Hiding in Plain Sight: How to Spot Four Visible Kinds of Home Damage

Image of the back of a house captioned: Hiding in Plain Sight: How to Spot Four Visible Kinds of Home Damage

Subtle signals can point to hidden damage in a house. Finding these indicators early is important. A closer inspection might be necessary, to inform the buyer of possible costs to restore the damaged areas.

Whether you’re planning to sell or buy, here are four types of damages that buyers and their agents typically look for.

1. A Shifting Foundation

To be sure the home is built on a strong foundation, look closely at the exterior. Uneven or cracked outer walls may be normal; they happen with wear and age. Indeed, even relatively new homes show some signs of settling or shifting in response to seasonal temperature changes. But if visible cracks can be found on the same spots both on the outer and interior walls, the foundation could be in trouble. Also, be on the lookout for any spots where the ground is pulling away from the patio, deck, or bottom of the walls.

Other signs of structural problems can include doors and windows that have separated slightly from their walls, or are hard to open or close. Doors that don’t fit right or are tough to lock can also be signs. And it’s best not to ignore cracks in the walls around the doors or window corners.

Upon seeing the home’s interior, do you notice any unusual cracking or titling of the floors, or cracks in the walls along the edges of the drywall? What you see could be no issue. But be sure the inspector takes a look.

2. Roof or Chimney Issues

The roof is a key insulator. It allows the homeowner to enjoy a comfortable and energy-efficient home. It also keeps snow melt from gradually seeping into the house. So be sure the roof is an inspection priority. Know when the roof was last replaced, and if there’s an applicable warranty — roof repairs are expensive.

The impact of storms and falling tree branches on a roof can jeopardize the interior condition of a house by opening leaks. It’s a good idea to have a roofer examine the roof if you see damaged or missing tiles, rust coming from specific areas of a gutter (possibly showing where ice jams the gutter), or any bent or torn components.

Look closely, too, at the chimney. Are there any visible cracks? They could signal a shifting foundation. They could also create health and safety hazards. Find out when the chimney was cleaned last, and who does the work. It’s a good idea to have a chimney professional assess the condition of a chimney.

3. Water and Moisture Damage

Past or future water damage can be tricky for a buyer to spot. If it’s behind walls that have been patched up with drywall, you might completely miss a problem.

First, look over the exterior for puddles, runoff, and dripping. For best protection, the home needs good drainage engineering or a slope that sends the water down, away from the structure.

Moving inside the house, look for cracks, moisture or stains on the walls and baseboards of basements or crawl spaces. Do your best to follow your nose. One sign of moisture damage is a musty aroma. Mold may be present and visible. The CDC has information about the health implications here.

Examine the cabinets, windows and door frames for swellings or gaps, and listen for leaks. Seeing the home a day after a heavy rain is helpful if you want to make sure water damage won’t be an issue. To follow up with your concerns, ask the home inspector to examine the interior with a thermal imaging camera. The camera doesn’t pick up a visual image of moisture in walls, but can be used to find it in ceilings, wall studs, and insulation by detecting temperature differences.

Note that wooden panels or floorboards that appear to be water-damaged might actually be signs of termites; the inspector can shed light on this question, too.

Pro tip: Always look under the area rugs. You might find damage to floors which might not be visible in staging photos, and which an inspector won’t seek out. The floor could be easy to restore, but you need to know about it in order to budget the repairs and renovations you’ll take on once you become the owner. Catch things like this early, draw up a list of repair costs, and negotiate the home’s price accordingly. 

4. Environmental Hazards: Floods, Sinkholes, and Earthquakes

Sellers should disclose floods, sinkholes, earthquake damage, and any other significant issues touching on the structural integrity of their homes. If the area is prone to these hazards, did the seller hire a surveyor? If not, consider doing so before making an offer. Without a recent survey, an insurance company might not cover any problems the surveyor would have noticed.

To scope out signs of flooding, check for sewer pipe backup damage in the basement. Look carefully at the walls and flooring.

Are you buying in an area where the ground has significant limestone or carbonate karst content, salt or gypsum? Sinkholes can occasionally form in these regions and cause sudden collapses in the earth beneath or around structures, as explained by the U.S. Geological Survey. Possible signs of sinkholes are slanted buildings, fences or trees; holes or caved areas in the ground; and dead patches of foliage.

Earthquake damage can pose safety hazards, the Federal Emergency Management Agency states in its Helpful Hints on How to Spot Earthquake Damage. FEMA recommends the following steps if you’re in a quake-prone area:

  • Check the condition of the roof.
  • Look for any signs of damage around the base of the house, attached fuel tanks, and any additional structures on the property.
  • Inside, look for wall, window, and door frame cracks. Inspect the stairs. Are supports and banisters firmly in place? Have the ceilings or light fixtures been damaged?
  • Check the HVAC and water heater to be sure the foundation is solid and free of leaks.

Then, review “A Shifting Foundation” (section 1. above) to be sure you’ve examined the home for any other signs of structural damage. If you see anything notable, it’s best to call a licensed structural engineer to inspect the home.

Decision Time: To Buy or Not to Buy?

If you do spot evidence of damage outside or inside a house, call in the experts and get detailed estimates. Then you can be reasonably sure the problems can be remedied for a predictable cost.

You should have the option of either (a) asking the seller to make repairs before you move in, or (b) negotiating with the seller for a discount to help you pay for the expected fixes. B is better, because you know you won’t cut corners when it’s your own house.

Homebuying is stressful and exciting at the same time, and the pressure to get a deal done can be intense. It’s important for a buyer to seek clarity on what’s in store before making a deposit. Have a hunch that a major repair job might be just a bit too much to handle at this time? Then don’t dwell too long in a needy house. Ask your agent to find another home you’ll love just as much — one that won’t demand quite so much of your time and resources.

Photo credit: Birgit Loit, via Unsplash