Darcie VanderZanden with Dar and Darcie Real Estate Group, a Keller Williams firm in Beaverton, Oregon, notes that in her 18 years as an agent, she has had one buyer who didn't have a home inspection. That buyer bought a 1920s house that was at greater risk for lead, radon, and asbestos than most houses, so she had them sign an addendum absolving her firm of liability. VanderZanden notes that the cost of inspections, sewer scoping, and septic inspections, well-flow tests, water-quality tests, and radon tests can just add to the bill. That said, it's less expensive to find a massive problem and walk away than it is to buy a home and encounter catastrophic problems.
"You want to spend the money." VanderZanden says.
In the four years that Larry Coates has been an inspector for Wall2Wall Home Inspections in Portland, Oregon, he has been asked this question only once or twice. Unless you're looking to be swindled by a duplicitous inspector, this is a question worth asking.
"There have been reports to our state licensing board that there are inspectors who aren't working under a license or are working under an expired license," Coates says.
Generally, states require home inspectors to be bonded, but don't require other insurance that might protect both the inspector and the client. As Coates says, insurance coverage for errors and omissions comes in handy.
"If I inspect a house and miss leak that I couldn't see because a couch was in way, you could challenge that inspection," he says. "If you challenge me, with errors and omission insurance, I can file a claim and the insurance will cover that repair."
Coates notes that he's spent four years as inspector, but 25 years in home repair. While your home inspector may have basic knowledge of the inspection process, it helps when they also have some practical skills to back it up. An inspector doesn't need a full career in home repair, but they should have training or education that homebuyers can confirm and also membership in groups like the National Academy of Building Inspection Engineers and National Society of Professional Engineers. If you aren't sure, ask.
"Are you mold certified? Do you do radon testing? Are you wood-destroying pest certified?" Coates says.
An inspector will spend hours getting a look at your house's foundation, structural supports, plumbing, heating system, electrical system, air-conditioning units, generators, insulation, and other details, but there are some things they won't do unless you ask for them specifically. Coates notes that going up onto a house's roof is the best way to check the condition of shingles, to find out if they've lost granules, and check the flashing for leaks.
"I do my best to get on the roof, but other inspectors sometimes just observe it from the ground with binoculars," Coates says.
Coates says he is asked this question in just 1 in 12 inspections, which is too seldom when inspectors are expected to cover more than 500 points during an inspection. Asking if they're going to test for gas leaks, use moisture meters to detect water damage, and use an infrared camera to look into plumbing and electrical systems is just fine. Asking them to turn on easily damaged sprinkler systems or note nail holes in the walls or other cosmetic concerns will likely waste time.
"The inspection is a snapshot of the house for that moment, and we're not supposed to be invasive, so what do we do?" Coates says. "Everything you might get to in two to three years, I get to in two to three hours."
"In my initial training, I asked a few home inspectors if I could shadow them and a few said no; that it's distracting," Coates says.
That answer should be a warning sign to potential buyers. Coates warns that it indicates that the inspector might not be so confident in their inspection process. Also, keep this in mind: This is one of the biggest investments in a person's life, and an inspector is telling them they can't come along for the inspection. That, in itself, is a bright red flag for homebuyers.
It's disconcerting when an inspector doesn't want a homebuyer to tag along for the inspection. It's far more reasonable when the inspector doesn't want an entire brood of people following him around the house. Frank Lesh, executive director of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) in Des Plaines, Illinois, notes that the purpose of following an inspector is to get vital information about the house. That's tougher to do when an inspection is a social occasion.
"It's great to have whoever's going to be living in the house at the inspection, but when clients bring children, other adults and friends, there's a lot of distractions," Lesh says. "You're paying a lot of money for your house, and you want to get the full benefit of listening to your inspector."
This should be more of a dialogue than a single question. A potential home buyer should have a list of concerns in mind just to give the inspector an idea of what problems they find particularly alarming and what their threshold for repairs looks like.
"We do what we call a driveway speech, and the first thing I ask them is 'What are your concerns?'" Lesh says. "I write those things down and when we're going through the house, if I see the things they were talking about, I bring them over and explain the ramifications of it."
VanderZanden sells homes in Northwest Oregon and notes that about 80 percent of homes have water in the crawlspace unless it's been remedied. The region has non-absorbent clay soil, substantial rainfall, and a water table that can rise significantly. However, water can be moved away by either improving landscaping, repairing or replacing gutters and other drainage, installing gravity-fed dry wells or installing sump pumps. In all, it requires about $2,000 to $6,000 to fix, which is far less catastrophic than, say, structural damage or asbestos abatement.
"A lot of buyers freak out about it, and say 'Oh my gosh, it's the worst thing ever,'" VanderZanden says. "It's not a big deal."
If something doesn't look quite right -- peeling roof shingles, exposed wiring, drywall or plaster damage -- it doesn't hurt to ask the inspector about it and see just how acute the problem actually is. As VanderZanden notes, a home inspector will likely know the most efficient way to fix the problem and can recommend specialists to potential buyers.
"As a real estate broker, I always say that I'm a little bit of a jack of all trades: I can tell you when something is off, but I can't tell you how to fix it or why it's different," VanderZanden says. "A home inspector can look at an electrical panel and say 'get an electrician' or look at a roof and say 'get a roofer.'"
Technology can help inspectors detect moisture or determine if an electrical system is grounded or has old knob-and-tube wiring in place. VanderZanden notes that inspectors tend to find almost everything, but are only given a three- to five-hour run of the house. Lesh notes that if they can't see a problem in that time, they may not know about it until you find it far later.
"There is no 'check engine' light in a house," Lesh says. "The homeowner is not going to know until it breaks, so we recommend getting an ASHI inspector out there every three years and doing a maintenance inspection."
As with many visible home inspection issues, dry rot is scary. However, like other issues, the extent of the damage depends on the source of the issue. Lesh notes that if there's dry rot in a windowsill or as the result of a bathroom leak, for example, the problem may not be that difficult or expensive to solve. If support posts are eaten away or the rot is compounded by insect damage, that could be costlier. Unless you are planning to gut a particular space down to the studs, which makes any dry rot easier to repair, it's best to find the source quickly.
"Yes, you want to fix it, but you also want to find the problem that's causing the dry rot," VanderZanden says. "If there's a lack of flashing or the caulking has failed, dry rot isn't always that expensive to fix."
Like dry rot, not all roof moss is a disaster. If it's surface moss, it can be easily killed and cleaned away. However, if it's dug beneath the shingles and exposed your attic, roof or walls to leakage and moisture, it may have triggered mold growth as well. This is a distinction that's worth making as early as possible.
"When you see mold, you need it treated, but you need to find the source of it," VanderZanden says. "Not all home inspectors are certified in mold, so you'd want an inspector who is."
A home inspection on a 10- to 20-year-old home is a far different inspection than one on a 90- to 100-year-old home. It's a completely different home inspection. Not everyone has the money to renovate or retrofit an old home, and, once you open walls and find galvanized plumbing or knob-and-tube wiring, you need to fix it. That can get expensive depending on the home's infrastructure.
"A lot of the old homes are really well-built. They've been there 80 or 90 years, but the technology is old, the wiring is old, the plumbing is old." VanderZanden says. "I have a lot of young couples looking in the inner city and they're spending half a million dollars on a three-bedroom, one bath fixer, and I'm telling them, 'This is an amazing house,' but when you open that wall, you have old wiring, you have old plumbing."
Lesh notes that homebuyers should consider not only the age of the house, but where it's located. In northern climates, severe winter and summer weather takes a toll on a roof, siding, and decks, not to mention furnaces and boilers. In the South, a taxed central air-conditioning system is going to give out far earlier than a lesser-used unit in the North. Also, a couple moving into a house is going to put a lot less strain on it than a full family.
"Everything in a house is going to wear out: Some things sooner than others." Lesh says. "If you have a large family, and the furnace, the air conditioner, or the plumbing system is toward the end of its life, you have to really think about it."
According to VanderZanden, a good inspector should know current building code. Considering how dense the code books can be and how frequently they update, it is in a home buyer's best interest to have an inspector see how the home aligns with current building code and point out places where repairs or renovations could get costly if work was last performed decades ago or was performed without permits.
"You always want to get permitted work," VanderZanden says. "If you did a home improvement in 1990, it should be up to 1990 code, but if you buy that house in 2018, and an addition has been put on or bathrooms, you now have to get permits and bring it to 2018 code, which I guarantee you is different than 1990 code and you have to go back and retrofit."
Radon, asbestos, lead, and mold all sound frightening, but aren't always catastrophic issues. They're all more likely to be found in older houses, but Lesh notes that any house can have radon. The extent of the issue often depends on just how willing a home buyer is to fix it, or whether or not a seller will cover even part of the repairs. A home inspector can either offer an estimate for how expensive a fix would be, or can bring in a professional to assess the problem.
"When there are structural problems on a house, that can be costly." Lesh says. "If we see a crack in the foundation, and it's a little suspicious, we recommend you have an engineer or professional come out to make sure it's not too serious."
In 20- to 70-page home inspections with photos, sometimes even minor issues can look like deal-breakers. However, issues that force homebuyers to walk away from a purchase often surface well before the inspection report. Lesh says that, after finding rotting, fallen asbestos in the basement of a home, he warned a pair of clients off of a purchase. In another instance, he warned a client that an older home's roof and furnace likely both needed to be replaced by winter, at a cost of $15,000 to $20,000. The client walked away, which real estate agent VanderZanden says is typical of a buyer who's already about to pay full market price for a house and sees a big repair bill looming.
"It depends on the buyer, but things that typically are catastrophic are the foundation is crumbling, the roof leaked so poorly that there's a ton of dry rot and the seller won't fix it," VanderZanden says. Normally, something in a home that is catastrophic isn't something they'd walk away from, but it costs a lot to repair and the seller isn't willing to do it."
VanderZanden notes that potential homebuyers do this at their own risk. The inspection contingency allows homebuyers to ask a seller to pay for all or part of a repair as a contingency of sale. In the average housing market, this is standard procedure and a means of securing a sale. However, when demand far outstrips supply, sellers will ask buyers to waive the contingency and shoulder the burden for repairs themselves. If that pushes a potential buyer over their financial threshold, it isn't a smart move.
"Waiving inspection contingencies in a hot market happens quite a bit," VanderZanden says.