I recommend that all of my Buyers get a home inspection for their new home. Some Buyers aren’t sure if they need one – it costs money (usually about $400 in this area) and if the deal goes bad, there’s no refund of that money. But even the most handy Buyer isn’t going to be able to check all the things that an inspector does. The inspector is specially trained to perform these inspections, and they have an well-organized system to do so.
Another big issue with Buyers and inspections is that they are unsure or ill-informed on what an inspection is supposed to mean and what they should do with it. Here’s some insight on what an inspection can do for you, and how to understand its role in your purchase.
It’s not a complete guarantee that nothing is wrong. Home inspectors are limited in one big way – they can’t see what’s behind the walls. Inspections are limited to what is visible. Now, their definition of visible is different than ours. We might shine a flashlight into a corner and see cobwebs; they’ll climb into a tiny attic access hole, shine a flashlight and use a heat meter to test insulation values. They absolutely do everything they can to look at everything that’s accessible – they crawl on the steep roof, into the creepy basement crawl space and behind the rusty water heater. But they can’t start putting holes in walls and pulling up carpet. Despite the limits, they generally can tell you what’s wrong with the home using their knowledge of home construction and the effects of time on a house.
It’s not a complete guarantee that everything is wrong. Many home inspectors do a great job, finding and listing every possible thing that is wrong, every possible thing that could be better, and every possible thing that might possibly go wrong someday. This freaks out a lot of buyers – inspection reports can be 40+ pages long, and list every conceivable hazard, defect and suggestion. Hazards and defects are one thing, but suggestions are just that. Often added to make sure a lawsuit won’t bounce back on them, inspectors can get really excited about their suggestions. They don’t always mean there’s a problem – talk to your inspector and your agent to see what they think about the suggestions. You don’t want to lose a deal because there are not smoke detectors every 10 feet.
It is a valuable tool to make sure your new home is in acceptable shape. Every person has a different definition of acceptable – I have some Buyers who don’t like the tiny cracks in the sidewalk, and others who don’t mind the giant cracks in the home’s foundation. The trick is to talk with the inspector and your agent to what things are deal breakers to you, and to have them taken care of by the Seller, or reflected in the price you pay. Even in the best, newest house, your inspection will list pages of potential problems – talk to the inspector to make sure you understand the problem and the options for repair, talk to your agent to get their thoughts on how to approach the problems, and be honest with yourself as to what you can handle. Don’t accept a sale when you’re not sure you can fix the problems yourself, but don’t scuttle a sale because you think the Seller “has to” fix the problems.
Most inspectors issue a report on the the home the day of the inspection because of tight inspection response deadlines. Here’s what you’ll see on the report:
Inspection and Testing of Major Systems – Your home inspector should review and test all major systems of the home, including electrical, plumbing and HVAC. Depending on the home, the furnace should be run multiple times, and if it’s warm enough outside, the air conditioner should be powered up and tested. The plumbing should be inspected for cracks and leaks, and water pressure and drainage should be observed. Electrical outlets should be tested for grounding, and GFCI outlets should be tested to confirm they trip properly in case of water. The electrical components should be reviewed as well, looking for outdated materials and the state of the breaker box.
Inspection of Exterior – Outside, the inspector should be looking at the condition of everything attached to the house. Except in certain weather conditions, the inspector should go on the roof to check the condition of the shingles and chimney, and there should also be an inspection of the foundation, looking for cracks and issues with the yard sloping toward the house. Windows, gutters and siding are visually inspected, and sidewalks and patios should be reviewed for cracks as well. The garage is included in this inspection, and its systems, exterior and roof.
Inspection of Basement/Crawl – An inspector should always spend some time in the basement or crawl space. If there are water issues, it will be apparent in this area, and they are trained to look for signs of old water or mold. They can also get a good look at the joists of the floors overhead, and note any problems with load bearing walls or the sub floors.
Inspection of Interior – Each room should get a full review, with testing of electrical outlets, inspection of doors, windows and screens, and any issues with drywall cracks, ceiling cracks, possible water damage and flooring. In the kitchen and bathrooms, there will be a lot more to look into – the electrical systems get closer scrutiny due to having water in the room, and of course the fixtures and plumbing get a good inspection.
How to Read the Inspection Report
Most reports are set up in the same way – pages and pages of individual reports on different parts of the home, followed by a summary of the report. Read the entire report! Everybody is human, and something could be noted on the full report that didn’t get included in the summary. Read the whole thing, and if you have any questions, call the inspector and get an answer – you paid for his time, and he should be happy to help you with any questions. If you’d rather, have your agent call for you.
In the Summary, you’ll see some different categories of problems:
Items Not Operating – this is stuff that just doesn’t work. It might be an appliance that’s broken, or the entire electrical system. Read carefully, and discuss with your agent how to respond to the inspection. A broken dishwasher might not be a big deal, but some repairs in this section are costly or hazardous. It might be worth forgetting the deal if it’s an important part of the house.
Major Defects – this is stuff that’s a big deal, which could be everything from a termite infestation to a hole in the well tank. Again, discuss this carefully with your agent, and see what can be done. Some Sellers are okay with making the repair, especially if it’s something that means their house won’t sell to anyone else because of the problem. Deals can be made, either through Seller paid repairs or by lowering the sales price to account for the cost of repairs. Just make sure that your bank will be okay with you making the repairs after closing – if it’s a big enough problem, they won’t write the loan with just a promise you’ll fix it in the future.
Safety Hazards – this can be complicated bad things (like a faulty chimney) or bad things that are easy to fix (like a GFCI outlet that needs to be replaced). But, because they effect the safety of the home, they should always be fixed by a professional, licensed repairman. Lots of people can do lots of repairs, but when a small mistake can mean a house fire, I’d demand a professional for the repair.
Other Items – this is the rest of the stuff that’s wrong – and often, it’s not really something wrong so much as something that could be better. Read through this section, and stay clearheaded. Often, home inspectors pile so much in this section it can freak you out, and make the home look like a money pit. But that’s usually not true. Something like a drywall crack can be an easy weekend fix, requiring $20 in materials, and a sidewalk crack can sometimes be fixed by simply ignoring it. Make sure you talk about this section with both the home inspector and your agent. They can help you talk through the repairs and make good decisions about what to ask the Sellers to repair.
The most important thing to remember is that no home is ever going to be perfect. Even brand new homes have issues and no Seller is required to fix anything. Make sure you address any and all problems that effect the safety and livability of the home, and stay reasonable about the rest. Most Sellers are understanding about repairs, particularly about big things, and you’ll probably be able to get the things that need to be fixed completed. But your Seller always has another option – to walk away from the deal. Don’t push too hard for a perfect house, because they don’t exist. Work with your inspector to understand the severity of the problems, and work with your agent to figure how best to address them.