When it comes to finding a new home, many times, our home choices are driven by the emotional connection we feel. Falling in love with a house can make it difficult to employ reason or logic when considering its suitability. Approaching house hunting with a more logical mindset could prevent a lot of time, money and potential heartache.
While house hunting is exciting, it can be overwhelming without some educated thinking. Having a clear idea of what you're looking for before making an offer is essential, considering that aspects are often overlooked during the initial walkthrough before committing to a purchase.
Beyond their bones and location, houses are intricate systems with parts working together to create a protective and comfortable environment. Unfortunately, many focus on cosmetic beauty over functionality or health when evaluating homes. While the emotional feel is essential, it shouldn't be the sole factor when making an offer.
Before you start on your house hunting journey, see my tips below, and feel free to print out and take my resource for what to look for as a Healthier Home buyer.
L O C A T I O N A N D N E A R B Y H E A L T H H A Z A R D S
The significance of a homes location cannot be overstated. It's not just about its spot on a map but understanding the surrounding environment. Take a closer look for nearby hazards: Are there parks or golf courses nearby? What about electrical substations, overhead power lines, radio / tv or cell phone towers? Airports or other sources of noise or air pollution? What are the traffic patterns? Are you near a stop light with idling traffic or a major road with heavy traffic day and night? Are you surrounded by other residential homes or is there retail, commercial or manufacturing places nearby too?
There is also a great site called RFNSA where you can check for the location of 5G and cell phone towers, you can measure the distance to the potential home with a measure tool within google maps.
The orientation of a home is critical for passive heating and cooling, ensuring an energy-efficient and comfortable living space. In Australia, the preference for a north-facing living area with ample glass is rooted in optimising natural climate conditions. This orientation allows the home to capture maximum sunlight, harnessing passive solar heating during colder seasons and reducing the need for artificial heating.
Additionally, it facilitates natural ventilation, particularly important in hot Australian summers, by promoting cross-ventilation through well-placed windows. The result is a more energy-efficient home that aligns with comfort and sustainability principles, minimising reliance on mechanical systems and enhancing overall well-being.
W A T E R D A M A G E A N D M O U L D
This is a big one, checking for water damage is a critical stage when understanding the health of a potential home, purchasing a home only to discover significant water damage can be disheartening and financially burdensome. Usually, sources of moisture will be obvious, such as inadequate ventilation, exposed and unprotected walls, inadequate drainage, blocked drains or just a humid environment.
When inspecting houses for mould, check walls, ceilings, bathrooms, kitchens, attics (and less common but important cellars) for signs of discolouration, water stains, odours, warping, bubbling, cupping or visible moisture or growth. Not all mould is visible however, and if you suspect mould it is always advised to have environmental testing done by a building biologist.
Spotting visible mould involves inspecting common areas, moisture-prone spaces, and hidden areas under appliances, sinks, and in building materials. Look for discolouration, unusual growth, and use your sense of smell, and always check behind curtains and inside closets and if books are in the home, on the pages; as this is often a place it hides. If you notice condensation on the windows, mirrors or walls this is another sign that ventilation is not adequate and ducted exhausts need to be either installed or if present, checked if correctly functioning (may just be ducted to ceiling cavity).
DAMP, MUSTY ODOUR
It is important here to do this in the first few minutes of entering the home, as our nose will adjust quickly to any odours. I suggest heading straight to the rooms where mould may be present like bathrooms, attics or kitchen cabinets near dishwashers first before your sense of smell adjusts. Always check inside cabinets and get your head right in there, as braided water hoses (used to connect dishwashers) are prone to leaking and usually go undetected for a while, allowing for mould growth.
Inspect for stains on drywall and ceilings, often appearing as yellowish or brown rings. Timber floorboards will also stain and cup from water damage.
TEXTURE, WARPING AN BUBBLING
Altered textures, especially if painted over, may indicate previous leaks. Gently pressing on such areas can reveal softness, suggesting an ongoing or recent leak within the wall. Ensure to inspect under bathroom and kitchen sinks, adjacent to the fridge (and beneath, if accessible), dishwashers, and washing machines. Additionally, be vigilant for warping, staining, or discolouration on skirting boards, plasterboard, and architraves.
Check the corners of carpets for dryness, ensuring there's no dampness. You may be able to peel them back here to check for any signs of damage, ideally do this near a water source like a bathroom / hallway transition where water would have caused most damage. Water damage may stem from plumbing or exterior issues, usually repaired promptly. However, if drywall remains moist for over 48 hours, the risk of mould growth increases.
Engage with the seller to discuss observed water damage as they are obligated to disclose known damp or mould issues. Understanding the nature of the leak (plumbing or exterior) and the cleanup process helps determine the severity of the issue before committing to the home purchase.
A L L E R G E N S
1 in 4 people suffer from allergens (source), so it is important to check the property for potential allergy triggers like dust mites, mould, pollens, pests and pet dander. Homes in warm and humid climates (where relative humidity is regularly over 70%) are at higher risk for mould-related issues.
Houses with carpets are also a red flag for allergy sufferers. If you intend to remove carpet, ask the agent if they know what is below the carpet, when it was installed, what type it is and if you can, lift a corner to see what is below.
Check for outdoor sources of dust such as traffic, nearby construction, airports, sea spray or bushfires, as this will enter the home and harm the indoor air quality.
Inside the home check for sources such as carpet, fabric furnishings, is there adequate and appropriately installed ventilation systems in the kitchen, laundry and bathrooms? Is it a gas or electric cooktop? Are there operating fireplaces? Ask about the presence of asbestos and lead (known sources must be disclosed by the seller), is the garage attached?
Most of the other measures you can take to reduce allergens can happen once you move in.
E L E C T R I C A L A N D E L E C T R O M A G N E T I C F I E L D S ( E M F )
Australian homes built in different eras feature varying electrical wiring. Copper wiring, standard since the 1980s, is preferred for safety. Homeowners should be mindful of their home's wiring type and consider updates to align with modern safety standards, also consider that the amp rating for electrical service in older Australian homes varies; those built before the 1960s may have lower ratings, typically around 30-60 amps. From the 1960s onward, the standard increased to 60 amps and higher, with homes built from the 1980s having a minimum of 100 amps.
Therefore, upgrading electrical service in older homes may be necessary to meet modern safety standards and accommodate current electrical demands. The final thing to consider is the placement of electrical panels, junction boxes, outlets (convenience factor) and appliances in relation to sleeping areas to reduce electromagnetic fields (EMFs) for a healthier living environment. Consulting with a licensed electrician is recommended for assessments and potential upgrades.
While this is a touchy subject and each individual should asses their own risk tolerance for EMF radiation and the potential health impacts when assessing a potential purchase, it is worth noting that electromagnetic fields used in cell phones and wireless technologies were classified as a "possible carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2011. However, the American Cancer Society (ACS) doesn't officially state whether radio-frequency (RF) radiation from cell phones, towers, or other sources causes cancer, and a 2020 report by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found insufficient evidence for a causal link between RF radiation exposure and tumour formation (source).
External sources of AC magnetic fields and radio-frequencies (RF EME) in the home can be measured based on proximity to; high-voltage power lines (600m), street (distribution) power lines (5m), tramlines (10m), substation (30m), transformers (10m), cell phone towers (400m) and TV and radio towers (600m) (source). Also check if the home is near an apartment block, as often these have 5G towers on the top and switchboards and substations in the basement.
Internally (and generally more within your control) look for appliances and their proximity to sleeping areas (fridges, oven, solar inverter, HVAC unit, washer and dryer machines etc.) on opposite walls, location of the panel/ smart meter, what type of networks are used in the home (is there hardwiring capabilities or just WiFi?) and how many neighbouring wifi networks can you detect? Is there a wireless security system? Is there solar panels, and if yes, where is the inverter? Has any shielding paint, fabric or wallpaper been installed? Can you see any high-voltage transmission lines nearby (600m)? .
Assess the placement of major electrical appliances and wiring, aiming to have bedrooms situated away from large electrical panels and appliances and consider using a professional with an EMF meter to measure electromagnetic fields in different areas of the home for insights into potential exposure. Lastly, weigh the use of wired vs. wireless technology, as wired connections generally produce fewer EMFs than wireless alternatives. While complete elimination of EMF exposure is challenging, these considerations can help in making informed decisions for a healthier living space.
H E A T I N G A N D C O O L I NG
In a healthy home, the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system is carefully chosen to prioritise efficient ventilation, excellent indoor air quality, and effective temperature control.
Although uncommon in older homes in Australia, healthier options include Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERVs) that exchange air (and moisture) while recovering energy, Heat Recovery Ventilation systems (HRV) that continuously exchanges indoor and outdoor air while recovering heat from the outgoing air and whole-house filtration systems with advanced filters like HEPA filters, so if you spot one of these you're in luck!
More common, however are zoned HVAC systems and ductless mini-split systems offering individualised room temperature control, hydronic heating systems like radiant floor heating, and smart thermostats (although watch for WiFi) for precise and energy-efficient temperature management.
Check on how frequently they were cleaned and maintained and also for dust (and mould) build up. I always suggest a professional cleaning of all HVAC systems (with HEPA air scrubbers or air filters running) before move in.
M A T E R I A L S A N D F I N I S H E S
When looking at a potential home look closely at the quality of finishes, as higher quality materials often have fewer toxins. Cheaper construction, typically using more plywood, cheap glues and sealants, synthetic flooring and toxic paints, can emit VOCs and contain formaldehyde.
For instance check the flooring (or as the agent), as solid hardwood or tile is generally healthier than vinyl or carpet, which may contain harmful substances. High-quality items like cabinets and trim made of solid wood are worth noting. While you can upgrade these elements later, prioritising quality finishes initially prevents spending more on renovations rather than essential home systems.
W A T E R
Finally, it is worth checking a few things in relation to the water at the property. First check that all the taps work, also check pressure. Ask the agent if they know the source of the water and what types of pipes are used.
Finally, I always check where the main water line enters the property to ensure a whole home water filter will fit.