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Buyer, Beware: Some Real Estate Deal Breakers

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The emotional travail and stress of buying a house are well known.

A big contributor to this stress is when hope for nesting gold is dashed into disappointment. Usually a real estate listing doesn’t spell out the big problem(s) that will drive away potential buyers.

Sometimes a house’s serious issues are implied between the lines of the "For Sale" listing. Everybody knows to beware of the “handyman’s special,” but it might be wise to heed phrases like “for the right buyer” with caution as well.

Other times, however, there's no clue. Homebuyers just have to go see, and then flee, for themselves.

What are some common examples of these deal breakers—the immediate turnoffs that cause homebuyers to strike a house from their list of candidates?

Outdoor Issues

Charlie Young, CEO of ERA Real Estate, said among the typical deal breakers are a house’s proximity to high-tension wires — the radiation from power lines has been claimed to cause serious health problems — whether the house is near a commercial zone or in a new development where construction has stalled.

Not all of these will turn off all homebuyers.

“There are things that can be good or bad depending on the needs of the client,” Young says. “Being close to a commercially zoned area could be undesirable for someone looking for peace and quiet but really attractive to someone who likes to walk to the coffee shop or library.”

When a house is located on a high-traffic street, it’s often a significant enough safety concern for parents of small children or families with pets that it is a deal breaker. Busy streets also create a noise issue. However, that doesn’t rule out busy streets for everyone. “A busy road could be a turn off for someone with small children, but a real benefit to someone who needs access to public transportation,” says Young.

Other significant causes for concern he lists include old roofs, dated central air conditioning units, septic tanks or in-ground oil tanks. Fumes, smells, and possible toxic seepage can turn off buyers, as it did with one woman who said via Twitter that a gas station right behind the back yard once caused her to dismiss a house.

Another classic make-or-break issue is the quality and safety of the surrounding area. Writer Suzi McGowan remembers dismissing one house because “we had to go past a sex shop and billboards for escort services to get to the house.”

Indoor Problems

Just because you’ve made it inside a house that’s for sale doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. Water issues are notorious deal breakers, and homes in flood plains are more difficult to sell. Peter Dolch, who is looking for a house in Westchester County, New York, is vigilant for dampness in basements, and he views dehumidifiers and sump pumps as warning signs.

Bad odors have also driven many a potential homebuyer away. Dolch has walked right out of open houses that had strong pet odors.

The cost of utilities can be prohibitive for the informed buyer as well. Electric heating was a deal breaker for Zele, a professional organizer who goes by one name, who is closing on a condo at the end of this month. “I live in Nebraska and it’s too expensive to have electric heat.”

McGowan recalls the worst place she saw while house hunting: “There were hundreds of huge dead cockroaches inside the door. My son was afraid to go upstairs.”

Intangibles

It’s not always problems that can be seen that can knock a house out of consideration.

Owners being evasive can mean they have something to hide. Amy de la Fuente of Chicago said via Twitter that it was a deal breaker for her when the home sellers would not answer questions about flooding in the basement, tree roots being close to water lines and other maintenance performed on the home such as heat, air conditioning, and electric.

Some deal breakers can't be explained. Zele mentions getting “the heebie jeebies” while checking out two apartments was enough reason to leave immediately.

Now Go Make a Deal

Having a list of deal breakers means knowing what to watch out for to head off safety issues, money drains and other future headaches. Denise Porter in Baton Rouge, La., mentioned via Twitter the learning curve between buying her first home and buying her second one.

The first time, she says, her considerations were “affordable and is it cute?” With the second home, she was watching out for its foundation, electrical system, old trees, HVAC age and quality, and termites, among other practicalities.

“The real takeaway here is that consumers need to work with a good real estate agent that understands their unique needs and can identify listings that are in line with those needs,” says Young. He advises visiting the home at various times before buying and to look for homes that already come with a home inspection report or a home warranty.

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  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.