Spring House Hunt

Finding that right home goes beyond skin deep

It might as well be called the Home Buyers Fatal Attraction Syndrome - falling in love so much with a specific feature of a house that buyers ignore or don’t see problems lurking in the corners or hiding behind walls.

It could be a recently remodeled kitchen that has fancy cabinets or new appliances but the same old plumbing in need of replacing; or a lush backyard that collects rain and floods the basement every spring.

“People too often fall in love with the aesthetics and not the hidden structure of a house,’’ said Padraig O’Beirne, owner of Sudbury Home Improvements and Construction. “If you love something so much, you have to ask yourself, ‘What would it cost if it has to be fixed or replaced?’ ’’


Although new appliances, fresh paint, and interesting spaces such as media rooms or office nooks can add tremendous value to homes, specialists said buyers should be careful about attaching too high a value to them. More important, they said, is to pay attention to the warnings and other remarks home inspectors have about the condition of the systems that power the house - the plumbing, heating, and electricity, and the structural soundness of the building itself.

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“It’s important to check both the skin and the bones of a home,’’ said Jay Rizzo, co-owner of Tiger Home Inspection Inc. in Braintree. “Buyers have to make sure a house is mechanically and fundamentally sound, or it will cost them.’’

Here are some of the more common mistakes:

The multimedia room trap - While viewing a house for sale, potential buyers are often attracted to large media rooms with big-screen TVs, surround-sound speakers, recessed lighting, and lush leather couches that they imagine themselves lounging on.

But is the electricity in the house sufficient to power all those toys, and the other gadgets that have become indispensable to modern life? An electric system upgrade or full replacement can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the size and age of a home, specialists warn, and be hugely disruptive to boot.


“I see this all the time in older homes,’’ said Duo Dickinson, a Connecticut architect who does re-modeling design work for clients in Massachusetts. “If you see old fuse boxes in a house, it may mean the wiring is 20 to 30 years old and the system can’t handle all of today’s modern appliances and electronic gadgets. I always want to see new circuit-breaker systems in homes before buying.’’

The charm of ivy-covered chimneys - Ivy-covered brick may give a house that distinguished Downton Abbey look, but the plant growth can hide potential problems: weakened or porous mortar that may let in water, or rotting or deteriorating wood trim and siding from moisture and insects that often inundate ivy coverings.

A simple repointing job can cost $3,000 to $4,000, while a rebuilt or replaced chimney will easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

New windows - Recently installed windows may look great and give the impression they’ll help reduce future energy bills. But Dickinson said he too often sees poor-quality new windows in homes, calling into question their durability and potential to cut energy use. Better to see if the attic is well-insulated and air-sealed, which provides much more bang for the buck in energy savings. Insulating an attic in a small home can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000, far less than window replacements that can cost $1,000 each, and local utilities have programs that will partially reimburse owners for the insulation.

“I’d rather see a recently insulated attic than new but cheesy windows,’’ said Dickinson, also the author of “Staying Put: Remodel Your House to Get the Home You Want.’’ “Sometimes people slap in new windows just to sell homes. But homes with good attic insulation - that indicates to me the owners cared about the fundamentals.’’


The recently remodeled kitchen - With remodeled kitchens easily running into the tens of thousands of dollars, the financial value of buying a house with a renovated kitchen is almost self-evident, home specialists said. But there are some hidden potential costs that can harm the value.

“You can have a big colonial house in a most desirable neighborhood, but the plumbing inside could be shot,’’ said Rizzo. “All those new kitchens, they can still be attached to an old plumbing system.’’

The price of fixing a kitchen plumbing system can run anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 - and much more if the entire house’s plumbing system needs replacement, specialists said.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2011

Finished basements - Existing or future finished basements can be used as fitness rooms, offices, recreational areas, even bedrooms - and they can add tens of thousands of dollars to the value of a home. But they don’t make much sense - nor hold much value - if they leak and flood during heavy rain storms.

If there are past water or leakage stains on basement walls, home buyers should check to see if a sump pump system has been installed. If there’s no sump pump, it can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 to install one, home specialists warned.

Freshly painted rooms - Freshly painted interior rooms in attractive or neutral colors can lull new home buyers into thinking they’ll have one less expense to worry about when they move into a new home. But fresh paint can also hide expensive secrets: cracks from settling foundations. While normal in homes, a settling foundation can also indicate a serious structural problem that may require the building to be shored up and fixed, costing anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000.

That’s the kind of thing a sharp-eyed home inspection should catch in a thorough exam before a purchase. “A good home inspection is worth its weight in gold,’’ said O’Beirne, the Sudbury contractor.

Kent Colton, a consultant and senior fellow at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, said surveys consistently show that buyers put a premium on new homes or new items within homes.

“It’s one thing to get a good inspection,’’ said Colton, who has conducted home-ownership surveys for Hanley Wood LLC, a media company covering the housing and construction industries. “But sometimes you should bring in a contractor to get a better idea how much something will cost to fix. You don’t want large unexpected expenses after you buy a home.’’