My salesperson suggested I should make my offer on a certain home (it’s a gorgeous old Victorian) conditional on it passing a home inspection. Do I really need to do that?

It’s entirely your decision to make, but I strongly recommend taking your salesperson’s advice so you have a sense of the home’s overall condition. The Real Estate Council of Ontario sometimes hears from consumers who were so eager to buy a particular property they did so without first having an inspection performed, and regretted their decision later.

Speaking from personal experience, I found the results of my home inspection were incredibly beneficial when I had to plan and budget for identified repairs after I took possession of my house.

Just to clarify: making your offer conditional means that you might be able to exit the transaction if the home inspection reveals the property has serious problems. Should that happen, the seller could agree to make necessary repairs before closing, or possibly offer you a price reduction, but you may have the option to walk away. Be aware that if you do exercise your rights under a home inspection clause you must do so in good faith and not as an excuse to get out of a deal because you have cold feet.

A home inspection is an on-site, in-person examination of visible features of a property. An inspector will examine the home’s features and any visible parts of major systems and then provide you with a report on their findings. Some inspectors may be qualified to provide additional services, such as checking the indoor air quality or testing for mould.

Remember that a typical inspection doesn’t involve poking holes in the structure, and even an experienced home inspector can sometimes miss a critical problem if it is well masked. Oil tanks, wells, septic systems and other special items should only be examined by someone who is qualified and knowledgeable in conducting those types of inspections.

Your salesperson should be able to recommend a competent and reputable home inspector, but you would be well-advised to ask them a few questions about their training, accreditations and work experience before you sign any contracts. In your case, you’ll certainly want to know if they have examined any Victorian homes, and if they possess a good understanding of that type of property.

You’ll also want to know if they carry both general liability insurance, which is important in the unlikely event that anything gets broken or damaged during the inspection, and errors and omissions insurance in case the inspection overlooks a major problem.

Remember to request references and a blank copy of the inspection report/checklist they will use, and to insist upon a written contract just in case you have a dispute that can only be settled through legal action.

I’ve noticed your column gives good advice but never gets into the nitty-gritty details of how to get the best deal on a home. What sort of questions should your readers ask you?

Thank you for the kind words. Your observation is correct: Ask Joe is a different type of real estate advice column in the sense that it’s designed to support an informed real estate market in Ontario by reminding buyers and sellers of their rights and responsibilities in a transaction.

I always enjoy hearing from my readers. Last month, I wrote a column about purchasing an investment condominium that was based on a question asked in casual conversation by some fellow hockey parents. Others in the discussion were quite interested, so I thought their inquiry deserved a wider audience.

The purpose of the Ask Joe column is not to tell you how to market your home, or how to negotiate the best deal on a property. I can’t provide legal, marketing or financial advice to readers.

My colleagues and I at RECO always recommend working with a registered real estate salesperson or broker who can counsel you on negotiating with another party, or setting a listing price that meets your needs but is still attractive to buyers, to give a couple of examples. We also advise consumers to follow four key tips:

  • Interview at least three real estate salespeople when you’re in the market to buy or sell your home, and ask them about their experience, references, and general approach to buying and selling, among other considerations;
  • Use the Look up a Real Estate Salesperson, Broker or Brokerage feature on the RECO website to check that they’re registered with us, and in good standing;
  • Read and completely understand any documents you’re asked to sign, because RECO can’t get you out of a signed contract with a brokerage or another consumer; and
  • Be an active participant in the buying or selling process – that means performing personal due diligence and being open and honest with your salesperson about your needs and service expectations.

In practical terms, I won’t analyze the pros and cons of lighting scented candles or baking an apple pie before visitors arrive for a staging or an open house, but I will advise you to read and understand your agreements and talk to your salesperson about any concerns you may have about the event. Similarly, I may suggest additional questions or issues you should discuss with your salesperson, lawyer or lender.

My mom’s neighbourhood is undergoing gentrification and many owners are downsizing. She has been approached on numerous occasions by real estate agents and potential buyers who have asked if she wants to sell her home. Do you have any advice?

I appreciate your question. Your mother is clearly in a desirable neighbourhood, and since she owns the property, it’s entirely her decision. If she has no intentions to move, she could post a “no solicitation” sign on her front door, which may help to deter unwanted visitors.

Let’s assume, however, that she is open to the idea of selling. This is a good occasion to discuss an issue that sometimes comes to the attention of my colleagues at the Real Estate Council of Ontario (RECO). Folks who have been out of the market for many years may not know the current value of their home, which can make them susceptible to lowball offers that might seem like very lucrative and other aggressive tactics from buyers looking to capitalize.

When your mother is ready to test the waters, she would be well advised to interview three or more real estate salespeople. An interview could consist of asking questions about their experience with her type of property, their general approach to buying and selling, and what she can expect in terms of communications and explanations of the process. She will likely want somebody who is patient and can explain everything in a way that she understands. I also recommend asking for references and verifying the salesperson is registered in good standing with RECO by using the search feature on the RECO website. When she decides upon a representative, the two of them should have a frank and open discussion about her needs, her finances, and her expectations of the service she will receive.

A registered real estate salesperson should be able to provide your mother with a market analysis of her home’s approximate value and negotiate with other real estate salespeople on her behalf.

Your mother could list her home with one of the salespeople who had approached her in the past. If she does, she should remember that there is the potential for conflicts of interest to arise where one salesperson is representing both your mom as the seller and a buyer who may already have expressed interest in the home.

Make sure your mother reads and understands any documents she’s asked to sign. If she wants to keep her hand-crafted oak paneling or an antique chandelier or other sentimental fixtures, she could ask her salesperson, or a lawyer who is insured to practice real estate law to specifically exclude such items from the sale of the property in the Agreement of Purchase and Sale because fixtures are generally included in a sale transaction.

My husband and I want to buy a certain home, but the seller won’t accept conditional offers. Should we insist upon having a home inspection performed, even if it means losing the deal?

In a previous column, I advised a would-be buyer to take their real estate salesperson’s advice of making their offer on an older property conditional upon it successfully passing a home inspection. I stand by that advice, but I realize real estate transactions can take place at lightning speed, sellers generally prefer unconditional offers over ones that have conditions attached, and bidding wars can hijack the process. Sometimes you must find the right balance between protecting your interests and getting the home you want.

Your real estate salesperson can help you find suitable properties, formulate the right questions to ask, and negotiate with the seller’s representative, but you still need to perform your own due diligence. In practice, that means being open and honest with your salesperson about your needs and your finances, asking questions of your salesperson, personally researching neighbourhoods and individual properties, and reading – and understanding – any relevant documents.

Buying or selling a home is an emotional roller-coaster, so it’s easy to make decisions with your heart, rather than your head. The best strategy to prepare yourself is to make a plan in advance and then stick to it. Determine a maximum budget – the most money you can reasonably afford to pay (taking into account municipal taxes, land transfer tax, legal fees, moving costs, to name a few necessary expenses) and stay firm. Should you find yourself in a bidding war for a property, you’ll feel much better about walking away if the price is pushed beyond your comfort zone.

And when you make that plan, think carefully about your tolerance for risk. If you don’t want to make your offer conditional upon the property passing a home inspection, ask yourself: do you have either the personal expertise or the money to fix a major problem? Similarly, if you make a firm offer and your lender denies your application for a mortgage, are you ok with potentially losing your deposit and likely much more if the seller is not able to sell the property to another buyer for the price you had agreed upon?

Always remember that real estate transactions involve large sums of money and legally-binding contracts, and they usually don’t go according to plan. You could find yourself in an unfortunate predicament that might have been avoided if you had assessed your risk tolerance and stuck to your original plan.

My husband thinks we’ll get more offers on our home if we hire an agent who is also an experienced home stager. Is this true, and is home staging worth the money?

While it’s true that some real estate salespeople and brokers are experienced in the art of staging homes and can skillfully stage a property on their own, there are many professional stagers out there. I hope that when you and your husband interview potential salespeople (remember to look them up on the RECO website!) you ask how they plan to market your home to would-be buyers, and if they have any experience in staging, or working with professional stagers.

Home staging is a marketing tool that uses decluttering and/or the use of rented furniture and decorative elements to maximize the appeal of your home to potential buyers. A modest staging would involve a thorough cleaning and decluttering and could also involve rearranging the furniture or applying a fresh coat of paint to give the home an open and spacious feel. A more elaborate – and potentially expensive – staging would likely start with these actions, but might also include renting furniture, artwork and carpeting, or even some renovations, such as installing new light fixtures or replacing the kitchen cupboards and countertops. The idea is to show buyers what is possible, so you may also want to consider using a professional photographer.

Staging can help make a property look brighter, as well as more spacious and modern, but only you can decide if it’s worth the money or right for your home.

The costs of staging can vary, depending on the services you request, so you will want to discuss with your real estate salesperson how and when the stager will be paid, and have them draft the listing agreement accordingly. If the cost of staging is included in the fees payable under the listing agreement, the brokerage will pay the staging company’s bill. If the cost of staging isn’t included, however, you will likely have to pay the stager out of your own pocket – possibly before the sale of your home. Don’t assume the fees are included in the fees payable to your brokerage for selling the home.

If your agent offers to enter into an agreement with a staging firm on your behalf, you can expect your salesperson to confirm in writing the services that are covered, who will provide those services, and who will pay for them. You and your husband must then consent to the arrangement.

It’s important that you and your husband, your salesperson and the stager are all on the same page. Have a frank and open discussion about your budget, timelines, expectations, and general willingness to transform your home while you’re still living there and remember to ask for a written cost estimate.