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Buying basics

By the time a rookie homebuyer begins looking at houses, a list has been made. Three bedrooms, check. Finished basement, check. Front porch, check. But before getting too attached to any of those amenities, first-time buyers need to think about t...

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By the time a rookie homebuyer begins looking at houses, a list has been made.

Three bedrooms, check.

Finished basement, check.

Front porch, check.

But before getting too attached to any of those amenities, first-time buyers need to think about the structure that's holding them all together.

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"If they're informed, they won't be fooled by the finishes," says Ron Strand, inspections administrator for the city of Fargo.

Strand says potential homebuyers can check with his office for any outstanding violations on a property. The office also stores building permits, which include contractor information. Contractors can tell buyers a lot about the house, he says.

And a home inspection will reveal a lot about a house, from top to bottom, inside and out.

"Every house is going to have some problems," says Craig Manock, owner of Northern States Inspection in West Fargo. "Our main concern is to prevent them from buying a house with a $10,000 problem that they didn't know about."

Manock says he meets with a homebuyer at the site and looks at its landscaping and grading. He examines the roof, attic insulation, floor joists, foundation, plumbing, fixtures, electrical system, furnace and air conditioner. Inspections cost about $300, he says.

"It gets to be a big process when you're going through the whole property," he says.

Some of his findings are put on a to-do list for the future homeowner. Others may make buyers change their minds.

Jeff Botnen, a real estate agent with Park Co. in Fargo, says a home inspection is usually done after negotiations, and is often a contingency in the contract. If a defect is found during the inspection, the price can be further negotiated.

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"You might have just spent $250 on this home inspection, but you could have saved yourself $3,000," Botnen says.

On their own, though, homebuyers can look for potential problems.

Cracks are an obvious sign.

Strand says that straight cracks, vertical or horizontal, are not a big deal, if not excessive. Diagonal cracks, however, indicate a structural problem.

The size of the crack is another tell-tale sign.

"We're going to find cracks in most foundations and small cracks in walls," Manock says. "When they get to be Z,- to ¼-inch," they're too big.

Buyers should also make sure door frames are square, floors are level and windows open easily, Manock says.

Stains or mold are signs of water trouble, whether a leak or poor drainage.

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Woodwork around windows, when dark or turning white, can show water damage from condensation, Strand says.

Peeling paint could be from exterior moisture working its way into the house, or interior moisture trying to get out.

"Too much moisture in any situation is no good," Manock says.

Manock gives a score card to homebuyers, which surveys structural characteristics of the house. More points are awarded for better features. For example, stone or brick siding gets more points then hardboard or painted sidings. Copper pipes and wiring get positive points, while galvanized pipes earn a negative four points.

Buyers won't see everything, though, making an assessment by an unbiased professional invaluable.

"It's such a small percentage of the home price, it's good to be sure," Manock says.

Homebuyers also should inquire about covenants or easements affecting the property, Strand says.

Covenants are agreements among owners in s subdivision, such as restrictions on paint colors. Easements are rights that another person or entity may have on the land. For example, a utility easement may allow cables to be buried in the lot.

"That, in time, may have an impact on what you're going to be doing with the property," Strand says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5525

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