But if you only use your eyes during your search for the perfect home, you could be overlooking some very crucial clues about whether a listing is right for you. Most people forget to use all of their senses during open houses and home tours.
The next time you attend a showing, take “the five-sense approach” to home touring. Use your sight, hearing, sense of smell, touch, and even taste to evaluate each prospective home and gather information about potential issues or expenses. Here are some tips for using each of your senses to the fullest.
You’ll use your sense of sight naturally when touring a home, but remember to look beyond the obvious. Homebuyers want you to be wowed by the fresh paint on the walls and the trendy kitchen backsplash, but it’s your job as a buyer to go deeper and look at the home through the lens of a figurative microscope.
“The key here is to know what to look for beyond aesthetics,” says Tomas Satas, a real estate investor and home flipper in Chicago. “I always recommend my clients look for inconsistencies like paint changes, molding differences, and flooring transitions. It’s the best way to find possible hidden defects that a seller may try to cover up. Maybe there’s a crack in a wall that was recently filled and painted or a water-damaged ceiling or floor.”
Check under any sinks to look for mold, mildew, or signs of leakage. Look for cracks in the foundation. Keep an eye out for sinking patio concrete. Look for mouse poop in the pantry. Wherever you turn, take a closer look.
Though you may be inclined to chat with your real estate agent or your co-buyer for the entire tour, spend a few moments in complete silence and just listen. Do the same thing outside, in both the front and back yards.
If possible, come back to the property at various times of day (even if you just stay in your car and roll down the windows) to get a full picture of the noise level in the neighborhood. Talk to the neighbors about the typical noise level, too — is this a street where everyone’s in bed by 9 p.m., or one where raucous parties are a regular weekend occurrence?
“You might notice that more cars go by at rush hour, increasing the noise,” says Colleen Gerke, a real estate agent in Florida. “Are train tracks nearby with loud engines that whistle at intersections? It’s better to find these things out before you make an offer, than being startled by a train at 3 a.m. the night you move in.”
Inside the house, spend some time in the bathroom and the kitchen so you can listen for drips or leaks from faucets, pipes, and showerheads. Also listen for running toilets! Keep your ears open for any scratching noises in the walls, floors, or ceilings, too, which may indicate a pest problem.
Your nose is one of your biggest allies during the home search process. Wander through each room of the house (including the garage and any sheds or outbuildings), paying particular attention to what you smell.
“Does it smell of pet urine, cigar or cigarette smoke, mold or mildew? Or does it smell like fresh paint and freshly stained floors?” says Betsy Ronel, a New York-based real estate agent. “Homes should smell like a sunshiney spring day — clean, not heavily scented, no strong artificial smelling air fresheners, and dust-free.”
And remember that if something smells over-sanitized or bleached, that may indicate a past problem the homeowner is trying to cover up. Trust your gut, along with your nose, to get to the bottom of potential issues.
We all run our fingers over sleek countertops, flip-on light switches, and turn door handles during home tours. But go ahead and take your sense of touch a step further, too.
“It’s not uncommon to see water stains on ceilings or walls, especially when looking at older homes,” says Patty Matus, a real estate agent in New York. “It’s always a good idea to touch the area to see if it’s damp. If so, you know in advance of an inspection that there is an active leak.”
Matus also recommends turning on faucets and showers to see how long it takes for the water to get hot and to feel the water pressure. Turn on the air conditioning system and the heater, then hold your hand over the vents to feel the temperature of the air (you can do the same with radiators, too). Turn on the stove burners and the oven, then do a quick and careful temperature check by hovering your hand a few inches above the heating source.
Touch isn’t just limited to your hands, either. Your feet touching the floor can help you determine if it’s level or not, or whether the tile floors may be too slippery for your aging dog. If the bathroom has heated floors, do they actually work? Is the carpet pad thick enough in the kids’ playroom?
“Touch matters especially in regard to flooring and foundational issues,” says Maggie Wells, a Kentucky-based real estate agent. “A lot of times you can feel if the floor is uneven, unstable, or just off in some way that needs further investigation by someone qualified.”
If it’s appropriate (i.e. during a time when we’re not living through a pandemic!), bring a refillable water bottle with you on the tour and get a drink from the sink. Though homeowners don’t have much say in where their water comes from (communities often have just one local water provider or the property may have a well), this step can clue you in to any funky water tastes or smells that you don’t think you can live with.
Weird-tasting water may not be a dealbreaker, but it might mean that you invest in a water filtration or reverse-osmosis system for your new house. And while these items aren’t usually prohibitively expensive, it’s always a good idea to have a realistic picture of your budget.