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Rebecca Stevenson is in the market for open homes
Rebecca Stevenson is in the market for open homes

MoneyJuly 6, 2018

Flush the toilet, roll a marble: How to hack your next Open Home

Rebecca Stevenson is in the market for open homes
Rebecca Stevenson is in the market for open homes

There’s an art to visiting open homes. Rebecca Stevenson looks behind ‘the vibe’ and smell of baking as she searches for a new house.

I’m not exactly in the market for a new home, but I am in the market for open homes.

Let me explain. We own our home. Our home is a dump but I acknowledge in owning our home we are totally lucky, and we’ve bought and sold in a rising market – which is how we came to purchase a villa relatively close to the city centre about five years ago. But still with an unfathomably big mortgage.

It is, as they say, one of the worst houses on the best street. (In my view). We’re surrounded by similar villas in various states of repair and dis. Now our house needs renovating. It is, as I euphemistically say, authentic.

We haven’t done anything proper to it. We’ve spent all the money we saved on heat pumps and carpet squares for the bedrooms and lounge. We have original kauri floorboards, rough sawn and charmingly uneven. We have original wiring, the light in our baby’s bedroom doesn’t work and we get by, screwing the clip in bulb in and out. Part of his original kauri ceiling is starting to come away, but the stuff that grows out of it is sorted with a good suck of the vacuum.

We need to renovate our house. Or. Do we buy one that’s already done up…

So I’m in the market, if not for an actual home, for open homes. I want to stay in my area, so that’s where I start. I know I also want a renovated house, so I look for ones which are already done. And there’s three on over the weekend, all within walking distance. Too easy.

But I don’t want to become vulnerable to shiny new kitchen benchtops, a bunch of fresh flowers, and some baking smells. So, I’ve been pointed to this handy wee open home guide on the website, which is run by the government regulator, the Real Estate Authority.

The site has a useful summary of the sorts of issues to think about when you’re heading around home after home after home, with practical tips on what matters to look for – not only in a home, but your potential neighbourhood too. Snoop around the neighbours, check the public transport routes, and what the local shops are like. We already live here, we know what it has and what it lacks. So that’s checked off.

There’s also a comprehensive checklist you can take, and it really runs the gamut of potential real estate disasters from sad water pressure to sunken floorboards. Here’s what I found:

First house up. It’s a flat across the street and it’s probably in worse condition than our house, so I’ve broken my only condition (a done up house) already, but such is house hunting. Always twists and turns. But it’s got a higher position than our house, so I’m off to have a nosey.

This house really sucks. It hasn’t been cleaned properly in eons, and quite frankly I do not want to touch a thing. The toilet is outside for Pete’s sake and the ceilings are a mix of orange smoke stains and dead things.

It’s in terrible nick. So most of the guide’s questions about the outside are a write-off. It’s in awful, awful, condition and everything needs doing.

“Check the storage in each of the rooms, hallways and garages,” the guide tells me. “Open doors and look inside.” I wish I hadn’t. It’s gross. So I didn’t want to touch the cupboards. Sorry not sorry.

“Does the property tick the boxes for what you’re looking for, for example, sun exposure, bedrooms, bathrooms, views and outdoor living?”

Great sun, loads of bedrooms (four), but two of them are locked (WTF, it’s not called a “locked home”), bathroom looks like a scarfie flat, the yard has an untamed upward slope but the views at the crest are killer. Cool.

“Check the shower pressure, tap pressure and how well the toilets flush.”

Now I have to take issue with this advice as an Aucklander who gets charged for water in and out. Nothing moves me faster than realising my kid has been in the shower for more than two minutes. If I was holding open homes and everyone flushed I’d be charging an entry fee.

But I would make an exception if you went back for a second visit. That shows intent and is a goodwill down payment, so I’ll allow it if your serious, and mortgages in central Auckland are way too big to put up with weak water pressure.

“Check the outside walls, and roofs and look at the condition of the decks, fences, chimneys, garden and lawns. If there are wooden windows, check the condition of the putty and look for any rot or areas that have been filled. Check the condition of exterior paintwork. If the exterior is plaster cladding, check for cracks.”

It’s all villas around these parts. Wood, wood and wood. It’s our brick chimneys that we worry about, and yep, this one has an oldie. That means dollars to remove it, dollars to keep it, and if you keep it it’s a massive space suck. Sucks.

Not many boxes are getting ticked here, and despite the view and the romance, it’s nowhere near enough to offset the checklist’s fails.  

Don’t be afraid to test the shower pressure and flush the toilet.

On to Number 2. This house is across the park from ours, and wait, it’s not a villa. It’s a brick number. So I’m immediately looking for stuff to hate on.

It’s renovated. That’s a good start, but it’s so fresh that the wardrobe doors aren’t on, and there’s some chunky painting that is also super fresh white too. It’s a nice house though and I am happy to touch stuff here, so let’s get back to the list.

“Check the condition of all doors and windows and see if they open and shut properly.”

It’s all pretty new, and present and accounted for. I can’t complain. I head out onto a surprisingly small and angled deck and my god, there it is.

The entire backyard is covered by two double garages.

“Check there is enough parking on the property and the street for you and your visitors.”

That’s a garage-tastic yes on that one. I don’t love it, I have to say. As the house already has a huge driveway and a stone-lined park near the front door. You could, on the upside, turn one half of the garage into a kids rumpus room. Sounds peaceful.

“Retaining walls: Check for cracks and sagging or bowing.”

This house is a lower-lying property than we like. It’s got a significant retaining wall bordering a public park running along the length of the property. If you had to fix it, it would be definitely expensive – and you’re also a touch overlooked.

Number three. Now this one is a bit of a trudge. It’s closer to the action and consequently the section is a touch more squished. It’s been renovated but it’s a bit weird? Has it just been spruced up, but the fundamentals like piles been left undone?

“Look at the condition of the floor coverings. Check to see if the floors are level.”

There does appear to be some sloping, but the floorboards look pretty solid. The website recommends taking a marble to roll along the floor, and I do, but just can’t make myself do it in the midst of this bustling open home. It’s a villa. Of course it’s bung. But it’s a big decision, so when you find somewhere you love, don’t be afraid to get out your marbles (or flush the toilet) before you bury yourself in debt.

“Imagine you’re living there. Think about the rooms you plan to use a lot and move between them. Make sure the rooms are big enough for the furniture you’d like to put in there.”

Furniture is fine because I’d take the opportunity to turf our horrendously enormous corner couch too. But this is the real question. Can I imagine we’re all living there? Comparing my checklists, number three is definitely my fave. Am I really in the market? Not sure. But I’m heading back for a second visit this weekend, and this time I’m going to test the shower pressure.

Going to an open home or viewing

Have a good look around. Open cupboards and turn on taps to check if the property meets your needs.

  • Does the property tick the boxes for what you’re looking for, for example, sun exposure, bedrooms, bathrooms, views and outdoor living?
  • How much storage is there? Can more be easily added?
  • Is there enough water pressure? Turn on the shower and taps and flush the toilet.
  • What kind of exterior cladding does the house have? Is it well maintained? Check for cracks in plaster cladding.
  • Check that everything works – for example, open windows and turn on taps and light switches.
  • Note any smells that could indicate dampness or a previous flood.
  • Will your furniture fit?
  • Is there a garage on the property? How big is it? Can you use it for a car or storage?
  • Check the physical condition of the house inside and out. Do the floorboards move or does the floor slope? It’s useful to take a marble and place it on the floor. If the marble rolls, it could indicate issues with the foundations.
  • If the property has retaining walls, check for sagging or cracks. Repairing retaining walls can be expensive.

It’s a good idea to take a few photos when you’re there to help you remember the details, especially if you’re viewing a number of properties. Try to take someone with you to view each property – it’s helpful to get a second opinion. Take your time and walk around at your own pace – you might live there one day.

Keep going!