Purchasing a home is an exciting but stressful process. As the home buyer, you want to make sure you are getting your money’s worth and not buying a property that will cause trouble and cost extra money right after the sale (or at least go into it with your eyes open if you’re in love with the house for other reasons).
To really understand the condition of the house, a buyer should hire various professionals to perform inspections. You will likely hire a primary home inspector who will take care of most of the inspection items, supplemented by other inspectors for aspects of the home that require more specialized knowledge. For instance, a general home inspector can tell you if he sees bugs around, but a termite inspector is required to be more certain that the wood is not infested. Similarly, a general home inspector can flip the thermostat onto heat or cool to see what happens, but general home inspectors usually do not have the knowledge and experience (nor are they likely to take the time) to conduct an appropriately thorough inspection of the heating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Before buying a home with an HVAC system, consider hiring a reputable heating and air service company to check out the system and give you a detailed written report on its condition.
Asking five simple questions to the seller and home inspector can give you the information you need about the HVAC condition to save yourself hassle and money once the home is yours:
Does the heating and air conditioning work properly?
This is the most obvious question, but the most important. Find out if the unit breaks down frequently or has recently had a major repair. Ask the seller to provide service records, repair receipts, or signed maintenance contracts. A history of repairs and malfunctions is a bad sign, but documentation of regular maintenance and seasonal service means the owner has cared for the system and the home. In addition, even a person willing to deceptively put a temporary fix in place (such as pumping in fresh refrigerant rather than fixing a leak) in the hopes you don’t notice may feel differently about lying to your face.
A properly working HVAC system means a comfortable and quiet house so walk to each room and see how things feel. Is every room comfortable? Is the equipment noisy or are there strange sounds coming from the vents? How’s the humidity level on each floor? High humidity is a sign the unit is not cooling properly. Even if you don’t know a lot about heating and air conditioning, you know if a house is comfortable while you’re in it, and often that’s enough to tell if something is wrong with the unit.
How old is the system?
Residential HVAC units typically last 10 to 15 years. Even if an old unit is working fine during the inspection, it’s just a fact that older units break more frequently than newer ones. Not only are breakdowns more common, but older units are substantially less efficient compared with today’s modern, high tech equipment. Even more, ageing HVAC systems may operate so inefficiently that the savings in utility bills alone is worth the cost of an immediate replacement. Talk to the home inspector or a licensed HVAC contractor about the age of the unit and replacement options for old systems. If the equipment is due for replacement, ask the seller to discount the price of the house by the replacement cost or have the seller do the work before the sale is complete.
How does the system work?
Before you buy, you need to know exactly what kind of HVAC system you’re getting. There are many types of systems and each has positives and negatives depending on the house. For multi-level homes, determine if there is one unit per floor or does a single unit cool the entire house? The more units, the better the comfort control in each area of the home. Take a look at the thermostat to see if it’s digital and programmable and ask for a demonstration. You want to see a thermostat that can operate on a schedule to turn off while you’re away and cool down before you get home.
Find out if the system uses gas heat or is a heat pump. Gas heat tends to feel warmer than heat pumps, but heat pumps may be less expensive to operate and replace. How many air return vents are there throughout the house? Many systems have one central return per unit, but newer homes have return vents in each room. The more return vents a system has, the better the air will flow will be especially when bedroom doors are closed.
The buyer or home inspector should take the time to give you a full demonstration. HVAC systems are expensive and complicated, and you have a right to understand the system you are buying.
When is the last time the filter was changed?
You can learn a lot by looking at the filter. If the filter is dirty and hasn’t been changed in a long time, that’s a good indication the HVAC system has been neglected. A clogged filter makes the unit work harder, stresses the fan motor, and prevents proper air flow throughout the house. If the owner has service records showing repairs to the air handler, the repairs could be related to the filter not being changed and the system having been ignored. Long term neglect of the HVAC system and lack of regular maintenance likely means you are buying an inferior HVAC system with a shortened lifespan.
Is there any warranty left?
HVAC systems may have several different warranties working at the same time. For systems installed within the last year, the builder or installer usually has a one-year parts and labor warranty on the entire system. If anything breaks in the first year, it will be fixed free of charge. Most equipment automatically comes with a 5 year parts-only compressor warranty and, if the unit uses gas heat, a 20 year parts-only heat exchanger warranty. “Parts-only” means you will not be charged for the parts, but you will still have to pay for the shipping and the labor to make the repair. Finally, some equipment manufactures offer extended warranties such as lifetime compressor replacement, but not all of these can be transferred between homeowners so be sure to get the details.
Buying a home is a big deal and just like any big purchase, you want confidence in what you’re buying. A home inspection is critical to revealing problems before you buy and will help you when negotiating the final price. As the most expensive system in the house, the heating and air conditioning deserves special attention during the inspection. Knowing what to look for and what questions to ask about the HVAC system make you an informed buyer and ease the transition into your new home.