Inspecting a home's foundation
Fstop123/Getty Images

While another expense might seem like the last thing you want when you’re buying a house, most experts recommend a professional home inspection to get a better idea of what condition the property is in and what problems might be lurking.

Do you need a home inspection?

A home inspection can help you avoid potentially expensive surprises, like structural flaws or hidden damage. While not required by law, buyers — especially first-time home buyers — can really benefit from having a professional give the property a thorough examination before finalizing a purchase.

“As a home purchase is a very large investment, perhaps the largest one will ever make, a small amount of money pledged toward research now may save the homeowner substantial money in the future,” says John Harris, broker/owner of ReMax Honolulu and president of Hawaii Realtors.

A seller who is desperate to unload a house might be motivated to conceal plumbing issues or other problems that could haunt you later. Sellers can be unaware of hidden flaws in their homes — problems you might not want to deal with.

“A home does not have a ‘check engine’ light. Things may be wrong that the homeowner or purchaser are honestly unaware of,” says Frank Lesh, ambassador for the American Society of Home Inspectors.

What’s the average cost of a home inspection?

Prices for home inspections vary widely by location, as well as the size and age of a home.

“Home inspections generally cost between $300 and $450,” says Angie Hicks, co-founder of the home services website Angie’s List.

Hicks says buyers can expect to pay at least $400 for a home inspection from a reputable company on an average 2,000-square-foot home. However, the price can easily push to $500 or $600-plus if you have a larger home or need additional inspections, such as mold or termite, which aren’t typically included.

Other factors that affect how much an inspection can cost are how different the home is and how far the inspector has to travel to reach the home. In addition, home inspectors with more experience may charge more than those with less experience.

How long does a home inspection take?

The home inspection typically takes three or four hours, Hicks says. It’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with a home inspector soon after signing a purchase contract so you’ll have the report before the termination option period expires.

It’s best to attend the inspection, so you can observe and ask questions or provide information to the inspector. Within a day or two, you can expect to receive a written report on the condition of the home’s structures and systems, often with photos of any problems the inspector may have seen.

What does a home inspection include?

The home inspector should do a thorough visual examination of the important structures and systems of the property.

“[They] typically include an overview of the four major systems in a home — structural and foundation, roofing, plumbing and electrical — along with included appliances and potential safety hazards,” says Harris.

Checking for water intrusion in the home

Signs of water inside the structure would be one of the biggest concerns. “Water in the wrong place may cause a house to become unlivable. A water leak could cause mold to grow and wood to rot,” Lesh says. “A slow roof leak may take years to become obvious to the homeowner, whereas a storm may cause a sudden leak that anyone can see.” Inspectors can tell you whether there are signs of previous leaks.

Reporting on the home’s roof condition

Home inspectors will evaluate the condition of the roof and check for any leaks. “It doesn’t matter whether the roof is good or bad. There is no incentive for the inspector to find a problem, or not,” Lesh says. “It is against the ASHI Code of Ethics to do repairs on anything we inspect, so we only report what we see.”

Inspecting electrical systems on the property

Many electrical problems can be easy and inexpensive to fix if discovered in time.

“However, an inexpensive repair may be deadly if not taken care of immediately,” Lesh says.

For example, a malfunctioning ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) only costs about $10, so many people think it’s hardly worth reporting on. But electrical shock could occur if a GFCI is not installed or if it’s not working.” Home inspectors will check every accessible GFCI to make sure it’s operating properly.

In general, according to the American Society of Home Inspectors, a complete home inspection report should cover these areas:

  • Heating system
  • Air conditioning system
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical system
  • Roof
  • Attic
  • Visible insulation
  • Walls
  • Ceilings
  • Floors
  • Windows
  • Doors
  • Foundation
  • Basement and structural components

What special home inspections might be needed?

Home inspectors will recommend specialists to homebuyers to provide insight on any alarming findings for items an inspector doesn’t focus on. These can include soil and geological conditions, Harris says.

Optional inspection services you might add on include:

  • Septic
  • Well
  • Radon
  • Asbestos
  • Termites

A structural engineer or foundation specialist might be recommended to further assess a foundation problem, for example. The specialist can provide quotes and recommendations on how to fix the issue. Get a specialist’s opinion before releasing the inspection contingency in your purchase agreement so you can use it as a negotiating tool with the seller.

The cost of specialists’ assessments varies widely by field and by company. A roofing specialist might provide a free quote, hoping to get the work. A plumber might charge $100 for a site visit, while a structural engineer might charge $800.

How to choose the right home inspector

The best way to discern whether an inspector is charging you a fair price is to see what other inspectors in your area are charging for homes like the one you want to buy. You may be able to shop online — some inspectors publish their fees on their websites.

Whether you hire a home inspector recommended by your real estate agent or one you find on your own, Hicks recommends asking for proof of state certification or membership in industry groups such as the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors (NACHI), National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI) or the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). Angie’s List also recommends finding a professional who has performed at least 1,000 inspections and has a minimum of three to five years of full-time experience.

You can also ask to see a sample report to get an idea of how thorough each inspector is. A sample report that indicates a more thorough inspection might justify an inspector’s higher price. The answers you get from asking around will give you a range to determine what you should pay.

In the end, the money you spend on a home inspection can save you a lot, whether you use the information to negotiate repairs or concessions from the seller or avoid a bad deal altogether.

Learn more: