You’ve found a listing you’re interested in. You’re comfortable with the negotiation process you might get into. It’s in the right area, has enough bathrooms or enough units and you’re interested. Now it’s time to go visit the property – but what do you do when you get there?

Staring at the walls isn’t enough (but it’s part of your inspection), so here’s everything I do when I’m evaluating a potential investment property from the moment I lay eyes on it. Once you get the hang of it you’ll be able to do this in 15 minutes.

With houses you can read a book by its cover. I’ve never walked into a property that was in visible disrepair outside that was immaculate inside. If a property looks awful, save yourself the time and drive away.

This hypothetical property looks great, however, so now we’re in the front door. The first thing I do is take a sniff. Follow your nose! It might sound odd, but if there are major issues with a property you can usually smell it; if the air is noticeably moist, or there’s a funk in the air, or if you can smell mold, it’s very likely that the home has some water issue somewhere, and water issues are expensive.

From the front door I make a beeline to the first few sinks I can find. I’ll turn on the water and leave it running. Next stop: the basement.

Water Flows Downpipe – The Basement Pass

By the time I get to the basement if there are any leaks in the plumbing the water has had time to run from the sinks upstairs and start doing its thing. I always bring a good flashlight with me (a smartphone works in a pinch) and start checking for leaks in the plumbing and any sign of moisture.

In St. Louis, especially in the city, basements have an important piece of plumbing: the main stack. This is the pipe that takes your sewage to the city’s sewer system. In St. Louis there are two kinds of stacks, PVC and cast iron. Cast iron is the most difficult to check because its older and requires more expertise. If that’s what you see check for obvious damage, beyond that leave the rest to professionals.

PVC stacks are simpler, and in an older house it’s a clear sign that the plumbing has been replaced or had major work done. Here’s an oddity of St. Louis plumbing code: the plastic should be white and the primer should be clear; if you see purple near any of the joints then most likely the homeowner repaired the stack himself, probably illegally. Per St. Louis’s plumbing code no plumbing work inside a home should be done with purple primer. Not because it’s worse than clear primer but simply because an inspector decided they didn’t like it, despite it being easier to see when inspecting PVC pipe.

I check a few other things while I’m in the basement. I like to look in the electrical box and see if it’s updated or not. If it’s new, awesome. If it’s older then look for frayed wires and see if it’s a knob and tube system. This is a pretty simple eye-over – again, further inspection here is the realm of professionals.

Last items on the basement list: look at the foundation walls and check for moisture, mold, and cracks. Next, look up. I like to check out the support beams before I go back up to see if anything unusual catches my eye.

Upstairs, And Everywhere Else

Returning upstairs, I’ll check the walls to see if there are soft spots and check for cracks. While you’re walking try to get a rough estimate on whether the floor is level or not. Look up again and check the ceilings for any water spots.

More plumbing: I’ll turn on every sink and look under it to see if there is any moisture or water. While I’m in the bathrooms I’ll see if the toilets are level and flush each toilet twice, first to clear any water in the tank, second to make sure that the water runs to the toilets and works as it should. I’ll look at the tubs and make sure they’re installed properly and well-caulked. Tubs can cause a lot of problems if they’re installed wrong as water loves to get behind them and into the walls. I’ll run the shower as well to check water pressure.

After I’ve done all that I have a decent idea of how well the property has been maintained. Getting an eye for these things takes multiple inspections, but with practice you’ll know how to spot problems that might escape other people. Some days I do as many as 30 of these inspections and these help me finalize my first offer price since I can get a ballpark figure on what repairs will be needed.

Even if you’ve done this for years or have an unusual knack, always, always follow up your preliminary inspection with a professional one if your offer is accepted – there’s only so much you can find with a pocket flashlight and 15 minutes.

Next up in the series: St. Louis City vs. St. Louis county.

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