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A Home Inspection Checklist

Your home is probably the most significant purchase you will ever make. Most homebuyers focus first on finding a real estate agent and shopping around for the best mortgage and interest rate. While some important details of homebuying include the number of bathrooms, the lot size or the proximity to good schools, you should also be sure to have your new home inspected professionally before you buy.

It's important to understand that no home is perfect. Whether your potential purchase is new or old, condo or house, renovated or in need of some TLC, the chances are it has a few secrets just below the surface. The best way to uncover those secrets before you own them is to hire a professional home inspector.

According to Century 21 Guide to Inspecting Your Home (Real Estate Education Company, 1996), Professional home inspectors can save buyers thousands of dollars if faults are found, or at very least give buyers peace of mind to know that they are making a sound purchase. How, you ask? A home inspection helps the buyer discover major and minor imperfections, determine whether or not they can be fixed, and evaluate how much the fix will cost.

If something can't be corrected (or only at exorbitant cost), you can find out before you purchase a house whether the defects will jeopardize the safety of the house or its occupants. Any imperfections found during a professional home inspection make the house price negotiable. Therefore, it is important to conduct the inspection before you close on the house sale.

You should also make the sales agreement contingent upon the findings of a home inspection. Armed with this valuable information, you can then factor the needed repair costs into the home purchase equation. After the inspection, you can complete the purchase with confidence, concludes the National Institute of Building Inspectors. Nothing can be more devastating, both emotionally and financially, than to have a family move into their new home only to face thousands of dollars in unexpected repair costs, according to the NIBI.

What to Expect

From a Home Inspection

The best way to think of a home inspection is as a detailed tour of all of the major systems of a house. Even after the inspection, there is no guarantee that you won't find problems after you are living in the house. Nevertheless, if you make sure your inspector does a thorough job, you should be able to identify most significant problems before you pay for the house. Also, look for a professional inspector who guarantees the inspection for some time after your purchase is complete. So even after you've moved in, you are protected.

Exterior Items

Roof If the shingles are falling off, warping, curling or damaged in any way, then the roof needs to be repaired or replaced. Find out how old the roof is. If it is more than 15 years old it may need to be replaced. Make sure your inspector checks whether there is one layer of shingles or two. When repairing a roof, it is common to place the new layer of shingles on top of the old layer, but once you have two layers, the next repair is a resurfacing, which involves removing both layers of the shingles and replacing any damaged roofing boards. Resurfacing a roof is significantly more expensive than repairing.

Siding The siding of the house should be inspected carefully for wear, holes, warping and tearing. Paint should not be flaky or chalky. Vinyl should be free of holes, and all surfaces should be covered with paint, vinyl or aluminum. Stucco and stonework should be checked for cracks, crumbling and any loose pieces that may be a safety hazard or a structural problem.

Windows & doors Wood windows and doors should be painted, and caulk around panes should be free of cracks. Vinyl windows should be free of defects (sagging frames, rust, water condensation between glass panes, etc.). All window glass, including storm windows, should be free of cracks and caulked around the outside. You might want to check window locks and ease of movement in the frame, especially for older windows.

Drainage Your inspector should verify that the property around the house is graded to divert water away from the foundation. He or she should also check all gutters and downspouts to be sure they are in working condition and lead away from the house to reduce rain- and floodwater intrusion into the home. If possible, schedule your inspection during a rainy period, so your inspector can see these systems at peak demand. If this is not possible, find out what happens if defects are discovered later. Or see if the inspector will make a drop-in check on the systems during a rainy day before you buy.

Driveways & sidewalks Make sure that driveways and sidewalks are in good condition and relatively free of cracks or settling. Also check whether an asphalt driveway has been sealed recently. They should be resealed every 10 to 15 years.

Interior Items

Water in basement Your inspector should check for signs of water intrusion. Any evidence of water stains, mildew, or other deposits on the walls and floors; damp odor; and damaged or cupped floors and ceilings is not a good sign. Also washers, dryers, boxes or other items that are raised off the floor are usually a sign of occasional water intrusion. The inspector should also look for waterproofing systems, sump pumps, and the like, and make sure that these systems are in operating order.

Heating & air conditioning In most houses the heating and cooling equipment is located in the basement or crawlspace. The inspector should be on the lookout for modern heaters. Older heaters, particularly coal or oil, are very inefficient and are more likely to break down. If the heater uses a water boiler, it should not be leaking. The heating (radiators, forced hot air, radiant, etc.) and cooling distribution system(s), including the piping or ductwork, should be in good condition. If the heating system uses oil, you should know the location of the tank if it is underground it needs to be tested for integrity.

Plumbing & water supply The hot-water tank should be checked for leaks, and the faucet run to check the water temperature. Look for lead and galvanized-steel water pipes, and make sure that there are no leaks in the plumbing (look for stains on walls and floors within the house that may indicate leaking pipes). If the house is served by well water, check the condition of the pump and the water pressure. Particularly check water and heating pipes for the presence of asbestos. If there is asbestos, make sure that it is in good condition and not flaking this is a potentially major hazard that is very costly to repair.

Framing structure & foundation Make sure your inspector looks for bulges, cracks, deflections and other irregularities in the roof, exterior walls, interior framing and the foundation walls. These irregularities can indicate a serious structural problem. The cause may be poor design, construction or renovation; or water or termite damage. The floors should be level (place a marble on the floor and see if it rolls without prompting). An uneven floor may indicate structural problems. If you have any concerns regarding structural components, hire a structural engineer to evaluate these concerns.

Attic insulation & ventilation Insulation should be in good condition and not wet or matted. There needs to be adequate passive ventilation, such as roof or gable vents. Also, the amount of insulation should be appropriate for your area. Go to http://www.eere.energy.gov/

consumerinfo/energy_savers and click on Insulation & Weatherization for information on regional insulation requirements.

Interior paint If the house was constructed prior to 1978, the paint may contain lead. Your inspector should make sure that the paint is in good condition and not deteriorating. Even if the paint is in good condition, you need to be aware of potential lead in case of future renovations. Any sales contract must give buyers up to 10 days to check for lead hazards. Also, the sellers are legally obligated to disclose in writing any results from lead testing or any other information they may have on lead paint in the house.

Electrical systems Your inspector should check out the size of the service and whether it meets modern standards. This check should include the panel and wiring, looking for burned wires, overloaded circuits, improper connections, panel openings, or wiring installed by an uncertified nonprofessional (such as the homeowner). You and your inspector should both check the number and locations of electrical switches and outlets both inside and outside the house. Homes wired in the mid-1960s to mid-70s may have aluminum wiring, which is a potential fire hazard. There are approved retrofits for aluminum wiring, but if the home is very old, it may have knob and tube wiring that should be replaced entirely.

Appliances Have your inspector check out all major appliances included in the purchase price: refrigerator, stove/oven, dishwasher, washer and dryer. Make sure you know the age of the appliances and that they work properly.

General Conditions

You can tell a lot about a house just by observing the overall condition of the property. If a home has not been maintained well and there are obvious problems, then hidden problems are very likely. All houses require regular maintenance, and while most of us put off some tasks in lieu of more critical fixes, there should be evidence that the homeowner has kept up with necessary repairs. Unless you are looking for a challenge, your inspection should verify that the house is up to your standards.

Also, have your inspector be on the lookout for plumbing and electrical work, structural additions, and renovations that appear to be homeowner-installed. Unless the homeowner was certified and followed the proper construction codes and practices, these installations and alterations may not be insurable, and they could spell trouble.

The Bottom Line

Before the Dotted Line

While this checklist may seem daunting, it is important to remember the old adage, Pay now, or pay later. Once you own the house, it might be too late to renegotiate the deal, and you will need to make the repairs with your own dollars and invest your own time to hire contractors and make sure the work is completed properly. While there is no perfect house, knowing most of the imperfections ahead of time will make the purchasing decision easier, allow you to negotiate the purchase price based on the cost of repairs, and alleviate the risk of big surprises after you've signed on the dotted line.