Paul Liberatore

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9 red flags you should always look for at an open house



Photo: James Bombales

Open houses aren’t all schmoozing and sandwich platters. If you’re serious about buying a home, you need to know exactly what to look for in a potential property when touring it for the first time. While a bland beige paint job and dated floral window treatments are nothing to fret about, there are a number of red flags to watch out for that could end up costing you much more than you anticipated. We interviewed three real estate professionals to find out which warning signs could be cause for concern.

1. Cracks in the bricks

Photo: James Bombales

“Most red flags for structural issues can actually be seen on the exterior of a home,” says broker Marianne Miles of Chestnut Park Real Estate Limited. “Assuming the house is brick, take the time to walk around it and look closely at the bricks. Are they straight? Are they bowing away from the house? Are there cracks that run diagonally along the mortar lines of the brick?” Asking yourself these important questions can help to identify structural problems within the home. “Also check for recent brick repair work that may be masking these issues,” says Miles.

2. An imposing tree in the yard

“If there’s a fairly large tree that’s close to the home, the roots can cause a lot of foundation issues and damage the water management system if they’re penetrating the weeping tile system,” says Ara Mamourian, Team Leader at “That can become very, very expensive to deal with so you might want to have additional inspections done around the foundation.”

3. Obnoxious neighbors

Photo: James Bombales

“Always look at the condition of the neighboring properties and get a sense of the owners or tenants,” says Kori Marin, broker and managing partner at Fox Marin Associates. The neighbor’s unkempt yard could diminish the value of your newly-purchased property, even if the grass is much greener on the other side. Other bad-neighbor warning signs to look out for? Rambunctious party animals, potential-meth-lab-level-shadiness, an abundance of foreclosed properties and dogs that howl well into the night.

 4. Building work completed without a permit

“Look for clues that work was done without a permit and not to code,” says Miles. “Are there missing handrails on the staircase to the basement or on the rooftop patio? Does that new bathroom reno not have Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters as plugs?” When purchasing a home that has undergone significant renovations, it’s essential to verify that permits were taken out, the work was approved by an inspector, and that the permit itself was finalized and closed.

5. Scented candles galore

Photo: James Bombales

“A big red flag when you’re walking into an open house as a buyer is if there are a lot of scented candles or plug-in fresheners,” says Mamourian. The overpowering smell of Ocean Breeze (whatever that means), could be an indication that the homeowner is trying to “mask some sort of smell,” such as pet urine or cigarette smoke.

6. An overworked dehumidifier

“If there’s a dehumidifier consistently going in the basement, that could be a sign of moisture that’s being covered up or managed,” says Mamourian. While humidity in the basement is not necessarily a deal-breaker, Mamourian says it’s worth taking note of. “You can then decide how a moisture problem would affect you down the road.”

7. A shoddy party wall

Photo: James Bomables

“Many of Toronto’s vibrant downtown neighborhoods offer century-old semi-detached houses, and it’s important to understand the construction of the party wall between you and your neighbor,” says Miles. “Is it brick? Is it double brick? Is it wood frame? Is it double brick on the main floor, and then wood frame on the second floor (which can often be deceiving)?” The construction of the party wall will ultimately dictate how much sound travels between the band practice next door and your baby’s nursery. “This is not common knowledge for a typical buyer, so don’t be afraid to ask the experts for help,” suggests Miles.

8. Fresh paint in an unfinished basement

“If you’re in a basement and you see a fresh coat of paint on the unfinished foundation, it could mean that they’re trying to cover up signs of water penetration,” notes Mamourian. “When there’s water penetration on a foundation wall, it dries and leaves a white powdery substance.” So if it smells like the painters have just packed up and left, the issue may be worth investigating further.

9. Elevator issues

Photo: James Bombales

“If you’re attending a condo open house, note the wait times for the elevators and how many elevators there are to service the building,” says Marin. While no one likes waiting 15 minutes for a ride to the ground level when they’re running late for work, a building with one or more out-of-service elevators may signal that the lifts are due to be replaced — which can send condo fees soaring.


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