After a long, exhausting search that consumed every free minute of your time, nearly destroyed your marriage and drove all your friends insane, you’ve finally found the home of your dreams. You, your spouse and your realtor may have breathed a big sigh of relief when your offer was accepted, but you’ve barely begun your home buying adventure. The next big hurdle is getting through the home inspection.
What exactly is included in a home inspection? Should you be present or let the person you hired do all the work? You’re not the first anxious homebuyer to have questions — in fact, most people have more questions than they think to ask about the inspection process. Don’t worry, I’ll walk you through it — think of your home inspection as a fact-finding mission and the more information you have about your future home, the better.
What is Home Inspection?
A lot of people have the wrong idea about home inspections — they believe that these reports are somehow predictive of the future condition of the home, the quality of the construction or the longevity of the systems. While this information may be able to be extrapolated from a home inspection, that’s not the primary function of this particular service. A home inspection is simply a snapshot of your home at one moment in time.
While a home inspector worth their salt will be able to give you general information about systems, the condition of your future home and how long you can expect materials to last, they’re not gypsy fortune-tellers. Your home inspector cannot see the future, even an hour or two beyond their departure from the home. What they can see are existing structural or system failures, signs of pests or recurrent problems, and the condition of the home at the time they observed it.
Unfortunately, like people, materials in buildings age at irregular rates. Your roof may look great today, but the tree that overhangs your home and continually sheds onto it could age it prematurely. In the same vein, even though the air conditioner is 10 years old, it might have a lot of life left if it has been well cared for over the years and protected from the elements. The various materials and systems in your home have average expected life spans, but there’s no such thing as an average house.
Why Get A Home Inspection?
If a home inspection can’t see into the future to prepare you for future problems, or guarantee anything beyond the day your inspector came out to visit, what good are they? It kind of sounds like a scam to take your hard-earned money and put it into the pocket of yet another useless contractor, doesn’t it? I know it might be hard to wrap your head around right now — after all, you’re dealing with a million different pieces of information that feel like they’re flying by your head at the speed of sound, the stress of going into massive debt and the hope that your home is worth every penny you’ve agreed to pay for it. You’re in a whirlwind romance with a building and telling up from down is probably pretty tricky at the moment.
All of these background stressors are the very reasons you need a home inspector. Even if you knew everything there was to know about construction, the history of the architecture of your home and the appropriate signs of aging for the area, you’re not in any mind set to be objective. I know, I know, it’s just a building — I’ve heard that from hundreds of first time homebuyers and I can assure you that only about 10 percent actually believe what they’re saying. A new home is an exciting thing, a chance to begin again, to make a place your own.
Before you start painting the walls your favorite shade of orange, though, you want to be absolutely certain that the home you’re purchasing isn’t going to break you. Even if you don’t intend to ask for repairs, or the seller has stated that they cannot or will not fix a thing, you should still think of a home inspection as a type of insurance against buying a house that will consume your every last nickel. If the roof is already leaking, the furnace has a cracked heat exchanger and the foundation is crumbling, you’re looking at a much bigger immediate expense than just your mortgage payment.
Home Inspection Versus Home Appraisal
Some homebuyers get tripped up by the many different people they’re hiring to run in and out of the home of their dreams. Home inspections and appraisals can become confused, especially if you’re buying using an FHA loan. The main difference between the two is that the home inspection is used to determine the condition of the home, where the appraisal is all about calculating its value.
An FHA appraisal muddies these waters and I believe is largely the source of confusion for home buyers when they mix up home inspections and appraisals. During an FHA appraisal, a specially trained appraiser goes out and does exactly what appraisers do during any kind of appraisal — they measure rooms, check the general condition of the home and compare it to others that have recently sold to determine the value.
Your FHA appraiser will also go one step further by checking key items to determine if your home is habitable, reasonable to heat and cool and is expected to require minimal repairs in the next five years. The FHA doesn’t want you to end up in a home that will force you to choose between paying the electric bill and the mortgage — so they make sure that won’t be a problem. Similar checklists come into play on USDA and VA mortgage appraisals, but these appraisals are not the same as a home inspection and don’t give you the depth of information a home inspection will.
What to Expect at Your Inspection
Your home inspector and Realtor will both tell you that you don’t have to be present at the home inspection, but it’s a really good idea to go if you can spare the two to three hours it should take. Even though the inspector will provide you with a report and a bill of health, clean or otherwise, there’s a great deal you can learn about your home by simply following your inspector from room to room.
As they check your home’s vital parts, including the electrical, plumbing, heating and air, roofing, structure and foundation, your home inspector will also give you important information about these items. I’ve heard home inspectors give home buyers tips on future maintenance, suggestions for improving questionable (but functional) past installs and ideas for updating aging aesthetics or increasing safety features as they went through a house. All that advice is free, but it won’t show up on your home inspection report — it’s strictly for home buyers who happen to be around the day the home inspector comes.
Many home buyers have told me that they didn’t see their future home as clearly before their home inspection as they did afterward. This is kind of frightening for a Realtor to hear, but it’s also reassuring that the buyer understands exactly the commitment that they’re making. Before the home inspection is over, you’ll know if you’re ready to take the plunge into home ownership — try not to get overwhelmed by all the information you receive.
Home inspectors are fussy by nature and the many problems they highlight may sound like insurmountable challenges, but things like missing GFIs in older homes, reversed hot and cold water feeds on faucets, noisy fans and doors that don’t like to stay open are par for the course. Keep in mind that your home inspector is comparing your home to the condition it would be in if it were new — you want to hear that your home has normal wear and tear and is in good shape for its age, not that it’s without fault.
We all get a little saggy as time goes by, if you’re looking at older homes you won’t get away without minor problems. Don’t panic, but do ask your home inspector how to repair the little things they point out as they go. Take a small notebook with you to record all those details that you’re not going to remember weeks later when you finally move in.
The Home Inspection Report
A few days after your home inspection is complete, your inspector will deliver a written copy to you or your Realtor. This 20 to 30 page report contains information on all the big ticket items in your home, as well as a short summary that outlines the most important points to ponder. The first page or two call attention to serious problems, safety issues and repairs that the inspector doesn’t want you to miss. But don’t stop reading there, because the rest is full of useful information — other sections you might see include:
Structure. This section will help you better understand the stuff your home is made from. Read through to find out if its bones are wooden or metal, how the roof, walls and ceiling are constructed and the type of foundation your home is sitting on. Pay close attention to this section, problems listed here can be challenging to correct.
Roofing. One of the biggest expenses of homeownership is roof replacement, so take a minute to look over this section. Roofing materials, drainage systems, chimneys, vents and flashings are difficult to inspect from the ground — the roofing summary will help you better understand the condition of your home’s most difficult to access surface.
Exterior. Your home inspector will look at the condition of everything on the outside of your home, including the siding, soffits and facia, window wraps and trim, porches, walkways, driveways, garage doors and fencing. Keep in mind that while your inspector may note deficiencies in these items, they won’t be able to tell you if there’s an exterior pest problem unless you’ve ordered a pest inspection as well.
Electrical. Depending on the age of your home, an additional electrical inspection may be warranted,based on what your general inspector finds. In the report, they’ll note vital information like the size of your electrical service, types of wiring present, grounding on switches and outlets and other hardwired items like smoke detectors. This is one of the most common areas to find past repairs that were performed incorrectly — make sure to hire an electrician to untangle them, house fires are no fun.
Heating. A few lucky buyers in climates too warm to need a furnace won’t have this section in their home inspection, but for the rest of us schmucks who have to experience winter, it’s good to know about our heating units. Check here for a description of your heating system, the type of fuel it uses and a description of any visible ducts. Keep in mind that your home inspector can’t see through walls, so problems may exist between floors or within walls that they are unable to locate.
Cooling. As with the heating section, if you live in a very cold climate, you may not have a cooling section. Also, much like in the heating section, this part of the report should describe your air conditioning unit and any whole-house fans permanently installed. If you buy in the winter, it may not be possible to inspect an outdoor air conditioning unit due to freezing temperatures, however.
Insulation / Ventilation. Insulation and vents are vital to your comfort inside your home. Too little of either insulation or ventilation will make your home’s climate hard to control and it may get very humid indoors, encouraging pests and mold. Your home inspector will look in the attic and crawlspace to see how much insulation is present in these areas and if the vents are adequate for the structure’s size.
Plumbing. Your inspector can’t see inside the plumbing to detect internal problems with the pipes, but they can tell you what type of plumbing is present (and if it leaks), the location of your main water shut-off and what the water pressure is like when compared to similar homes. They’ll also carefully outline any vitals on your water heating system, fixtures and safety valves — chronic leaks or valves that don’t work can become major problems if not fixed right away.
Interior. All that stuff inside your home can be subject to a variety of problems, but if it’s visible, your home inspector will note it. Moldy basement drywall, signs of moisture penetration, improperly installed flooring or interior doors are just a few items that may appear in this section. You’ll also get a run down of the materials used to finish the interior of your home, from the flooring to the walls, doors and windows.
Appliances. Whether or not your home comes with them, your inspector will make sure that the electrical services that are intended to feed energy-hungry appliances like stoves, washers and dryers are adequate. They’ll also assure that these appliances are vented properly so they perform at their best.
Other Sections. If your home has other features like a fireplace or wood stove, you make have extra sections to cover these potentially dangerous items. A basic run-down of the chimney and fireplace or wood stove are typical — if you want a more in-depth report on these items, tell your Realtor.
Optional Home Inspections
A general home inspection checks the big stuff, but if you want to be certain that your home is free of hazards like lead, pests or radon, you’ll need a specialist. Sometimes your general home inspector is trained for these situations, but it’s always good to ask when you’re scheduling the inspection to ensure that the right people will be there to answer all your questions. Many loans require your home be free of wood-destroying pests, but if you have reasons for concern in other areas, you should address them now.
Sometimes, a home inspector will uncover an issue they’re not certain about — maybe something in the electrical box looks wrong, but it’s a very unusual setup so they’re not certain if it’s actually a problem. In these cases, your home inspector may recommend you have a specialist come in to further inspect the questionable item. Most of the time this is just to protect you from a potential hazard and the inspector from liability in the event their unfamiliarity causes them to give you bad information. It doesn’t happen every time, but if it happens to you, it’s not necessarily a sign something is wrong with your home.
Some homeowners still believe that the home inspection is a step they can skip when purchasing a home, and a few Realtors will try to discourage you from having one for fear of losing a sale. For better or worse, your home inspection will paint a picture of your home in detail like you can’t get from disclosures or appraisals. Spend the few hundred dollars it takes to make sure you’re not going to be stuck with tens of thousands in unexpected repairs — you won’t regret it.