What You Need to Know Before You Hire a Home Inspector

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If you're in the market for a home inspection, it's most likely because you made an offer on a new home, or you're about to do so. Homeowners who are considering selling their home also hire home inspectors to find problems they can correct before the house goes on the market, but for the most part, it's the homebuyer — not the seller — who benefits most from a home inspection.

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Since buying a house is such a major investment, a buyer wants the house to be in good shape, and that calls for a thorough, observant, and trustworthy home inspector who will pinpoint problems that could lead to major expenses or loss of property value down the road. An inspector who identifies a foundation fault or a roof sag is well worth the modest fee, which is about $300 in most places. Even if no large problems surface, a good home inspector usually compiles a list of smaller concerns that could represent a significant expense.

Need to hire a home inspector and aren't sure where to start? Here's what you need to know.

What a Home Inspector Does

A home inspection is an assessment of the condition of a property, including structural elements; insulation; the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems; and to some extent, exterior structures, such as fences and outbuildings. It's a visual inspection only and doesn't include anything to which the inspector does not have immediate access, such as the HVAC ductwork or hidden plumbing pipes and electrical wires. During the top-to-bottom examination of a property, an inspector will look at:

  • The foundation and other structural elements, identifying floor sags, sticking doors, and other evidence of foundation problems.
  • The roof, including the condition of the roofing material and any structural problems, such as sagging.
  • Interior plumbing, including evidence of leaks and other problems, such as out-of-date pipes, low water pressure, or malfunctioning toilets.
  • The electrical system, including the condition of visible wiring and electrical devices as well as adequacy of the electrical panel to handle the home's circuitry. The inspector tests all the light switches and receptacles and notes any that aren't working.
  • The attic, including insulation and visible signs of roof leaks or water damage.

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This isn't a complete list of what an inspector evaluates, but it's important to know that there are some things an inspector won't evaluate, such as:

  • The presence of environmental hazards, such as toxic mold (insofar as the mold doesn't signify a plumbing or structural leak), asbestos, or lead paint. In some parts of the country that are considered at high risk of radon exposure, a radon gas test is often included in a general home inspection as an add-on.
  • The condition of the septic system or drain field.
  • Damage from pests, such as termites, rats, or carpenter ants.
  • Swimming pools.
  • A part of the property with limited access, such as an attic or crawl space.

During a house inspection, an inspector will take pictures of any hazardous or problematic conditions and compile these into a home inspection report along with written notes. The inspection itself usually takes two to four hours depending on the size of the property, and it usually takes a day or two for the inspector to compile the report and present it to the client. The inspection report may identify conditions that need to be evaluated by a specialist, such as termite damage or old insulation that may contain asbestos.

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Doing Your Homework

When you're represented by a trusted real estate agent during the homebuying process, finding a reliable home inspector is easy if you trust the recommendation of your agent. When you're on your own or you have concerns about a conflict of interest, you may have to hunt around a bit, and it's important to know what you're looking for. If you want a conventional inspection report, you need a conventional inspector, and to get an idea of what to expect, it's wise to check out a sample report. You can find several on the website for the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI).

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There are also many different types of specialty inspectors who examine various aspects of a property in detail. A roofing inspector, for example, examines the roof and all structures pertaining to it, a plumbing inspector looks at the plumbing system, and an electrical inspector examines the electrical system. In addition, you can hire specialists, who are typically experts in the relevant areas, to examine the house for toxic mold, lead-based paint, or asbestos.

You often don't know for certain that you need any of these extra inspections until after the initial inspection report comes in, but you may just have some intuition that it'll be necessary. For example, the roof may be visibly sagging, suggesting the need for a detailed examination to determine the extent of the damage, or the house may have been built before 1970, a fact that warrants inspections for asbestos and lead-based paint. You might also consider consulting the Environmental Protection Agency's map of radon zones to determine whether the property is in a location where a radon inspection is in order.

Homeowners most often schedule specialty inspections only after a general inspection draws attention to particular problems. Much like an engine diagnosis ignores all parts of an automobile except the engine and provides a quote for fixing it, a specialty inspection diagnoses a particular problem and gives clients an idea of the expense involved in repairing it. Specialty inspections don't cost as much as a general inspection — usually from $100 to $150 — and they aren't common, but they are a good investment when a particular problem needs attention.

Why Hire a Home Inspector?

People purchasing a new home schedule a home inspection for their own protection. Sure, if you happen to have a building and real estate background, you could possibly conduct your own inspection, but because a professional inspection comes from an unbiased third party, a home inspector's report carries more weight in negotiations. Additionally, the inspector's trained eye coupled with a knowledge of local building codes will notice more than you will, and the resulting report is bound to be more complete than one you could produce yourself. A professional inspection report is usually a prequalification for a home warranty.

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A home inspection also provides an opportunity for a potential homebuyer to get familiar with a potential investment before signing on the dotted line, so there's no reason to stay away while the inspection is underway. In fact, home inspectors are usually happy to allow clients to tour the property along with them as they work and to point out problems as well as features the client might not have noticed. This collaboration is important, and you should be wary of an inspector who doesn't offer it.

Choosing the Right Home Inspector

It isn't always wise to rely on a real estate agent's recommendation because the agent's desire to close the deal can sometimes create a potential conflict of interest. References from friends or referrals through online communities, like Nextdoor or a Facebook community group, are more reliable, but you still have to exercise due diligence when following leads. Home inspectors aren't licensed in all states, including California, so professional accreditation and your own intuition are your guiding lights.

Whether or not the property is in a state that requires licensing, an even better way to start your search is by checking the websites of home inspection accrediting organizations, such as ASHI, AII, interNACHI, or the California Real Estate Inspection Association (CREIA), for the names of local inspectors. Once you've narrowed your search to two or three individuals, it's a good idea to conduct personal interviews. Some questions to ask include:

  • Do you work full time?​ Anyone who makes a full-time job out of what he does is bound to be better at it than someone who does it part time.
  • Are you bonded and insured?​ If the inspector makes a mistake on the report that results in legal action, you want to make sure you're covered.
  • With what associations are you affiliated?​ A good home inspector is likely to have more than one affiliation. Ask for their membership ID. Some associations, such as ASHI, conduct a background check of members, which provides another level of assurance for clients.
  • How long will the inspection take?​ Inspectors who make low time estimates, such as an hour for a complete inspection, aren't likely to be thorough.
  • Do you keep your training up to date?​ A good home inspector constantly strives to stay current.
  • Can I see references​? This is a question you should ask any contractor, and it's especially important when you're considering making what may be the biggest purchase in your life. Ask for at least three and call them.

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Beware of home inspectors who discourage you from being present while they conduct the inspection. They work for you, and nothing they find should be a secret. You should also be wary of an individual who offers home repair services based on the inspection results, which is a clear conflict of interest. If you feel positive after an interview but still have lingering concerns, a call to the Better Business Bureau should either confirm them or lay them to rest.

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The Cost of Hiring a Home Inspector

The cost of a home inspection varies from state to state and can be as little as $200 and as much as $600, with $300 being the national average. Whether you're selling a home or buying one, this is an out-of-pocket expense that isn't rolled into the closing costs of the home sale. It's your prerogative to save money by foregoing the inspection, but it's always a good investment, especially for homebuyers.

Mobile home inspection costs a little less than an inspection for a conventional home — about $250 on average — and condo inspection costs even less — about $200. If you're considering purchasing a home that has just been built, you'll pay an average of $400 for a new construction inspection.

You can elect to conduct a thermal imaging inspection in some areas, which reveals issues a visual inspection can't, such as termites, water damage, rodent nests, electrical problems, plumbing leaks, missing insulation, and cracks in the walls or foundation. This adds about $250 to the cost of the inspection, but it results in a more complete report and is well worth it, especially for anyone who is considering buying an older house.

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Home Inspector Licensing and Certification

In the United States, 29 states require licensing for home inspectors, while 21 states don't, but in all states, some type of training or certification provided by approved home inspectors' associations is recommended. Some states, such as Hawaii and Colorado, do not regulate home inspectors at all, while in California, home inspectors are required by law to adhere to ethical practices established by such associations as ASHI or CREIA.

State licenses provide a measure of security to prospective clients, and where they aren't required, clients — especially first-time homebuyers — are advised to check references and ask for proof of certification and liability insurance issued by a reputable home inspectors' association. Other large home inspectors' associations include the National Institute of Building Inspectors, the American Home Inspectors Training, and the North American Association of Home Inspectors.

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Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.