The Home Inspector
When you think about it, it is a bit odd. A person hires a stranger to snoop around another stranger’s house for a couple hours and report back. It’s sounds rather like someone hiring a burglar to case a house for a robbery. The major difference is that the owner of the home is a willing participant, too, and that everything is actually quite legal and above board. The motive of the buyer is, of course, to make sure that he or she doesn’t get ‘robbed’ with a broken-down furnace that the seller say is fine, for example. This happened to me in the days before home inspection was a common part of the real estate transaction. Though the service has been around since the 1970s, it has only really become an integral part of home-buying since the mid to late 1990s.
My wife and I ended up with a furnace that was soon condemned by a technician and a nice big bill for a new one. It was mid-November and we couldn’t exactly get along without one. What did we know about furnaces? We didn’t know how long one lasted or how to tell if it was in good shape or not. That was a dozen years ago. We know much better now about furnaces – nothing like getting burned to make you more wary next time.
Home inspectors are, like me, regular people who are interested in houses, their construction, their systems, and pretty much anything else about them. They are usually generalists with knowledge of thousands of bits of information about pretty much anything and everything in the home. Some, have additional specialties in various trades, or will offer additional services at additional costs for things such as Radon inspections. Many, like me, are trained and certified via colleges or corporations such as Carson-Dunlop Consulting Engineers in Toronto.
We are also interested in the people who live there and the people who are looking to move in. Like you, we have spouses, children, parents, pets, and other relatives with whom we share our living spaces. What we all have in common is that we all want a nice, clean, safe place to live with – hopefully – no nasty surprises. We want to help you realize what you have before you buy or sell, so you can make informed choices.
No house is perfect. That’s not to say something is wrong with it, but think of a house as an organic entity. It sits on a foundation. It stands on its framework. It breathes and has circulatory systems. It needs to keep at a comfortable and even temperature. And, most of all, it needs to be maintained. Like your own body, or even your car, if you don’t take care of it, it will start to age prematurely and fall apart.
But what are home inspectors and why do you need one?
Think of a home inspector looking over your house like the mechanic you have to look at your car. Houses need to be maintained and looked after. However, like cars, sometimes we don’t take as much care of them as we should. Some things are not fixed, while other things are never even noticed or checked over the years and fall into disrepair. Home inspectors act as the detached third-party that advises on the condition and status of the home without the emotional investment. Good home inspectors give the straight facts, will point out things to watch or fix, and will point out the positives of your home as well.
Just as the name suggests, home inspectors inspect homes, but they also usually inspect garages, patios, decks, driveways, and the lay of the land. Some will inspect other structures such as sheds, barns, gazebos, pools and pool houses, but these are beyond the standards for most inspectors. Many will adhere to the standards and practices of the Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors (CAHPI or CAHI) or the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) – whether or not they are actual members in the association.
Home inspection is the fastest-growing trade within the real estate industry in North America with about two-thirds to three-quarters of all homes undergoing an inspection. Home inspectors have become an integral part of the home transaction process. While most home inspectors are called in once a purchaser is ready to buy a home, some are called in by sellers before they want to sell, or by homeowners who are looking at major renovations or upgrades to their home.
What do they do?
In any situation, the inspection process is basically the same. After initial introductions and a discussion of what’s to be done, where to go, where not to go (the baby’s room), and other criteria, the inspector gets down to the ‘dirty’ work. The inspector will give the home and property a thorough going-over – usually beginning outside, then moving indoors from room to room making observations and notes on a checklist. It is common for inspectors to go into rooms two or three times looking at different things each time. Others will visit certain rooms only once, performing all the checks they need then and there. Each inspector is different and works differently.
Safety is the over-riding concern of the home inspector – both for the inspector and the customer. Some home inspectors will open up electrical panels to look at wiring, others will not, but all should inspect the panel(s), the wiring, distribution system, grounding, load, and other visible bits and pieces.
Most inspectors will look inside furnaces and other heating devices if the panels come off easily. Others will use tools to remove panels, but many will draw the line there. Many inspectors will walk on the roof when conditions permit to inspect the roof, the materials and workmanship, and things such as vents, chimney(s), and gutters. Some roofs are very steep, in bad shape, or are constructed with fragile tiles. Most inspectors will not walk on the roof in these situations, but will either look from the edge via a ladder, look from an adjacent structure, or use binoculars while on the ground.
Plumbing is another major system that home inspectors will spend a good deal of time examining. They’ll look at what the pipes are made of, whether it’s electrically grounded or not, how the water looks, flows, and even smells, how hot the water gets, as well as operate every tap and toilet to ensure that they are all working well and not leaking. Home inspectors will also be looking for other leaks – past and present, evidence of water damage, and they will look at drainage systems and sump pumps.
The structure is another key point of the inspection. Inspectors will look at how the house is holding itself up – literally, and how it is, or has been settling in and weathering through the years. Inspectors will look for wall and floor cracks due to settling and try to determine the age and severity of the crack. Home inspectors will also examine the brickwork, windows, doors, joists, rafters, pad, and other elements for warping, fire or water damage, poor construction, tampering or dangerous remodelling, and other tell-tale signs of how the house is build and maintained.
Home inspectors will often crawl around in crawlspaces, peer into or enter attics, look in closets and chimneys, around windows and doors, under carpets, and every other place in the house where they see or suspect evidence of something may be amiss – or may be particularly good.
Typical items not looked at are more cosmetic in nature. Paint is not a major concern unless it gives evidence to other problems like mold, weathering, and so on. Carpeting is not usually commented on unless is moldy or on top of electrical wiring. Landscaping will be looked at with regards to effect on the house. Trees and shrubs are often planted too close to a house or grow up against them over time and may cause damage. Mostly, landscaping issues deal with the slope or grade of the land and whether drainage issues are of a concern.
What do you get out of it? Good home inspectors will write up a report and give you an oral summary of what was found. The home inspector may show you certain matters of particular interest or concern, or you may simply get a summary of items noticed and noted in the report. The home inspector should not be making decisions for you on the home, but may, if qualified, make certain professional recommendations, or recommend that you get more serious matters inspected by a specifically-trained service person.
Inspectors should be giving you a status check of you home’s vital elements – not a laundry list of what’s wrong with the place. There are plenty of small things that may be ‘wrong’ as in needing minor attention or monitoring, but are not critical to the overall safety or marketability of the home. The worst thing a home inspector can do is become emotional about the house being inspected. Good home inspectors are like good doctors or mechanics. They tell you what they find, and about how critical or not a deficiency may be, but they shouldn’t be alarmist unless the situation is potentially dangerous or deadly (for example, live wires exposed within reach of children or a seriously deteriorated chimney which may collapse). Otherwise, the inspector should be detached and business-like in presenting his or her findings.
The seller has the emotional investment of living in a home and usually is quite sensitive about it. The buyer is putting an emotional investment into the home because they like the place and can picture themselves enjoying it. That’s where emotional biases come into play and sober reasoning can get the better of you by making you not see potential problems or excuse them away because you really, really want this house. This is exactly why home inspectors have entered the scene in order to remove the emotions and provide sober commentary. Home inspectors don’t get involved with the price of homes, and certainly don’t decide for you on whether to buy or not (or sell). What they reveal about a home might affect the negotiations, but the home inspector shouldn’t be involved in them directly. For example, depending on the size of a home, a nearly-dead furnace can cost $5000 to $10,000 to replace, or new roofing of very tired shingles can cost from $3000 to $30,000 – a not insignificant impact on the home’s worth during a transaction.