It’s true that the purpose of a home inspection is only to inspect the quality, safety, and overall condition of things that are readily visible — that is, components of a home that don’t involve dismantling anything or opening up walls and ceilings. While this may sound like something anyone with a good eye could do, here are some examples of things a home inspector will look for that you probably can’t identify yourself.
- Do you know how to identify a toilet that needs replacement?
- Can you identify faulty wiring on a garbage disposal?
- Do you know how to tell if the dryer vents properly?
- Can you identify a fireplace that is not in safe, usable condition?
- If you live in an area subject to earthquakes, do you know how to make sure your water heater is properly strapped?
- Do you know how to tell if the vent above the kitchen range hood is a fire hazard?
In order to avoid feeling ripped off and help you understand the fine print in the contract you’ll need to sign, keep in mind that a home inspection does not typically cover the following:
- Termites and pests. Law mandates that pest inspections must be done by a licensed pest control operator.
- Engineering issues. Geologic stability, lot lines, environmental hazards, zoning designations, and code compliance are not within the scope of a home inspection.
- Concealed conditions. It’s true that some problematic conditions will only be apparent by looking behind walls, but putting holes in walls and patching them up can’t be within the scope of a home inspection because you can’t make alterations to someone else’s property.
- Appliances not included in the property sale (unattached appliances) such as refrigerators. If you happen to be buying the seller’s existing fridge and you want it inspected, make sure to ask about this before you sign the contract.
- Environmental health hazards like radon gas, lead paint, or asbestos.
- Swimming pools and hot tubs.
- Value appraisal. This is a separate inspection requiring different skills. In order to secure your mortgage, this is another job you’ll have to pay for.
- Repair cost estimates. These take extra time to calculate and costs can vary widely depending on the contractor used and the type of replacement components purchased.
- Gas appliances. The gas company is specially trained to handle these inspections and will do the job for free.
- Cosmetic defects. These do not present a danger to you, and if they’re significant, you will have already noticed them anyway. It doesn’t take specialized training to see that the paint on the walls is chipping, so why would you pay someone to point this out to you?
- Latent defects. Even the best home inspector can’t predict the future. The best you can hope for is that the present condition of the home has some relationship to its potential for future problems.
If you’re buying a condo or a co-op, there are additional considerations. Keep in mind that the home inspection will not test for noise transmission between units — that is, how much your neighbors’ habits will affect you. If this is a concern, you should try to spend as much time in the building as possible to observe noise conditions before you purchase, and minimize your chances of getting a noisy unit in the first place by choosing a top floor corner unit with double paned windows. Common areas that do not have a direct impact on your unit, like a community fitness center, are also not included in the inspection.
Surprisingly, the job also may not include the inspection of common areas that do have a direct impact on your unit, but you would be unwise to work with such a short-sighted inspector. While it certainly costs more to have someone look at the entire building and not just the unit you’re considering, by looking only at the small picture and ignoring the big one you won’t know what you’re really getting into. If an older building doesn’t have proper seismic retrofitting and you park your beautiful new Acura (because you’re a savvy luxury shopper, after all) in the subterranean garage, guess whose car will get crushed in an earthquake, and guess whose insurance won’t cover it? By the same token, if the roof is in need of repair and you live on the top floor, you’ll certainly notice a downpour in the middle of the night when you wake up to water dripping on your head.
Also, be aware that just because a home is new doesn’t mean it you shouldn’t have it inspected. Even an extremely expensive new home does not equate to an extremely well-constructed home. Just as you can purchase a brand-new car that is a lemon, be it an F-150 or a Corvette, you can purchase a brand-new home with significant defects.
If you’re still looking to save money on a home inspection, what about having a friend in the construction, engineering, or real estate business do the inspection for you? You may save money, but you won’t be getting expertise. Believe it or not, home inspection involves specialized training that any of these professionals are unlikely to have. Also, if you go ahead and purchase the home that your friend inspected and discover a costly defect later that you think the inspector should not have missed, wouldn’t you rather be angry with (and possibly sue) an inspector you don’t know than a good friend?
What about taking a home inspection course and learning how to do it yourself? This route is better than forgoing the home inspection altogether, but you’ll need to do some advance planning. If you want to take the official classes offered by Inspection Training Associates, the introductory class alone will cost you $89 and last six hours. It also may be located out of town, even if you live in a major city. At the end of the class and the long drive, you still won’t have the experience in identifying problems that someone who has been in the business for years will have. Taking a class, official or otherwise, still might be a wise investment, though: as a new homeowner, it can’t hurt you to have a basic knowledge of how to identify potentially dangerous and/or expensive problems in and around your home.
When it comes down to it, you just shouldn’t let the cost of a home inspection trouble you (if you can’t afford it, you’re not ready to buy, anyway). While a home inspection will cost several hundred dollars, it can easily pay for itself and then some. The home inspection helps you determine if you are paying a fair price for the home — if it has several repairs that need to be made, you may be able to negotiate with the seller and get him to replace the broken air conditioner before you move in or provide a cash credit for you to take care of the work yourself once you’re the new owner. When you consider how expensive it can be to replace an air conditioner or furnace (say, $2,000) or even a dishwasher, the cost of a home inspection really seems nominal.
Don’t expect to find a new home that is flawless — your goal is to make sure the home you’re interested in doesn’t have any existing costly defects and that you go into the purchase knowing what shortcomings the home may have and what repairs need to be made.
To become even more informed about the home inspection process and why it’s a wise investment, check out the book I read: The Consumer Advocate’s Guide to Home Inspection by Barry Stone, author of the nationally syndicated column, “Ask the Inspector.”