Hiring Your Own Home Inspector

A home inspector looking up at a roof with a tablet in hand

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A home inspection is a critical component of the homebuying process. A house inspector reviews the property and provides a written report regarding its condition, including heating and cooling, electrical, and plumbing systems. Most likely, your agent can be trusted to recommend a home inspector who'll be honest, objective and thorough, but a lot depends on the agent.

What to Expect From a Home Inspector

You should expect an exhaustive and complete written report of 20 pages or more from your home inspector. It should be objective and devoid of editorial sentiment. The commentary should detail different elements of the house, but it should never offer sweeping generalizations, nor should it give price estimates for repairs.

A good home inspector would disclose a problem with the HVAC system something like this:

"The differential readings are low. This could mean the unit is low on refrigerant, or it could be something more serious. I recommend that you hire a licensed HVAC contractor to further inspect the furnace and the air conditioning. The HVAC system is near its economic end of life, so you might want to gather bids to replace the system."

A deal-killer house inspector might approach the same situation like this:

"I'm worried that the furnace is going to explode at any minute. Stand back. That air conditioning unit will cost $20,000 to replace. Man, I would not buy this deathtrap of a house."

State laws regulate licensing and continuing education requirements for inspectors, so they can differ. For example, New York requires that registered inspectors complete 24 hours of continuing education per two-year licensing renewal period, and the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Home Inspectors monitors the qualifications of applicants there.

Asking Your Agent for a Referral

Your first thought might be to ask your real estate agent when you're looking for a qualified house inspector, but your agent is probably anxious to close the deal and receive their commission. This could present a conflict of interest. Consider whether your agent is likely to recommend someone who'll raise necessary red flags.

A novice agent might not have much experience with local home inspections, but someone with many years in the business most likely maintains a list of reputable home inspection experts.

Agents work with many of the same inspectors over and over. They've witnessed firsthand their effectiveness and thoroughness—or lack thereof. A qualified inspector is important to an agent's business. Agents don't want a finger pointed at them if the inspection misses a serious defect.

Trusting the Recommendation

Admittedly, not every buyer's agent puts the client's interest first all the time, but no reputable real estate agent would withhold information from a buyer or induce a third-party vendor to withhold information. It would be extreme—not to mention a cause for legal action—for an agent to collude with an inspector to provide a faulty report.

Agents want their buyers to have full disclosure and to be fully informed. Duped clients won't refer anyone else, and that's a kiss of death given the word-of-mouth nature of the real estate business.

Questions for Your Agent

In an industry where 10% of real estate agents sell about 90% of the homes, some agents might not have enough direct experience to know which inspectors are thorough and qualified. Ask your agent frankly how comfortable they feel with giving you a referral.

Request several names, if possible, and don't hesitate to pose more questions:

  • How often have you worked with this inspector?
  • Why would that person be a good choice for this job?
  • Is the company familiar with this area or type of residence?

Run the name by the agent if someone you know has recently used or recommended a house inspector.

Questions for the Inspector

You don't have to go with your agent's referral, but your chances of finding someone competent are certainly better than plucking a home inspector out of an online directory. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development urges that you ask the inspector a few key questions before committing yourself to using them If you do decide to venture into the decision on your own:

  • Are they a member of a professional home inspector association?
  • Do they participate in continuing education?
  • Are they specifically experienced in residential properties?
  • How long have they been working in this field or licensed?

Negative Findings

Agents' usual problem with home inspectors isn't so much that they'll whitewash certain defects as that they'll induce panic. A deal killer is not an inspector who discloses. It's a home inspector who makes mountains out of molehills and doesn't know how to properly communicate with a buyer.

And a house inspector's negative findings don't necessarily mean the deal is off. Buyer's agents can negotiate repairs to be made by the seller, cash credits as compensation, or even a reduction in sales price.

Agents usually only advise buyers to withdraw their offers if the inspection reflects so many problems that it's a no-win situation and if the seller won't budge—assuming the purchase agreement stipulates this option.