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Buying a New House? Don’t ignore the HVAC.

Whenever we take the plunge into the real estate market the quest for a new home can be so exhilarating (and a little bit overwhelming at times) that we sometimes leave our objectivity at the door of the Open House. We become enthralled by things like the master bath, hardwood floors, vaulted ceilings and other aesthetics. Perhaps we’re so excited about finding the house of our dreams we forget to check the home’s bare bones, or the hardware that makes it livable. It’s these behind-the-scenes components that keep the house cozy.

So, in between asking whether a potential home has lead paint, what the agent’s commission is, or if there has been paranormal activity reported recently, we should make a line of inquiry regarding the home’s HVAC system. A little detective work now may save us some cash and a slew of problem-solving later.

As we begin the house tour the eye is subconsciously taking in the overall upkeep or states of disrepair: are the carpets worn? Is the paint flaking? Mysterious odors we can’t quite decipher? If the home can’t withstand a cursory eyeball test, well, it stands to reason that the HVAC system has probably been neglected by the previous tenants as well.

If, on the other hand, the walkthrough is proceeding agreeably, we take a detour over to the thermostat and ramp-up the heat and air conditioning. After a few minutes have elapsed, seek out ducts in different parts of the house and run our hand in front of them. Feel, and try to gauge whether the air is blowing sufficiently and at its respective temperature. Continue meandering through the home and try to detect climate continuity; do some rooms feel hot? Stuffy? Humid? Cold? If some areas stand in stark contrast to others we can surmise that there’s a hiccup in the air delivery system, such as leaking or uninsulated ductwork.

Next, it’s time to get up-close and personal to the source - the HVAC apparatus itself. What’s the first impression of the unit? Is it in good shape? We’re on the lookout for red flags like rust, dents, cracks, water stains, or other signs of decay. Listen for strange noises that indicate internal complications. If there are strong, musty odors emanating in the vicinity it could signify potential mold problems. This visual once-over won’t be able to tell us everything, but it could reveal enough to signify whether potential troubles loom.

Should the realtor’s “stat sheet” avoid mention of the HVAC system don’t be afraid to query the homeowner about it. Ask about past maintenance and average monthly heating and cooling expenses. Sometimes, HVAC technicians will leave job tickets secured to the specific unit that are dated and detail the work done as a heads-up courtesy to the next technician that may operate on it. Check the tag for frequency and scope of jobs completed. Even by noting the model and manufacturing date we can gain some good insight through a simple web search. Inquire as to whether the system is currently under warranty; oftentimes a warranty can be transferred to a new owner for a nominal fee.

Remember that the HVAC system comprises approximately 50% of your monthly utility bill. In the long-run, an updated, efficient model will lower your bills and save you money. The average lifespan of an HVAC unit is between 10 to 15 years; a new furnace and air conditioner average at least a few-thousand bucks each. However, spending now can be understood as an investment for later - the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that a 12-year-old central A.C. that is replaced with a new Energy Star model, due to energy-efficiency, can decrease a cooling bill by 30%. Bear in mind that we can use the home’s current HVAC system as a bargaining chip in price negotiation should we decide to put down an offer for the house.

When seriously considering signing on the dotted line to purchase the residence, we first avail ourselves of a reputable home inspector that has got our back. Their battery of tests, measurements, and overall assessment of the home will provide observation that the inexperienced buyer lacks. Aside from the rest of the structure, home inspectors can evaluate the current HVAC setup and its accessories, such as insulation, window and door seals, duct fitness, and overall weatherproofing.


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