Selling your home? These 9 red flags immediately turn buyers off, experts say

No one wants to buy your house if they see this

a home for sale
(Image credit: Compass Realty / Getty Images)

Even in a buyer’s market, it turns out that homebuyers are picky. They know that a home is probably the biggest investment they’ll ever make, and when spending that much money, they have certain expectations. And since you only get one chance to make a good first impression, you can’t afford to blow that opportunity. 

Buyers understand that a home may not check every single box on their wish list – but some things are downright deal breakers. Our experienced realtors reveal nine issues that will stop buyers in their tracks, and make them decide that they don’t want to buy your home. 

Water damage

Water damage will likely be exposed during a home inspection. But buyers may never even get to that phase of the homebuying process. “Water damage will make buyers run like rats abandoning a sinking ship,” says Chuck Vander Stelt, Valparaiso, IN-based real estate agent and owner of Quadwalls.

Before you put your home on the market, he says you need to correct the condition causing ongoing water damage – and then you need to repair any signs of past water damage. “This is true regardless of how long ago the damaged occurred or what you have done to prevent a reoccurrence,” Vander Stelt explains.  “Water damage can include a spot on a ceiling or ceiling tile, discolored door or window casings, or staining on wall surfaces, floors, or trim.”  

Mold

According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, exposure to mold can cause upper respiratory tract infections, coughing, and wheezing. So, why would buyers want to pay to live in a home that contains mold? “If there is direct evidence of any kind of mold, especially black mold, this is a huge red flag for buyers,” warns Yawar Charlie, director of estates division at Aaron Kirman Group, Compass, and a series regular on CNBC’s, “Listing Impossible.” Even if mold can be fixed, it won’t matter. Charlie says buyers will be freaked out and will turn and run away from your home.

Noise

OK, noise is heard, not seen. However, buyers can see evidence of noise. How? Take, for example, the neighbor’s dog. “Regardless of how adorable Fido may be, if it’s the kind of dog that barks quite a bit, and decides to act up when a showing is going on, trust me, a buyer will think twice before moving forward on that purchase,” Charlie explains. “They don’t want to be woken up in the middle of the night or deal with a barking dog all day long.”

A lack of privacy

Unless the buyers are looking for a communal home, they don’t plan on spending time with the neighbors (aside from perhaps an occasional BBQ). “One of the quickest turn-offs for any buyer is a lack of privacy when it comes to interior or exterior backyard space,” Charlie says. So, if the neighbor’s window looks directly into your yard, or worse, into a bedroom, he says this can be a huge turn off for a potential buyer.

“For the most part, privacy issues can be overcome - and I tell my clients they can plant a tree, or install a shade to solve this.” But Charlie says a lack of privacy is always a red flag.

Foundation issues

A house is only as good as its foundation, and according to Christopher Totaro, an agent at Warburg Realty in New York, NY, cracks in the foundation of a home are a huge red flag.

“It does not mean that a buyer should run for the hills, but it does require greater exploration with an expert.” However, this is another one of scenarios in which buyers may not even stick around long enough for the home inspection report, so fix foundation issues before listing your home.

Evidence of cigarettes

Smoking is a personal choice. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are over 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke – and 70 of them can cause cancer. Since 1964, over 2.5 million people who did not smoke have died from health complications caused by secondhand smoke exposure. “I have found many buyers are turned off when the home is permeated with the smell of cigarettes,” says agent Bonnie Lindenbaum of Warburg Realty in New York, NY. When they walk into a home that smells of cigarettes, she says that’s the first impression that buyers get.

“One buyer refused to look any further after she walked through the front door,” Lindenbaum, says. “I remember another buyer started pointing out how yellow the backsplash in the kitchen was, and she attributed that to cigarette smoke.”

Vander Stelt agrees. “Homebuyers' desire to buy your home will go up in smoke when they smell the odor of stale cigarette smoke in your home.” He says non-smoking buyers are very unforgiving when it comes to houses that smell like smoke. “If you are a smoker and planning to sell your home, stop smoking in it now,” Vander Stelt advises.  In addition, he says you should start taking steps now to remove the smoke odor. “Wash the walls, but painting them may be necessary, too; also wash or steam clean fabrics including drapes, furniture, carpet, and the rugs, too.”  

Other odors

Besides the stench of cigarettes, other odors will also turn a buyer off. “One thing that can make your house unsellable is smell, so make sure the home is clean and free of smells from smoke, cooking (unless it’s baked cookies), cat litter, etc.,” says Mihal Gartenberg , an agent at Warburg Realty in New York, NY.

And here’s something else to consider: “If a home doesn’t smell good, it’s an immediate turnoff, but the same can be said for over-scenting a property,” Jonathan Spears, a real estate agent in Destin, FL. “We curate a neutral scent for the properties that we list, in order to leave the best impression.”

Pests

There’s a saying: If you see one bug, there are probably dozen more that you can’t see. “Obvious signs of pest issues, whether there are dead bodies or droppings, can make your home unsellable,” warns Gartenberg. “Make sure your home shows no visual signs of pests.”

Clutter

Buyers are purchasing your home, not your belongings, so why should they care about what’s in the house? Because they hate clutter, according to Ashlei De Souza, agent at Serhant, and host of “Staged.” “When a potential buyer walks through the door - or first looks at the listing photos online - you want them to see their home, not your home,” De Souza explains. “Big bulky furnishings, your collections on display, and too many personal photographs all distract from the experience and replace the important features of the home with the memory of your 'stuff.'”

Before listing your home for sale, she recommends minimizing accessories and personal items, and storing excess furnishings that can make the home feel smaller and hinder the ability to freely walk through the home.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams

Terri Williams is a journalist with real estate, home improvement, and product review bylines at Realtor.com, Bob Vila, Yahoo, MSN, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Houston Chronicle, and Apartment Therapy. She also covers business topics, with bylines at USA Today, The Economist, US New & World Report, Verizon, and several other brands that you’ve probably heard of. Follow her adventures on Twitter.