When buying your first house, you want to make sure that you are getting the kind of home you need and deserve. For rookie home buyers, however, it can be a challenge to determine whether a house has been kept in good condition. Especially when the home has been staged, with a new paint job, everything being "realtor beige," etc, issues can be hidden.
While you should absolutely get a home inspection, there are things everyone can look at that will give you a clue as to how good a condition the house is in and whether it is likely to need work.
Find out the Age
Old houses have character, but also may need more work. A new house is more likely to be in good condition. Paradoxically, so is a very old house, one that was well built and has been cared for because of its value. However, if looking at an old house, make sure to check for things like lead pipes and aluminum wiring, which will have to be redone at some point.
Look at the Baseboards
Baseboards tend to crack a bit from inevitable shrinkage. A responsible homeowner knows this and will take steps to repair the baseboards. If there are cracks that look like they have been there for a while, it might indicate that the seller wasn't paying attention.
If there are deep vertical cracks, or cracks in stair steps, this may indicate a serious settling issue and potentially foundation problems.
Look in the Cabinets
Most people clean outside their kitchen cabinets. Not everyone cleans as well inside them. Look in the cabinets for issues, including signs of pests. Look under the sink. Staining or "rust marks" under the sink can indicate an issue with the sink, faucet, or dishwasher.
And, of course, look at the condition of the cabinets themselves. Will you be happy using them for a while, or would you want to replace them?
Turn On Appliances
You are well within your rights to check that built-in appliances that will be sold with the house actually work. Check the temperature of the fridge. Warm yourself up with some hot water in the microwave. Turn all the stove burners on and off again. If the fridge has in-door water and ice, get yourself a glass.
Make sure all the appliances work.
Check the Water Pressure
Go into the bathroom, turn on the faucets in the sink and tub...then flush the toilet. An appreciable drop in water flow shows a pressure problem, often caused by excessive amounts of limescale. It could also be a municipal water pressure problem. The water system should be able to handle these things all happening at once.
Look at the Fusebox/Circuit Breakers
First of all, are the circuit breakers labeled. If not, that might indicate that the owners never look in here, and thus that they aren't exactly maintaining the wiring.
Make sure there aren't any burn marks or other indicators of overheating. If the house is old enough to have a fuse box, do a visual inspection to ensure that every gap has an actual fuse, of the correct size (not a jury-rigged bypass) in it and that there aren't a bunch of dead fuses lying around.
Oh, and while you are at it, look to see how many extension cords they're using. Too many extension cords equates to not enough outlets.
Check the Roof
Look for loose or broken shingles, or for shingles "cupping" at the corner. Make sure the roof is straight with no sign of settling or sagging. You don't want to be looking at a new roof right after buying your house.
A few loose or broken shingles might be a simple enough repair.
Check the Basement, If Present
If the house has a basement, especially one which is unfinished or partially finished, take a good look around. Also, take a good sniff. A musty smell in the basement is a clear sign of damp and mold. If there is a dehumidifier in the basement, then that shows that the basement needs a dehumidifier. Check for signs of stains or rot where the side pieces of the basement steps touch the floor.
Also, if they aren't storing anything on the basement floor it likely gets damp down there. If there's a sump pump, take a look at it. If there isn't one, ask yourself whether there should be one.
The most important thing to do is to look everywhere. Once you have found a house you like, check the fridge, open the windows, and poke around in every nook and cranny.