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Home inspection: What is it and how does it work?

Dec. 4, 2020 • 7 min read

What we'll cover

  • What is a home inspection

  • How to prepare for a home inspection

  • When to consider a home inspection

You may have heard the expression that a home has “good bones,” meaning quality, well-made construction. But from an outsider or novice point of view, it can be hard to tell if the house you’re looking to buy meets that standard. That’s where a home inspection comes in. This official assessment can tell you everything you need to know about a home’s makeup and condition. Here’s all the must-know information you should have before getting started with your home inspection.

What is a home inspection?

A home inspection is the professional examination of a property and typically occurs during the home buying process. The assessment is usually conducted by a home inspector who has training and certifications to perform these inspections.

During the examination, a home inspector assesses the physical structure of a home from top to bottom and everything in between. Ultimately, the one to two-hour evaluation determines whether a property is “up to code,” meaning it meets all building codes and regulations.

Types of home inspections

What type of inspection do you need? It depends on the property and what you might be looking for.

General home inspections

In most instances, home buyers hire a general home inspector to assess a property and give them a written report detailing the property’s condition. These standard property reviews look for signs of damage and defects on nearly every part of a property. They examine the condition of the house, including things like its electrical, water, heating and cooling systems, and plumbing, as well as fire and safety issues. The inspection also looks for evidence of insect, water, and fire damage, as well as any other problems that may affect the value of the property for sale.

If the inspector spots something significant or outside the scope of their expertise, they might refer you to a specialist to investigate further and fully diagnose.

Foundation inspection

Homes need sturdy foundations, so you may want to consider having the foundation inspected for issues such as drainage problems, tree roots, cracks, or other indications of movement or shifting. If a foundation inspector discovers something potentially worrisome, they may suggest that you have the property inspected by a residential structural engineer.

Mold inspection

If you’re concerned about what you can’t necessarily see (or in some cases, smell), you may need a mold inspection. Using a moisture monitor meter and possible air samples from inside and outside your home, a mold inspector will be able to detect dampness in drywall, insulation, and other building materials.

Radon testing

Radon is an odorless, colorless gas that results from the gradual breakdown of radium and is released from well water, building materials, and soil —entering your home through cracks in the foundation, floors, or walls. The fastest radon assessment method is to have a test done by a professional radon inspector or you can use an off-the-shelf DIY kit and test radon levels on your own.         

Wood-destroying organism (WDO) inspection

More commonly called a termite inspection, this looky-loo ensures your future home isn’t already harboring unwelcome insect tenants, like termites, wood-boring beetles, and carpenter ants. WDO inspectors will also look for dry rot caused by fungi

Many states (cities and counties) require a WDO inspection for closing. And if you’re buying your home using a VA loan or FHA loan, a wood-destroying organism inspection is usually required regardless of location.

Understanding a home inspection report     

Once complete, the inspector will create a comprehensive written assessment that usually includes:

  • A section that lists baseline details about the house, like its construction date, square footage, and home type

  • A general summary that outlines any significant issues with the property

  • Details about major home systems, critical components, and whether they’re working

  • Any issues will be described (and pictured) and often will come with recommendations on how to proceed with a repair

Can a home inspection affect the sale?

Most homebuyers choose to make the closing contingent on the results of the home inspection. If all that’s found are some cosmetic defects that don’t affect safety and functionality, the sale will likely proceed.

But don’t panic if, as a seller, a home inspector discovers any damages, defects or hazardous issues within your home. Some buyers can be reasonable and understand that no home is perfect. They want to buy your house and likely want to move forward just as much as you do.

You have options and can based your next move on what makes the most financial sense for you and what the buyer will agree to.

The options could include:

  • Making the repairs

  • Giving a repair credit based on quotes from a contractor

  • Renegotiating the sale price and sell as-is

  • Offering a one-year home warranty to give peace of mind

  • Trading and bartering furniture or appliances to sweeten the deal

  • Or, in the worst-case scenario, cancelling the contract altogether

As a buyer, if you do request significant repairs, think about also asking for a reinspection (conducted by the original inspector) to verify that the previously identified issue(s) have been fixed.

How to prepare for a home inspection

As a seller, here’s a helpful checklist to follow:

  1. Provide clear access to all areas that will be reviewed.

  2. Clean inside and clear the property’s exterior for an unimpeded look.

  3. Check your roof and AC or furnace filters.

  4. Replace lightbulbs, check all pilot lights, and ensure the fuse box is labeled correctly.

  5. Look for leaks and water damage and make sure your toilets, sinks, and bathtubs are all in working order.

  6. Check your cabinets and doors.

  7. Take care of any bug problems.

When to consider a home inspection

Typically, a home inspection occurs after a sales contract or purchase agreement between a buyer and a seller has been signed, but before a home sale closes.

For the buyer, an inspection can tell you a lot — whether you’re purchasing a newly constructed home or an older, existing house.  And, ultimately, it can save you time, money, and potential headaches later on since it identifies essential repairs, builder oversights, and possible property upkeep requirements that you might not have spotted during your walkthroughs.

If you’re planning to put your house up for sale, you might want to consider having your home inspected beforehand. That way, you can make any necessary structural repairs or upgrade and replace things that may deter a buyer.

How much does a home inspection cost?

The cost of a general home inspection varies, but usually runs $270 to $480 (depending on the size of the home and where it’s located). Buyers typically pay this expense as part of their closing costs. But if you’re selling and are having your home inspected before you put the “for sale” sign out, you’ll be on the hook for the bill.

Specialized inspections are an added expense — typically a few hundred dollars.

What to look for when hiring a home inspector

When looking for a general home inspector, you might not know where to begin. Start by asking for referrals from your friends, family, and real estate agent . You can also check online reviews. Once you have someone ID’ed, you should vet them by asking a few questions, such as:

  • Are you certified and licensed?

  • Are you insured, bonded, or covered, should an inspection mistake spur the new homeowner to take legal action?

  • Are you a member of a professional association, like the National Institute of Building Inspectors, American Society of Home Inspectors, or National Association of Home Inspectors?

  • Do you have any references?

You may think a property is your dream home, but you need to go deeper than the mint-condition wood floors and the seemingly new bathroom fixtures . A qualified home inspector can give a property the thorough examination needed to confirm whether or not it truly has good bones.

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