What to expect from a home inspection

Wooden toolbox filled with tools

Buyers want to make sure that a home they have under contract doesn’t contain major problems that they can’t afford to repair or don’t want to hassle with. Enter the home inspection.

The person they rely on to go beyond the obvious and reveal the home’s true condition is a home inspector.

Home inspectors are specially trained to spot problems the average person is likely to miss. However, there are limitations on what inspectors can legally examine.

First, here’s what home buyers should expect an inspector to check out.

The American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), a nonprofit professional association, states in its Standards of Practice that home inspectors should "inspect readily accessible, visually observable, installed systems and components" and should report whether they are "not functioning properly, significantly deficient, unsafe, or are near the end of their service lives."

ASHI also lists exactly what parts of the home should be inspected in each major area, including the home’s structure, exterior, interior, plumbing, electrical and HVAC. ASHI’s guidelines are minimums, so some home inspectors may choose to exceed them, but they are not required to.

Inspectors will not examine anything that is decorative, concealed, not readily accessible, dangerous or inoperative. They are examining someone else’s property -- a house under contract still belongs to the seller -- so they have to leave it in the same condition they found it.

Inspectors can’t damage finished surfaces, so they can’t remove flooring to look for cracks in the foundation or open a wall to look at the plumbing or wiring. They also don’t want to damage the owner’s personal property, so they won’t move furniture or other possessions.

That means you might not find out if the electrical outlet behind the couch is functional, for example.

Inspectors won’t always evaluate swimming pools, accessory buildings or other items buyers might expect. If you are concerned about something specific, ask the home inspector before you hire him or her whether that component will be examined.

Home inspectors will also not provide specialty opinions that lie outside their areas of expertise. If you want to remove a wall in your future house and you’re not sure if it’s load-bearing, the inspector might refer you to a structural engineer.

If your home inspector is a member of the ASHI or a similar group, like the National Association of Home Inspectors, membership in that organization will require them to inspect specified components and exempt them from others.

Inspectors who do not belong to one of these groups should follow similar guidelines.

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