Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

For Houses Too, Beauty Can Be Skin-Deep

To fund their retirement and move to a cheaper neighborhood, a couple in their 60s had to liquidate their 1912 colonial. Acting on a professional stager's instructions, the couple cleared away every piece of their furniture and also removed all their art and window coverings. Then the stager arrived with a U-Haul full of her own upscale furnishings.

In this true story, the stager’s magic had a seemingly miraculous result. The first day the house went on the market, it attracted five offers at the list price or above.

Whether the couple buying the property -- a pair of lawyers in their early 30s -- got a fair deal on a solid place without serious flaws won’t be known until after they move in. That’s because when they wrote their all-cash offer, they waived their right to a home inspection.

Given the severe shortage of available housing in popular areas, many buyers are pulling out all the stops to outdo other prospects. But buyer advocates fear some overly accommodating purchasers could get stuck with lemons.

“Without due diligence up front, you could come down with a terrible case of buyers’ remorse later. Once the stager’s glitzy stuff is gone, you might discover that the roof is rotten, the foundation is cracked and the appliances don’t function,” says Tom Early, a real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

Early says that as home staging becomes more prevalent, more buyers are overly influenced by the love-at-first-sight effect that can make a flawed home seem irresistible on the surface. But buyers should probe deeper to ensure that all the home’s fundamentals are in order, lest they are lured into an ill-advised purchase, says Sid Davis, author of “A Survival Guide for Buying a Home.”

Reid Guthrie, an inspector affiliated with the American Society of Home Inspectors (ashi.org), says first-time buyers are especially likely to fall for a property that “shows well.” But disenchantment can soon follow.

“Homebuyers are alternately excited, nervous, terrified and hopeful. Those who’ve become emotionally involved with a place must be especially wary,” Guthrie says.

Here are a few pointers for buyers:

-- Take full advantage of your first tour of a property.

Obviously, a buyer can learn much more from visiting a home than by simply seeing it on the internet. And a resourceful purchaser will take full advantage of a visit.

Guthrie, a veteran of the home inspection field, urges buyers to investigate when they see furniture or carpets positioned in unusual ways.

“Sometimes the seller will use throw rugs or pieces of furniture to try to conceal problems or defects,” Guthrie says.

In an older home, a peek under wall-to-wall carpeting will sometimes reveal the happy surprise that the carpet is masking hardwood floors in pristine condition. But in other instances, area rugs are used to conceal problems -- like wood flooring scarred by pets or the over-watering of houseplants.

-- Attempt to measure room sizes yourself.

To make homes look spacious, stagers sometimes clear away all but a few key pieces of furniture per room. And when creating a model home for a builder, they may even bring in scaled-down furniture to give the illusion of enhanced size. To guard against such practices, Davis urges buyers to bring along measuring devices when touring properties.

“For a fairly nominal price, you can now buy laser-distance measuring devices,” he says.

He also suggests you bring to your house tour the measurements of your largest pieces of furniture. This will provide you with a further sense of the scale of a home relative to your belongings.

-- Remember that flowering plants are ephemeral.

During the warmer seasons of the year, home sellers have an easy time showing off colorful flowers outside. All year long, they can position flowers artfully throughout a home’s interior.

Color is a natural magnet for buyer interest, and many are swayed by blooming plants. Even so, Davis says would-be buyers should recognize that many of the plants displayed by home sellers will be short-lived.

“Focus on the bones of the house, not its fleeting embellishments,” he says.

-- Find an inspector who is an eager detective.

Guthrie acknowledges that some in his field are more interested in packing multiple inspections into a day than doing in-depth checks.

“You’ve got to wonder about any inspector who doesn’t want his clients there when he’s going through the house because it will slow him down,” Guthrie says.

As Davis says, a quality inspector is enthusiastic about discovering the inner workings of a home and can prove invaluable to sharp buyers.

Granted, buyers in tight-inventory markets often need to act hurriedly to compete with other contenders. In such cases, it can be realistically important to submit a “clean” offer that’s free of a post-bid home inspection. Still, buyers may have time to arrange for a pre-bid inspection at your own expense.

“Hiring a top-notch home inspector isn’t a waste of money. It’s a very prudent expenditure,” Davis says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)