See the house for yourself. "You can't buy them sight unseen," says Bill Richardson, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). "If you're an investor from Chicago and you're buying in Tucson, you'll need someone to evaluate the house in person."

Look at the neighborhood. Your homework should include evaluating the neighborhood. You may not be able to recoup the cost of the repairs if the value of the house is depressed by widespread foreclosures or high crime in the area. Tonya Perkins-Stoudermire says she also encourages buyers to study the neighborhood's appeal at all hours, including at night.

How long has the house been empty? The longer the vacancy the more damage there is, in most cases. Bill Richardson, of ASHI, says if a house hasn't been "moth-balled" carefully, a long list of ailments set in. "The plumbing seals dry out, sewer gases back up, and bugs that are in the sewer get a chance to get into the house. That's true for the sinks, toilets, and washer drains," says Richardson.

Was it winterized? Don't turn on the utilities until you know the condition of the pipes. If the pipes cracked during a cold spell, water will leak into the walls, and mold could take hold when you turn the water back on.

Look at the landscaping. ASHI's Bill Richardson warns, "If the house has been neglected, untrimmed trees, vines and bushes contribute to the deterioration of the house." Vines crawl into the windows, and tree seedlings send roots down into the foundation. "It doesn't take very big trees to mess up pavers, and dead branches crash into the house," says Richardson.

Contract for a private inspection. Banks generally require a home inspection when lending money for a mortgage. But even if you're paying completely out of pocket for an ultra-cheap find, all the pros say it's crucial to get an up-to-date inspection. Richardson says previous inspections "are only a snapshot in time," and conditions change dramatically. "There's no caretaker on these properties. I've looked at quite a few," says Richardson. "We've seen vandalism. We've seen previous owners steal cabinets and fixtures. Copper piping has been stolen." In some cases an inspection will prevent further damage. For example, if inspectors determine the pipes are cracked, repairs can be done in advance. Richardson said inspectors charge $300 to $500.
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