Suppose you bought a house and later discovered, to your dismay, that the stucco exterior concealed a nasty case of dry rot. Or suppose that when you fired up the furnace in the winter, you discovered a cracked heat exchanger leaking gas into your home. The best way to avoid unpleasant surprises like these is to arrange for a home inspection before you buy.
Nowadays, home buyers have it drilled into their heads that they need home inspections. In California, for example, real estate agents advise home buyers to do various types of home inspections 15 ways from Sunday; they don’t shut up about it. Our purchase contracts contain two pages that discuss reasons for home inspections, and those two pages are repeated in the buyer’s broker agreement. Home inspections are a huge deal.
Completed improperly, they don’t always show a buyer everything that could be wrong.
But what does a home inspection report disclose? Home buyers are often in the dark about home construction and its components, and have difficulty deciphering home inspections. The terminology might be complicated, too, and few know the difference between a joist and a stud. How would a buyer who has never owned a home know what should be included on the checklist for home inspections? Many buyers also don’t know how to figure out which types of defects are serious or whether their home inspector checked all the essentials. This can be frightening for a buyer.
Home inspection checklist
You should start preparing for a professional inspection when you initially tour the home, before making an offer. This will give you an idea if there are any areas you want the inspector to pay special attention to. A good inspector will address these issues in the report you pay for. Use this checklist to help figure out what to look for ahead of time and in the final report. If any of these items aren’t covered in the inspection report, ask why not.
Foundation: Look at the base of the walls and the ceilings in each room. Are there obvious cracks or apparent shifts in the foundation? Do the same around the outside. Are there any trees encroaching on the foundation?
Lot: Does the drainage appear to be away from the house? Are there any obvious soggy areas?
Roof: What is the overall condition? When was it last replaced?
Exterior: Does the house look like it will need repairs or repainting soon? Are gutters and downspouts firmly attached? Are there loose boards or dangling wires? Is there asbestos in the exterior material, which would require added costs if it needed to be repaired or replaced?
Attic: How does the interior of the roof structure look? Are there any signs of leaks?
Interior evidence of leaks: Check ceilings and around windows in each room.
Basement: Is there dampness? Adequate insulation? (If there’s a crawlspace instead of a basement, you might want to leave this for the professional home inspection.)
Electrical: Do the switches work? Are there any obvious malfunctions? Have the outlets been grounded? Is the panel updated and expandable for additional appliances or a potential remodel?
Plumbing: Any unusual noises or malfunctions? Has the sewer line been scoped to check for potential cracks?
Appliances: If these are included, what is the age and condition of the stove, dishwasher or refrigerator?
Heating/cooling system: Does it seem to do the job? How old is the furnace? If the system has been converted, are the old systems or tanks still in place?
Odor: Does the home smell? Can you detect what it might be and whether it could be fixed? Beware of musty odors which could signal a wet basement.
In addition to your own eyes, ears and nose, you should get a seller’s disclosure statement before your inspection. Use the statement to help you pinpoint anything you want your inspector to look at. If they disclosed that they had a leaky window replaced or repaired, make sure that gets some extra attention from your inspector.
Disclosure requirements vary by state and sometimes local jurisdictions, so ask your real estate agent if you have any questions about what is included. Disclosure typically comes in the form of boilerplate documents with a series of yes/no questions for the seller to detail their home and their experience there.
One thing to look for is whether any unpermitted work has been done. If so, you could be on the hook for bringing the house up to code should you ever remodel. Even if that’s not even remotely on your radar, unpermitted work needs to be carefully inspected, particularly electrical and plumbing work.