How To Not Suck… At Home Inspections

You’ve finally found that perfect home. A white picket fence. A pretty flower garden. That’s what it looks like to the untrained eye. But that perfect home could be filled with all kinds of trouble — poorly installed insulation, foundation problems, sub-par electrical work, infestations of termites and mice. Even a savvy home-shopper can miss hidden problems in homes. Put away your macho. No matter how handy you may be, a home inspection isn’t something that fits in the DIY category. Spending a few hundred bucks now on a qualified home inspector can save you tens of thousands later.


Start by hiring someone who is really qualified to do the job.

32 states require home inspectors to have some kind of license or registration. But even having a state license isn’t a guarantee you’ll find a qualified inspector because not every license requires education and training.

You can read more about the requirements for each state on the American Society of Home Inspectors’ website.

Because each state is different, and some states have no requirements at all, it’s hard for consumers to know if a potential inspector is qualified.

Narrow down your search by looking for a pro who is associated with a respected industry group. Check to see the requirement for membership because some groups will be happy to “certify” anyone willing to write a check.

Some related groups to consider:
The American Society of Home Inspectors is the nation’s oldest industry group. Members must pass two exams, and must complete more than 250 inspections before they can call themselves “certified.”
The National Association of Home Inspectors members must also pass a test and complete 250 verifiable inspections.
The National Institute of Building Inspectors requires continuing education for annual recertification.

Also be suspicious if your real estate agent is pushing one particular inspector. You’d be better served if the agent can give you a handful of names to consider.

Before you call the inspector, check out his or her reputation with your state to see if there are any complaints against the inspector. If your state offers licensing, make sure the inspector’s license is current.

If the inspector is a member of an industry association, give it a shout and ask if the member is in good standing.

While it’s no guarantee of quality, look up the inspector with the Better Business Bureau and do a simple Google search to see if the name comes up on any consumer complaint boards or in local newspaper articles.

When you finally call the inspector, ask:
What are your credentials? Training background?
Do you belong to any associations?
Are you licensed?
Do you carry insurance? (Not all states require this, but if the inspector has a policy, ask for a copy.)
Do you offer a guarantee?
What can you do, and what can’t you do, in an inspection?
What will you offer in writing when the inspection is complete?
How long will the inspection take? (Most inspections should take at least three hours.)
Can I be there? (During an inspection, the inspector should teach you about the home and point out what he sees. If he doesn’t want you there, beware.)

Remember that no home inspector has X-ray vision, and no one is going to see every flaw in a home. Still, a qualified inspector will check all the usual suspects and point out areas that you need to know about, or ask more about. You can always negotiate with the home seller to correct items before you take possession of the home, or you negotiate a better price for the home.

When you join your inspector for the check of your wannabe home, be prepared to get your hands dirty.

As the inspector goes through the home, he should point out potential problems and show you how the home’s systems work

A standard home inspection will include:
The exterior: The inspector will examine the outside of the home, including the foundation, frame, joists, siding, windows, doors, steps and other outside areas. The inspector will also look at the roof, gutters and drainage systems, chimney and any skylights.

The electrical system: You want to make sure a home’s electrical system has kept up with the times, won’t zap you or cause a fire, and that there’s enough juice to keep your family’s electronic needs running. The inspector will check out the electrical box, wires, breakers and fuses. He should also turn on every light and test the outlets to make sure they all work.

The plumbing: The inspector will check out the home’s pipes for corrosion or leaks, and he will look at your hot water heater. And yes, you should flush every toilet and turn on every faucet and shower head.

Heating and cooling systems: The inspector should blast the heat and make sure all systems are go, including the thermostats, chimney and any fireplace the home sports. Same goes for central air conditioning units.

Appliances: The inspector should check all the appliances to make sure they’re working, including the refrigerator/freezer, stove, dishwasher, washer and dryer. Make sure the smoke detectors are operational, too.

The guts: The inspector should take a look at insulation wherever accessible, including attics, crawl spaces and basements.

Mold: Basements and attics, especially areas that may be damp or leaky, should be examined for mold. You may need to order extra testing to see how serious a problem may be.

The cosmetic stuff: Walls, paint, carpets and flooring, grout, water stains and similar cosmetic issues (or, we hope they’re only cosmetic) should be examined.

Extra systems: If you have a septic system or a well, you will probably need to pay extra to have the systems properly tested. And it’s worth it: you don’t want your family drinking bacteria-laden water or, um, have a septic system meltdown or overflow. Yuck.

Termites and radon: These tests will also cost extra, but it’s not the place to save a few bucks.

Also check this DIY inspection checklist for areas you want to make sure the inspector examines, courtesy of Popular Mechanics.

The inspector should get you a written report of her findings within a few days. Problems are unavoidable in most homes, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fixable.

Use the report to negotiate with the seller for fixes or compensation (usually in the form of a reduction in the sale price of the house or an increase in the amount of closing costs covered by the seller) so you can get the work done yourself.

No home inspection story is complete without a few horror stories. Take a look at these DIY home improvement nightmares. If you see anything like this, run. But first, take a photo and send it to

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You can read Karin Price Mueller’s stories for The Star-Ledger at, follow her on Facebook, and on Twitter @kpmueller.

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