By Reuben Saltzman
Home flippers often buy dilapidated houses, fix them up, then sell them again as quickly as possible with the intention of making a tidy profit. Flipped houses look shiny and new inside, but what’s going on underneath all the new drywall, carpet and paint?
Very few homebuyers seem to trust flippers, and with the cheesy "repairs" or "cover-ups" done over the years, it’s easy to understand why. Some home flippers take the same shortcuts. Here are the telltale signs of a flipped house:
The interior of the home looks great. The kitchen has all new or repainted cabinets, stainless steel appliances, granite countertops and a tiled floor. The first-floor bathroom has been completely redone, and a second-floor bathroom was recently added, or possibly a basement bathroom. They look great — all new carpet, paint, light fixtures, outlets and switches throughout the house, and possibly all new windows, too.
When looking at flipped houses, you might notice poorly designed kitchens (i.e., cabinet doors and drawers that are blocked by other cabinets), nail holes that aren’t filled, appliances installed without an accessible outlet, and loose/unsecured countertops or base cabinets.
Bathrooms will often have vanity cabinets that are way too small for the space because the flipper bought the "special buy" vanity, top, and faucet combo on sale at the nearest home improvement store.
The handrails are new, but they might come right out of the wall if you pull on them. Sometimes they are attached only to drywall.
There is a brand-new circuit breaker panel installed in the basement, which replaced the old 60-amp fuse panel. The new panel has a state electrical inspection sticker on it, and everything looks great.
Actually, there aren’t many electrical problems on flipped houses. Even the worst home flippers usually know better than to mess with the electrical; they don’t want their houses to burn down.
The home has an old, unsafe heating system at the end of its life expectancy. The flipper has documentation from "their guy" saying the heating system is safe. You should be suspicious.
Many times, heating safety check forms aren’t worth the paper they were written on. Furnaces and boilers can create high levels of carbon monoxide that the heating contractors say are fine. Make sure you have the gas company do their own test on the systems.
Another possibility is that the heating system was completely replaced. If so, that’s great, but check the furnace’s blower fan for drywall dust.
There’s a good chance that the flipper had the blower fan running while they were doing their drywall sanding, and the interior of the furnace is completely caked in drywall dust. The photo below shows a close-up view of a furnace’s blower fan blades covered in a thick layer of drywall dust.
If the home was originally heated with a boiler, the flipper most likely pulled out all of the pipes and radiators and converted the system to forced air; this is usually far less expensive than repairing or replacing the existing system.
If the house is being sold during the winter, the air conditioning may be very old and may not be functional. If the house is being sold during the summer, the air conditioning may be brand-new and keeps the house very comfortable. You won’t typically find much in between those two extremes.
This is the item that homebuyers are most concerned about, especially on a flipped house, but honestly, there aren’t more structural problems on flipped houses than with any other house.
The water distribution pipes will either be in acceptable condition or they’ll all have recently been replaced, so you’ll likely have no issues there.
There may be major problems with the drains, though; nobody has lived in the house yet, so nobody knows about whether there are leaks and clogged drains. The old steel drain lines are often clogged at the kitchen sink, and possibly at other locations.
New plumbing fixtures often leak when they’re filled with water and then drained; it’s not unusual to find several leaking drains at flipped houses.
Sometimes floor drains, basement showers, or even basement sinks back up with water when the plumbing fixtures at the upper levels are filled and then drained. That’s exactly what was happening with this new basement bathroom sink at a flipped house (video below).
Tiled shower floors are also notorious leakers at flipped houses. Be aware.
The shingles on the roof are in bad shape. You’ll find patched sections of shingles or shingles that are badly deteriorated and at the end of their life expectancy. Replacing the roof covering is an expensive project, but it won’t make the house sell for any more money, so flippers leave the roof alone if it’s not leaking. I can’t say I blame them.
The insulation in the attic hasn’t been touched for a long time — it might even be original, and it will need improvement. Flippers don’t get any return on their investment for new insulation, so don’t expect anything to be done here.
Shoddy workmanship abounds at the exterior. The original wood windows were replaced with vinyl inserts, but the old wood at the exterior is still rotting away and has been freshly painted, or someone did a quick-and-dirty job of wrapping the windows with aluminum and left a lot of rotted wood still exposed.
The basement windows have been replaced with whatever size window was close, and the flipper used clear pine or plywood to make up the difference in size. This is sloppy workmanship, at best.
Some of the siding repairs may even be comical; during a recent home inspection, we saw a hole in the siding that was repaired with a coffee can lid.
There is a thin layer of new wood chips surrounding the house, but nothing has been done to correct improperly pitched soils around the house that can lead to a wet basement. You’ll want to regrade right away.
The chimney has a lot of missing mortar and cracks in the crown. You’ll need to hire someone to repair the chimney to help prevent the deterioration from getting worse.
If you just finished looking at a flipped house and you didn’t find any of these issues, buy the house! But, make sure to take a closer look. These are the defects often found at flipped houses, but keep in mind these are broad generalizations.
Some flipped houses exhibit far worse conditions than the examples presented here, while others are pristine. There are plenty of good contractors who do excellent work, but it’s the rest of ’em that give flippers a bad name.
If you’re buying a flipped house, the items you should pay the most attention to should be the exterior, roof, insulation and drains. Individual results will vary.
Reuben Saltzman, of Structure Tech Home Inspections, Minneapolis, Minn., is a second-generation American Society of Home Inspectors-certified inspector whose experience with home remodeling and construction began at age 4 when he helped his father steam wallpaper. He has worked for Structure Tech since 1997 and joined ASHI in 2004. Visit his blog at www.structuretech1.com/blog/.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.
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