COVID-19 Update: Structure Tech Home Inspections is still open for business. To see what we’re doing to help keep everyone safe, please see COVID-19 and Home Inspections.

Reuben Saltzman

Buying a house that’s covered with snow (with Michael Bartus)

This podcast was recorded in the studio in mid-February of 2020, pre-covid. We brought on a special guest for this episode, residential Realtor® Michael Bartus of Lakes Sotheby’s International Realty. The topic was buying a house in the winter, and how to deal with a roof that’s covered in snow, because of course, it can’t be inspected. The weather warmed up before we had a chance to post this podcast, so we’ve kept it on ice until now.

Now that the Minnesota winter snow is likely here to stay for a few months, it’s a good time to tackle this topic. The show starts off with Michael sharing a little bit about himself, and Michael shares all of his industry tips and tricks for negotiating a purchase of a home when the roof can’t be inspected.

Michael digs into the seller’s disclosure, inspection permits, and receipts from contractors. Michael also digs into some other tips and tricks that he uses to help his clients get exactly what they’re looking for when they’re buying a home during the winter. Michael explains how he has learned a lot over the years from his mistakes, and the rest of the gang relates.

Reuben also discusses what steps home inspectors can take, even when a roof is completely snow-covered, to help try to sniff out potential problems. 

TRANSCRIPTION 

The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

Reuben Saltzman: Hey, everybody, Reuben Saltzman here with the Structure Talk podcast. I’m recording a special intro for this podcast because we actually recorded this back in February of 2020 in studio, pre-COVID, back when there was snow on the ground. We had a special guest on our episode, Michael Bartus, a residential realtor who’s been at this a long time, and we had him on the show to share all of his tips and tricks that he does for his clients who are buying homes that have snow-covered roofs that basically can’t be inspected. And he shared a lot of good info with us, but then before we had a chance to air this podcast, all the snow melted, and it never came back for the year. So we’ve just kind of kept this episode on ice this whole time, but now that snow has returned to Minnesota, it’s a good time to share this. Now, some of the stuff in here isn’t quite up to date. We talked a little bit about the current market. That was the market as it was happening back in February, but who cares? The rest of the info on snow-covered roofs is still really good, and well, we hope you enjoy it.

Michael Bartus: Supply usually goes down in the winter because people usually wanna put their houses on the springtime when the snow melts. And in the olden days, that was kind of the rule, but because buyer demand is so high right now, I’m actually seeing more multiple offers happen in the winter than in the summer.

Bill Oelrich: Welcome everybody to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murray and Reuben Saltzman. And on today’s episode, we’re gonna talk about buying houses in the winter, and we have a special guest with us, Michael Bartus, realtor from the Minneapolis area. We’re gonna get Michael up and running here pretty quick. But on today’s episode, what we wanna talk about, what are the risks of buying real estate in the wintertime? We wanna look through the lens of a realtor, and we wanna look through the lens of a home inspector and try to distill that out to see what the client, kind of information the client gets from us as we’re working through this process.

RS: Yeah, and this was inspired by a question that we got during our live session. Someone said, “Hey, I’m down in Tennessee. What do you guys do in Minnesota when roofs are snow-covered? How do you even inspect them?” And we said, “That sounds like an episode all on its own.” So here we are.

BO: “That’s a good pod, that’s a good pod.” So let’s bring Michael up here and have him introduce himself. And Michael, can you go ahead and tell everybody who you are and what you do? 

MB: Hello, I’m Michael Bartus, residential realtor with Lake Sotheby’s International Realty, and I cover the Twin Cities area primarily and also western Wisconsin.

BO: Gotcha, great. How long have you been in the business? 

MB: I’ve been a realtor for over 15 years, but I grew up in a building and real estate family. So I used to go to all the different construction processes, from digging the hole, to putting the final nail in, to having me clean up the houses during high school. So I am very familiar with the entire building process, good and bad.

BO: So what percentage of real estate transactions do you think occur in what I’d consider the off-season up here in Minnesota? Any time after the 31st of October and before the snow has melted, what kind of percentage do you think goes down in that time of the year? 

MB: Yeah, I would say about 20% of my business is during the slow time of the year, during the winter. We’ve had an anomaly kind of happen here in our local Twin Cities market over the last three years because of supply and demand. Supply usually goes down in the winter because people usually wanna put their houses on the springtime when the snow melts, and in the olden days, that was kind of the rules, but because buyer demand is so high right now, I’m actually seeing more multiple offers happen in the winter than in the summer.

Tessa Murray: Oh, wow.

BO: And are houses… Are you pricing as aggressively as you would during the summer in the off-season? 

MB: Yeah, pricing just as aggressively and a lot of times when I look back at comps, I just sat down with a client today, the comps were actually higher during the winter months than they were in the summer months.

RS: Crazy.

TM: That’s interesting.

MB: So it’s very counterintuitive to what you would think.

TM: Yeah.

MB: ‘Cause a lot of people ask me, “Michael, when is the best time to sell my house?” I say, now is the best time.

BO: I like that, right now. [chuckle]

MB: Right now.

BO: I’m available this afternoon if you would like a competitive market analysis, right? So, okay, so you’re sitting down with clients, they’re looking to purchase a house, how do you talk to them about risk at this time of the year? What’s your approach to dealing with a wintertime buyer? 

MB: That’s a great question. So wintertime buying is very different than the summer, ’cause in the winter, you can’t see everything, and the biggest thing that comes up is you can’t see the roof, and that’s a very large expense, and you also have different things going on in the attic with maybe ice damming or frosting up in the attic, and then you also can’t see the yard. And I don’t tend to worry about the yard as much as I do the roof.

BO: Okay, all right. I know when it comes to home inspection companies and insurance claims, the roofs are a big deal, right, so when it’s covered, you have to be like, “We were unable to inspect that,” yada yada yada.

RS: Yeah. And Michael, I mean I wanted to have you on the show because before we did this show, I just called Michael and I said, “Hey, can you just give me some tips? What do you do to help mitigate risk for your clients during the wintertime when you know they’re gonna be buying a house that’s snow-covered? How do you mitigate that risk?” And Michael had all these things he started listing out for me and I said, “You know what, no, I’m not gonna try to repeat this. You gotta share this on the show, ’cause this is gold. This is really good information.” So Michael, can you kinda share with us what your process is? What do you do for your clients? 

MB: Well, first of all, I always have them, or try to have them use Structure Tech first and foremost [laughter] to conduct a home inspection… Little plug for you guys… But a lot of times, your inspectors can’t go up on the roof. Obviously, with snow up there, it’s very dangerous, and so the roof is a wild card and a question mark, and so what we have to do is we have to lean a little more heavily on some items outside the actual inspection, and where I first start would be looking at the seller’s property disclosures. And most of the homes in Minnesota, the seller will fill out a form, “How old is your roof? Have you had it replaced? Have you had any insurance claims?” So I start there as a basis, and if it looks like it might be an area that maybe had hail damage recently, and I generally know where those areas are, I’ll actually have my client contact their insurance company, ’cause if they’re gonna buy this home, they’re gonna have to get homeowner’s insurance, and the insurance industry has a central database that they’re able to go in and see if there’s any current or past insurance claims that are maybe open or closed, but we can at least look there, see if there’s anything that’s going on with the roof.

MB: I’ll also look at the city permits to see if any permits have been pulled, and then who actually did the work. I’ve had cases where it was disclosed that the roof was new, but they had a couple of buddies and a couple of cans of beer and they did their own roof repair themselves, and so I learned the hard way when the shingles started coming off of that roof two or three years later, that you really need to do more research on a roof, especially in the winter.

RS: Okay, and have you ever been burned where it’s like you got the information that the roof was new, you proceeded with the purchase, your clients bought the house, and then shingles started blowing off? And what happens? They come back and they call you, the realtor, and they’re like, “Hey, Michael, it’s three years later and I got shingles blowing off and it’s your fault.” Does that happen? 

MB: In this case, I did have a really great relationship with the client and they were aware of the risk of buying in the winter, and so we were able to have a reasonable discussion about it. Fortunately for her, she was able to just get some of the shingles replaced and nailed, so she didn’t have to do an entirely new roof, and luckily, in this kind of hot real estate market, buyers are buying homes even though they’re aware that the roof might be bad. If people want houses bad enough, they’re willing to sign up for even a bad roof.

BO: It’s kind of the situation when we bought ours 20 years ago. The ceiling was falling down and we’re just… We had to take some risk. It was as is. “We are not doing anything, and whatever you get is what you get.” And we were like, “Fine.” And it was terrifying, but it was the best decision we’ve ever made. We got great neighbors, and we got a great property and so on and so forth, so there’s other mitigating factors where you can look beyond some of these potential problems. Is there anything else you wanna share with us that you have conversations about with your clients when it comes to wintertime buying? 

MB: Yeah, so we talked briefly about the covered surfaces of the home. So the roof would be one, then you also have the yard, and I find a lot of people want to have a fence to go up after they buy the home, and a good idea to do that is to actually get a survey and put a contingency in your offer that it’s contingent upon the survey, just so you know what the true property lines are, so that when you do decide to put up a fence, you don’t have any issues when you go to do that when the snow melts.

BO: I feel like this is one of those exercises where something always comes up when you have a survey. Are houses pretty much all on the lot that they’re supposed to be on, or do you find lots of fun things? 

MB: I find most lot lines are pretty close to what people say, and for some reason in Minnesota, we generally play nice with our neighbors, and we just share each other’s yards. When I grew up as a kid in the Twin Cities, we used to play football and we’d span three or four yards, and no one had fences, and that’s just kind of what you did and that’s kind of a Minnesota thing. In other markets like San Francisco or New York, everyone’s kind of land-grabbing and so every house seems to have a fence. So I think in Minnesota, we’re really unique in that surveys aren’t normally part of the buying process. It’s not really part of even the title process.

MB: They’ll do a visual survey, but they won’t really do stakes in the ground and do a true survey where you really truly know where the property boundaries are, and that’s really unique to Minnesota. So if you’re gonna buy during the winter, getting a survey is also not a bad idea, especially if you plan to put up a fence when the snow melts.

BO: Great. What does it cost for a typical survey? 

MB: Surveys cost about $500 to $750, and it really depends on how busy they are. It’s kind of a supply and demand thing, so sometimes you’ll see people getting away with a little more charging than other times of the year, but we’ve found people to be around that 500 to 750 range.

TM: How long does it take to get the results back? 

MB: It takes about a week usually to get ’em back.

TM: Okay. Oh, that’s not too bad. Michael, you’ve been doing this for 15 years, and you really know what you’re doing, and you’re savvy and you’ve got all these great tips for how you handle these challenging situations, especially for people buying houses in the winter. How do new agents learn this information because not all agents know that? Is there some sort of training process, or is there any way to know when you’re looking for a real estate agent like…

RS: Oh, Tessa, that is so good, ’cause I feel like this is so much like home inspections…

TM: Yeah. How do you find a good real estate agent, like you? 

RS: And you can go through a quick little training process, but until you’ve really screwed a lot of different things up, [chuckle] and learned from a lot of mistakes, and you’ve changed your process, how do you do all this? How do you know what you know, Michael? 

MB: Well, it’s a lot of trial and error. I think it’s a lot like the inspection business. You make some mistakes along the way, and unfortunately, sometimes it costs you money out of your own pocket to learn the hard way, and so if I’m looking out for my client’s best interest, which is what I’m supposed to be as a fiduciary… I mean, that’s what we are once we go under contract with our clients, fiduciary, an agent, meaning working on your behalf, so I am your eyes and ears, and there’s a lot of things that people don’t know when they’re buying a home. The realtor is supposed to know all this stuff, and it’s the realtor’s job to let the buyers know what they don’t know, and I find a lot of the newer agents don’t know a lot of this stuff, and I’m always happy to share my knowledge and information with other agents when they’re on the other side of the fence when some of these bad things pop up. We’re all in it to get a house sold. If I’m a buyer’s agent, I want my client to get the home, the listing agent wants their client to get their home sold, and so we’re all trying to work together as a team, and hopefully you can kinda work through it together, and I always try to help the other agent out if I can. If I see or hear that they don’t know what they’re doing, I might actually just go out and give ’em some tips and tricks.

TM: If they’re open to that. Hopefully.

MB: Yeah, sometimes they’re not ’cause there’s a lot of ego in our industry, and some people are open to constructive feedback or criticism. I was new at one point too, and I’ve had some agents along the way tell me, “Hey, you know, that’s not how we do it.” And I was fortunate enough to grow up in a building family, so I think that makes me really unique that I have that background, but I really wish every realtor had the background that I have because it makes my job a lot easier.

TM: Oh, yeah.

MB: I really don’t know how agents do it without the knowledge that I have.

BO: Is your family still in the construction business or? 

MB: So my dad passed away about seven years ago, so my mission in life is to honor my dad by being the best realtor I can be, so that’s how I deal with grieving, of losing my dad. My uncle Pat Bartus, he still does mill work and kitchen cabinets and trim work in the luxury Twin Cities real estate marketplace, so he’s still in the industry, but other than that, no, I’m kind of the last Mohican.

[chuckle]

BO: Well, Michael, thank you very much for your time. It was some good wisdom you shared with us. Reuben, let’s dive into this from the home inspection side. How does our process change when it comes to a wintertime inspection? 

RS: If the roof is snow-covered, we gotta write it off. We cannot inspect the roof, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t give it our best effort. We still do everything we can. And I say this because I have found a lot of homes where the roofs were completely toast and they were snow-covered, and I was still able to figure it out. And if I had just stayed on the ground and I said “It’s snow-covered, there’s nothing I can do,” then I would have missed a roof that was completely toast… My trick is I’ll leave my ladder up against the roof or I’ll find a South facing side of the roof where it gets a little bit more sun, and I’ll get up there and I’ll brush a bunch of snow off and just look at a little area. And it’s always gonna be the worst area. It’s always gonna be the South side that I’m trying to get at.

RS: And if those shingles are all curled up and nasty and the granules are all gone, I could say, “Look, you got some serious issues with this.” Or, if… You’re probably gonna need replacement. Something, I couldn’t say otherwise. Now, if I get up there and brush off some snow and it all looks fine, I’m gonna say, “I can’t see the roof, it’s snow-covered.” It’s not me blessing the other 99% of it.

TM: That’s important to delineate there.

RS: Yeah.

TM: Yeah.

RS: Yeah. I’m not saying your roof is good, I’m just saying it’s snow-covered and I can’t see it.

TM: I can’t see it.

RS: But I can find a bunch of issues doing it this way.

BO: So why are you focusing in on the South side? 

RS: Well, that’s what gets the most exposure to the sun. You’re gonna get the most extreme temperature variations, and that’s always what fails first is the South side.

BO: Gotcha. Okay, so what are the other processes that we incorporate in the wintertime that might be a little different than the summer? 

TM: You know, in the wintertime, we can’t test your AC. So if you’ve got central air, AC, we can’t turn that on, we can’t run it, we can’t verify it’s working properly. So that’s all we can do. We can look at the age of the unit. We can look at the condition of it.

RS: Look at the installation.

TM: The installation of everything.

RS: Check the condensate drain line.

TM: Exactly.

RS: Make sure, it’s properly installed.

TM: Visually inspect what we can see.

RS: Yeah, the one thing we can’t do is turn it on and…

TM: Turn it on.

RS: Make sure it’s working.

BO: There are so many issues that could go wrong with an AC… Obviously running it is the best case scenario, but there’s a fairly small window when these things are running at peak performance in the State of Minnesota, right? 

RS: Yeah, there is.

TM: Yeah. And I remember I had one inspection a while go where it was summertime, we went through the whole process, tested the AC, and then the seller called me like two days later, and she’s like, “My AC isn’t working, you broke it.” And… Things happen. Things break. Luckily, it didn’t break while I was there. It broke two days later, but it was working fine when I was there. So things can go out any time.

RS: Well, I think it’s kind of a rule that if it breaks within seven years of us having been at the house…

TM: It’s our fault. [chuckle]

RS: We broke it… Yeah.

TM: Yeah. Yeah.

BO: So what other processes have to be adjusted? Those are two big repair items if they’re not working, and…

TM: I’d say another one is just the overall assessment from the exterior of grading and drainage around the property. So one thing we do is… When we first get to the property is we’ll take a walk around the outside and kind of just get a perspective view of everything. And looking at roof lines, thinking about where the water goes, looking at the grading, the dirt around the house. Is it sloping away or sloping towards the house? When we have a lot of snow on the ground, you just can’t see that.

BO: Sure. Michael did bring up the attic. And he mentioned about frost in the attic. And Tessa your… This is your world.

TM: Yeah.

BO: What time of the year is the best time in the year to actually be up in an attic and looking for issues? 

TM: Well, the best time to kinda diagnose problems like that, I would say, is winter. It… Usually you can use snow or frost on the roof and look for melt spots to see where you’re losing heat, and that’s kind of like a road map to knowing where you’ve got these attic bypasses that are leaking. Different styles of houses have different weak spots, so you kind of… After you’ve been in a lot of these houses you start to know these… Depending on the age and the style where these weak spots are, and they’re just amplified by that snow and frost melt. But you can go in an attic any time of year, and if you kinda know what you’re looking for you can diagnose those problems in the summer too.

TM: You won’t see an ice dam, you won’t see frost in the attic, but you might see dark staining or some mold like organic growth on the underside of the roof decking. And you might be able to pull the insulation back around a chimney and see a big attic bypass. And so you can verify those things even without snow or frost, but you just have to know. Yeah.

RS: Yeah. And the one thing I like about doing it in the winter is that when you’re there in the summer… If you see rusted nail tips and signs of previous condensation, what if they just fixed everything that was causing that three months ago, and they had their attic re-insulated. You don’t know that. All you can say is that there’s signs of previous problems. But when I’m up there in the winter and it’s negative 10 outside and everything’s covered in frost I’m not guessing.

TM: Yeah. It’s a current problem.

RS: But I’m not saying you might have an issue. I’m saying…

TM: It’s a current problem.

RS: Yeah, exactly.

TM: Yeah. Yeah.

RS: I like the confidence there. And just being able to know this is what’s going on.

TM: Yeah. That’s true.

RS: So my ideal attic is gonna be… It’s below zero outside when I get up in that attic. And it makes it so much easier to find attic bypasses with your infra-red camera.

TM: It does. I didn’t even mention that, but yes. Amen.

RS: Yeah, I love attics. The colder the better. Not only that but I’m more comfortable when it’s really cold.

TM: It’s great being in an attic that’s not 120 degrees… [chuckle]

RS: Yes. Yes.

BO: So there are offsetting factors here. At least… People get really freaked out when they have water leaking out of can lights in their house. And if we can discover these kinds of things in the wintertime and tip them off, there’s a really good chance if it’s 20 below one night and two days later, it’s 30 above those quick turnarounds, you’ll have that kind of stuff happen. And that’s when the phone lights up and people are like, “Why is there water leaking through my ceiling? Is my roof leaking?” No, your roof’s not leaking. You have condensation that has begun to melt. Or you have frost that has turned…

TM: Frost.

BO: Into water and now it’s running out of your lights.

RS: Yeah, you got a building science issue.

TM: I’ve seen a lot of those. And it tends to be in new construction where people get really, really upset about that… They buy a new house, they expect that because it’s new that they aren’t gonna have any problems with it. And so when they do have that water leaking out of their lights in their ceiling or down their wall then they just get really whipped up about it.

BO: So otherwise, processes are similar. We’re moving through the home inspection at the same pace, we’re looking at the same items.

RS: Yeah. And it just takes a lot longer ’cause in the winter it’s just… You gotta get all bundled up, you gotta get gloves and boots, and it’s just slow walking around. Everything takes us a lot more time. But the good news is we don’t charge any more during the winter.

TM: I know it’s…

RS: We still charge the same price.

TM: We charge the same. We don’t charge extra for really hot or really cold days.

[chuckle]

RS: Yeah.

BO: All right, everybody, that’s a bunch of great information. And so you can feel confident buying a house in the wintertime. I’d do it.

RS: Yeah. I’d do it too.

TM: I would too.

RS: You just can’t feel confident about the condition of the roof covering or the AC.

TM: Yeah.

RS: Those are gonna have to be unknowns most of the time.

BO: Yeah. Life is risky.

[chuckle]

BO: Okay. So let’s just keep it at that. Thank you everybody for listening. This is Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation, and we’ll catch up with you next time.