The first time you purchase a home can be both scary and exciting all at the same time; scary because its a pretty large investment, exciting because its a new chapter in life. Personally, I’ve only purchased one home so far but I could imagine this mix of emotions happens each time you go through the process of buying a home. The only difference I could think is that a first time buyer will probably not be as aware of potential problems in a home as someone who has pruchased and lived in one before. Like buying a used car. You want a car, you go look at a car. Too many people just listen to the salesmans go through their speel, the deal sounds pretty good so you test drive it, test drive goes well, you agree to a price and drive off. The sales person told you the tires were within legal regualtion and you didnt think anything of it because if you can test drive it then they must be good to go… but they didnt bother to tell you that they only have a couple millimeters before they need to be replaced which costs you even more. This is no different than the HVAC system in your home, you feel that its working and thats good enough for you. The typical home buyers checklist probably looks something like:
- # of Bedrooms
- # of Bathrooms
- Square Footage
- Yard size (Fenced or Not)
- Neighborhood (and School District)
- Roof (Material, When it was replaced if ever)
- Electric Works, Plumbing Works and the HVAC system turns on
But just because the HVAC system works during the inspection and walk through doesnt mean it has much life left in it. The big difference between the used car tires is that a new system is going to cost you thousands of dollars instead of hundreds.
Just like anything else, experience goes a long way and helps you to make sound judgements. And if you are anything like me and many of the people I know, big purchases are such an overwhelming experience that you get lost in the light at the end of the tunnel and forget to ask important questions along the way. No worries, I think it’s a normal thing to do but not slowing down to ask the right questions could end up costing you. So today we address some of the items you should have on your HVAC checklist when purchasing a home.
How old is the HVAC system? This is a pretty easy one as the serial number along with the install date will give you an exact number of its age. Which number to go off of is debatable. The serial number date gives its entire life which could be months, maybe even close to a year, before its installed which might effect the manufacturer warranty. And while some might think something that hasnt been used is still new you might want to reconsider. There are a lot of moving parts and others that need lubricated, depending on where the system was stored it can cause a lot of potential problems. Like putting brand new 50k mile tires on a nice collectors car then letting it sit around while putting minimal miles on it and expecting them to last 50k miles; they will dry rot if in the wrong conditions, get flat spots and have leaks around the stems but still have 6mm of tread which is more than enough to drive on the road. New isn’t always good when under the wrong conditions. The install date will give you the time of when things became functional and the internal components started wearing. While neither one of these ages give you 100% confidence when making a decision, it certainly does help make a quick judgement. What I mean is, some units fail at less than 5 years and others could last over 15. There are many other factors that cause a system to prematurely fail or allow it to outlast its shelf life. For that reason, age alone should not be a deciding factor.
Who installed the HVAC System? This one is two fold. A quality installation will definitely allow for longer system life so its important to know if the job was done by a professional, a contractor who is no longer in business or maybe even a previous homeowner. The installation should be thought of like the foundation of a home; this is the starting point and it sets the tone for the rest of the system. A quality install will get you the most out of your investment where as a not so quality install will increase the likelihood of premature failure. The second part to knowing who did the work is that you will have access to past records (which we will get to later) and the system may be covered by a transferable labor warranty. Labor can be a huge cost so if make sure to check into this and potentially save yourself some money.
What is the units Energy Rating? SEER, or Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating, should be labelled somewhere on the AC and an AFUE, Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency, percentage somewhere on the furnace. You may have an HSPF or COP rating on your furnace instead of an AFUE. The higher the number, the more efficient the system “should” operate. I say should because its a number that is highly dependent on factors outside of the system such as duct work sizing, duct leakage, quality of installation, system balance, etc. Just like the age of the system should not be a sole decision maker in the status of a systems life, the ratings on a unit should not be an auto assumption that the higher rating gurantees you the higher results. It is important to understand the numbers and compare them to against utility bills to get an understanding of how the system is actually performing. High efficiency should come with lower bills but if you find that the bills are high with high efficiency then theres a problem.
How does the Maintenance Report look? One of the most important factors in determining a systems expected performance and remaining life… the maintenance. Dont get me wrong, there are probably a couple handful of cases where a system lasted its expected shelf life with little to no maintenance but the cases are probably less than 1% of all HVAC equipment out there. If the previous owner was enrolled in a maintenance agreement plan then refer back to who has done the work or find out if they used a different HVAC company for the maintenance then they did for the install. The records will not only help you stay within warranty but give you more transparency on the life of the HVAC system. Routine maintenance is a major factor in getting the performance the system is capable of and a system that has not been properly maintained screams disaster. Like most things in life, if you held a side by side comparison of 2 identical products and one was maintained while the other was not… there is a high probability the maintained product will outlast the other.
Is the system still under Warranty? In a previous blog, we covered the 2 main types of warranties in HVAC. If your maintenance records check out, you may still fall under the manufacturer warranty which will save you big on any replacement parts. The second warranty to look into that is often times overlooked is the labor warranty. Many contractors offer transferrable warranties and labor is not cheap. This is just another thing that could be free to you and save you big for years to come but if you didnt ask, you may never know. Many realtors or agencies might push you to get a home warranty and thats fine if it fits your needs but, why double up on coverage if its not necessary?
Get copies of utility bills or an average utility cost. This doesnt narrow down the culprit, if any, to your energy bill vampire but with the HVAC system making up a large portion of that bill… it can help you get an understanding of what is going on in the home. High utility bills could be linked to poorly sealed doors and windows, poor insulation, or an innefficient HVAC system. A professional can give you a second opinion and better analyze your energy bill trends. Maybe you notice a spike in energy bills during the summer and not so much during the winter… that could be a que that your AC needs some attention. Or maybe there isnt a change from season to season, that could be an insulation issue or both systems need attention. Im not a professional but those would be assumptions I would make. An HVAC contractor would be able to give a much better analysis. And high utility bills arent always a sure sign of issues if you find that the equipment is low efficient. That is why is it crucial that you dont take one piece of this checklist and make a decision but you actually look at how each of them interact with one another.
These are just a few of the things you should have on your checklist when buying a new home. At the end of the day… Get a second opinion. The majority of home inspectors are not licensed nor are they appropriately trained to diagnose issues in the HVAC systems. I was also surprised to find that some HVAC companies offer FREE second opinions. While it isnt the flashiest sell point, or the first thing that comes to mind when looking at a home, I strongly urge you to do your due diligence and ensure the HVAC system is in good working order prior to purchasing. Its your comfort that you risk because it could be running today and broken down tomorrow if you don’t know any better. Be proactive.