Buying a House: Why a Home Inspection Can Save You Money

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Repairs to a home can cost thousands of dollars, and environmental hazards like mold, lead paint, or formaldehyde can cause serious health problems. You want to make sure you know what you're getting before you spend thousands on a down payment and go into debt to buy a house.

The seller must disclose the major defects he or she knows about in the house, but the buyer isn't required to have inspections done to find out what the defects are. The only way to protect yourself from nasty surprises is to have your own inspections done before the deal is final. If your own agent is pushing a particular inspector, you may want to ask friends, family or neighbors for recommendations and choose one on your own. Your agent may or may not have your best interests at heart as they may be more concerned with a smooth closing than with ensuring you have all the information you need to make a wise purchase.

Your Initial Inspection

You can do an informal inspection when you first look at the property. You will want to watch out for several things that might tell you what further inspections you need:

  • Are things like walls, windows, doorways, and floors straight?
  • Are there cracks in the walls, floors, or ceilings?
  • Are there deflections or bulges?
  • Are there watermarks on ceilings, walls, or in the basement or crawlspace?
  • Has there been poor maintenance of windows, doors, the roof, gutters, or exterior paint?
  • Is the foundation eroding?
  • How old are the appliances and what condition are they in?
  • Are there obvious problems with the electrical wiring? (Check outlets and switches.)
  • How old is the furnace and what condition is it in?
  • Are there visible problems with the plumbing like leaking faucets, water stains around sinks and shower, or noisy pipes?

If watermarks are visible, that may mean excess moisture is present. If this is true and the excess moisture was due to poor maintenance, this could indicate mold and/or dry rot that aren't visible. Watermarks can also mean a leaking roof, and cracks point toward structural problems.

Which Inspections Should You Have?

There are two inspections most buyers have done: the general house inspection and a pest inspection. Be sure you know what you're getting. The general house and pest inspections are combined into one inspection in some states, but in other states, like California, they are separate. Check with your lender to see if any special inspections are required. If you have a FHA or VA loan, for example, there are certain inspections you must have.

The pest inspection is for both bugs and fungus: termites, beetles, dry rot and other fungal infestations. The general housing inspection covers most of the structure and systems, including appliances and heating/cooling systems. These problems can all be extensive and expensive to repair.

Special Inspections

If you have some reason to suspect an additional problem, like mold, asbestos, toxic chemicals, natural disasters (like earthquakes or floods), or lead paint in a building built before 1978, you can schedule special inspections to check for those problems. Just make sure you've allowed enough time in the contingencies to do all the inspections you want to do.

Finding the Right Inspector(s)

You should start looking for inspectors as soon as you get serious about a purchase. If you wait until the offer has been accepted, you might not have time to schedule the inspectors you would most like to have. Your agent might be able to recommend good inspectors for you, but it's worthwhile keeping in mind that your agent gets a percentage of the purchase price, so he or she has an interest in the sale going through quickly at the highest price. You have an interest in getting the price reduced if extensive repairs are needed, which might delay the closing. You can ask people you know to recommend inspectors they know or have worked with, or you can search online for professional associations like the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI).

When choosing inspectors, you will want people who are knowledgeable, experienced, conscientious, and very picky. Ask a potential inspector what kind of report he or she does. Don't hire an inspector who just gives you a rating of good, fair, or poor for each category. You want a discussion of problems. If you can possibly attend, you should also accompany each inspector to see the problems for yourself. If your initial inspection indicated structural problems with the house and you are still interested in pursuing it, you should consider an inspector who has expertise in engineering.

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