Along with diagnosing potential safety hazards and high-dollar repairs, there’s also a bit of archeology involved. A good home inspector can discuss the quality of construction and maintenance your (potential) home has had.
Bonus: An inspector will share pointers for taking care of your new home. (Which is why many inspectors strongly encourage potential buyers to attend the inspection.)
Here are 6 things a home inspector looks at.
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Basic safety checklist
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“Safety should always be primary to the home inspector — always,” says Troy Bloxom, president of the National Association of Home Inspectors and owner of Home Inspections Plus near Anchorage, Alaska.
Smoke detectors: Does the home have them? Are they installed correctly and in the right places (in or near sleeping areas but not too close to the stove)?
Ground fault interrupters: These are the special plugs you should find in areas where water and electricity are in proximity, such as bathrooms and kitchens.
Safety glass: Are the glass features installed near stairs or water (like tubs and showers), made of safety (or “tempered”) glass?
Stairs: Are the steps a uniform, safe height and angle? Do stairs have hand rails and guard rails properly installed and in the right places? “It’s amazing how many are the wrong way,” Mitenbuler says. When rails are installed incorrectly, they can catch on clothing and cause accidents, he says.
No matter how old the home, your inspector will look at the basic “envelope” that shields it from weather and water, says Mitenbuler.
The inspector will walk the property to look at drainage, which is “critical,” he says. “It all keeps going back to water,” he says.
Property grading is vital, says Alden E. Gibson, ACI and RHI, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors and president of Inspections by Gibson in Breslau, Ontario, “because if you don’t get water away from the house, it will be coming into the house.”
The inspector will look for cracks in the foundation and examine the roof, rain gutters and flashings, as well as all the windows, he says.
And the inspector will look at how the walls and roof intersect, Mitenbuler says. He doesn’t want to see lots of caulk. “That usually means it’s not waterproofed,” Mitenbuler says. Because, done right, waterproofing is part of the home design — not something added after the fact, he adds.
The inspector will check out the home’s systems, from electrical and plumbing to heating and air.
Here are a few of the points an inspector will cover:
Heating and air: “How well does the heating and cooling work?” says Mitenbuler. Do they provide heating and cooling evenly to every area? Is there good airflow in every room? If there’s an air return, is it properly located and sized to serve the house efficiently?
Plumbing: Likewise, the inspector will check to see that the plumbing is done correctly, provides enough water to the house and drains properly, Bloxom says. This is where you find out if you have sufficient water flow and pressure.
Electrical: An inspector will make sure that your electrical system provides enough power for the house and that it “is properly installed, bonded and grounded,” Bloxom says.
He’ll also make sure that there are enough outlets — which can be a problem in some older homes, says Mitenbuler.
And the inspector will also tip you off if there’s evidence of rewiring by DIY “electrician wannabes,” Gibson says.
The inspector can tell if the roof was done properly and whether the job was done “professionally or by Uncle Bob,” says Bloxom.
He’ll also make sure that any openings — like the chimney or skylights — are properly flashed and are free of moss growth and debris, he says. Skylights “are notorious for leaking,” he says.
Your inspector will provide a “ballpark figure” of how many good years expensive components, like the roof, have left, he says. “That would be a big-ticket item that would need to be made clear to a buyer or a seller.”
For safety, a house needs proper ventilation for natural gas appliances such as heaters, water heaters and clothes dryers. “You want to make sure that all that combustion gas is vented out of the house safely,” Mitenbuler says.
Dangerous gases can build up in the house if those appliances aren’t installed, vented and configured properly.
And while many of these appliances have safety features, a good inspector will make sure that the safety equipment is properly enabled, he says.
The inspector will make sure that clothes dryers are properly vented to catch lint and expel hot air, which helps prevent house fires, Mitenbuler says.
The inspector will check the temperature of the water heater. Mitenbuler says it should be over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and some inspectors prefer to max out the temperature at 110 degrees.
Some areas or conditions might require further examination, often by a pro with specialized equipment. Here are 2 fairly common ones:
Fireplaces: The inspector wants to see that “No. 1, they vent adequately,” Mitenbuler says. “But, No. 2, almost every wood-burning fireplace has some condition that the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) would call a hazard,” he says.
And that’s when your inspector might recommend a specialist: A fireplace inspector who will use a specialized camera to scope out the interior or the chimney and flue, he says.
Sewers: Sewer problems are potentially one of the most “incredibly expensive” repairs in an older house, and it’s hidden beneath your yard, Mitenbuler says.
If you’re buying an older home that has sewer service, you want to call in a specialist to have the whole system (from the main house to the street), videoscoped, he says.
How common a problem is it? “Just shy of 20% of my customers have a problem that costs at least $3,500 to repair,” says Mitenbuler. But it can go into the 5 digits, he says. And even though it’s a municipal system, if there’s a problem under your yard, says Mitenbuler, “it’s your problem.”