How to avoid buying a property lemon

old house with weather boards and wooden steps

Beverley Johanson

Posted October 06, 2020

Buying a house is a big decision. Here are 10 things to ask before signing the contract.

Buying and selling property is a daunting endeavour. Is the house worth the asking price? How long has it been on the market? Is the suburb safe? Has a massive apartment complex just been approved for next door?

In any dealings with property – information, and lots of it – is the best friend you can have. That means doing your research and asking the right questions so you can gain a clearer understanding of whether a potential investment will serve your property needs.

It’s no good buying an old house on a sizeable block, for example, with the intention of knocking it down and building a duplex, only to find out after the hammer falls that there is a heritage overlay in the area. 

Here are 10 questions to ask before buying a home so that things don’t turn sour on auction day. 

Ten things to ask before buying a house

What is the zoning in the area?

“The property you are looking at might be in a neighbourhood residential zone, but over the back fence, the zoning may be general residential and could be developed,” says Jim Leaf, general manager of Landchecker, a free property data website that provides detailed information on about eight million properties across Victoria and New South Wales.

Key in an address or suburb on the Landchecker website and find everything from planning applications, zoning and overlays to floodways, cultural heritage indications and even burglary statistics, as well as all the details you would find about properties for sale on a general real estate site. It’s all the information you need to help make an informed choice and avoid making a costly mistake.

Who else is interested in this house I'm keen on?

Researching and knowing the market is key, says Sam Lally, a buyers’ advocate with Buyers Advocate Pty Ltd. But make sure you compare like with like. That includes knowing your competition. “Ask the agent: of the top three contenders, what is their profile?” Sam says. “Are they first-home buyers, downsizers or investors? Downsizers have probably just sold a large family home and are cashed up, investors buy with their head, not their heart, while the first-home buyers will be cautious.”

How strong is the competition?

Pin the agent down to a straight answer, Lally says. “An agent saying: ‘We’re getting another offer this afternoon’ is different to him or her saying ‘I have another offer’. A lot of people get pressured by the thought of missing out, hurry the offer and make mistakes, such as not getting a building inspection done.”


front of modern white two storey house with tree in yard

It’s important to check the planning zone of any property you’re looking to buy.


Where do I want to live? How long has the property been on the market?

Some sales websites give the length of time the home has been listed, but that may not tell the whole story. The vendor may have changed agents or re-listed after an earlier, unsuccessful campaign. If the home went to auction and failed to sell, ask for the passed-in figure and whether the bid was from a genuine buyer or was a vendor bid.

I am planning to knock down and rebuild. How do I find out about heritage overlays or anything else that might affect my ability to develop?

Landchecker has information on heritage and all other overlays, as well as details on all residential, commercial and industrial planning zones. It also provides details about planning permits that have been approved, rejected or are pending for your desired address. 

Is this house in a Cultural Heritage Sensitivity zone?

Cultural Heritage Sensitivity zones are areas registered as having, or being likely to have, Aboriginal cultural significance. Checking the cultural heritage indications of a site is pertinent if you are buying an older home to knock down and rebuild because if the property is located in one of these areas you will likely be required to get an approved Cultural Heritage Management Plan or cultural heritage permit before any development can begin. “You may have to get a consultant to assess the site and, if anything is found, go to a full excavation,” says Landchecker’s Jim Leaf.

Should I get a building inspection?

building inspection is essential but ask what they do and don’t inspect. Inspectors cannot assess things that are hidden, such as footings or services in the walls. They generally don’t assess pools, appliances and such things as CCTV cameras, fire and smoke detectors.


lawn in front of old house below orange clouds

Tools like Landchecker can tell you if there are any heritage or other overlays in the area.


Is this a termite area?

Find out if the property you are interested in is in a termite area and, if so, have the building inspected by a pest expert to see whether up-to-date termite management is in place.

Do the garage and granny flat have council approval?

If the outbuildings do not have council approval, there is a risk of the council asking you to remove the structures. Also, make sure the building inspector checks these as well as the house.

More: Why Victoria is set for a granny flat boom.

What are the schools and community services like in the area?

Do as much research as you can and talk to people in the neighbourhood. Plus, check out our guide to the suburb features that add thousands to your property value.

  • key in door

    Is it better to buy or rent a property?

    Trying to decide whether to rent or buy a property can be tough. The white picket fence has long been considered the great Australian dream. But on the other hand, renting a home offers freedom and flexibility. So what’s the best choice - buying or renting a property?
  • Melbourne houses
    Market Trends

    Melbourne schools creating property hotspots

    Whether or not you have kids, it’s important to consider school zones when purchasing property in Melbourne. Public school catchments can drive up your potential property’s value. In fact, Melbourne school rankings often dictate the next suburban property hotspots.