When Rob Grzelka found a home to buy in the Syracuse, NY, area, his disclosure form told him all was in good working order. But the inspection didn't reveal that the place had long sat empty, or that winged creatures had made the house their home.
"We moved into a home with hundreds of bats living in the attic ceiling insulation," he says. The home inspector didn't detect them -- he didn't check behind the insulation -- and the disclosure form didn't mention them. "It went undetected until a bat made its way downstairs," Grzelka says. The bill from the pest removal company ran more than $2,600.
While it can be convenient to buy and move into a home that's already been vacated by its owners, as you can see, problems can arise if it's been empty too long. Infestation of furry creatures is just one hazard. Vacant homes are especially prone to leaks and floods and may require costly improvements, including new appliances or, say, guano cleanup.
Before deciding on a dwelling that no one's inhabited for a while, keep these potential problems in mind -- and their solutions.
Dried and cracked seals
The problem: Plumbing is a vacant house's vulnerable spot, says Jason Shank, training director of Cleveland Plumbing Industry. Instead of turning off water and draining and treating pipes to prevent catastrophic fractures, many absentee homeowners will simply shut off the water at a toilet or sink valve.
It sounds like the right thing, but it nearly ensures that the person who next opens that valve will be mopping. Each plumbing fixture's valve, gasket, or hose needs water to stay pliable. If it dries out, "the seal will crack and will not be able to do its job," says Shank. Once the valve opens and the water turns on, a leak or flood will likely follow.
The pipes can also dry out, crack, and wreak the same havoc. "The water pressure can cause extreme bursts and flooding throughout your home," says Shank.
The fix: Make sure all water and valves are turned -- and left -- on for several days before a home inspection. Your inspector will get a good sense of potential problems, so you can avoid paying for a pricey plumbing repair or water damage.
The problem: Appliances in an empty home can also take a hit.
"The valves in dishwashers can get stuck in the closed position when they sit around unused for weeks on end," says Shank. Once you turn that water on again, watch out: You might face a leak, a flood, or at least the need for a replacement.
The fix: Since it's hard to know for how long an appliance has been sleeping, try negotiating the purchase price to reflect the need for a new dishwasher, washing machine, and refrigerator with ice and/or water features.
The problem: Long-unused faucets can be drippy, instead of free-flowing, once the water is turned back on, says Shank.
If the home's pipes are galvanized steel, there's a good chance that scaly minerals in the water have built up inside the pipes. When water has been off for a while and then turned back on, the deposits may prevent water from flowing at normal velocity.
"The resulting clogs or blockages to all or part of the water system may be very difficult to remove," he says.
The fix: If the faucet spits and sputters or the flow is drastically reduced, Shank suggests turning the water on and running both the hot and cold at each plumbing fixture to clear any air from the system. Then turn off the faucets and remove the aerator (the screen disc) from each fixture and clean it if there's visible debris. Run the faucet without the aerator to flush the system, and then replace it.
The problem: Over time, a home without humans can become a refuge for many woodland creatures. Squirrels who have access to the roof from unpruned branches can chew access holes that they -- and many of their critter counterparts -- use as a revolving door. They can also chew insulation and wiring, and, as Grzelka found out, they can be hard to detect.
"We have found dead mice and rats and a live mother possum feeding her two babies in attics," says William Begal, president of Begal Enterprises, a disaster restoration company in Rockville, MD.
The fix: Many pest removal companies offer inspection services to spot infestations and other animal-related problems. And even though it's a few unplanned hundred dollars, that extra set of eyes could spare you thousands later.