Tips for spotting a hasty house flip

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A flipped house — where an older or distressed home is purchased, remodeled, and resold — isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Plenty of buyers would rather pay upfront for an updated, move-in ready home than take on the full-time hassle of managing a remodel.

But while some home flippers do beautiful work — making crucial repairs and updating older homes with new systems and tasteful modern finishes in all the right places — others might just slap together a few cosmetic upgrades in hopes of a making quick buck.  

Flips are a fact of life in the Boston real estate market, for a few key reasons. Our housing stock in Massachusetts is a lot older than average — second only to New York’s — so there’s a ready supply of tired homes. High incomes and home prices mean there’s both a demand and reward for updated homes. Add to that a hot housing market — in April, the average Boston-area listing sold in just 10 days, according to Redfin — and the environment is ripe for home flipping.

Here are some ways to spot a flip, and whether it was done with care or haste.

First, check the last sale.

This is pretty obvious, but public records will show the date and price of the last sale. If that was within the last year, and the price was significantly lower than the current listing price, you’re probably looking at a flip. (Another surefire way to tell is by checking the disclosure statements; sometimes it will say, “Owner has never occupied the property.”) Now you have to ask yourself: Are the new kitchen, bath, and other improvements worth that price difference?

Also keep in mind that quality improvements take time: a full kitchen remodel by itself can take anywhere from two to six months, Tom Silva of “This Old House” once told the Huffington Post. Every month a developer holds onto the home is costing him or her money, of course, so there’s an incentive to rush things. But good ones will have accounted for the time it takes to do things right.

Check the building permits.

Once you know you’re looking at a flip, check what building permits have been pulled at that address. (The City of Boston allows you do this online.) If the contractor didn’t pull the proper permits for the work performed, it’s a pretty telling indicator of a slapdash fix.

Look at the details.

Quartz counters and farmhouse sinks are lovely, but how these materials were installed will tell you more about the quality of the contractor and subcontractors than what they installed.

Is the caulking at the seams smooth and uniform? Do the kitchen and bath tiles line up cleanly at the joints? Do the doors stick? Do the wood floors have imperfections like sawdust bumps, swirling, or dry spots? “If the floors are uniformly shiny and free of defects, that’s a really good sign,” said home inspector Harold Popp of Mt. Vernon Inspection Associates.  

Another clear sign of craftsmanship (or lack of it) can be found under the kitchen sink, according to Are the pipes and proper shutoffs installed neatly, or is it a messy mechanical jungle down there?

Don’t let cosmetics distract you.

It’s easy to fall in love with a paint job or smart-looking backsplash. “I’ve made thousands of dollars with a one-gallon bucket of paint,” Peter Souhleris of “Flipping Boston” once told Boston Magazine. But if an older home hasn’t been maintained through the years, the most urgent updates might be the ones needed inside the walls.

Behind-the-scenes repairs like replacing old pipes aren’t as obvious or as impressive to buyers, so quick flippers might not bother with them. Ask the seller’s agent what, if any, upgrades were made to the heating, plumbing, and electrical systems.  

And if the sparkling new bathroom or kitchen feels awkward, remember that no fancy finish can make up for a bad layout. A fast flipper is more likely to just swap out fixtures — or try to cram in more features — without consulting a designer or considering the utility of the layout. “When appliances aren’t laid out correctly, that’s the first thing I notice that may have been done to stick to a budget,” Portland, Maine-based designer Tyler Karu told “They’re using an existing layout just to save money.”

Ultimately, your best chance at sniffing out a rushed remodel is to hire a good home inspector. At the very least, enlist a contractor friend or family member — along with a seasoned buyer’s agent — to view the property with you once you get serious about it. Like them, the more homes you see, the better you’ll get at differentiating the quality from the quick.

Jon Gorey blogs about homes at Send comments to Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at