Spotting potential problems with a property can be a challenge for many homebuyers. While a professional inspection will identify major flaws, most people would like to be aware of such problems before making an offer.

Few of us have the expertise in construction to make a full assessment of a residential property. However, there are a number of key things to check that will give you a pretty good idea of the overall condition of a home and the likelihood that it will need major repairs or replacements in the near future.

Here are 10 of the main potential problem areas to be alert for when shopping for a home. They're not particularly hard to spot, but they are easy to overlook if you forget to check for them. So it's good to take a list with you when touring a home.

1 - Soil grading

When you first arrive at a property, check out how the land lies, literally. How does water drain from the property? Are there any places where it looks like water might pool in a rainstorm or from melting snow, particularly if they're right next to the house? Where will water run to as it flows off the lot?

Check adjacent parcels as well. Is a neighbor's yard configured so that it will drain its runoff onto the lot you're considering? If on or near a hill, where will the drainage from that slope be directed? You don't want to be in the spot where the runoff from the whole hillside will be directed.

In older homes, check around the foundation. Over time, the soil around the foundation can sink or erode, leaving a shallow trench around the home where rainwater or snow melt can pool and soak into the basement. The problem can be fixed by adding more soil to correct the slope so the water drains away from the foundation again, but the basement may have already suffered water damage or mold.

2- The roof

Eyeball the roof to see what kind of shape it's in. Do the shingles still appear to be in good shape, or are they showing signs of weathering? Is there moss growing there? Moss is a problem that can rapidly age shingles and cause them to wear out prematurely. It can be removed and treated with a moss killer to eliminate it, but areas with moss will likely always be susceptible to it.

Ask how old the roof is. A roof with asphalt shingles will typically last about 20-30 years. So if it's already been 20 years since new shingles were put on, it's quite likely they will have to be replaced before long.

3 - The exterior

What condition is the siding or brick in? If siding, are the panels beginning to separate between each other or pull away from windows and doors? Is the original finish still in good shape or has the siding been painted since it was installed? A good qualify paint job can revive the appearance of aluminum siding, but it won't last as long as the original finish and may need to be repainted again in a few years.

On a brick exterior, look at the condition of the mortar. Does it still look solid or is it crumbling out and showing deepening gaps between the bricks? If so, the brick may soon need to be tuckpointed to restore their appearance and prevent further deterioration.

4 - The driveway

Last on the outdoor list, what shape is the driveway in? Are the edges in good shape or do they appear to be crumbling into the yard? How many cracks are there and how wide? While even an extensive network of fine cracks can be fixed with filler and/or sealer, a driveway with more than a handful of cracks half an inch wide or more will likely have to be replaced. Look too, for bits of grass or other plants sprouting in the cracks - more than a handful are a sign that water is leaking into the base of the driveway, which leads to freezing and further breaking up of the driveway surface.

5 - The foundation

Check the walls of the foundation. Inspect what you can see outside the house and check for cracks. If the house has a basement, check the cinder block walls, if they're exposed to view. Any large cracks running between two or more blocks is a bad sign - the larger and longer, the worse it is. Unfortunately, if the house has a finished basement, you probably won't be able to inspect the foundation walls closely.

Foundation problems are one of the most expensive things to fix. You'll probably need an expert to diagnose it properly, but if a house you're looking at show signs of a bad foundation, it's a good indication you may want to look elsewhere.

6 - The basement

If the house has a basement, the key thing to be alert for is signs of water damage. First thing to check - does the air smell musty? That's a dead giveaway of a damp basement. Look around at the floor and walls, if finished - do they show darkened areas that appear to be signs of moisture? Moisture can mean mold, including black mold.

A damp basement can often be corrected by fixing the drainage around the foundation (see above).

7 - The attic

If you're seriously thinking about buying a house, you need to poke your head into the attic. It's the first place where signs of a leaking roof will appear. Take a flashlight and shine it back into all the corners - attic lights often don't illuminate everything. Do you see dark streaks on the wood? That's a sign that moisture is getting in.

While you're up there, check to see if the attic is properly insulated. Generally speaking, if the insulation only comes up to the top of the floor joists or below them, the home needs more insulation. Deeper than that is probably at least adequate in most climates, though greater efficiency may be gained by adding more. Adding insulation is a fairly simple and inexpensive thing to do, so if an older house has clearly never had the insulation upgraded, it may be a sign the owner has been lax about upkeep in general.

8 - Electrical

Do all the light switches work? Are the outlets live? You probably won't want to test every outlet in the house, but a small appliance like a cell phone charger or night light can be used to check some of the outlets to in key places. Multiple dead outlets or switches may be a sign of aging wiring.

In addition, it's important to check whether the electrical outlets are grounded - in many older homes, they are not. Grounded outlets are essential for the proper operation of surge protectors used to protect sensitive electronics such as computers and digital TVs. And converting ungrounded outlets to grounded ones is expensive.

The fact that an outlet has a grounded-type plug (three holes) and perhaps a reset button (common in bathrooms) doesn't mean it's grounded - it just means that's the type of plug it has. To make sure, you can either use a multimeter to test the ground or buy an inexpensive three-prong receptacle tester at a hardware store, a plug-sized device that will test for both current and ground.

9 - Mechanicals/appliances

How old is the furnace? Twenty to thirty years is the typical life expectancy. Even if it continues to function well beyond that time, the efficiency may be so low that it will be costly to operate, particularly in colder climates. Remember too, that when furnaces fail, it tends to be during the coldest times of year when you need them most.

Air conditioning systems are generally good for 10-15 years, though some may last twice that long. Things to look for: are the condenser coils in good shape or do they appear to be corroding? What about the coolant and drainage lines running from the furnace to the outdoor unit? Are they in good shape or are they or their insulation becoming brittle?

Check appliances such as the washer, dryer and oven/range to make sure everything works properly and look in the refrigerator to make sure it is maintaining a cold temperature. If there is food in it, the meat/produce coolers - frozen items could mean a malfunctioning thermostat.

10 - Fireplace/chimney

This is one that many people overlook, and which often is overlooked in professional inspections as well. In many older homes, the metal firebox and damper can become rusted out, rendering the fireplace unusable. This may not be immediately apparent - you need to check the damper to make sure it functions properly, and use a flashlight and mirror to check the condition of the metal parts that are out of immediate view.

The outside of the chimney itself should be checked for cracks and deteriorating mortar. If you have any concerns, a professional inspection by a chimney and fireplace specialist should be conducted before attempting to build a fire once you've purchased the home.

This sort of personal overview isn't a substitute for a professional home inspection prior to finalizing a purchase, but will give you a good idea of the overall condition of the home prior to making a purchase offer and what sort of repairs or upgrades may be required.

Published on July 2, 2014