A home inspection can save you money and misery when buying a house
By Mary Lynn Bruny
But under its pretty façade may be a few ugly surprises in the form of expensive needed repairs. Or maybe not. You just don’t know until it’s inspected.
Although a professional inspection is optional, most Boulder County home buyers elect to have one unless they’re planning an extensive remodel or scraping the home.
Getting an inspection gives you an overview of any problems or potential problems that may need addressing. With this documentation you can negotiate with the sellers to make the repairs or request a cash credit at closing. A professional inspection also documents your home’s condition and could be useful for insurance purposes in case of future damage.
After your property is under contract, schedule an inspection as soon as possible. You can usually schedule it in one to five days. If the inspection raises issues that require further consultation, this will give you time to meet with the right professionals and get further information and quotes.
Inspection costs vary depending on the property size, but expect to pay between $300 and $400. For that you’ll get a comprehensive on-site inspection and a detailed written report with digital photographs and recommendations for maintenance and repairs, or further consultation. For additional fees you can usually add a sewer-line scope ($140-ish) and a radon test ($130-ish).
Most inspectors—but not all—are certified by agencies like the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). Agencies require inspectors to have extensive training, examinations and experience. Certified inspectors also must comply with industry standards and practices, and adhere to a code of ethics. Like all service providers, some inspectors are better than others. The best way to find a good one is through recommendations from friends and your realtor or loan officer. Be sure to check the inspection company online to see what it inspects and guarantees.
“I don’t think you need to spend a ton of money, but I wouldn’t choose the cheapest,” says recent Longmont home buyer Olivia DeJana. “You want to go with an experienced inspector who knows his stuff. The home inspector can either save you a lot of money, or he can miss things that can cost you a lot of money in the long run.”
Depending on your property’s size, the inspection can take between two and four hours. In that time, the inspector will examine the home internally and externally, and its major operating systems. (See “What’s Inspected?” on page 72.) An inspection covers a lot, but don’t expect the report to list every flaw.
“It’s important to understand the purpose of an inspection. It’s not to locate every little piddling thing that needs to be fixed,” DeJana says. “It’s to find the bigger issues, to make sure the home is safe and structurally sound, and that all the major systems are working appropriately.”
The inspection also checks whether the property’s systems are up to code. “‘Is it deemed safe by today’s standards?’ is more the direction we take,” says local ASHI-certified inspector Lou Conte of AmeriSpec Inspection Services in Boulder.
The inspection won’t address radon, asbestos, lead paint and mold. If the inspector sees evidence of these, he will certainly note it, but radon, lead and most asbestos are not visible. The inspection won’t cover septic systems either. (Boulder County has its own inspection system for septic systems; if you have a septic system, plan on writing additional checks.) It also doesn’t cover some large appliances like the refrigerator, the washer and the dryer. “Most sellers take these with them,” Conte explains, adding that an inspection will cover connections and outlets for these appliances.
All inspection reports have disclaimers and limitations of liability. These usually state the report is based on visual inspections and that no attempt was made to gain access to hidden areas. For instance, in the older Boulder home Linda Roan-Yager recently purchased, asbestos tiles were found after her family moved in and removed some carpeting. An inspector would not be expected to find those.
Most companies limit an inspector’s liability to the return of his inspection fee, though some include certain guarantees. Judy Amabile, who purchased her Boulder home in 2013, notes that her inspection came with a free, 30-day guarantee that if anything inspected was said to be in working order and didn’t function the company would pay for the repair. “The problem with this guarantee is it usually takes more than 30 days to close on a house,” she points out. “By the time I moved in and found the oven wasn’t working, the warranty period had expired.”
Join the Process
You can join your inspector during the inspection or just receive the report afterward. But it’s best to meet with your inspector, because he can explain any issues to you and you can ask questions.
Good inspectors will also point out things you should be aware of, like that oddly hung cable wire in your backyard. If you join the inspector, wear sensible shoes and clothes that can get dirty as you examine the basement, garage and attic.
“Definitely walk with your inspector,” recommends Brain Doyle, veteran project manager at Triad Construction. “If you find something afterward that’s not on the report it will be much harder to discuss it later.”
Another reason to accompany the inspector is to learn about the property. A good inspector will point out where critical items are—the main water shut-off valve, the furnace power switch and filters and the main dryer vent—and how to operate and maintain them.
“We have all this redwood trim in our house and we had no idea how to take care of it,” Roan-Yager says. “Our inspector talked with us about that and told us how often to stain and oil it.”
Keep in mind an inspection will only provide an overview of problems or potential problems, not solutions. “The inspector will find it,” Doyle says, “but you’ll need to get a specific professional to fix it.”
In DeJana’s 10-year-old home, the inspector noted a small leak in a bathroom pipe and recommended she follow up with a plumber. “It was a good catch by the inspector,” she says. “It could have become a much bigger problem down the road.”
Just because an inspector finds something is functional doesn’t mean it’s functioning well, and you may only discover that after living in the home. “Yes, the dishwasher in my new home technically ran during the inspection,” Amabile says. “But when I moved in and ran it, it didn’t actually clean the dishes.” She ultimately replaced it.
Even the best inspectors don’t catch everything. “We really liked our inspector and thought he did a good job with our older home with lots of issues,” Roan-Yager says. “But one thing he missed was our heating system. He checked it by turning it on, and it came on. But it’s baseboard heat and some of the runs work and some don’t. He didn’t check each run.”
In his 15 years as a home inspector Conte has only had one inspection where he found no issue. “It was a newer 800-square-foot condo,” he says. Assuming your home will have problems, what are the most common?
Many issues arise from deferred maintenance, says Wright Kingdom Real Estate broker associate John Hoeffler. “For instance, we often see furnaces that need to be cleaned and reinspected because the filter hadn’t been changed in three years.”
Conte sees a lot of improperly installed furnaces and water heaters, as well as incorrect or inadequate roofing details. “And I see hundreds of safety-related items,” he says, “from potential carbon monoxide poisoning to sharp lawn edging.”
Other common problems are slope drainage and radon. “Sixty to 70 percent of the inspection reports I look at show some area of yard with a negative slope, so water runoff drains back toward the house,” which can lead to serious foundation problems, Hoeffler says. Radon is also a recurrent issue: “It comes in high for more than half of the homes tested,” he says.
Other problems occur because of human intervention. “I inspected a home built in 1927 that the people had lived in for over 50 years,” Conte recalls. “The guy was just a handy Dan, and virtually everything was wrong with the wiring and the plumbing. I mean, it was OK for him, but it wasn’t safe for anyone else.”
Single-strand aluminum wiring is another safety issue, Conte says. “The problem is it heats up and cools off so quickly that the connections can come loose and start a fire. This is very expensive to correct.”
Another costly repair is replacing polybutylene plumbing. “Polybutylene was the first generation of plastic pipe commonly used in the ’60s and ’70s,” Conte notes. “It was later determined to be faulty and has been recalled.”
Hoeffler recommends sewer-line scopes for houses built before 1980. “In older homes we often see clay sewer lines clogged with tree roots,” he says.
“I didn’t have a sewer scope when I bought my house in 2013,” Amabile says. “It’s a newer house, so I thought, ‘Why pay for that?’ But after the (2013) flood I had issues. I wish I had a report that said the sewer line was good to begin with and not a preexisting problem. It would have made dealing with the insurance much easier.”
Mold has also become an issue after the flood. “We didn’t talk much about mold pre-flood, and we probably saw about one case a year. Now we think about it in every home purchase,” Hoeffler says. “I’ve had two houses test positive for mold in the last year. I think both brokers and buyers are so much more cautious and aware of mold now. But I don’t know if we’re seeing more mold because of the flood, or because we’re testing more.”
Another common issue is synthetic stucco. “Most stucco you see on a house in Colorado isn’t real stucco; it’s some form of artificial stucco,” Hoeffler says. “If it’s not sealed correctly, moisture can get behind it and cause mold, woodpeckers can peck through it, and it can cause broken seals and cracks. If the house is all stucco many inspectors recommend you have a second inspector check it out.”
Asbestos is often found in the insulation and floor tiles of older homes. It’s not a safety issue unless you ‘disturb’ it, such as when remodeling. Then it has to be mitigated in a regulated manner. “It’s something buyers should be aware of and make a decision whether or not they want to test for it,” Hoeffler says.
The most expensive fix is foundation problems. “Major structural damage, such as a hillside home that has moved to a point where it’s going to require piers or additional concrete retaining walls, or worse than that… that is going to be very, very expensive,” Conte says.
Assuming you want to proceed with the home purchase after an inspection, you should meet with your realtor to strategize before your Inspection Objection Deadline. You may want to ask the sellers to fix any problems before closing or ask for financial compensation at closing.
“My advice to both buyers and sellers is to negotiate for a cash credit,” Hoeffler says. “The seller doesn’t have any interest in doing the best repairs possible. There can be a whole other set of issues because the buyer isn’t happy with the repairs or the repairs don’t get done on time. Then the closing gets delayed.”
But a seller’s willingness to accept your requests will depend on market conditions and their own assessment of the inspection, not yours. “A seller in a hot market isn’t going to be real negotiable regardless of what’s wrong, if they’ve had the house on the market for one week and have multiple offers,” Hoeffler says.
“But most buyers and sellers work through the issues. Reasonable people come to a reasonable settlement and move forward.”
Inspection companies provide slightly different services. Check the company’s website for a list of inclusions and exclusions. The following items are typical of most inspections.
- Heating and cooling systems
- Water heaters
- Electrical (fixtures, switches, outlets, fans)
- Plumbing (faucets, drains, toilets, pressure regulators)
- Windows, doors, walls and floors
- Some appliances (dishwasher, disposal, range)
- Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
- Attic (framing, insulation and ventilation)
- Gates and fences
- Decks and patios
- Lot drainage
- Windows, doors, cladding and trim
- Roof and chimneys
- Electric and gas meters
- Electrical (fixtures, switches, outlets)
- Plumbing (faucets)
- Ice makers
- Washer and dryer
- Sewer lines
- (Radon and sewer tests are usually available for additional fees)
—Source: American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI)