A Checklist for Home Inspections

man with checklist in empty home

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Homebuyers have it drilled into their heads that they must have home inspections, but what does a home inspection report disclose? 

Homebuyers are often in the dark about home construction and its components so it should come as no surprise that they have difficulty understanding home inspections. The terminology involved might be complicated, too—few people know the difference between a joist and a stud.

How would a buyer who has never owned a home know what should be included on the checklist for home inspections? How is she to figure out which types of defects are serious or whether her home inspector has indeed checked all the essentials? 

What's Not Covered by a Home Inspection 

Part of the problem is that all home inspections are different and they can vary considerably from state to state. They can even vary from county to county or from city to city. Much depends on the home inspector and to which association he belongs. This checklist has been established by the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors (NACHI) guidelines.

First, it helps to understand what usually isn't inspected. Home inspectors aren't licensed in many states, but their 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 under 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 nor 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 issues include identification of materials used for potable, drain, waste, and vent pipes, as well as their condition. Toilets, showers, sinks, faucets, and traps are inspected, but not sewers. 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. 

Appliances are inspected, including 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 but ask to be sure because these appliances are personal property so the owner might be planning to take them with him when he goes. 

Garages are inspected for slab, walls, ceiling, vents, entry, firewall, garage door, openers, lights, receptacles, exterior, windows, and roof. If the garage is attached to the home, it might also require a pest inspection depending on the type of loan the borrower is obtaining. Does the garage have a firewall? Does the door to the garage from the house have self-closing hinges?

Home Inspection Checklist Items That Need Service

Home inspection reports don't describe the condition of every component, particularly if it's 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 include health and safety issues within reason, roofs with a short life expectancy, furnace and A/C malfunctions, foundation deficiencies, and moisture or drainage issues. 

Home Inspection Checklist Items That Sellers Should Fix

It might be smarter to hire your own contractors if you have the choice so you can supervise repairs. Consider the seller's incentive to hire the cheapest contractor and to replace appliances with the least expensive brands before you issue a formal request to repair

Although home inspectors are reluctant to refuse to disclose repair costs—and in some cases, they refuse to do so—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 faze 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. Perhaps a simple solution is available such as replacing a $1.99 receptacle which can resolve many outlet problems.

Pat yourself on the back, too, for getting a home inspection. Some buyers feel they're unnecessary, especially if they're buying new construction.

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 the types of defects a home inspector could identify in a new home. Builders' contractors make mistakes, too.

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 anticipated. You might want to call in a specific professional before you finalize the purchase if you have concerns about any aspect of the inspection. 

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—spongy but it hasn't rained lately—maybe the owner just ran her sprinkler system. Or maybe the septic tank is on its last legs. A septic system inspector can tell you. 

And 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 small, telltale signs can signal major repairs on the horizon. Ask the home inspector if he thinks you should bring in any type of expert. The home inspector might even advise you to do so if he has concerns about a specific area but isn't qualified or authorized to dig further. 

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