By Lee Wallender
Hiring a home inspector is a critical part of the home-buying process. Today, it is unthinkable that anyone would buy a home without bringing in an inspector. Worth their weight in gold, home inspectors provide an experienced and objective assessment of what will likely be the biggest purchase of your life.
Yet, because of this objectivity, the home inspector will report all problems relating to the home that falls within their scope. From trivial issues that can be quickly cleared up to stomach-wrenching deal breakers, the inspection report will equally report problems that the next homeowner – you – will inherit from the previous owner.
How can you distinguish between problems that are minor, major (yet allow the deal to go ahead), and deal breakers?
What is Involved in a Home Inspection?
Walking through a home you intend to purchase by yourself or with a friend, you may randomly uncover problems, when you happen to look up at the roof, or under the carpet, or in a backyard. You might believe you have a fairly experienced eye from having bought homes in the past.
By contrast, home inspectors work methodically through a set list of procedures. They delve into areas that you may have avoided, like dark, spider-infested crawlspaces and attics. They do not just look up at a roof; they go onto the roof. Nothing is left to whim or chance or predilection. Photos are taken, notes written, and a final inspection report is generated from that data. In short, these field-trained, state-licensed inspectors perform a vital service that you cannot hope to duplicate on your own.
What do they look for exactly? Requirements vary from state to state, but basics include:
Exterior Inspection Points
1. Grading, drainage, retaining walls, and vegetation (Vegetation inspection is limited to the way it affects the buildings, such as ivy heavily covering and damaging the siding);
2. Driveways, patios, and walkways;
3. Decks, balconies, stairs, and railings;
4. Wall elements (Cladding, flashing, trim, eaves, soffits, fascia);
5. Doors and windows;
6. Roof coverings (Shingles, standing seam metal, etc.);
7. Roof drainage: gutters and downspouts;
8. Roof flashing (Metal “cuffs” around roof protrusions that prevent water from seeping in);
11. Electrical service (Service entrance, grounding, etc.);
12. Lawn irrigation system.
Interior Inspection Points
1. Floor structure;
2. Walls and vertical support structures;
3. Ceiling structures;
4. Electric service panel interior components;
5. Wiring systems;
6. Electric devices (Switches, receptacles, lights, etc.);
7. Cooling and heating;
8. Flue and venting systems;
9. Thermal insulation (Only where visible);
10. Moisture management (Related to thermal insulation as moisture follows insulation);
11. Ventilation systems of attic, crawl space, and roof assembly;
12. Plumbing (Water supply, fixtures, faucets);
13. Drain, waste, and vent systems;
14. Water heater;
15. Fuel storage and distribution (Propane tanks, for example);
16. Walls, ceiling, floors, doors, and windows;
17. Steps, stairways, landings, and railings;
18. Garage doors and operators;
19. Fireplaces, solid-fuel burning appliances, chimneys, and vents;
20. Kitchen appliances — proper condition and operation.
Home Inspectors Typically Do Not Check
1. Pest control systems: Inspectors will note the presence of pests, notably termites and carpenter ants, but do not evaluate pest control systems.
2. Swimming Pools: On the whole, swimming pools and spas are not inspected. But in areas that have many pools and spas, inspectors may perform a limited inspection with an eye towards user safety.
3. Asbestos, radon gas, lead paint, and toxic mold: inspectors may point out the possibility of asbestos, lead paint (for homes built before 1978), and toxic mold, but this is not within their scope of inspection and they certainly will not run lab tests on these areas. However, you can hire independent specialists who will test these for you.
4. Places behind heavy items: The seller should move these items prior to the inspection.
5. Unsafe roofs: when the roof is too slippery, too steep, or too unstable, the inspector will not venture up there.
6. Wells and septic systems: inspectors are not qualified to check these systems, but you can hire specialists who can inspect them for you.
Minor Inspection Report Setbacks
Why sweat the small stuff? If you fall in love with the house, there is no need for any of these inspection report items to come between you and the home you love. These are defined as issues that typically cost less than $200 each to cure.
Gutter and Downspout Problems
One or two hanging gutters, a downspout on the ground, missing extenders – not a big deal. They are inexpensive to purchase and entire DIY-able.
Outlets and Switches
Replacing outlets and light switches is a classic amateur electrician’s project, and most communities allow you to do this work yourself without a permit.
Isolated Appliance Issues
If the home has a single major appliance that is performing badly and in need of replacement within the next year, assess whether it is within your budget to replace. But an outdated stove-top does not rise to the level of being a deal breaker.
One or Two Failed Window Seals
When a window seal has failed, you will know because the window fogs up and never seems to completely clear out. Yet even IGUs, or insulated glass units, that no longer hold their argon or krypton gas still have some R-value – just not as much as before.
It is almost expected that every homeowner will redo the landscape upon purchase. Landscaping is a highly personal project, and as long as there are no major problems (like old vehicles left on the property or unsafe outbuildings), do not worry about this issue.
Cracked or Missing Floor Tiles
A few broken or missing ceramic tiles do not mean that the entire floor must be replaced. Tile technicians can replace individual tiles at a reasonable cost.
Loose or Missing Fixtures
Cabinet pulls and knobs, door knobs and levers, and even exterior fixtures can be replaced on a do-it-yourself basis.
Five Major Home Inspection Setbacks
Major home inspection problems are those that the home inspector and your real estate agent highlight for you on the report. These problems will almost always be brought up when negotiating the home’s price. You may choose to have the seller fix or you may fix it, with the seller paying all, some, or none of the repair costs.
Basement Wall Cracks
Cracks in basement masonry or concrete walls usually do not threaten the home’s structural integrity, so they do not necessarily qualify as foundation problems. However, they can be major entry points for groundwater or vermin.
Entire Gutter/Downspout System Failing
Replacing a few gutters and downspouts is one thing; an entire home’s worth will cost you in the low thousands of dollars. Request that the seller replace this system or ask for monetary compensation.
Many or All Windows Need Replacing
When over two of the windows in your home need replacing, the cost substantially adds up. While miracles have been known to happen, most likely sellers will not agree to replace windows for you. But in a buyer’s market, the seller may agree to cover or split the cost of replacing the worst of the windows.
No Attic Insulation
Without attic insulation, your home is a thermal sieve. Insulating the attic is not just a good idea, it is an absolute necessity. To blow cellulose insulation or have a crew roll out fibreglass batts will run you at least $2,000 for a small house.
Evidence of Roof Leaks
Roof leaks could mean anything from a catastrophic event that flooded floors to a simple broken piece of flashing around the chimney. Take this one beyond the home inspector and pay for a qualified contractor to spend an hour or two checking out this potential red flag.
Six Inspection Deal Breakers
Real estate home inspection deal breakers are those that are typically highlighted in yellow or red on the report by the inspector, accompanied by a hushed voicemail from your real estate agent saying, “Call me back immediately.”
These are red flags that should send you running in the opposite direction of a contract signing table. At the least, if you are dead set and intent on buying this house, bar nothing, you should know that you are in for repairs exceeding $10,000 in each topic area. Worse, when it comes time to sell again, these problems, if uncured, will rear their ugly heads again.
Aluminum wiring installations happened only during a short period (from about 1965 to 1973) but their potential for damage is high. Aluminum degrades faster than reliable copper and may cause fires.
Buried Oil Tanks
In the late 19th century and throughout the much of the 20th century, particularly in the older sections of the United States along the Eastern Seaboard, fuel oil would be delivered to homes by trucks and pumped into tanks that were buried in the ground next to the house. While this type of heat is no longer used, the tanks remain. These are considered to be hazardous, and removing them is a very expensive prospect.
Many Unpermitted Remodels
Nobody loves to pull permits for their home remodeling projects. But not only is this part of our social contract as good citizens, it is a safety measure for us, individually, in our own homes.
When a previous owner has performed extensive remodels – building an addition, adding entire rooms, finishing the basement, converting the garage to living space, adding a second floor, rewiring the house, re-plumbing the house – yet done so without permitting the project, they are only passing the troubles on to you.
If you should have a fire or flood or other disaster that results from one of these unpermitted remodels, your homeowners’ insurance company will probably decline to pay out on that claim.
Toxic black mold, the new residential horror story, has even spawned an entire industry called mold remediation. When black mold is localized in one section, such as near moisture producing areas like bathroom or kitchen vents, it can usually be remediated for less than $10,000. But when the mold is pervasive and extends all throughout an attic or between floors or throughout a basement, you are looking at entire house mold remediation efforts.
Extensive Termite Damage
There is nothing cute about termites and carpenter ants chewing up and carrying away wood fibers from your house. One problem with termites is that they are skilled at traveling, and it can be difficult to follow their patterns of traffic especially when they move between walls. Some termite damage usually means there is more termite damage elsewhere.
Large Amounts of Asbestos
As with other deal-breaker issues, asbestos is a matter of scale. As long as it is in small amounts and is not releasing its fibers into the air, asbestos is safe. In many older homes, pipes near furnaces have been wrapped with asbestos. Abating these types of areas, while not fun and not something you would want to do yourself, is manageable. But large-scale asbestos, such as cement-asbestos shingles covering your entire house, would qualify as a deal breaker.
Knowing what is major, minor, or a deal breaker is critical to assessing a home inspection report. Also, it helps you make a wise decision about whether to buy the property.
Lee Wallender began remodeling homes when he transformed a World War I-era farmhouse into a comfortable new home. He has been writing about home remodeling on About Home Renovations since 2006.