Buying a house from house flippers is not necessarily a bad thing. Many investors do a good job with their house flips, but financial pressures and time constraints sometimes motivate individuals to do a less than stellar job. When house hunting, you need to train your eye to be on the lookout for flipped house red flags. Knowing how to detect a bad issue will tell you when to steer clear or get more aggressive with negotiations.
How to Tell If a House Is a Flip
As you shop for a house, you can do some quick internet searches to find the recent purchase histories of properties that you want to look at.
Enter a query into a search engine for the county and state where the house is located plus the phrase “property records.”
For example, in my location I would search for “Calhoun County, MI property records.”
The search results will likely include some ads for paid services that will take your money to show you property records, but you won’t want to do that. Most public records are accessible online or at least summaries of the information.
You want to select search results for the county’s assessor’s office or county clerk recorder’s office. The format varies by county, but you should be able to dig around until you find the property records for home sales.
Many counties send their data to third-party public record aggregators, like Countyoffice.org. A Countyoffice.org page for your location may appear in the search results as well.
Once you get to a website with property records, you can enter the address that you want to inspect and see recently recorded transactions for the past few years. You are only checking to see if the current seller bought the property in the past year or 18 months. Most house flippers aim to flip their projects within three to six months, so you mostly only need to see if the house was bought within the last few months.
Another clue comes from the name of the current owner who is listing the house for sale. If the purchase was recorded to a company name or LLC, then the property is very likely in the hands of an investor who is flipping it.
Once you identify the website where you can find local property records, bookmark it so that you can quickly look up homes before you tour them.
Many popular real estate websites, like Zillow, Trulia, and Realtor.com, will have recent sales data as well. These commercial sites make it easy to look up an address and see plenty of data. However, keep in mind that these sites rely on their information from county offices. It might not be up to date. You might not see that a house changed hands one or two months earlier due to the lag times associated with transmitting public records data to outside publishers.
If you’re working with a competent real estate agent, you can also ask that person if a house is being sold by a flipper. Real estate agents can look up recent sales for you.
How Do House Flippers Cut Corners?
House flippers might start out with good intentions, but costs can escalate once they get involved in a home rehab. Conscientious people will do their best to put a good product on the market, but other people skimp on the repairs and remodeling. They hope to make the house look nice enough to attract a buyer willing to pay top dollar while limiting what they spend on the rehab.
Pure economics motivates house flippers to reduce their costs in a number of ways, such as:
- Using cheap materials
- Ignoring structural issues
- Failing to replace old heating and cooling equipment
- Hiring unqualified labor
- Doing it themselves and producing shoddy results
Now let’s get into some specific things to watch for when viewing a home.
Specific Flipped House Red Flags
Asphalt Shingles Look Thick, Lumpy, or Wavy
You’ve been told that the house has a new roof, and you think that’s great. House buyers love homes with new roofs, but you get to the house, and the roof looks thick or wavy near the edges or by a chimney. If you were to get up on a ladder and look at the edge of the roof, you could detect that the new shingles were slapped on top of the old shingles.
Although putting shingles on top of old asphalt shingles might work out OK, it is far from ideal. It means that the roof decking was not inspected for damage at all before the so-called “new roof” was put on. Additionally, shingles are meant to be applied to a flat surface. Nailing them down over old shingles puts them on a textured and slightly uneven surface. When you do eventually have to replace the roof, the job of tearing off the old roof will be doubly difficult and expensive.
People sometimes install new shingles over old ones to save money. They get to skip the time and expense of scraping off the old roofing materials and disposing of them. If you detect two layers of shingles, it calls into question the quality of other work done by the home rehabber.
Weird slopes, inclines, or dips develop in floors when the structures underneath shift in some way. Weak floor joists might be sagging beneath the floor. A sinking foundation can tilt the floors throughout the house. These are severe problems that will cost a lot to fix.
A bad floor will make you feel almost drunk as you walk across it. Your brain expects a level surface, but the floor is always a little different every time you take a step.
Uneven flooring includes big differences in the level of floors between rooms. This happens when new flooring is slapped on top of old flooring, like in a kitchen or bath. The result is a floor higher than the floor leading up to the room. This creates a trip hazard and shows that the rehabber skipped the step of taking out old flooring. Now you have two layers of flooring under your feet.
You can test a floor with a hard surface with a small ball or marble. Set it down and see if it rolls on its own.
Encountering a floor with a slope in an old house is not uncommon. It might not mean that the house is bad. If it’s been there for a hundred years, it could be good, but you’ll want an inspector to look over the structure to see if something bad is going on.
Thick and Sloppy Paint Work
A fresh coat of paint can really brighten up a place, but slapping on fresh paint over many layers of old paint produces diminishing returns. It could look bubbly or have large drips dried solid in the surface. At the edges, sloppiness appears with paint bleeding onto trim.
Bad paint work includes not using enough coats to even out the color. This is a cheap move because the painter did not want to buy enough paint to do a good job. Variations in color depth or being able to see roller marks warns you that the painting was done fast and without much care.
Paint that is not applied with proper procedures, such as using primer or painting at an appropriate temperature or humidity, is prone to peeling. Visibly sloppy paint work is a sign that the painter might not have known these best practices.
This is a matter of craftsmanship or a lack thereof. An amateur can do a good job if he or she pays close attention to detail and takes the time to correct mistakes. A sloppy home flipper, or a low-bidding contractor, rushes the work and it shows.
As you inspect a house, look for craftsmanship problems like:
- Small gaps in flooring near the wall or around doorways
- Badly cut trim corners where the angles don’t match up tightly
- Cabinets that seem a little crooked.
- Cabinets that fit a space poorly being either too small or too big
- Missing trim
- Counters with unfinished edges
- Loose door knobs and cabinet hardware.
Cheap Doors and Windows
Good doors and windows are expensive. A home rehabber could be tempted to skimp on these items. Cheap but new doors and windows will look good at first glance, but they won’t stand the test of time. They will tend to be drafty and prone to breaking due to subpar construction.
A house flipper might put a decent front door on the house to make a good impression but then use cheaper doors on the back door and on interior doors. Cheap interior doors will feel light because they are hollow. They are not only easy to break, but they provide little in the way of sound insulation.
Does the kitchen faucet look like it belongs in a rental instead of something that you would indebt yourself for? Give a critical look at the faucets in the bathroom as well. If they feel cheap, they probably are. These products are made for landlords to slap into cheap rentals. The low-end faucets look lame and break quicker.
Strange or Awkward Home Layout
There are millions of homes out there that make you wonder what the person who designed it was thinking. House flippers should strive to improve upon these previous design mistakes. Not everything can be improved, but home remodelers can make a house more comfortable and useful by reworking the layout.
Home remodeling shows love to demolish existing walls to open up big spaces. House flippers will do this hoping to wow you with a big living room, but walls sometimes need to be there. If you suspect that a wall was removed, ask who did the work. You want to confirm that the contractor is licensed and the wall removal did not compromise the house structurally.
An awkward or weird layout hints that the house rehabber either did nothing or made bad choices for the sake of adding another bedroom or bathroom.
Don’t Skip the Home Inspection
The hot real estate market forced many people to forgo inspections for the sake of having their offers accepted. If you have to do this, be prepared for some expensive problems. Every house has its secrets.
Most home inspectors have limited usefulness, but they can notice obvious problems with the plumbing, electrical, and foundation. If your research reveals that you are looking at a house flip, then plan on scrutinizing the property. That means checking permits and consulting structural engineers or electricians if you see suspicious issues.
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