5 Questions to Ask the Seller When Buying a Home

Written by: Nicola Brown
September 4, 2021
5 Questions to Ask the Seller When Buying a Home

When my husband and I started looking for a home to buy — our “forever” home — we knew the process might take some time. Not only because the housing market is extremely competitive in Toronto, and all across Canada’s major cities, but also because not every home that comes on the market is a good buy.

The housing market in most major cities across Canada is frequently described as a seller’s market. This means the ball is in the seller’s court when it comes to listing and selling a home, and listing any deficiencies the home may have is not in their best interest. What we discovered in our own search was just how often this leads to desperate buyers putting in bids without knowing important information that can drastically impact their budget.

Here are five questions to ask the seller or the selling agent about a home you’re interested in bidding on:

Q1: WHAT TYPE OF ROOF IS IT AND HOW OLD IS IT?

The type of roof and its age is one of the factors that can have the biggest impact on your budget as a new homeowner. What the roof is made of determines its lifespan. 

Asphalt shingles tend to be the most common and typically last 15-20 years. Wood shingles can last up to 30 years, and slate, metal and tile roofs can last 50+ years. If you find out the house has asphalt shingles that are 15 years old, you’ll probably need to replace the roof within 5 years. Depending on the size, slope and condition of the layers underneath, this can cost around $8-12K if you’re replacing the roof with asphalt shingles again. We paid $12K to replace ours this year. This can go up to $30K for a metal roof.

Q2: HOW OLD IS THE FURNACE, A/C, AND HOT WATER HEATER?

Some of the most expensive items in a home that can be easily overlooked are the furnace, the A/C and the hot water tank. All that unsexy stuff that keeps your home running.

Ask how old each of these are and what condition they’re in. Furnaces typically have a lifespan of 15-20 years, while older A/C units can kick the bucket at 10-12 years. Hot water heaters tend to last 10-15 years. The cost of a new gas furnace or A/C unit are both in the realm of $3,000-6,000, and a new hot water heater is $1,500-3,000.

Be mindful of the time of year you are going to view homes. I’ve seen homes with broken or expired A/C units deliberately wait for cooler temperatures in fall or winter to list in order to hide the fact that the A/C isn’t working!

Q3: DOES THE HOUSE HAVE A SUMP PUMP AND BACKWATER VALVE?

Climate change anyone? Given that we’re likely to see increasingly erratic weather across the country bringing more extreme storms and flooding, sump pumps and backwater valves should be top of mind when buying a home. These are both important flood mitigating tools, and unfortunately aren’t common enough, especially if you’re buying an older home that needs a bit of work. The cost to install a new sump pump with a backup battery can range from $1,000-3,000. We paid $1,200 for the installation of a backup battery on our sump pump. Retrofitting a backwater valve can cost $1,000-2,000.

Make sure to check your local municipality, provincial and federal environmental subsidy programs to see if you’d be eligible for money back on installing a sump pump or backwater valve. The process took a few months, but we were able to get a few hundred dollars back from the city for installing our backup battery.

Q4: WHAT TYPE OF ELECTRICAL WIRING DOES THE HOUSE HAVE?

Unless you're into electroconvulsive therapy, ask this question!

Firstly, if the home is older and no massive renovations to gut and rewire everything have been done as of yet, there’s a strong possibility it may have knob and tube wiring. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of wiring, it can sometimes be a fire hazard and for that reason many insurance companies won’t insure a home with knob and tube.

We found out at the very last minute right before we planned to bid on a home with knob and tube wiring that we wouldn’t have been able to insure it when we called around asking for home insurance quotes!

Secondly, the cost to rewire a home can be $20-30K — astronomical!

Q5: WHAT IS THE MAIN STACK MADE OF AND HOW IS THE WATER PRESSURE?

We can't talk about the biggest home expenses without talking about plumbing. While newer homes may have PVC (plastic) stacks and waste pipes, older homes can often have the original cast iron stack, and sometimes a weird hybrid of the two. Try to look for the main stack in the basement, it’ll be a wide pipe going from the basement floor up through the ceiling (and all the way to the roof). We discovered our home had a very old and very rusty cast iron stack which needed replacing immediately: $4000.

Thankfully, water pressure is much easier to determine. When you go to view a home, just turn on some taps. If the flow seems slow even when the tap is fully open, the water pipes leading from the street to the house may be narrower than current standards. Replacing a water main to a house can cost $600-2,500.

Ask to see the home inspection to confirm what the seller or selling agent has told you. But also keep in mind that a home inspection, when commissioned by the seller, isn’t always completely trustworthy either. It’s best to try and get a good look at as much of the house as you can when you go to view the home. If in doubt, take some photos and ask a roofer, plumber, electrician or contractor to tell you what they think.

The bottom line: take your time and do your research. We had plenty of time during our long home search to learn that the more information you have about some of the biggest ticket items in a home before you buy it, the better!

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