In this article:
You should order a home inspection before purchasing a property. The report covers:
- Structure (roofing, foundation, walls, attic, ceilings)
- Exterior (including windows)
- Systems (plumbing, electrical, heating, cooling)
Defective items may need to be replaced or repaired.
What is a home inspection?
The American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) defines a home inspection as “an objective visual examination of the physical structure and systems of a house, from the roof to the foundation.”
It’s important to note the word “visual” there. What’s visible often provides clues to bigger, hidden problems and those should be highlighted in the report. But they don’t always, and home inspectors won’t hack away drywall or dig around to expose foundations. They’ll assess the things they can see and check the systems they can check.
So, for example, they’ll be unable to establish the effectiveness of an HVAC’s cooling system in the dead of winter because there won’t be hot air to cool. And they won’t be able to check many systems at all if mains electricity, water and gas have been cut off in the property. Make sure the owner has those reconnected before inspection day.
When things go wrong
You get your home inspection report and it’s relatively clean. All reports reveal minor issues but yours doesn’t flag up anything too scary.
So you confidently go ahead and buy the home. Months later, major problems arise. What can you do?
Who to sue
Legal website NOLO says your first course of action will probably be against the sellers. If the issue is major, it’s likely they knew about it. And failed in their legal duty to disclose a material (meaning serious) defect.
However, your home inspector may well be on the hook, too. It will depend on whether he or she should have noticed the defect: whether another more careful inspector would have picked it up. If so, you may well have grounds to sue for negligence, professional malpractice or breach of contract.
However, it’s a mistake to see an inspection as a form of home warranty. If you want that level of protection, you’ll have to buy it separately. A report is a snapshot of the visual condition of a home on a particular day, not a guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong.
Most home inspectors carry professional liability insurance — also known as an errors and omissions (E&O) policy — as well as coverage for general liability. In some states, it is mandatory.
However, in others, it isn’t. Wherever you are, you should check your inspector’s insurance. This will not only ensure there’s enough money to compensate you. It will also mean you’re dealing with a rational, unemotional player.
Think about lawsuits involving doctors: it’s often the insurer who insists on settling while the clinician would fight all the way to the last ditch to protect his reputation.
What a home inspection report covers
ASHI suggests a list of items typically addressed in an inspection report:
- Heating system
- Central air conditioning system (temperature permitting)
- Interior plumbing and electrical systems
- Attic and visible insulation
- Windows and doors
- Structural components
It’s hard to imagine a professional home inspector not covering all those in depth. However, the closest thing to a nationwide standard is ASHI’s Standard of Practice document. You may want to make sure your inspector complies with that or something very similar.
And, if anything about the home bothered you when you looked around, by all means, ask the inspector to investigate. Obviously, put in your request in advance of the inspection. Alternatively, you may attend the inspection and ask questions as you go.
How deep does a report go?
Total Home Inspection publishes a checklist for inspectors. It runs to seven pages so let’s look at a sample section to see the sort of detail a report might contain. This section deals solely with attics and is copied directly from the THI website:
- No stains on the underside of roofing, especially around roof penetrations
- No evidence of decay or damage to the structure
- Sufficient insulation and properly installed insulation (moisture barrier installed closest to the heated area of the house)
- Adequate ventilation, clear path into the attic for air entering through soffit vents, adequately sized gable end louvers, all mechanical ventilation operational
- No plumbing, exhaust or appliance vents terminating into the attic
- No open electrical splices
To repeat an earlier caveat, inspectors can report only what’s visible. And ASHI’s code of practice bars inspectors from exploring attics where insulation material is so thick they can’t see where it’s safe to tread. In the code’s words, they must not “traverse attic load-bearing components that are concealed by insulation or by other materials.”
Such access issues can undermine the value of a report. And they don’t just apply to attics.
For example, ASHI says inspectors should not enter crawl spaces with less than 24 inches of ground clearance or hatches that are smaller than 24 inches by 18 inches.
Similarly, a home inspector can’t be expected to clear furniture and boxes to make a path to something that needs inspecting. In an attic, that might include ventilation points and, in a basement, it could include the furnace or HVAC system.
You also can’t expect an inspector to take a machete to the backyard to check the sewerage system or view the foundation or wall structure. So you need in advance of the inspection to make sure the homeowner will provide good access to all the elements you want to be checked out.
What’s in ...
An inspector will normally check the function of most kitchen appliances, providing they’re installed rather than freestanding. ASHI lists those as “ovens, ranges, surface cooking appliances, microwave ovens, dish-washing machines, and food waste grinders.”
That check is basically turning them on and off to make sure they work in primary function mode in normal conditions. So we’re not talking here about checking that the oven’s thermostat is accurate or that the microwave’s door seals are sound or that the dishwasher cleans plates well.
... and what’s not
Laundry appliances aren’t usually tested, even if they’re installed. And there are other general exclusions.
For example, inspectors won’t comment on the condition of (let alone the current owner’s taste in) paint or wallpaper or other wall finishes, nor carpets or other floor coverings. You can see that for yourself.
They won’t check on the functionality of recreational equipment, so get in a specialist to assess the bowling alley in your next basement. And they won’t look at central vacuuming systems, nor the hermetic seals or coatings in windows.
Manage your expectations — and your inspector
By now, you should have a better feel for what’s going to be in your home inspection report. It won’t cover absolutely everything. And the biggest exclusion is that it only relates to what’s visible.
However, engaging a home inspector is your opportunity to get a licensed or certified professional with experience, qualifications and expertise to alert you to potential problems with your next home. So make sure you choose a good one — and then manage her so you make the most of her abilities.
Clear the way by asking the homeowner to supply easy access to all the things the inspector needs to see. Alert your inspector to any niggling doubts you have. And attend the inspection so he or she can talk you through the issues (and expect a long list of those, though hopefully most or all will be minor).