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Homework Before You Buy a House

Get ready, get set… hold on. Don’t put an offer down on that house quite yet. Have you done your homework? Did you have it inspected? Have you checked that it is zoned properly? Are all of the improvements up to code – and were they installed with a building permit? There are multiple resources available online to help you research your dream home, so use them.

There are several online map sources available online, which give a birds-eye view of the actual neighborhood, captured via satellite. For some locations, the clarity of the images might be a little disturbing, but this can help in making an informed decision.

From the front, the house might look perfect. Even driving around the block may not reveal anything that looks wrong or out of place. But a buyer might spot something disturbing that is not visible at street level by utilizing these free services – like a junkyard in the adjacent property in back, or a ravine half a block away that is actually a train line that operates 24 hours a day.

Another resource that many cities are putting online is up-to-date zoning maps. Find the city’s web site and check out their zoning and planning office section. Perhaps current zoning is fine, both for the property in which you are interested and the surrounding properties, but dig deeper, look for the city’s long range planning maps, and see what is planned for that vacant field a block away. It could turn out that the city plans on turning that sleepy two-lane street into a major thoroughfare. If these maps are not available online, get the right names, call the phone number for the office, and get answers.

Now that you have a home that you’re sure is right for your needs, put down an offer, reserving the right to get out of the contract if there are any discrepancies between the seller’s presentation of the house and what the local government has to say about things.

Back on the city’s site, look for the city building or code enforcement office. See if building permits are available online, and whether or not the city maintains a list of properties with known code violations. If the seller says everything is fine, but you see that there is a room addition in back that never had a building permit, you could be walking into an expensive problem – one that you might have to solve after you close the sale. Demand that the seller get the property inspected by the city, especially if the work was completed and the city says it was done without a permit, and get an up-to-date occupancy permit from the city. If the seller balks, walk.

Next, turn to the county offices, specifically that of the tax assessor. The tax assessor’s office maintains a record of what they think is built on the property. If the assessor’s records and the reality of what is standing on the land are not in sync, ask the seller about the discrepancy. A sale of the property will more than likely trigger a visit from the assessor, at least for an exterior inspection – and a subsequent re-evaluation which could cause the real estate taxes to go from manageable to unbearable. This probably indicates that the seller, or their predecessor, did major work on the property without getting the proper building permits from the city.

Protect your interests before, and after, placing an offer on a house. The seller and their agent may not know what they are standing in – or the seller could be hiding the reality of the situation, thinking there is no way you can find out.

Next: Back in Style: The Fixed Rate Mortgage
Homework before you buy a house 1
Homework before you buy a house 2
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