What Types of Home Inspections Can a Buyer Do?

Don't close until the home checks out, from the roof to the foundation

Home inspector explaining damage and repairs to homeowner
••• Getty Images/Steve Debenport

General home inspectors basically look for signs of damage and defects. If they spot something significant, or something that lies outside of their scope of expertise, they'll often refer you to a specialist to investigate further and fully diagnose the problem. For example, a home inspector might see evidence of wood damage but suggest that you call in a pest expert to see what sort of critter is responsible. It's often these specialists who can provide you with different repair options—and give you a sense of what the bill might be.

Chimney

Some older chimneys don't have flue liners, or the interior brickwork may be crumbling. A chimney inspector can also make sure smoke is discharged properly and that the cap is in good repair.

Electrical

A general home inspector may tell you that the electrical box is so old that it no longer complies with city code, but an electrician can tell you the best brands to replace it with and how much it costs, among other disclosures. Be sure to check out the electrical panel and Google the model number to make sure it has not been recalled.

Lead-Based Paint

The federal government banned the use of lead-based paint in 1978. But older homes, and even some built after that, can still contain it. You have the 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 the unit be inspected by an HVAC specialist to see why. Most furnaces must be taken apart to determine the source of the malfunction. An HVAC specialist can tell you what's wrong, how much it costs to fix the unit, and whether it needs to be replaced.

Wood Damage

You can find wood-destroying critters in just about any part of the country, but they thrive in warm climates. A pest inspection discloses not only the presence of termites or powder post beetles but also nonpest issues, like dry rot.

Foundation

While a home inspector can tell you if your home was built on a slab or raised foundation and note suspicious cracks, a foundation engineer can tell you if the home is sliding or the foundation is faulty.

Pool and Spa

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 are covered under home warranties for an additional cost.

Roof

If the seller won't pay for a roof certification on an older roof, then get your own. Make sure the company is reputable and likely to be in business later, should you have a claim. It is best if the roof inspector is not also in the roof-replacement business.

Sewer or Septic System 

Get a sewer or septic tank inspection; some older homes may not be connected to a sewer system. Modern inspection technology calls for a digital camera to be inserted into the sewer line and pushed through to the main line. Many sewer inspectors even make movies for you.

Soil Stability

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 rainstorm. Some areas also are prone to soil contamination.

Landscaping

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

If the plumbing is galvanized, a plumber can tell you if it needs to be replaced. Some galvanized pipes are so clogged that you can barely fit the lead of a pencil through them. If the property has a well, inspect its construction and find out the depth of the water table, including water sanitation.

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 often used in building products; it has been known to cause cancer in rats.

Asbestos

Contrary to popular belief, general home inspections don't include tests for asbestos. The only way to tell if a material actually contains the stuff is to have it tested, by taking a sample to a lab. Don't rely on do-it-yourself home tests.

Mold

Typical in residences in damp, humid climates, mold can trigger health problems even in healthy individuals. An inspector can test for its presence and determine what type of mold it is.

Document Inspections

Not all inspections are physical. Researching records can turn up significant information, too.

  • Square footage. You may want to verify the square footage of your home. 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 the public records, too. You can also hire a surveyor to inspect and prepare an improvement location certificate (ILC), which shows encroachments.
  • Lot size and boundaries. A preliminary search for a title policy will give you a plat map, showing the boundaries and size of the lot. Consider hiring a surveyor if you want this information verified. Don't rely on fences to determine boundaries.
  • 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 tell you, for example, if running a home-based business is legal where the home is located.

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