When you're buying a house, your best friend can be the inspector.
A house inspector can let you know if you're about to buy a lemon of a house or warn you about potential problems. At best, you can move into the house confident that it's in good shape; at worst, the inspector's report can let you back out of the deal if the house has major, unexpected problems.
A general inspector can't detect every problem, though. That's why it helps to know how to select an inspector and when to call in a specialist.
What inspectors look for "What a home inspector does is provide an independent review of the property, not influenced by any of the other professions in the transaction," says Mike Casey, an inspector based in Haymarket, Va., and president of the American Society of Home Inspectors.
What Casey means is that the inspector doesn't have a stake in the outcome of the inspection. Inspectors get paid whether or not the sale goes through. In contrast, lenders and real estate agents make a profit when the sale closes.
More than three-quarters of buyers hire inspectors. Most of those buyers have a clause in the purchase contract that makes the sale contingent on acceptable results of an inspection. The buyer can void the purchase or renegotiate the offer if serious problems are found.
The cost of a home inspection varies by inspector, region and size of house. A common price is $200 to $250 -- about 40 percent of buyers pay in that range. A typical home inspection includes an assessment of:
- exterior features such as outside walls, soffits, decks, the roof, chimneys and drainage conditions;
- interior items, such as the condition of windows, doors, plumbing fixtures and electrical outlets and switches;
- heating and cooling systems;
- the attic and crawl space and whether they have adequate insulation and ventilation.
Casey says inspectors do visual inspections -- "we don't take things apart" -- to look for evidence that an item is close to failure. They can't tell you exactly how many years are left on the roof, but can tell you if it needs replacing right now.
"We're looking for big surprises and anything that's a significant safety hazard," Casey says.
What they don't look for Casey calls home inspectors "expert generalists." Usually they're not equipped to do specialized work, such as checking for termites. That's a job for a pest inspector.
Likewise, you usually have to hire specialists to assess the conditions of swimming pools, septic systems, underground storage tanks for heating oil and the health of trees and shrubs (don't blame the inspector for not detecting a dead tree in the winter). There are exceptions: some general inspectors are qualified to examine swimming pools and septic systems, Casey says.
Not all inspectors assess appliances, such as washers, dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators and stoves.
Inspectors who are members of ASHI are forbidden to have a professional interest in the sale, repair or maintenance of a property they inspect. They're not supposed to use their inspection business as a way to find customers for a handyman service that they happen to own.
Hiring an inspector The most common way to find an inspector is through a real estate agent's referral. If you would rather find the inspector yourself, you can ask friends and relatives who they have hired, look in the Yellow Pages under "Building inspectors" or "Home inspectors," or visit the ASHI Web site, which has a search page that allows you to type in your ZIP code and get a list of certified inspectors in your area. Or you can call an ASHI referral line at (800) 743-2744.
Inspectors usually recommend that the buyer accompany them as they look at the house. They can explain the severity of any problems they find, give maintenance tips and answer questions.
"The buyer should see what the inspector sees so there's no misunderstanding," Casey says.
What if the inspector misses something major?
"With a qualified inspector, that shouldn't happen," Casey says.
But if it does happen, your options might be spelled out in the contract. Some inspectors have a clause in the contract that limits their liability to the cost of the inspection. Some contracts have arbitration clauses that limit your ability to file a lawsuit. Some inspectors carry errors and omissions insurance, "which is kind of like malpractice insurance in case something major is missed," Casey says.
ASHI is the nation's largest home-inspector trade association. To become a member, an inspector has to pass a test, have performed at least 250 inspections and pass another test that covers standards of practice and the code of ethics. Members are required to take 20 hours of continuing education annually to keep abreast of new materials, building standards, technologies and inspection techniques.
ASHI isn't the only game in town. There's also the National Association of Home Inspectors, which has similar standards. NAHI's Web site allows you to search for a local inspector.