Avoiding Costly Homebuying Mistakes: Home Inspections

by Lawrence Kostaneski, PE

There is much discussion about the merits of having an inspection done before buying a home. Some lenders require it, while with others it's optional. There isn't any universal opinion about inspections, other than a general notion that it is probably a good idea, which it is.

In contrast, a Realtor in Cape Cod wrote a few weeks ago to tell me that an inspection done by a friend failed to discover a significant structural defect in a house she bought. Go figure!

This is my professional opinion on the matter, reinforced by conversations with friends in the business, litigation I've been asked to comment on, and listening to numerous stories, good and bad.

A house is not unlike a car, or the human body for that matter. All are a veritable riot of systems and parts, hopefully functioning in harmony with themselves and the environment in which they exist. If you have a serious malady, you will ultimately end up visiting a specialist: heart, bones, etc. The same is true with your car. An oil change is a far cry from rebuilding a transmission or differential.

A house is no different. Structural, mechanical, ventilation, water, sewer, drainage: these are all systems that need careful evaluation. Windows, doors, concrete work, water heaters, furnaces, service lines: these are all parts that need careful evaluation. I regularly advise buyers of property on a great many issues. This advice is based on 10 years of listening to angry home buyers. But the advice is ONLY within my fields of expertise: civil engineering, subdivision planning and design and development regulations. Civil engineering covers a wide range of topics, but does not include electrical wiring or HVAC systems, for example. I always advise my clients of this distinction.

So, what do YOU need from an inspector ? Well, it depends what you want. An electrician or electrical engineer who does home inspections may do a positively marvelous job of telling you that the home does not meet current wiring codes: I couldn't do that. But there may be some difficulty in determining if the lot is flood prone or the water system is dependable: that I could do. Why is this? Because the areas of expertise are different: one not better than the other, just different.

The homes I've bought I inspected myself, EXCEPT for the electrical and HVAC (heating, ventilation and cooling). I had friends in the business do that for me on a quid pro quo basis. Why? Because we know our limitations and rely on each other for help. Therein lies the problem. There are few inspectors with the education, training, background and experience to detect EVERY potential problem that might be present. Some inspection companies send out teams of individuals trained in electrical, mechanical and civil engineering, as well as residential construction methods. I would expect these teams to do an extraordinarily thorough job, and be expensive as well.

The first thing to do is determine EXACTLY the areas the inspector will evaluate. If you believe this scope covers the things that worry you, and the inspector is reputable, then no problems, mate.

If one of these is not true, then you need to keep searching for someone who will serve your needs. Remember, this is NOT about satisfying someone else, it's about satisfying YOU.

If you have a friend or relative who recently bought a house with an inspection, and the information proved satisfactory, contact that inspector. Ask for an example of a report. If you're told they're confidential, ask for one with the house- specific information deleted. Anyone who will not share examples of the finished product is not very good at marketing their services.

We all know the incredible investment awaiting those who decide to buy a home. It is always in your best interest to know what you are buying. A previous article listed many of the issues I've found to be important to people over the years. Use that as a guide, remembering the analogy between a house and a car. You can never be too careful or know too much about your next home!

Next Time: Government Regulatory Surprises.

Mr. Kostaneski is a registered professional engineer, former government regulatory official, owner of an engineering consulting firm and author of "A Home Buyer's Guide To Reality".

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