Realtors offer tips to spare buyers from house hunt horrors

Buying Fall House Hunt
. —John W. Tomac for The Boston Globe

This spring, my parents set off to tour their dream home. What they saw — and smelled — when they walked through the door resembled more of a nightmare.

It was evident that the contemporary ranch, which had been vacant for about a year after foreclosure, needed work. But the pond-front property with floor-to-ceiling windows and a wide deck seemed irresistible. The three of us trekked to Millbury to check it out.

A pungent, nose-crinkling odor greeted us at the door. Taken aback, the real estate agent pressed forward and searched for the offensive scent. She opened the refrigerator to reveal moldy food that had likely been rotting for a year.

But it wasn’t the foul stench that turned my parents away.

The spacious deck overlooking the water was unsafe to stand on. Mold grew in the walls, nearly all the windows needed replacing, and the layout seemed more like a bachelor’s pad. It would have taken too much work to turn the troublesome house into a family home.

Back to square one.

Real estate agents deal with the unexpected daily. They never know what could happen at a showing.

Some of those surprises make for a funny story later on, but others — such as the Millbury nightmare house — are cautionary tales. Just in time for Halloween, real estate agents across the state shared their own horror stories — and tips. …

Sleepless in South Hadley

When Five College Realtors agent Kim Wojcik enters a house for a tour, she always announces herself, just in case the sellers are still home. When she showed a Cape in South Hadley last spring, she needn’t have bothered.

Wojcik, a Northampton-based realtor, showed her client the first floor of the house at mid-morning. Little did she know, the owner was snoozing upstairs.

Upon entering the second-floor bedroom, they were shocked to see a leg hanging off the bed. “There’s someone sleeping in there,’’ Wojcik whispered to her client, and the two tiptoed out of the house.

“That happens more than you would think,’’ Wojcik said.

Five years ago, she toured a bungalow near Westfield State University with a couple, their teenage daughter, and their younger son. Unbeknownst to her, the seller had rented the property to college students.

Wojcik and the family entered the house to find Corona posters and a table set up for beer pong. A seemingly hungover student woke from his slumber and stumbled down the stairs in his underwear.

The family — which had a very good sense of humor — laughed about it, but respectfully passed on the house.

Her tip: If you’re going to buy a fixer-upper, be sure you can manage it — the work and any unexpected expenses.

“A lot of people go into it thinking, I can fix this because I watch HGTV,’’’ Wojcik said.

Allow at least a 10 percent cushion for unexpected expenses, reported, but make that up to 25 percent for older homes. Mass­achusetts has the second-oldest housing stock in the country, by the way, according to the American Community Survey.

A chilling surprise

Rebecca Scaro, a Middlesex County realtor, didn’t notice what was in the master bedroom while she prepared a Waltham house for a showing in 2014.

A couple and their kids had partially moved out of the single-family home, but the two young boys, ages 8 and 10, apparently weren’t quite ready to let it go.

When Scaro returned with her clients, she found two large figures tucked under the bed covers. “It looked like two people lying on their back prepared for a coffin,’’ she said.

The clients didn’t flinch, but Scaro was frightened. “I was shaking and sweating on the phone with my husband,’’ she said. She instantly began brainstorming how to handle the situation.

“I didn’t go running out, because I thought, I have to deal with this,’’ she said.

Gathering courage, she went back in the room. Upon further inspection, Scaro realized that the lumps were foam pillows, stacked to look like mummies.

“That was absolutely terrifying,’’ Scaro said with a chuckle. As for the buyers? The house wasn’t the right fit for them.

Her tip: Buying a house is a big decision. To alleviate stress, hire a thorough home inspector. Some buyers waive inspection contingencies in a competitive market. If a buyer plans on doing a major renovation or is knowledgeable about construction, then it may be worth the risk, she said. For everyone else, she said, inspections can save you from headaches down the road.

“Most buyers find it difficult to remain completely objective and unemotional about the house they really want, and this may have an effect on their judgment,’’ the American Society of Home Inspectors reports on its website. “For accurate information, it is best to obtain an impartial, third-party opinion by a professional.’’

Calendar confusion

While searching for houses to show her pastor’s in-laws three years ago, Gayle Prest, a Leicester-based real estate agent with Mattei Realty, stumbled upon an online listing for a West Brookfield Colonial. The in-laws, visiting from Minnesota, were in town only for the weekend. Luckily, the listing advertised an open house that Sunday – or so Prest thought.

“It was so inviting,’’ Prest said of the house. It had a large attached garage, and there were about three dozen apple trees. It was odd, she thought, when no one else showed up for the open house.

When she knocked on the door, a surprised homeowner answered. The open house was the following Sunday; they had the wrong date.

Disappointed, Prest and her clients turned to leave. Feeling bad for them, the homeowner invited them in.

The in-laws fell in love with the house, with its open floor plan and wood stove. Prest said she showed the couple at least five other homes, but this was the one they bought.

Her tip: House hunters shouldn’t settle, she said. “This is a big investment and it is such a stressful process. You don’t want to have any regrets.’’

To avoid choosing the wrong house, or purchasing a home with problems, slow down, she said. “If you are not in a hurry, it’s much easier to find the right house that fits you,’’ she said.

That can be a hard thing to do when condos spent an average of 41 days on the market in metro Boston in August, according to the Greater Boston Association of Realtors. For single-family homes, it was 39 days.

How to know whether a home has problems

Ryan Williams, general manager at Wakefield-based 128 Plumbing, Heating, Cooling & Electric, offered these tips to avoid purchasing a house of horrors.

Look for water damage in the basement, he said, signs such as rust on the bottom of heating systems or stained wood at the base of the staircase or on lally columns.

“If water finds itself into a basement one time, it will find its way there again,’’ unless the problem was properly addressed, Williams said.

Test the little things — switches, outlets, drains, faucets, he said. “You can probably get ahead of some areas of concern by exercising all of those basic mechanicals in the home during a walkthrough.’’

“Make sure you’re focusing not just on the cosmetic things,’’ he added. “Open closets, go into basements, pop your head into attics.’’

And always have a professional look at the house, Williams stressed. Even if you waive an inspection contingency, take a professional with you for the walkthrough, he recommended.

All of the real estate agents recommended hiring a reliable agent to guide you on your house hunt. A trustworthy realtor can help you make an informed purchase — and you just might share a few laughs along the way.

Nicole Defeudis can be reached at Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @globehomes.