Reuben Saltzman

Houses never need cosmetic updates

Today is going to be a long day. As I sit here writing this blog post, it’s 4:55 am and I just finished doing a little research on the house that I’ll be inspecting at 9:00 am. The online listing for this property says it has lots of square footage and needs some cosmetic updates.

I haven’t been to the house yet but already disagree with that description. Cosmetic updates are never needed. I googled ‘cosmetic’, and here’s what I came up with. The first two definitions of this word apply to people, and the third applies to objects. I bolded it.


adjective /käzˈmedik/

  • Involving or relating to treatment intended to restore or improve a person’s appearance
    • cosmetic surgery
  • Designed or serving to improve the appearance of the body, esp. the face
    • – lens designs can improve the cosmetic effect of your glasses
  • Affecting only the appearance of something rather than its substance
    • – the reform package was merely a cosmetic exercise

When a property description says it needs cosmetic updates, look out. The house is probably going to need a lot of serious work. Here are a few other ‘real estate terms’ to be wary of:

  • Needs TLC
  • Needs routine maintenance
  • Handyman’s dream

I plan to finish writing this blog post after I inspect the house. I’m sure I’ll have some good photos of some “cosmetic” updates that are needed 😉

Part Two

There were no big surprises during my inspection; it was about what I expected from the online description. Here are a few things I found during my inspection of this bank-owned property:

The house was soaked in cat urine, and smelled even worse. According to the neighbor who came by to chat during the inspection, the previous owner never let the cat out and didn’t have a litter box. The first thing I did upon arrival was to open up every window in the house while breathing through my mouth, lest my nose hairs get burned off. This only made the yard smell horrible. The carpets will all need to be replaced, and possibly the subfloors as well. This isn’t a cosmetic update issue, it’s a health issue.

Filthy Floor Dirty Floor

The shingles were severely deteriorated and in need of replacement. There was also a golf-ball sized hole in the roof, most likely from a tree that fell during the recent storms. This ain’t cosmetic.

Deteriorated shingles Hole in roof

The water pipes had freeze damage. The buyer hired a plumber to de-winterize the house before my inspection, but the plumber had to just cap off several lines that weren’t winterized properly and had burst. Cosmetic freeze damage?

The radiator pipes had freeze damage, and the boiler was a dinosaur. The plumber said the heating system would need major repair. I agree, and I’m sure the boiler needs replacement as well. Notice the discoloration highlighted on the boiler below, right. This is a problem. More on this topic another day. Even if you know nothing about boilers, you can probably guess that these issues aren’t cosmetic.

Freeze damaged radiator pipe Scorching at boiler

The electric panel was a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok panel; I recommend replacement of every one of these panels because they present a fire hazard. There is no such thing as a cosmetic fire hazard.

Again, these were just a few of the things that I found during my inspection. This house was clearly in need of major repair just to be made habitable. None of these issues were cosmetic. I knew this house was going to be in very rough shape because I’ve learned to interpret those euphemistic real estate descriptions that I see so often (and to call them euphemistic is a euphemism).

  • Needs TLC = Needs major renovation
  • Needs routine maintenance = Nothing about the maintenance needed is routine
  • Handyman’s dream = Handyman’s nightmare
  • Needs cosmetic updates = cosmetic updates are the last thing you should think about.

What do you think? Are these terms all innocent real estate euphemisms, or something worse than that? I think that calling a house a ‘fixer-upper’ is an acceptable way of stretching the truth, but some of these other terms might be pushing it a little too far.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections – Email– Home Inspector Minneapolis

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No responses to “Houses never need cosmetic updates”

  1. Waukesha Home Inspector
    June 29, 2011, 12:47 pm

    Wow! Some “cosmetic updates”, hey? From the images alone I would say the listing is very misleading. I would have to agree that if the comments were just honest it would tend to show much more credibility.
    In this day and age most realtors know that home inspectors like us are going to find every defect and safety issue, so why not just disclose them by stating, “some minor repairs”, or “handyman special”, at least? Yes, these statements are stretching the truth, perhaps, but at least its not an outright lie!
    Great article Reuben!

  2. Reuben Saltzman
    June 29, 2011, 12:48 pm

    Hey Michael,

    No, I know the buyers agents can see right through those remarks… but what if the remarks were just honest?

  3. Michael Harrell
    June 29, 2011, 12:49 pm

    It’s just an age-old game that’s played between listing agents and buyer’s agents. You don’t think we really believe any the comments that listing agents put in the MLS, do you? Listing agents, and their truth-stretching, are the best thing that ever happened for buyer’s agents!

  4. Kim Janning
    July 6, 2011, 11:26 am

    Oh, Reuben, I laughed my you-know-what off at this! •Needs TLC = Needs major renovation
    •Needs routine maintenance = Nothing about the maintenance needed is routine
    •Handyman’s dream = Handyman’s nightmare
    •Needs cosmetic updates = cosmetic updates are the last thing you should think about.

    May I also submit:
    Minor cosmetics=crack in tile means entire floor needs replacing
    Many recent updates=the vast majority of the home hasn’t been touched in 20 years
    Some deferred maintenance=no maintenance at all
    Some new windows=all the rest should have been replaced 10 years ago
    Fixer upper=push it over

    Whoops! Was that my outside voice? Look, buyers and agents alike are tired of seeing badly cared for homes with a new coat of paint slapped on for show. Homeowners and agents – do yourselves a favor and fix everything you can, tell it like it is, and expect a lower sale price than your meticulous neighbor got. Be up front – you’ll get the right buyer walking in the door and your house will sell more quickly.

  5. Reuben Saltzman
    July 7, 2011, 3:55 am

    Kim – I love those. You’re completely right with your advice as well.

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