A Checklist for Home Inspections

man with checklist in empty home

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For prospective home buyers going through the home inspection process, it can initially be difficult to understand what goes into a home inspection report.

Homebuyers, for example, may find it difficult to tell for themselves whether the home they're pursuing has a healthy foundation or is constructed properly. Then, when you consider the somewhat complicated terminology that is often used in home inspection reports, the process can become even more daunting.

How should first-time buyers who have never owned homes decipher what should be included on their home-inspection checklist? How are they to decide which home defects are serious and which aren't a deal-breaker? Keep reading to find out.

What's Not Covered by a Home Inspection 

Part of the problem is that all home inspections are different and can vary considerably from state to state, or even from city to city.

This generally depends on the home inspector and to which association he or she belongs. This particular checklist has been established by the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors (NACHI) guidelines.

Home inspectors aren't licensed in many states. To find out whether inspector licenses are required in your state, you can visit the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). If your state does not have any home inspector licensing regulations, then you may attend the class of your choice.

The areas that aren't covered by home inspections vary, but standard practice typically does not include asbestos, radon, methane, radiation, formaldehyde, wood-destroying organisms, mold, mildew and fungi, rodents, or lead. Specific licenses to inspect and identify these issues can be required in some states. 

General Home Inspection Checklist Items

That said, some aspects of a home inspection are standard, including structural elements. This means the construction of walls, ceilings, floors, roof, and foundation. Ask about horizontal cracks versus parallel cracks. Does the foundation seem secure? Does the roof leak? Has there been a fire in the attic?

Exterior evaluation is also performed, including wall coverings, landscaping, grading, elevation, drainage, driveways, fences, sidewalks, fascia, trim, doors, windows, lights, and exterior receptacles. If the exterior is covered in siding, ask what's underneath it.

Roofs and attics are commonly inspected for framing, ventilation, type of roof construction, flashing, and gutters. Inspections don't include a guarantee of roof condition or a roof certification, however. How many layers are on the roof? When will it need to be replaced? What is the average life expectancy of a roof?

Plumbing inspections include identification of materials used for potable, drain, waste, and vent pipes, as well as the state of their condition. Toilets, showers, sinks, faucets, and traps are inspected, but not sewers. When going through the plumbing inspection process, ask whether the plumbing is copper and be careful of faulty joints, such as those that can occur with Kitec plumbing.

Water heaters, furnaces, air conditioning, duct work, chimneys, fireplaces, and sprinklers are all inspected. A separate chimney inspection might be performed if the inspector suspects there's a problem. Not all home inspectors will check sprinklers to make sure they operate correctly.

Inspection of the electrical system includes the main panel, circuit breakers, types of wiring, grounding, exhaust fans, receptacles, ceiling fans, and light fixtures. Ask if the electrical panel is on a recall list. Is it up to code? Does the electrical panel user breakers or fuses? Breakers are preferred. Fuses are outdated. 

Home appliances are also inspected. Standard procedure is to check the dishwasher, range and oven, built-in microwaves, garbage disposals, and, yes, even smoke detectors. Washers and dryers are typically included as well if they remain with the home. Be sure to ask because it could be the case that the owners will take these personal property items with them when they move.

Garages are inspected for slab, walls, ceiling, vents, entry, firewall, garage door, openers, lights, receptacles, exterior, windows, and the roof. If the garage is attached to the home, a pest inspection may also be needed, depending on the type of loan the borrower is obtaining. For example, you're going to want to ask about certain details, such as whether the garage has a firewall or self-closing hinges.

Home Inspection Checklist Items That Need Service

Home inspection reports don't describe the condition of every component, especially if they are in excellent, or even just good, shape. But, the report should note every item that's defective or in need of service.

Some serious problems can include health and safety issues within reason, roofs with a short life expectancy, furnace and air conditioner malfunctions, foundation deficiencies, and moisture or drainage issues. 

Home Inspection Checklist Items That Sellers Should Fix

If possible, it's sometimes a smart idea to hire your own contractors so that you can supervise repairs. This is because it can sometimes be the case that the seller would hire the cheapest contractor possible and to replace appliances with the least expensive brands before you can issue a formal request to repair

Although home inspectors can be reluctant to disclose repair costs—and in some cases, they refuse to do so—you can call a contractor to help determine the scope and expense to fix minor problems yourself. No home is perfect. Every home will have issues noted or flagged in a home inspection, even new ones. 

A repair issue that will be a deal-breaker for a first-time homebuyer might not phase a homebuyer who is well-versed in home repair. Talk to your agent, family, and friends to get their opinions. Call a few contractors to discuss which types of defects are minor. It could be the case that there are simple, affordable fixes out there, such as replacing a $1.99 receptacle to potentially resolve outlet problems.

If a light switch doesn't work or the air conditioner blows out hot air, these are problems you can see and test. The problems that aren't readily identifiable to you—such as code violations, a furnace that leaks carbon monoxide, or a failing chimney—are all types of defects that will likely require a home inspector to identify.

You Might Need Extra Help 

As you can see, the average home inspection can be a bit limited in scope, or at least not as detailed as you might have anticipated. And so, you may want to call in a professional specialist before finalizing the purchase, especially if you have concerns about any particular aspect of the inspection. 

However, when operating on your own, there are certain small details that could signal a home issue.

A door that won't quite close might not make it into the home inspector's report but it could signal foundation trouble. A structural engineer can help you here if you're concerned. 

If the lawn seems unnaturally wet or spongy—but it hasn't rained lately—it could be that the owner just ran his or her sprinkler system. Or, maybe the septic tank is on its last legs. Here, a septic system inspector can tell you. 

Remember, home inspections aren't intended to pick up on issues of asbestos or other toxic materials. If you have reason to believe that any of these things might be a problem—and they often are with older homes—consider hiring a toxic substance expert. 

Any number of minute, telltale signs can signal major repairs on the horizon. Ask the home inspector if he or she thinks you should bring in any certain type of expert. And, if your inspector has any concerns or complex questions regarding a certain part of your prospective property, he or she may suggest that you bring in a more qualified expert to weigh in.

At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.