The tight housing market has sparked the return of bidding wars and desperate buyers in certain cities and towns. While you may need to act fast to land your dream home, haste will make waste if you end up with a money pit. With that, here are five key warning signs to look for as you tour potential new homes. A qualified home inspector should also catch the red flags, but in a fast-moving market, it pays to spot trouble early on so you don't squander time on dud properties.
Leaky roofs. Runaway water can wreak havoc on any home and a leaky roof is its quickest way in. If the home has an asphalt roof, look for cracked, curled, and missing shingles. Gutters, downspouts, and leader pipes should also be in place to collect rainwater and channel it away from the house.
Foundation cracks. Hairline cracks along a concrete foundation are probably the result of minor settling and not a huge cause for concern. But cracks wider than 3/16 inch could mean serious trouble. A good trick of the trade: walk the foundation with a No. 2 pencil. If the pencil can go into the crack up to the yellow paint on the pencil, that's a pretty wide crack that could end up requiring the attention of an engineer.
Dangerous decks. Soft boards or loose rails are a sign of decaying deck structure, which can lead to serious injury—hazardous decks cause about 45,000 injuries each year. Make sure railings are secure and at least three feet tall with no more than four inches between rails.
Mold and mildew. Let your nose do the sleuthing on this one. Musty odors and dank air are two indications that mold or mildew have infiltrated a home. In some cases, the spores and splotches will be visible around windows and under rugs. Houses in arid climates are vulnerable too, since hot air can drive even small amounts of water trapped in the structure to condense on colder interior surfaces, leading to mold.
Pest infestations. Piles of sawdust along baseboards are a sign of carpenter ants. Regular termites also shed wings along windowsills, walls, and other entry points. Rodents gravitate toward disorder and debris, such as leaf piles around the foundation. And look up for signs of birds, bees, or squirrels in soffits and attic vents.
Some buyers look for fixer-uppers to make over to their liking. It's easy to overlook a dated kitchen if you're prepared to take on some remodeling. Our special report, "Get the kitchen you've always wanted," is packed with ideas that work for any budget. And in "Three magnificent kitchen makeovers," you'll barely recognize the original kitchens when you see the before and after photos.