The Right Home Inspector Can Save You Thousands

Before you buy that new house, hire a good home inspector. Here’s how to find one so you can save money on unexpected repairs.

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by NEA Member Benefits

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Key takeaways

  • Waiting until the last minute to schedule a home inspection could cost you thousands in surprise repairs.
  • Be sure to do your research to find a competent home inspector.
  • Prepare a detailed list of things your home inspector should check and insist a thorough inspection.

So you’ve finally made an offer on that rambler in the quiet neighborhood just minutes from school. Now what? That’s easy, says Richard Stringham, broker/owner of Coldwell Banker-West in Provo, Utah. “The day I put a home under contract, I try to schedule the home inspection.”

Home inspections generally don’t kill transactions, Stringham says, “but when they do, it’s usually because the buyer waited until the last minute to schedule the inspection.”

How to find a good home inspector

Your real estate agent probably will recommend at least one home inspector. That’s fine, but don’t feel like you have to use any of her suggestions. It’s your money, and you’ll be living in the home, not your real estate agent.

To find someone who’s competent and will do a thorough job, you could start your search at the American Society of Home Inspectors website, which provides a searchable database of home inspectors throughout the United States.

Jeffrey Charloff, an engineer and the author of Practical Guide to Home Inspection, recommends looking for a licensed engineer or architect and, above all, to make sure the inspector has several years of inspector homes under his belt. “A good home inspector will be inquisitive, thorough, and experienced,” he says.

Stringham says he won’t recommend a home inspector who hasn’t invested in an infrared camera. “They cost $5,000 to $10,000,” he says. “Generally, the bad inspectors—the not-too-thorough ones—won’t spend that kind of money.”

What to expect during your inspection

Above everything else, you want your home inspector to check and recheck the big-ticket items: the roof, the wiring, the furnace, the structure, the foundation and the plumbing.

It’s critical to find out upfront whether any of these expensive items require repair or replacement so you can factor those costs into your budget and ensure that you really can afford this new house. Otherwise, you could move in and get blindsided by thousands of dollars’ worth of bills.

If your inspector uncovers lots of defects and outdated materials, you may decide that it’s best to pass on the house and continue your search.

During the inspection, that infrared camera can detect problems in the plumbing that eyes will miss. An inspector can look under the kitchen and bathroom sinks to see if they leak, but an inspector armed with an infrared camera can detect most leaks hiding behind sheetrock.

The inspector should turn the water on when he enters a home and leave it running while he inspects the items on his list that require a visual examination. An hour later, he’ll again walk through the home with camera in hand. “The camera can actually read temperatures behind the sheetrock,” Stringham says. “A change in temperature signals a leak.”

Good inspectors will get physical with the home of your dreams. Not so physical that they damage the structure, Charloff says, but “you’ve got to jump on the floor to see if the floors or windows vibrate. If they do, the home is not structurally sound.”

Getting physical includes being willing to go into hard-to-reach places. Tight crawl spaces and dusty attics can hide all sorts of problems. The inquisitive home inspector will seek out those problems. Sometimes the buyer will want to as well: “A judge once went with me into the crawl space under the floor of her new home and up a ladder onto the roof,” Charloff says.

Your home inspector should check every electrical outlet for proper wiring and every heat register to make sure there are no clogged ducts. “And she should open and close every window to make sure they slide properly,” Stringham says.

A good inspector will test the furnace for carbon monoxide leaks, a sign the heat exchange is cracked. “If that’s the case,” Stringham says, “the whole furnace has to be replaced.”

The list of things a home inspector should check is long and varied, depending on the age, size and location of the house. You can find a more detailed list of what to expect at ASHI’s FAQ page. Click on “Standards of Practice” on the left to find the list of what the inspector should do and what they aren’t required to check. Click on “Code of Ethics” for a rundown of the level of professionalism you should expect from your inspector.

What not to expect during your inspection

Even the best home inspector can’t ferret out a home’s latent defects, such as problems hidden in the unreachable corners of an attic or crawl space or almost-but-not-quite cracked shower stall pans. A home inspection probably can’t protect you from such problems. “You can’t catch everything,” Charloff says.

No, you can’t. But never forget: That house will become your home soon. Insist on a thorough inspection, and ask questions. “You can’t be too picky,” Stringham says.