Bring realistic expectations to home inspections
You've probably heard that hiring a professional home inspector is a critical step to take before you close on a home.
Having a complete understanding of a property's problems is essential to making a smart purchase and protecting your finances.
While we think a home inspection is a smart thing to do, we also think you've got to have realistic expectations about what you'll really get out of it.
The system and restrictions that every inspector works under limit how thorough and reliable any report will be.
That's why the contract you sign absolves inspectors of all liability for any problem they might miss — and we've seen them miss some big ones.
The first problem is that home inspectors, by the nature of their profession, face a major conflict of interest.
Most of them depend on real estate agents to steer customers their way. Those agents want a home inspector to reassure nervous buyers that they're making a smart investment.
An inspector who causes buyers to pull out of a deal by pointing out too many problems is an inspector that agents will quickly delete from their smartphones.
We aren't saying that home inspectors are liars or bad people. They're just caught up in a system with incentives that don't always align with the needs of homebuyers.
They also tend to be generalists, not specialists.
An inspector might tell you a home's old furnace has plenty of years left or a crack in the wall is only cosmetic.
Yet the furnace might have to be replaced because the heat exchanger is cracked, and the house could be on the verge of falling down because the foundation is sinking.
Home inspectors usually aren't heating and cooling experts or structural engineers. (And, yes, these are real examples that we know actually happened.)
Home inspectors are also limited in how much they can see.
Take, for example, this common problem: You're buying an older house, and you want to know what shape the electrical and plumbing systems are in. If they're faulty, your home could suffer serious damage, and the repairs could be highly disruptive and expensive.
Without breaking open the walls, however, it's hard for an inspector to tell how well those systems have aged or if they've been updated.
The home inspector couldn't be more thorough, even if you wanted him or her to be. You don't own the property yet, and you can't go around punching holes in someone else's drywall.
That's why you shouldn't go into this with the unrealistic expectation that a home inspector is going to save you from making a huge mistake by uncovering a deal-killing flaw.
Consider yourself to be well-served if the inspector uncovers a few modest issues that had escaped your attention.
You can recoup the typical $475 cost of a home inspection by asking the seller to fix almost any problem your inspector finds — or to knock some money off the purchase price for you to handle the repair later.
Of course, the inspector might say the home looks great and give you nothing to bargain with. But that's the risk you take.
If there's a specific problem you're highly concerned about, you can always seek a second opinion from an expert, usually a contractor you might hire to fix the problem.
But with the time limits in the home purchase contract, the constraints on your budget and the contractor's inability to look behind walls, under floors or in ceilings, there's only so much they can tell you.
So what should a stressed-out homebuyer do?
Just hire an experienced inspector, and don't fret about your choice.
A good place to look is the American Society of Home Inspectors, a nonprofit, voluntary professional society whose members must pass a technical exam, follow a code of standards and ethics, and have performed at least 250 home inspections.
The National Association of Home Inspectors is a similar organization that establishes professional standards and ethics.
Then do the usual research, checking online reviews and calling a few inspectors to ask about their background and services.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has a list of screening questions you can ask.
(Shopping around for the cheapest service won't save much, because most inspectors working within a given area charge similar fees.)
One way to get the most from a home inspection is to hire an inspector who will let you accompany him or her as they look at the house.
Rather than just reading a report and viewing photos after the fact, you can get a firsthand look at the actual problems the inspector notices and ask lots of questions.
If nothing else, you'll learn a few things about how homes work.
But sooner or later, every home is going to have problems.
Fixing stuff is an unavoidable hassle of home ownership, and no prepurchase inspection is going to change that.