What Types of Home Inspections Can a Buyer Do?
From the Roof to the Foundation
General home inspectors look for signs of damage and defects. They'll often refer buyers to a specialist to investigate further and fully diagnose the problem when and if they spot something significant, or something that lies outside their scope of expertise.
A general home inspector might see evidence of wood damage and suggest that you call in a pest expert to find out what caused it. These specialists can provide you with different repair options and give you a sense of what the bill might be to remedy the situation.
The costs of inspections are generally left to the buyer unless they're required by an appraiser in order to get a loan.
The costs of the inspections themselves can be surprisingly minimal—they don't typically run in the thousands of dollars—especially when compared to what it would cost to deal with undiscovered problems later.
Some older chimneys don't have flue liners, or the interior brickwork might be crumbling. A chimney inspector will detect these problems and can also make sure smoke is discharged properly and that the cap is in good repair. Cost: a mere $100 to $300.
A general home inspector might tell you that the electrical box is so old that it no longer complies with city code. An electrician can tell you the best brands for replacement and how much it will cost, among other disclosures.
Be sure to check out the electrical panel and Google the model number to make sure it hasn't been recalled.
The federal government banned the use of lead-based paint in 1978, but older homes—and even some built after 1978—can still contain it. You have a right to have the home tested for lead-based paint and to hire a certified lead abatement contractor to remove it.
Heating and Air Conditioning
A home inspector might measure the differential temperature reading from an air conditioner or a furnace as low and recommend that the unit be inspected by an HVAC specialist to find out why. Most furnaces must be taken apart to determine the source of the malfunction.
An HVAC specialist can tell you how much it will cost to fix the unit, or whether it needs to be replaced entirely.
You'll find wood-destroying critters in just about any part of the country, but they particularly thrive in warm climates. A pest inspection discloses not only the presence the likes of termites or powder post beetles, but it also identifies non-pest issues like dry rot. This type of inspection can cost as little as $50.
A home inspector can tell you if your home was built on a slab or a raised foundation and note suspicious cracks, but a foundation engineer can tell you if the home is sliding or the foundation is faulty. This type of inspection can run from $300 to $1,000.
Pool and Spa Inspections
Swimming pool and spa experts can offer an estimated life expectancy of the unit based on crucial key components such as the heater or spa blower. These specialists also check for leaks.
Sometimes pools can be covered under home warranties for an additional cost.
Get your own roof certification on an older roof, even if the appraiser requires it and the seller won't pay for it. Make sure the company is reputable and likely to be in business later if you should have to make a claim.
It's best if the roof inspector isn't also in the roof-replacement business.
Sewer or Septic System
Get a sewer or septic tank inspection. Some older homes might not be connected to a sewer system. Modern inspection technology inserts a digital camera into the sewer line and pushes it through to the main line. Many sewer inspectors will even make videos of the process for you.
Testing the soil is important if you're buying a home on the side of a hill because you don't want the home or any part of the hill sliding away during a severe rainstorm. Some areas also are prone to soil contamination.
The best way to determine if the trees and bushes on the property are healthy is to hire an arborist to inspect them.
Water Systems and Plumbing
A plumber can tell you if galvanized plumbing needs to be replaced. Some galvanized pipes are so clogged that you can barely fit the lead of a pencil through them.
Inspect the construction and find out the depth of the water table, including water sanitation, if the property has a well. This type of inspection will cost about $165.
Gases and Chemicals
A mitigation contractor can test for radon or methane gas and recommend ways to remove it. Qualified formaldehyde inspectors can also determine the presence of unacceptable levels of this colorless and flammable chemical, which is often used in building products. It's been known to cause cancer in rats.
A radon check can set you back as little as $10 if you purchase a home test kit.
Contrary to popular belief, general home inspections don't include tests for asbestos. The only way to tell if a material actually contains asbestos is to have it tested by taking a sample to a lab.
Don't rely on do-it-yourself home tests for asbestos.
Mold is typical in residences in damp, humid climates, and it can trigger health problems even in healthy individuals. An inspector can test for its presence and determine what type of mold, if any, is present.
Not all inspections are physical. Researching records can turn up significant information, too:
- Square footage: You might want to verify the square footage of your home because public records sometimes contain mistakes. Buyers or their lenders can hire an appraiser to provide this measurement.
- Easements and encroachments: Your owner's title policy will disclose easements, but ask the title company to send you the actual easement documents from public records, too. You can also hire a surveyor to inspect and prepare an improvement location certificate (ILC), which will show any encroachments.
- Lot size and boundaries: A preliminary search for a title policy will give you a plat map, showing the boundaries and the size of the lot. Consider hiring a surveyor if you want this information verified. Don't rely on fences to determine boundaries, but be warned. This type of survey can cost as little as $346 or as much as $679.
- Permits and zoning: Go to your city planning department and ask to see the permits on the home. Sometimes people remodel without permits. The zoning department can also tell you if running a home-based business is legal where the home is located.
If You're Buying in an Area Prone to Disasters
You might want to add one more item to your inspection checklist if you're buying in an area that has a history of severe weather events, such as flooding, hurricanes, or tornadoes. A disaster inspection can tell you if the property suffered any resulting damage and how well it's likely to stand up to another such event.
At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.