If you've signed a contract to purchase a home, a key step before completing the sale is getting a professional home inspection. Make sure to keep this home inspection checklist handy – the inspection is often the last chance you'll have to go inside the home before the final walkthrough.
"In my experience, the majority of homebuyers don't know that much about what they are buying and are relying on the inspection to fill in the many gaps in their knowledge," says home inspector Scott Brown, owner of Brightside Home Inspections in Syracuse, New York.
If your purchase agreement has an inspection contingency — and it should — a home inspection that reveals serious flaws can allow you to walk away from the deal without penalty. It can also allow you to ask the seller to make repairs before closing, saving you money and potentially some hassle.
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Home inspection checklist: What home inspectors look for
Home inspectors are looking for the safety, operation and condition of each component they inspect, Brown says. Does the item pose any safety hazards directly or indirectly to inhabitants? Does it operate as the manufacturer intended? Is it in good condition?
A home inspector will check many but not all components of the home because of limitations related to safety, accessibility and their expertise.
Here's what inspectors will typically check, as outlined in the inspection standards put forth by 3 industry groups: the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), the National Society of Home Inspectors (NSHI) and the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI).
Interior of the home
An inspection of the home's interior should include:
- Walls, ceilings and floors
- Steps, stairways and railings
- Countertops and cabinets
- Doors and windows
- Garage doors and operators
- Installed kitchen appliances
An inspector might note whether a crack in a wall appears to be cosmetic or whether it might indicate a structural issue like a sinking foundation.
Exterior of the home
Outside the home, inspectors typically examine:
- Wall coverings, flashing and trim
- Exterior doors
- Decks, balconies, stoops, steps, porches and railings
- Eaves, soffits and fascias visible from the ground
- Plants, grading, drainage and retaining walls
- Garages and carports
- Walkways, patios and driveways
An inspector will also examine the roof, gutters, downspouts, and any skylights, chimneys and other roof penetrations. In this part of the inspection, the home inspector will be looking for things like curled shingles that might indicate a roof is wearing out.
When it comes to plumbing, expect your home inspector to look at the:
- Fixtures and faucets
- Water heater
- Drain, waste and vent systems
- Sump pumps and sewage ejectors
The electrical inspection will include looking at:
- Service drops
- Service entrance conductors, cables and raceways
- Service equipment and main disconnects
- Service grounding
- Interior components of service panels and subpanels
- Overcurrent protection devices
- Light fixtures, switches and receptacles
- Circuit interrupters
The major concern here is anything that might present a fire hazard.
For the home's heating, ventilation and cooling system (HVAC), the inspector should check out:
- Access panels that can be readily opened
- Installed heating and cooling equipment
- Fuel-burning fireplaces and stoves
- Vent systems, exhaust systems, flues and chimneys
- Insulation and vapor retarders in unfinished spaces
- Distribution systems
Home inspectors may enter crawlspaces, if they have enough clearance, and attics, if the load-bearing components aren't covered by insulation. They may examine the:
- Home's foundation
- Floor structure
- Wall structure, ceiling structure and roof structures
What home inspectors don't examine
The list above might seem comprehensive, but there are many things that home inspectors aren't required to look at. These include systems and components that aren't readily accessible.
A home inspector won't peel up the carpet to see if there are cracks in the foundation, nor will he cut a hole in the bathroom wall to look for hidden mold or rusty pipes.
They don't have to move furniture, plants, snow, ice or debris that might be in the way, so try not to buy a house in the winter if you want the roof examined. Inspectors also won't do anything that might damage the property or pose a danger to themselves, including entering crawl spaces or attics that are too tight, walking on the roof or lighting a fire in a fireplace.
In addition, inspectors need not try to guess how much life is left in the home's air conditioner, furnace, roof, dishwasher or other systems and components. If they note something that isn't working, they don't have to attempt to diagnose the cause or estimate the cost to fix it, nor will they try to estimate the cost of your monthly utility bills.
They also don't have to operate underground systems, such as lawn irrigation systems or underground storage tanks.
Inspectors don't check for termites or other wood-destroying insects, nor do they test for environmental hazards like radon or asbestos (though some inspectors offer additional testing as an add-on service).
And they don't have to test smoke detectors, every single light switch and fixture in the home (only a representative number) or appliances that aren't permanently installed, such as window air conditioning units.
Don't expect them to weigh in on whether you should proceed with the purchase, either. And if you're buying a condo unit, they won't inspect the building's common areas.
See what the inspector sees and ask lots of questions
You should be there in person while the inspector is going through the house, says Colorado real estate agent Mindy Jensen, community manager for the real estate investing site BiggerPockets.com. “Follow them around the house and ask questions if you don't understand something they say.”
Jensen says the best time to ask the inspector a question is when you are both in the home, in the exact spot the inspector is talking about. “What might sound like a big deal to you may actually be a small thing, and what might sound small could be enormous,” she says.
Does a home inspection come with guarantees?
Home inspectors aren't required to guarantee their work. That means if they miss something that turns out to be a costly problem after you complete the sale, you may have little recourse.
But a home inspector can be sued for failing to meet state guidelines for home inspections, which vary by state, says Brown, the home inspector. There are examples of home inspectors being successfully sued as well as unsuccessful lawsuits where homebuyers sued as a result of buyer's remorse.
Look for an inspector that's backed by an organization like the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, which says it will buy your home back within 90 days of closing if one of its participating home inspectors misses anything substantive.
Finding a qualified home inspector
Since many homebuyers don't know any home inspectors, they often rely on recommendations from their real estate agents.
"I always give my buyers the names of at least three home inspectors who I am reasonably sure, based on past experience, are honest and qualified in their trade," says Irene Keene, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Madison, Connecticut.
However, Keene recommends that her buyers do their own due diligence on each inspector. Her clients are required to sign a disclosure stating that the vendors’ names are being provided as a courtesy only and that the brokerage cannot warrant the vendors’ work.
Homebuyers should be aware that real estate agents and home inspectors have slightly different goals when it comes to a home inspection, Brown says.
"Most realtors certainly don't want their clients to buy a money pit, but they also prefer a home inspector that may be a bit lenient in their analysis," he says. It's in the agent's best interest to close on the current house and move on.
Agents get paid not for showing houses but for selling them. Inspectors, however, are indifferent to whether or not their client buys the current house. They get paid simply for doing the inspection.
The bottom line
Getting a home inspection and carrying around a home inspection checklist are nearly always good ideas. Any inspection has limitations, but it's worth the few hundred dollars you will pay to get a better idea of what you're signing up for. Further, an inspection will often pay for itself in items you can ask the seller to repair.
"You don't want any surprises after you have taken possession," Keene says.
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