This guest post is part of a short series on "good bones." This guest post comes from Dylan Chalk, a Seattle-area home inspector. Dylan has worked with my clients since I first started in real estate and has inspected my own home as well. He's a great guy and a great home inspector.
The home inspector's perspective
As a home inspector, I get asked almost daily if a house I am inspecting has good bones. The question is fundamental to the scope and purpose of a home inspection, but over the years I learned that the bones of a house are more complex than simply the foundation and frame. I have inspected houses that had adequate foundations and frames, yet in other ways, had bad bones.
This realization led me to write a book: The Confident House Hunter, which was written to help home buyers prepare for house hunting and home inspection. In writing this book, I devised a unique way to learn about houses and house systems that provides a natural logic for understanding risk. I broke house systems into three primary categories: Core systems, entrenched systems and disposable systems.
Disposable systems are things like roof coverings, furnaces and water heaters; these systems have limited useful service lives and need to be replaced as part of scheduled maintenance. Entrenched systems are more complex to update and repairs to entrenched systems involve more risk: siding, windows, pipes and wiring are examples of entrenched systems where you may even need to tear open walls to update. Important as these systems are, they do not represent the bones of a house.
Core systems are the bones of a house
To seek out the bones of a house, you need to focus on the core systems. These are the elements of a house that can be difficult or even impossible to change or improve. Below I have provided a list of core systems with some brief definitions and thoughts. I hope these help you come prepared to look at houses and answer the question for yourself if the house you are looking at has good bones.
The roofline, more than any other attribute, defines the look of the house. A house with an odd or dysfunctional roofline inevitably belies an odd and dysfunctional house and it can be difficult to change or improve. Houses with sturdy-looking and elegant rooflines almost always have good bones. Learn to look at rooflines as a key to looking at the bones of a house.
The oldest cliché in real estate is location, location, location. Your evaluation of the site should not just be the neighborhood and school district, but also its engineering characteristics: are there steep slopes? Was the site well-prepared for the house? Are there drainage problems? A grade toward the house? Large trees near the house? The site can be impossible to change and is at the essence of what you are purchasing with real property.
The foundation is clearly one of the bones of a house; it literally supports your house by transferring the weight of the building onto the soils below. Houses with foundation problems have problems with the bones. In general, old houses are more prone to structural problems than new houses – this is because we have improved how we build foundations.
The frame of the house is another obvious key element. In North America, the frame is traditionally wood, but it could be masonry. Localized framing problems can be easy to fix but chronic problems such as extensive termite or beetle damage can be a big deal and complex to repair.
The Floor Plan
The quality of a floor plan is more subjective than some of the other bones of a house, but a floor plan either works for your needs or it does not. If a floor plan does not work for you, this can be expensive or even impossible to correct.
Whether it is an extremely tall roof that requires a 40-foot ladder, a steep site that is hard to get to or a tiny inaccessible crawl space, the lack of access to a building can be its undoing and can make repairs and updates expensive or even impossible. Houses with great bones have great access. The best houses have easy to access sites with roomy attics and basements or crawl spaces.
I hope these tips help you be more confident in your house hunting!