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Buyer Guides

How a home inspection works

You hire your own home inspector, so make sure you choose carefully.

After getting a mortgage, picking a great house, and making an offer, you might assume most of the heavy lifting in the home buying process is done. But wait—there’s one more big thing that could determine whether or not the home you’re hoping to buy is a good decision: the home inspection. No matter how invested you feel in a particular house, it’s important to get a professional opinion from a trustworthy home inspector and factor the results into your home buying decision.

Here are some questions you probably have about home inspections:

  • What is a home inspection?

    A home inspection is a report generated by a professional home inspector after they make a careful evaluation of a property. It’s intended to give home buyers an unbiased, knowledgeable accounting of any identifiable issues a home has before they make the final decision to buy it.

    A home inspection typically takes place while a home is under contract—which means you’ve made an offer on a house and it’s been accepted. A buyer has a set period of time, which is laid out in their purchase agreement (it’s often a week to 10 days, but it varies) to complete the home inspection, review the results, and decide if they want to leave the contract. Under most purchase agreements, the buyer can leave the contract without a financial penalty if the home inspection reveals costly issues.

  • What will be covered in the inspection?

    The inspector will do a visual evaluation of the house. According to the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), this review includes noting the condition of the following things:

    • heating system
    • central air conditioning system (weather permitting)
    • interior plumbing
    • interior electrical systems
    • roof, attic, and visible insulation
    • walls, ceilings, floors
    • windows and doors
    • foundation, basement, and structural components.
  • What isn’t covered in a home inspection?

    Many first-time home buyers assume a general home inspector will tell them absolutely anything that’s wrong with the house, but that’s not the case. Home inspections are limited in a few ways:

    • General home inspectors aren’t trained in pest and hazardous materials mediation. If you suspect a home might have termite damage, a rat problem, or issues like asbestos insulation or radon exposure, you’ll need a specialty inspector to check those out.
    • Things that not every home has aren’t typically inspected, like pools, a septic system or a well.
    • Home inspectors are not allowed to physically move anything during their inspection, so they can only evaluate what they can see. This means basement paneling could conceal foundation cracks or a couch could hide a damaged electrical outlet.
  • Where do I find a home inspector?

    You’re in charge of hiring your own home inspector, and that includes finding them. Start with referrals from your real estate agent, family, and friends. ASHI, which trains and certifies home inspectors, has a home inspector search app, too. Try to identify a home inspector who is familiar with your area, as well as the type of home you’re planning to buy, such as a fixer upper or a condo.

    Keep in mind that not every state requires inspectors to get certification, so be sure to ask about their training and accreditation. Find out whether your state requires licensing, and be sure your inspector has it if needed. And certifications from the American Society of Home Inspectors and the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors are both signs of a well-trained inspector.

    Be sure to interview inspectors, too. Ask what types of things will be included in his or her report, how long the inspection typically takes, if they walk on roofs (not all do), and if they are willing to schedule their inspection so you can be there.

  • How much will a home inspection cost?

    A basic home inspection costs around $300 to $500. That may seem like a lot, but it could save you from making a much larger financial mistake if a home has major issues.

  • How long does a home inspection take?

    The actual inspection could take a good three hours, depending on the size of the house.

  • Why do I need to be there?

    It’s smart to stick with the inspector during the inspection. If you can’t be there, ask your real estate agent to go. This is a good way to learn about your potential home and all of its systems. Ask questions while being careful to not get in the inspector’s way. Prior to the inspection, you’ll receive a disclosure statement from the seller that might include known issues with the home. You can use it to help you decide if there are certain things you want the inspector to check out, like just how bad a known issue is.

  • What should I expect the inspector to do?

    The inspector will do an exterior walk about and look for cracks and other structural issues on the roof (from the ground), gutters, siding, foundation. Inside, the inspector will look for visible signs of mold and mildew, whether there’s water in the basement, if the plumbing or electric are not up to code, if there are carbon monoxide and smoke detectors and whether appliances that convey with the home are in working condition.

    The inspector will take a lot of photos, and when the inspection is done, he or she will prepare a long and detailed report. Don’t be shocked if the inspector lists 50 to 100 issues; most will likely be small. Even in new construction homes there will be defects that need to be addressed.

  • What do I do with all the inspector’s report?

    It’s up to you to decide what to do with what you learn. Your options are to:

    • Proceed with the sale as planned
    • Ask the seller to fix certain issues
    • Renegotiate the price to allow you to address issues
    • Walk away from the sale

    Your real estate agent can be a big help determining what to do. If all the issues are small, remember that all home inspections turn up a number of items, so you may just want to move forward. If you do have repair work done, ask your inspector to sign off on the work after it’s complete. If the issues are bigger and you can’t come to an agreement with the seller on what to fix or a new price, you may need to walk away and start looking for another home.

If your home inspection looks great, good news! The next thing on your home buying to-do list: check for and understand any easements on the property.