10 Ways to Spot a Catfish Home Before It’s Too Late

Endless repairs and shoddy renovation work could lurk beneath a shiny exterior.

house hunting
Updated July 11, 2024
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After touring endless homes and losing out on countless offers, you spot a house that looks perfect. But is it possible that a little deception is hiding below the surface?

A “catfish house” is the latest term to describe a home sold as newly renovated and updated but hiding anything from shoddy electrical work to questionably installed cabinets.

Here are 10 tips to avoid buying a catfish house. Following this advice can help you avoid wasting money on one of these money pits, causing you years of stress.

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Be skeptical of online photos

simona/Adobe woman surfing the web

Try not to get caught up in the excitement of Instagram-worthy online photos. If you go into the open house expecting your dream home, there's a higher chance you'll look past the obvious red flags.

Be skeptical of anything you see online that looks too good to be true.

Carefully check the floor plan

NicoElNino/Adobe architect designing blueprint

Before you even visit the house, take a closer look at the floor plan and the home’s square footage.

Photos can be deceptive, meaning you could show up expecting enough room for a family of five and finding a tiny house instead.

Make sure each bedroom is actually a bedroom

Rawpixel.com/Adobe family buying new house

Don’t get caught buying a three-bedroom house only to discover that two of the bedrooms aren’t up to code. Make sure every bedroom meets the requirements in your locality.

At the very least, you want the price you pay to reflect the true status of those bedrooms.

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Bring in specialized inspectors

Michael O'Keene/Adobe home inspector

Whether it’s a septic inspector, electrician, or plumber, it’s worth bringing in a specialized inspector to examine every bit of an old home or recent renovation.

Let these experts kick the tires on the house and offer their honest opinions on its condition.

Peel back the layers

pressmaster/Adobe housewife looking at plumber

Do you suspect paint over bargain-basement cabinets? Carpeting over deteriorating floors? Peel and stick tile over a cracked tile floor?

An inspector can help reveal quick and cheap cosmetic upgrades that probably won’t last until the next season.

Scan for filler that hides foundation cracks

bildlove/Adobe house foundation repair

This is a big one: If there is filler or paint covering up major foundation cracks, you might have a catfish house on your hands.

Before buying a home, bring in an experienced inspector to ensure you don’t end up in this expensive predicament.

Look at the condition of the paint

agenturfotografin/Adobe man with inspection checklist

Slapping a coat of paint on the walls can hide many types of troubles. But if you look closely, you might uncover the secrets hiding beneath.

From cracks in the walls to shoddy repairs, there will be differences in the texture that reveal the issues lurking below.

Note inconsistencies in outlets or hardware

Iftikhar alam/Adobe electrical outlet on a white wall

Someone quickly flipping a house for a catfish sale might not take the time to make the wall plates or doorknobs match.

If you notice loose hardware or detached outlet plates, it might be time to take a closer look.

Don’t overlook insect damage

Koonsiri/Adobe traces of termites eat wood

Look for signs of insect damage. Sagging drywall or wood that sounds hollow when tapped might indicate termites, for example.

Even if everything looks fine at first glance, a closer inspection might reveal that the home’s structural supports have been weakened.

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Feel the floors

Alex/Adobe man refinishing hardwood floor

Check the floors carefully. If there's a dramatic slope or a bounce with every step, there's a good chance that some unexpected renovation work might be in the cards.

Bottom line

Darren Baker/Adobe couple beside house for sale

When you buy a home, there will always be unexpected repairs. But those costs should be reasonable.

Following the tips in this story can help you get ahead financially by avoiding a catfish house that can put a major dent in your finances.

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Author Details

Heather Bien

Heather Bien is a writer covering personal finance and budgeting and how those relate to life, travel, entertaining, and more. With bylines that include The Spruce, Apartment Therapy, and mindbodygreen, she's covered everything from tax tips for freelancers to budgeting hacks to how to get the highest ROI out of your home renovations.