Whether you live in an apartment, condo or single-family house, you want to know that your dwelling is safe — not just in a safe neighborhood, but physically sound, too. Being 100 percent certain about your home’s structure usually requires professional consultation, but just about anyone can spot obvious problems. In general, it’s a good idea to get a home inspected before you move in, and then keep up a regular maintenance regimen to ensure everything stays in good shape.

How do I know if my house is structurally sound?

To really get down to the brass tacks of maintenance issues, you’ll want to hire a professional inspector or engineer.

“It’s cute to try to predict everything that’s wrong but a pro has to do it for you,” says Nick Gromicko, founder of InterNACHI, the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. “It would be like you looking at your own X-rays before the doctor comes in the room.”

Even so, there are three basic kinds of warning signs that can alert you to more serious issues and should prompt you to hire a professional right away:

1. Cracks

No matter where they show up — in your wall, ceiling, foundation or chimney — cracks or crumbling can be bad news. They can indicate structural instability or uneven settling, and could signal major, costly damage down the road.

You might see cracks in your paint as seasons change or a new house settles, and those kinds of superficial imperfections aren’t usually reason to worry — but if the crack is more than a quarter of an inch wide or grows over time, have it checked out.

2. Water

Another major headache for homeowners is water infiltration. If you have a leaky roof or pipes, or regularly see puddles in your basement when it rains, have the issue inspected. Ongoing water damage can be costly to fix and lead to other problems like mold. A leaky roof can also become unstable as water slowly wears away the material that supports it.

3. Uneven finishes

A bulging floor or doors or windows that no longer sit level in their frames can also point to structural issues with your home. Door and window openings are vulnerable parts of your wall and are often the areas where cracks and other problems first become apparent.

What to do if you spot an issue

Once you’ve identified a problem with your home, it’s important to get a professional to evaluate the issue as soon as possible. He or she will be able to assess how serious it is, and should be able to advise on what, if any, repairs will be required and what they might cost.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get a past report on your property because the results of home inspections are confidential to the person who contracted for it. That said, if you know your home’s previous owner, or if you have a copy of the inspection report you likely received when you moved in, it can be helpful for comparison.

Depending on the issues you’ve identified, an inspector might be able to get a closer look through non-destructive testing methods. Certain inspections may require walls to come down, for example, but non-destructive methods leave your home intact, meaning you won’t need to do any repairs as a result of the inspection itself.

Advice for homebuyers

Assuming you haven’t agreed to waive the inspection contingency that’s in most real estate contracts, get an inspection on your new home before you close. The inspection report should alert you to any major structural issues and can help you plan ahead for expensive repairs that may be coming your way.

“You’re thinking about your health and safety, whether you can insure it and whether you can afford it,” Gromicko says. “That’s a great way to read an inspection report.”

An inspection report that reveals extremely expensive issues, like a cracked foundation or abandoned utility that needs to be abated, could scuttle a real estate deal. Once you have the results, talk to the seller and see if you can get concessions on the price to cover necessary repairs. If the work that’s required means you can no longer afford the property and the seller won’t budge on the price, you may have to walk away.

If you do decide to go through with the purchase, make sure you have enough money set aside after closing to cover any work that needs to be done immediately. Talk to your inspector about the results and take their advice on how much the repairs could cost.

If you’re moving into a homeowners association community (HOA), you might also be able to reach out to the board for information about the property. Many HOAs require inspections prior to sale, and those reports should be available — though you may have to ask.

It’s also a good idea to be in touch with the HOA about any additional charges you may incur or applications that are necessary for the kinds of repairs you expect to do. That way you can budget enough time and money to meet those requirements.

Advice for home sellers

As a seller, you’re required to disclose any structural issues you’re aware of in your home prior to closing the sale. It gets a little trickier with estate sales, because if you haven’t lived in the house, you can sell it as-is with no disclosures, since you weren’t there to know about any issues.

If you’re selling the former home of a deceased relative, Gromicko recommends you always sell as-is to reduce your own liability. Once you take on repairs, you could be responsible for those upgrades long after you hand over the title.

If you’re selling your own home and have disclosed a major issue, be prepared to negotiate with buyers. Some people prefer to get a fixer-upper so they can finish things to their own taste, but others might want the home to be in turnkey condition and expect major repairs to be done before closing. You may have to renegotiate the purchase price, depending on how the buyer wants to proceed.

Bottom line

For most people, their home is their biggest investment, and keeping it in tip-top shape is part of making sure it maintains its value. Especially as you prepare to move in or move out, get the home inspected and address any structural issues that could become dangerous. Ignoring problems could mean they become more destructive over time and ultimately costlier to fix.

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