Top Red Flags to Look for When Buying a House

Purchasing a home is one of the biggest investments you’ll make in your lifetime. While it’s exciting to find your dream house, it’s essential that you get the property carefully and thoroughly inspected before signing on the dotted line. Some issues with a home aren’t immediately obvious and could cost you tens of thousands of dollars down the road.

Educating yourself on the red flags to look out for can save you from expensive headaches after moving in.

Signs of Structural Damage

The home’s foundation and structural elements like walls and ceilings support the entire property. Serious issues with any of these can destabilize the home and require urgent repairs. Here are some tells to look out for:

1. Cracks in Walls and Ceilings

Cracks are the most obvious indicator of structural issues. Inspect all walls and ceilings carefully for cracks wider than 1/4 inch. Very large cracks may indicate foundational problems that require digging beneath the surface.

Diagonal cracks running in a stair-step pattern often mean the home is settling unevenly and could continue to sink. Look for cracks around windows and doors as well, which can mean the frame is distorting.

2. Uneven or Slanted Floors

Floors that are uneven, slant to one side, or have noticeable dips or slopes point to foundation problems. You may be able to spot this by using a marble and watching which direction it rolls. Soft spots in the floor around columns or beams can indicate rotting wood.

3. Windows or Doors That Stick or Won’t Close

Doors or windows that won’t close properly or get stuck could mean the home’s support structure is shifting. Make sure all doors open and close easily and evaluate any sticking when opening windows.

4. Previous Patch Jobs Covering Cracks

Check walls and ceilings for patch marks or spots that have obviously been re-painted over. This may be a sign the sellers have tried covering up larger structural cracks that could reappear. Examine these areas closely.

Termite Damage and Wood Rot

Termites are a common problem, especially in certain regions, and they can cause major structural damage. Additionally, plumbing leaks or moisture issues can lead to wood rot, compromising stability. Here’s what to look for:

1. Hollow Spots in Wood

Tap on all exposed wood like baseboards, window frames, and wood floors. Hollow or bubbled areas that sound different indicate termites or wood rot. Use a heavy tool like a hammer to tap for an obvious difference in sound.

2. Sawdust Piles

Look in crawl spaces, near wood framing, and on floors for any sawdust piles. This debris is evidence of active termites chewing through wood.

3. Downed Wires

Termites chew through wood and can sometimes bring down electrical wires if they compromise structural beams. Check the basement ceiling and other wooden structural elements for signs of fallen wires.

4. Warped Materials

Notice any warped wooden doors, uneven floors, or distorted window frames. As termites damage the interior wood, the structural integrity weakens and materials begin to warp.

Signs of Water Intrusion

Water is wood’s worst enemy and can start deterioration, mold growth, and lead to expensive remediation costs. Watch for:

1. Condensation Between Windows

Condensation between window panes signals failed seals that allow air and moisture in. This can gradually damage window frames and walls, in addition to increasing energy costs. Inspect all windows closely under natural light.

2. Stains on Ceilings

Look for water stains on ceilings, especially around chimneys, vents, and plumbing pipes. Stains indicate leaks that may compromise Sheetrock and could develop mold. Feel for sponginess.

3. Musty Odor

A lingering musty or damp smell can often signal moisture issues and potential mold growth hidden behind walls. Don’t ignore this warning sign of water intrusion.

4. Peeling Paint Near Gutters

Walk around the home’s exterior and look for peeling paint, especially concentrated around gutters. This points to rainwater overflow causing wood rot. Ensure gutters are clear.

5. Cracks in the Chimney

Inspect the chimney masonry for any cracks, crumbling, or missing pieces of mortar. Damage can allow moisture into the chimney, leading to mold concerns. Significant damage requires re-pointing the chimney.

When to Call in the Professionals

While you can identify many red flags on your own, a professional home inspector is vital for evaluating issues like structural stability, mold concerns, termites, and active leaks. An inspector may utilize:

  • Electrical systems to check for plumbing leaks
  • Infrared cameras to identify moisture issues
  • Pest detection dogs to sniff out termites

Don’t skip the professional inspection, even if you don’t spot exterior red flags. Many foundation and structural problems aren’t visible to the untrained eye. Thorough home inspections also provide peace of mind and may allow you to negotiate a lower price for identified repairs.


How can you spot potential mold issues in a home?

When viewing a property, look for condensation and musty odors, which may indicate mold behind walls. Also inspect for leaks, moisture stains on ceilings or walls, and peeling/bubbling paint and plaster which can point to mold concerns. A home inspector can use infrared cameras to help identify hidden moisture issues.

What should a buyer do if they suspect termites in a home?

If you see sawdust piles, downed wires, hollowed wood, or other signs of termites, it’s recommended to have a professional termite inspector thoroughly evaluate the property. They can check for hidden damage and determine if treatment is required.

What are some limitations of professional home inspections?

Standard home inspections won’t necessarily catch every issue. Inspectors can’t see behind walls or under floors for hidden damage. Specialist inspections for asbestos, mold, termites, etc. may be advised if red flags are spotted. It’s important to thoroughly research the inspection report findings.

How can a buyer evaluate if cracks in a home are a major structural issue?

Very large cracks wider than 1/4 inch, diagonal stair-step cracks, and shifts away from the house likely signal foundational problems. Smaller cracks may be more normal settling but should still be noted. Monitor any existing cracks over time to check for changes that could indicate a growing issue.

Should a buyer avoid purchasing homes with any red flags?

Not always, but it’s important to identify all issues and associated repair costs. Consider negotiating fixes or a lower price based on inspection findings. Weigh the pros and cons of taking on expensive repairs vs. continuing the search for a home without major red flags.

Final Thoughts

Purchasing a property is a major investment. Being vigilant when viewing homes can alert you to red flags and help avoid expensive surprises down the road. Examine all areas closely, look up unfamiliar signs, and don’t hesitate to call in the experts. Follow these tips to make a well-informed home purchase.