While it's a given that anyone buying a home should have it inspected by a pro, it pays to keep a keen eye out for potential problems yourself, even before the contract is signed. Here's what This Old House general contractor Tom Silva looks for on his initial walk-through of any house.
From a distance: Start with a side-of-the-road inspection. Look at how the house is sited. If the land slopes toward the house, is there adequate drainage? Check for straight roof lines and a roof in good shape, without odd-looking dips, bumps, or bubbles.
Up close: Examine the house's exterior. If the siding and trim are painted, is there any bubbling or major peeling? Does the earth around the house come in contact with siding or trim details? Assess the condition of windows and doors. Are the storm windows intact, with all the screens and glass panels in place? Do exterior doors close flush, without difficulty? Are thresholds loose or damaged?
Inside the house: Check the ceilings and walls for signs of water damage, such as stains or evidence of mold. Is there loose plaster or peeling paint? Do stairs feel sturdy underfoot? Are woodwork or moldings splintered or damaged?
Potential problems aren't necessarily a reason not to buy the home you want, but they should certainly affect the price you'll pay. Uncovering a flaw might help you negotiate the sales price down. Even if it doesn't, if you know in advance that you have an expensive repair job coming up you're less likely to overextend yourself on the sales price.