Buying a home is the largest single purchase most of us will ever make in our lifetimes. While some problems with a home can be easy to spot, like a sagging roof or buckling floors, other problems can be hard to detect — assuming you even know where to look. A proper home inspection can save you thousands of dollars and years of headaches if your dream home turns out to be a nightmare.

If you’re shopping for a home, you need to be thinking about having a good home inspector on hand — so they’re ready to take a look at your prospective new place once you’re under contract. Here’s everything you need to know to find a home inspector who can spot if that furnace is about to fail, or if that siding won’t survive the next thunderstorm.

How do you find a home inspector?

“Referrals from real estate agents are undoubtedly the most common way home inspectors are hired,” says Michael Powell, Certified Professional Inspector and owner of Red Flag Home Inspections in Tampa, Florida.

Be a bit wary of this time-honored method, though. Remember, real estate agents are paid on commission when a deal closes, and if a sale falls through because of something a home inspector finds, that payday gets delayed. Now, we’re not saying they recommend people who just rubber-stamp reports — Realtors are ethically bound to serve clients, and put their interests first — just that, you should be aware of a potential conflict of interest. And do your due diligence on their referrals, as well as your own research.

Recommendations from friends, family, and colleagues can be helpful but don’t be afraid to use websites where you can see reviews and referrals from hundreds of neighbors. Sites like Houzz, Angie’s List, Home Advisor, Yelp, Thumbtack and NextDoor are all good places to start your search for a home inspector.

There are two major professional organizations where you can check a home inspector’s credentials: The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI) and the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI).

Building inspector vs home inspector

Many municipalities have official building inspectors, but these professionals typically differ from the home inspectors you’d hire as a buyer. Generally, a city’s building inspector looks to see if the building is up to code and compliant with ordinances like parking, zoning and fire exits.

While these are important, they’d mainly come into play if you were substantially renovating or adding on to a home — or perhaps considering a derelict one. For your standard home purchase, you’ll still want to have a separate full home inspection completed. A home can be safe to live in by your city’s standards but still have problems that cost you thousands to fix, like a leaky roof or insufficient electrical panels for the appliances you want to install.

What to look for in a home inspector

Thirty-five states require individuals to pass the National Home Inspector Examination to legally qualify as home inspectors. “Some states do not require licensure to perform home inspections, [but] a trade certification should be viewed as a minimum requirement, with InterNACHI or ASHI the most reputable licenses,” says Powell. Neither of these industry licenses requires specific schooling or years of work experience, though the organizations often mandate proof of a certain number of paid jobs or set their own exams for membership.

In addition to licensure, an ideal home inspector should have some experience in home construction, structural engineering, plumbing, electrical work, or general contracting before they became a home inspector.

An excellent home inspector needs to be an effective communicator and utilize new technology and techniques like thermal imaging cameras or drones. They need to have excellent attention to detail and be able to explain issues in terms you can understand.

What to ask a home inspector

Always “request a quick conference call with your chosen inspector before hiring,” advises Powell. Ask them questions like:

  • How many inspections have you completed?
  • What sort of technology do you use?
  • How long have you been in business?
  • What exactly do you cover in your inspections?
  • What additional inspections do you recommend in this area?
  • What are your fees and timelines?

Powell also advises that clients ask “Are there any Standards of Practice that you follow? Do you merely meet those or exceed them?” A professional home inspector will have Standards of Practice in the agreement you sign with them — minimum standards to ensure certain levels of due diligence are being carried out during your home inspection. A good inspector will have these in place and know them well enough to easily answer them during your call.

In addition to the interview, request that an inspector send you a sample report. That way, you can see first-hand the types of things they inspect, how thorough they are, and how clearly they communicate.

Remember, a lot is riding on this report. It could be a deal-breaker, so you want to make sure you can understand any concerns the inspector uncovers, and the severity of an issue.