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House Hunting Checklist for Buyers continued…The Basement


This week, we’re continuing with our house hunting tips for buyers in a sellers’ market. (If you missed last week’s post about what to look for on the outside, you can catch up here.)

Buyers and their agents are still dealing with restricted showing times, usually 30 minutes or less.  Be sure to use that time to look for red flags – signs that the house you’re viewing could have expensive issues.

Just to repeat the important part:

There is absolutely a measure of risk involved in buying any house. This is as true of new construction as it can be of a ‘handyman special.’  Things can go wrong, and previously unknown issues can crop up at any time.  Every homeowner will have maintenance and repairs to do at some point.

You can do a few things to avoid big surprises. It’s possible to sharpen your eye for signs of problems on your first visit to a property.  You’ll have to make the best use of your visit, though – looking past the cosmetics of the property – no matter how beautifully staged it is!

Let’s head inside the house and take a careful look at the basement.

Is a Wet Basement a Big Deal?

You might have heard people comment that a “damp basement” in an old house is “not a big deal.”  Let’s put a pin in that thought and come back to it.

Literally everything about the exterior of a house, from the roof to the windows, the siding, and the parging on foundation walls, is there to keep water out of the house.  Despite what seem like best efforts, though, sometimes water does get inside.

In any house, but especially one with a finished basement, water intrusion can be destructive.  In an old house with damp air, you could find that your metal tools or appliances rust over time.

If you see a dehumidifier, chances are that there is moisture that needs to be controlled.

Dampness at the right temperatures (60-80 degrees F/15-27 degrees C) also provides the perfect environment for mould to grow.  The health hazards of mould overgrowth are well known.

So why would anyone minimize the importance of a wet basement?  This probably goes back to the days when houses were built to different standards.  It was normal to have air leaks through drafty windows and gaps in door frames.  Insulation wasn’t as efficient, and there was much more air flow.  Back then, if a small amount of water got in, it easily dried itself up and it really wasn’t a big deal.

Things have changed – our homes are tighter, warmer, and more comfortable now.  But that also means they need to be drier, since moisture doesn’t evaporate as easily.

So, yes, a wet basement is something to watch out for – it can be a very big deal.

wet basement

What to Look For in the Basement: Moisture and Flood Control

We’ve already discussed the role of grading and downspouts in keeping the water away from foundation walls.  But if that doesn’t do the trick, there are some interior things that can protect the home.

There are some things that show that problems have been dealt with:

Not all houses need or have one, but look for a sump pump in the basement.  In areas with a high water table, a sump pump can take care of some excess water by pumping it away from the house.  It sits in a pit in the lowest part of the house where water collects.  During a heavy rainfall or snow melt, when the water gets past a certain level, the pump will go on and drain water through a discharge pipe.

What you don’t want to see is a sump pump that is always running, or a sump pit that is full to the top.  This could mean that there is more water than the pump can handle and you will need to find another solution.

Another thing you might see in some houses is an interior drain system.  If the basement is unfinished, you’ll be able to see where the concrete floor was cut to create a trough around the perimeter for a drainage tile.  There will also be a dimpled membrane along the wall(s).  The system will direct water into the sump and keep your basement dry.  It’s usually a good sign to see this type of waterproofing!   If you see that only one or two walls have been done, though, look carefully at the others.  Water looks for the weakest entry point – so check to ensure there is no dampness elsewhere.

You will find a device called a backflow valve in some Hamilton homes as well.  These are installed to prevent contaminants from flowing back into the house from outside. (There is an excellent explanation of backflow valves here.)  Hamilton has a rebate program that pays up to $2000 to homeowners who have them installed.

There are clues that some issues are ongoing:

You should also keep an eye out for signs that there is a problem that still needs attention.

Water stains, rust on surfaces, efflorescence (white salt-like staining), and, of course, actual moisture are all cause for concern.  Pay special attention to exterior walls.

Ask questions if you see drywall that’s been partially cut out from the floor around the perimeter, exposing the studs.  This could mean there was a flood or even a sewer backup.

Last, but not least, check for signs of mould.  Your nose may be the first to pick up on the distinct musty smell, even if you don’t see anything.  Not all smells are sinister mould infestations, but you should always investigate if you have any doubt.

Look Up

In unfinished basements, take some time to inspect the ceiling joists.  The integrity of these literally holds up the house, so it’s important that they are not weakened.

Look for joists that have been cut or notched, for ones that are separating at the fasteners (nails/screws), or that are twisting.  If you see evidence that someone has damaged them, it’s wise to get a qualified contractor’s opinion on what you would need to do to make it right.

If the house was built before the 1940’s, or sometimes a little later, you can sometimes see old knob and tube wiring by looking up, too.  You’ll know it by the distinctive ceramic knobs and tubes.  Sometimes, they’re just remnants of a system that’s been updated.  But if you see any wires passing through these pieces, ask questions.

K & T is very outdated, can be a fire hazard if it’s brittle, is ungrounded, and can be an issue for insurance companies.

And while we’re on the topic of wiring…..

ceiling joint


Electrical Panels

You will find these in the basement most often, so they’re worth a mention.

Unless you are qualified to do more, the closest you should get to an electrical panel is to open the front door.  Never touch the sides or any metal part that is connected to a wire or any of the screws!

For those of us who are not electricians, we will stick to the basics.  Are there fuses or breakers?  Any panel that still has fuses is outdated.  It might be fully functional and working fine, but it’s no longer the standard.  Count on replacing it with a breaker panel.

Some fuse panels in older homes (prior to 1960) are only on 60 amp service.  This could cause trouble when you try to get insurance on your home, as most insurance companies consider this “high-risk,” and some will not insure them at all until they’re upgraded.  (Remember, without insurance, you will not get a mortgage…so this is a real concern.)

There are 100-amp fuse panels as well, and these are better – still outdated – but possibly a little easier to insure.  Our best advice is to call your home insurer to see what their policy would be for a home with this type of electrical panel.

Look for the main breaker.  You may see two parts to the switch that are connected to each other, each with a number on them. This is a two-pole switch – and you do not add the values.  If each one says “100,” you likely have a 100-amp service coming in.  A 200-amp service would have a two-pole switch, with “200” printed on each side (pole).

You can try to identify aluminum wiring by looking at the casings on the wires leading to your panel.  Sometimes, you can see “AL,” “ALUM,” or “ALUMINUM” printed on the cable sheathing.  As with other outdated components, insurance companies don’t love this type of wiring.  Most that do offer coverage will charge a premium.

electrical panel



This is another component that you can see best in an unfinished space.

We could say a lot about the plumbing systems inside a house, but in the half-hour you have for showings these days, you can look for a few things that might need attention.

Especially in older homes, look for cast iron drain pipes.  Although these were solid and long-lasting, they had a life expectancy of 80-100 years.  This means that homes built in the 1930’s and 1940’s, if they haven’t had a plumbing update, are due.  The last thing you want is to have a leak in your drainage stack that could’ve been prevented.

Other outdated plumbing systems include lead pipe and galvanized pipes.   We now know that it’s not healthy to use lead that could get into our drinking water.  And galvanized pipes corrode from the inside.  Water flow will be reduced, which can be annoying.  But the pipes also disintegrate, meaning that they could burst unexpectedly and cause damage.  The current standard is copper or pex.

Here are the tricks to determining what type of water supply pipe you are looking at:

Use the flat edge of a screwdriver to scratch the outside of the pipe.

  • If the scraped area is shiny and silver, your service line is lead. A magnet will not stick to a lead pipe.
  • If the scraped area is copper in colour, like a penny (you remember pennies, right?), your service line is copper. A magnet will not stick to copper, either.
  • If the scraped area remains dull gray, and a magnet sticks to the surface of it, your service line is galvanized steel.

Ready to Go Upstairs…

Once you’re satisfied with what you see in the basement, you can head up to admire the upper levels of the house.  We’ll cover that next time!

*We would like to extend a huge THANK YOU to Don Dell – Instructor and  Creator of the CRSE Course for realtors.  His input and expertise is invaluable to us as we work with our clients to find the right home!


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