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. Even amid a highly competitive market, when some homebuyers are waiving inspections to make their offers stand out, this step is still an important way to gather information before finalizing a home purchase.

What’s the average cost of a home inspection?

Home inspection costs vary by geographic location. The average price tag across the country is about $339, though you may spend $279 to $399 — or even more — depending on where you live, according to the contractor-search service Angi. Home buyers in New Jersey, for instance, pay an average of $420.

Additional factors that impact inspection costs include a home’s size and age. The fee for a large home of 2,000 square feet or more averages around $400, while a small condo is $200. In some cases, a home inspector may charge a flat rate for homes up to a certain size and increase the fee incrementally for larger homes. In older homes, where the wiring and plumbing may require a more thorough inspection to ensure everything is up to code, inspectors may charge a higher fee.

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

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 homebuyers — can greatly 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 substantial money in the future,” says John Harris, broker/owner of RE/MAX Honolulu and president of Hawaii Realtors.

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

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

How long does a home inspection take?

A  home inspection typically takes three or four hours. It’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with an 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 inspection 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. The process generally includes a review of the major systems in a home such as the heating systems, central air, plumbing and structural components. An inspector may also inspect appliances that will be included with the home sale, as well as any general safety hazards.

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 ASHI, 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 may  recommend specialists to homebuyers to provide insight on any alarming findings for additional items an inspector doesn’t focus on or have expertise in. These special inspections will be an added cost and can include:

  • Septic
  • Well
  • Radon
  • Asbestos
  • Termites
  • Soil and geological conditions

In addition to the examples above,  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.

New construction homes also require a special inspection. Depending on the size of the house, this process could take between two to four hours. Similar to existing construction, the inspector will review everything from the foundation, walls and windows to the home’s major systems such as HVAC, electrical and plumbing. The average cost for this type of inspection is about $340, though the price ranges from $280 to $400.

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 simple plumbing inspection might cost about $200, according to Angi, while a structural inspector may charge about $500. Though depending on the size of the inspection, the fee could run $350 to $700 or more.

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, ask for proof of state certification or membership in industry groups, such as ASHI, the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors (NACHI) or the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI).  It’s also a good idea to find a professional who has plenty of experience. In order to become an ASHI member, an inspector must have completed at least 250 inspections. But Angi recommends looking for someone who has even more experience: at least 1,000 inspections and 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 particularly competitive home buying markets it can be tempting to waive home inspections to win a home bid or stand out in a bidding war, but this can be a risky decision. If you decide to take this approach it’s important to be smart about it. Don’t waive all of your protections. Instead, reserve the right to conduct an inspection in order to gather information.

You can make it clear to the seller that you won’t hold them responsible for making any necessary repairs that may be uncovered as part of the inspection process. But the money spent  on a home inspection continues to be an important investment, ensuring that you know exactly what you’re getting into when buying a home.

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