the 1955 house, which has three bedrooms, a fireplace, hardwood floors and an enclosed porch. “It’s very quaint and cozy, and even had a good yard for our dog.”
But the home had stood empty for a year, because its owner had died and a trustee of the estate was handling the sale.
Moneypenny and Moore’s real estate agent, Barb Soeder of Realty Corporation of America, says other empty homes were for sale on the street where her young buyers were looking.
“There are a great deal more vacant homes than just two years ago” in the market, Soeder says. “And there is a concern that they are going to increase.”
Vacant properties are increasing in Ohio’s housing market, both as the buyer’s market means overpriced homes remain unsold longer, and as the state continues to lead the country in home foreclosures, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
“Anywhere you go, you see an awful lot of bank-owned properties,” Soeder says. “It looks like it’s going to be a buyer’s market probably for the rest of 2007.”

Knowing that empty homes have their own set of potentially expensive issues, Soeder insisted on a home inspection for Moneypenny and Moore. Sure enough, the two-and-a-half-hour examination of the home revealed details that neither they nor their Realtor had suspected:
  The mortar between the bricks on the chimney — seen with binoculars — was deteriorating and would need service.

  A crack in the cinder-block foundation, so faint the buyers missed it, was enough for the inspector to recommend a second opinion. A foundation expert visited and said the crack was caused by the house settling, but was nothing to worry about.

  One section of the sidewalk was raised about three-eighths of an inch and another was cracked.

  The central air-conditioning, although perfectly functional, was 15 years old and might last only another four to five years.

Armed with the information contained in the 30-page report from their inspector, Rod Whittington, they decided to move ahead with their offer and closed on the house in November.

Forewarned is forearmed
A home inspection, though not required in Ohio, should be one of the top priorities for any buyer, according to Lou Tisler, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland. The nonprofit agency offers home loans and education to beginners who want to arm themselves with knowledge before entering the high-stakes marketplace of home buying.

“Getting a home inspection is probably the second most important thing, after securing a home loan, to the new buyer,” Tisler says. “Many people say they can’t afford a few hundred dollars for a home inspection, but then they come back to us later for a $40,000 loan to fix something they didn’t know about.”
Properties that have stood idle contain potentially expensive conditions that first-time buyers are not likely to anticipate, according to Whittington. Since utilities are often shut off when no one lives in a home, the lack of heat and running water can cause havoc with plumbing.
“If you don’t run water through a system, you have to worry about leaks, or proper drainage due to back-up problems,” Whittington says. “If the plumbing is not properly drained, water left in pipes in the walls can freeze, burst the pipes and cause leaks. Seals around bathtubs can dry out and cause leaks later.”

When a house is locked tight, the simple lack of air circulation can cause mischief.
“Mold and mildew can grow on the walls in the basement if it’s damp,” he says.  “Roof leaks can cause problems too. If the house is locked up for the summer and hasn’t been breathing, you get that musty smell as soon as you open the door. It can be corrected, but it costs money.”
Shawn Sebring, president of the North Central Ohio chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), says more and more inspections are done on properties that have been vacant for a year or more. Sebring does about 400 inspections a year with his father, who started Sebring Home Inspections in 1979.

“One of the things an inspector does is to give you an expected lifespan on the parts of a home,” Sebring says. “A hot-water tank lasts about 10 years, but we see them older than that and still working. So the inspector can warn you that the tank is not likely to last much longer, even though it appears to be working fine.”

Sebring says that bank-repossessed homes have their own special considerations.
“It helps us to know if a property is in foreclosure,” he says. “We’ll spend more time on the inspection. People often tear up the place before they’re evicted. Pipes can be torn out, toilets can be broken and sump pumps may not be working because electricity’s shut off. People can put things in the septic system that don’t belong there.”
Is it worth it?
Foreclosed homes can appear to be bargains, but they can conceal expensive problems, Soeder says.

“You often can buy a great property from a bank that you wouldn’t be able to afford if you were buying from a regular owner,” she says. “But everything depends on condition.”

But bank-owned properties are often vacant longer than a year because they have to go through the courts and foreclosure process. When this is the case, a good home inspection is doubly important, Soeder says.
“The biggest problem is that the bank usually turns off the utilities,” she says. “Then you can’t check if wall outlets are wired properly. The bank usually winterizes the plumbing, but you can’t be sure. Pipes might be broken, but if the water’s not on, you won’t know. You can’t check gas lines for leaks if the gas isn’t on.”
But because first-time homebuyers might not think to look for those things, Whittington tries to offer more guidance when going on an inspection with them.

“If you haven’t owned a home, you might not know about changing furnace filters, or where the main shut-off valve for the water is,” he says. “You see the clients go into information overload. They come in thinking about paint and carpet, and you’re telling them about furnaces and roofs. I try to keep them as clear-thinking as possible, to give them a little of what people who are familiar with home ownership already know.”
Whittington explains one extra perk in hiring an inspector: When he has found expensive problems with bank-owned properties, his clients can use that knowledge to negotiate lower prices.
“If the bank wants $95,000, and I find $10,000 worth of problems, the buyer has a great reason to offer $85,000,” he says.
Home, Sweet Home

Chris Moneypenny and Jennifer Moore were lucky. Because of Whittington’s inspection, they learned their home, although empty for a year, was well cared-for. Soeder praised Whittington’s thoroughness.

“Rod checked out every wall socket for polarity, and found two not working in the basement,” she says. “Although the insulation in the attic looked good to the buyers, Rod knew it was old and should be replaced in a few years. He ran the faucets in every sink in the house to check for water pressure and drainage.” When Whittington was done, the buyers even knew to keep an eye on a bead of tar between the driveway and home foundation, which was fine but would be problematic if allowed to leak.
After buying their home, Moneypenny and Moore pulled up the old carpeting, refinished the hardwood floors and painted the walls in up-to-date celery green.
“As soon as we came here, we knew we were going to love it,” says Moneypenny. “Rod really put our mind at ease. Our first night in the house, we fell asleep like it had been our home forever.”
Moore agrees.
“It feels like home to us now,” she says. “Everything we wanted in a house, we found in this house.” 
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