When You Inspect a House

Before calling in the pros, do your own inspection. In so doing, you may be able to avoid the aggravation of making a bid on a house, hiring an inspector, and then learning the house is not worth your investment or that it will cost you a fortune to bring it up to par. This does not replace the role of an inspector; this is to help you weed-out homes when house hunting.

You will likely go through many homes in your search for the right one for you. Some you will be in and out of in five minutes, maybe less. A very few you will walk through, pause here and there, perhaps ask some questions of the agent, and take the agency's computer printout on the place so that you can remember the details — the number of rooms, property taxes, and the like. “Hmmm,” you think, “this one is a possibility.”

On your second, or even third, visit to the house you think has real potential, you should get down to the nitty-gritty and really look at it. On this visit, wear old clothes and bring a flashlight with a bright beam, a yardstick or tape measure, a marble or small ball, a pocketknife or ice pick, and a pad and pencil.

Before you head for the house, jot down some questions you still need answered by the sellers. Perhaps they will be out at the time of your visit, but the real-estate agent can relay those queries for you.

You might also note any special problems or concerns you are likely to have with any house you buy. Do you need room for a piano? Will the girls' room be large enough for their twin beds?

What to Look For

The things you are checking will be gone over more thoroughly by a house inspector, so when you come face to face with a system or house feature you do not understand, just move on; leave it for the pros. The following sections will give you an idea of what you should be looking for.

Most issues are common around the country, such as improper drainage around the house, roofing leaks, improper electrical, or older plumbing. Poor workmanship is not confined to any geographic location, either, says Brion Grant, 2008 ASHI president.

Look for large cracks in the foundation walls that can be seen from both inside and outside the basement. A house with a serious settling problem will have doors and windows that bind and diagonal cracks in the wallboard or plaster, especially above doors and windows. Repairing the problem is very expensive.

The Foundation

The foundation is any construction that is below or partly below the ground level and upon which the house is built. It could be a concrete slab, walls, and a crawl space or a full basement. The most common materials in today's construction are concrete, concrete block, and cinder block. In very old houses, stone is most common. To prevent termite infestation and dry rot, all wood parts of the house should be at least 6′ off the ground. Hairline cracks in the slab that are visible as you walk around outside are not usually a cause for alarm — all houses settle somewhat. Major separations or extensive crumbling, though, should make you nervous. If a footing sinks, leaving the support of the structure uneven, the soundness of the house and every working system in it can be endangered.

The Crawl Space

A foundation that lifts the house 18″–36″ off the ground is called a crawl space. It is most often built of concrete block or cinder block. The floor of this area is often the ground itself. If this is the case, serious moisture problems can occur, especially if ventilation is inadequate. At least one foundation wall vent should be built in at each corner, with all four ventilators being kept open year round.

A wet crawl space can cause joists to rot and can send harmful ground vapors up into the house, causing mildew and dampness. Adequate ventilation can often correct the problem. If the space is floored and heated, venting is unnecessary.

Crawl spaces are difficult to inspect, and many homebuyers just do not bother. If you do not want to check the crawl space, make sure that an inspector does it for you. (Some of them want to skip this, too.) The inspector should look for standing water on the ground, especially near the walls and in the corners. When he pokes at beams, an ice pick should not sink into the wood — that could be a sign of termites or dry rot. The inspector should also look for rodents' nests.

The Basement

Here is where you will see more of the working systems of the house than anywhere else. One thing to look for is dryness. Basement dampness (as opposed to standing water) is often due to condensation, which can be corrected with a dehumidifier.

Seepage from outside groundwater is a much more serious problem and can undermine the structural soundness of a house. First, check for water in the corners. If you see some, it may be due to the faulty positioning of a downspout. Your water problem could be solved by moving, extending, or repairing the downspout. However, such puddles could also be the result of a collection of groundwater around the footings, a serious problem that can cause uneven settling. If you see water, suspicious stains, or a newly repainted floor and cracks in the foundation walls, you might want to cross that house off your list. If you really want the house, get the advice of a professional inspector quickly.

Beware of stains on the basement walls. If you see yellowish-brown markings at the same level all around the basement, it is probably dried moisture and is likely to be the high-water mark. That basement does flood or has flooded!

Overall, be wary of newly painted walls in a basement area. Of course, many sellers do paint long-overdue areas when they are getting ready to put a house on the market, but it pays to be particularly cautious when you see fresh paint in basement areas to ensure that it isn't covering up something you should know about.

If there is a sump pump, ask the owners how it works. Ask where the pump drains. A dry well at some distance from the house is good. Even better, if allowed by your town, is a storm sewer system in which the water is permanently taken away from the foundation. A pump that takes the water up and out through the basement window does not accomplish much. This is a little like bailing a leaking boat — the water is still on the other side of the wall.

The Working Systems

The working systems — electrical, heating, and plumbing — are best handled by professionals. Still, there are some points even a novice can check.

Having an electrical system upgraded in an older home is certainly possible. In a house with a slab floor and vaulted ceilings, the wiring may be very difficult to replace. Inadequate wiring is not something that should cause you to change your mind about the house, unless you cannot afford to upgrade it. Also be sure there are enough outlets; too many appliances and gadgets plugged into extension cords is a sign that the outlet supply is inadequate.

Does the heating system provide enough heat? How much does it cost to run? Ask the owner of the house for the heating bills for the previous winter and the name of the fuel supplier. Then call the oil or utility company and ask what a typical bill for a house of your square footage would have been for the previous winter. Do the same with central air conditioning.

Do inspectors assess efficiency of gas and electric meters to ensure they haven't been tampered with by previous occupants?

Home inspections are visual in nature, and efficiency is specifically excluded as a requirement in the ASHI standards of practice. Testing the efficiency of a gas or electric meter would require specialty tools and expertise and would be outside the scope of a home inspection.

What about the plumbing? You can examine the condition of exposed pipes, but an inspector will likely know more than you about their condition. Old iron pipes or lead fittings could need replacement. Also, be sure to run water from faucets and to flush toilets. Is the water clear or rusty? Look for leaks, low water pressure, and drains that empty too slowly. Bruce Barker, ASHI member and owner of Dream Home Consultants, says to look closely at ceilings, baseboards, and around windows and doors when looking at a home — this is where water infiltration shows itself. If there is light staining, it may indicate a current or past minor water leak. If the staining is darker, particularly if accompanied by pealing paint or drywall, it may indicate a more serious leak, he says.

Purple stains on vinyl floors or vinyl wallpaper are an indication of moisture and mold beneath the surface. A musty smell in the house is often a clue there is a moisture problem, as is the presence of visible mold. — Larry Cerro, ASHI member and veteran home inspector in Tallahassee, Florida

Other Things to Note

There are many other parts of a house you should investigate, although the aforementioned are the most important and potentially most costly. For your own purposes, note room sizes, traffic-flow patterns, size and state of the kitchen, and number of bathrooms. Ask the owner about storm or screen windows. If there aren't any, determine their cost and decide whether you will want to buy them.

Are floors level? Test them with a ball or marble. Do they need refinishing? Any creaky boards? What about the stairs? Any problems there? Are all of the appliances that will stay with the house in working order?

More and more sellers, especially in a slow market, are offering prospective buyers home inspection reports (preinspections) they have ordered and paid for. Make sure the report is dated recently and not many months old. Make sure the inspector is a reputable professional. Even if a home has had a preinspection, you should still consider getting your own home inspection by an inspector you trust.

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