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Beware of house in its 'window of despair'


People and cars have predictable life cycles. And guess what? So do homes.

A smart homebuyer will purchase a resale property right after its major systems are replaced, not right before they go bad. Wouldn't you rather that it be the previous owner instead of you DTC who pays for the new roof, appliances, plumbing, heating, cooling or electrical systems?

"Hit the right point in a home's cycle and you can live there happily for many years. Hit the wrong point and you'll ask yourself once a day why you bought it in the first place," counsels Wayne Norris, a home inspector with Norris Associates in Rodgers Forge.

Just as gray hair and the need for reading glasses are predictable in a human being reaching middle age, so the life spans of a home's basic systems can be foreseen. As manufacturers can tell you, there's little guesswork involved in knowing how long a given dishwasher, water heater or set of roofing shingles will last.

"The window of despair" is the way one home inspector refers to the predictable points in time when major amounts of money must be poured into a house. Remarkably, several major home systems typically fail around the 15-year mark -- including kitchen appliances, central air conditioners, water heaters and the average roof, says J. D. Grewell, whose home inspection business is based in Silver Spring.

It can be foolish to buy a house in its 15th, 30th or 45th year -- unless the home's systems have been replaced prematurely or unless you get a bargain on the property, Mr. Grewell contends. On the other hand, it can be wise to buy a home right after the previous owner put big money into the place, he says.

Unfortunately, it's a rare event for a home seller to be fully paid back for large expenditures made on basic home systems. When was the last time you heard a homebuyer talk excitedly about buying a property he or she had purchased based on its fabulous new water heater? When it comes to selling, you won't get a premium price just because you're providing the next owner with basic systems that are new.

Suppose, on a hypothetical basis, you have two identical 13-year-old colonial homes standing next to each other with for-sale signs in their front yards. The only difference between the two is that one house has a year-old $3,000 roof which the owner replaced a couple of years before he had to. The other has an adequate, 13-year-old roof that still has another two years of service left in it.

If you imagine that the man who poured $3,000 into the new roof will be paid back for his investment at the closing table, you're mistaken. In all likelihood, the home with the year-old roof will go for the same -- or virtually the same -- price as the one with the 13-year-old roof, acknowledges Daryl Jesperson, a senior vice president with the RE/MAX International, the realty chain.

Two few buyers distinguish between one house due for major improvements and another that has already had large sums of money poured into it, according to real estate specialists.

"They get too caught up in the emotionalism of buying the house," Mr. Jesperson says.

To judge whether you're buying during a window of opportunity or a window of despair, consider these pointers from the experts:

* Check out the condition of other homes in the neighborhood where you're buying.

Unless the homes in the community are of various vintages, you can assume they'll all reach a window of despair at roughly the same time. If a drive through the residential streets indicates many houses with curling or cracking asphalt shingles, you can safely assume you'll have to replace the roof on the home you buy there, too -- unless the seller has just done so. Ditto for a neighborhood where many driveways have cracked and decayed.

* Ask for proof of the age of systems in a home you're considering.

Strangely, many sellers have an unusual way of defining "new." To them, a new roof, air conditioner, water heater or refrigerator purchased during their ownership is "new," no matter the year of purchase. Other owners simply have foggy memories and err in their own favor when estimating the age of a unit they purchased. To be certain how old things are, politely request to see bills -- or have your agent do so.

* Check serial numbers.

Taking a close look at home systems or appliances can sometimes reveal the age of the units, points out Mr. Norris, the home inspector from Rodgers Forge. On many water heaters, for example, the first four digits will provide the month and year of manufacture, he says. With other systems, such as air conditioners, the codes are harder to break. But if you call a heating and cooling system contractor and tell him the make and serial number, he may be able to tell you a unit's age.

* Get a professional home inspection.

Obviously, you don't want to spend a couple of hundred dollars on any old home. But if you're serious enough about a property to make a formal offer, it's wise to hire an inspector to check the property's structural soundness and major systems -- before you make a final commitment to purchase, says David Meacham, associate broker of ERA-Image Realty in Columbia.

"To know what you're buying, the home inspector is really the key," Mr. Meacham says.

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