Get the house examined professionally before buying

Buying a house, especially in today's high-priced market, is usually the biggest investment you'll ever make. Thus, it makes sense to know what you're getting into.

Unless you're a qualified building inspector yourself, let a professional do the job for you. Along with all your other concerns, you might wonder if the roof leaks, whether the heating system is reliable, the plumbing sound, or the electrical system up to code. Will you have water in the basement after the next heavy rain? The list could go on and on.

You might want to hire a professional property-inspection service to thoroughly review your intended purchase before the deal goes through.

Such inspections are usually included as a contingency in your offer to buy the house. Your real-estate agent is familiar with the wording used in your area. Typically, that wording provides that you are entitled to have a professional inspection of the property performed at your expense. It further provides that you may disapprove the property on the basis of the inspection and have your deposit refunded in full.

Practically speaking, if the house inspection reveals, for example, a substandard electrical panel, you could choose to negotiate repairs to the property as a condition of purchase rather than walk away from the purchase.

There are several reasons why paying the modest cost of a property inspection is a sound practice:

* Major repairs. You should be aware of any problems you might be buying so you can consider the cost of repairs as part of your decision to buy or avoid them by choosing to buy elsewhere.

* Buyer's remorse. Soon after your offer is accepted, you'll have second thoughts about the wisdom of your purchase. Salespeople call this ''buyer's remorse.

* Deferred maintenance. A property inspection can forewarn you about future maintenance that you'll need to consider sooner or later. While not a problem now, deferred maintenance items must eventually be taken care of.

* Older houses. The older a house, the more things there are that may work fine at time of purchase, but will slowly deteriorate with age. Fan bearings, roofing, and built-in appliances are a few such items.

Most property inspections, however, have the following limitations:

* A property inspection is not a substitute for a termite report. In most states, only a licensed termite inspector can prepare a termite report and recommend or perform work to eradicate the pests. You need both.

* Property inspectors will rarely warrant that the roof does not leak. You need to independently verify the condition of the roof if this is important to you. However, the inspector will inspect the crawl spaces into the attic and subfloor areas and report what he finds.

* Property inspectors are usually not appraisers. They will not offer an opinion as to whether or not you should buy the house. That decision is entirely up to you. If in doubt as to the cost of repairs, ask a qualified repairman for an estimate.

Most inspection firms use a checklist, perhaps one that the owner or manager had developed. The checklist covers all aspects of residential property - attics , basements, plumbing, electrical, and room-by-room details that the inspector is to record for the report. The report itself can only be as good as the inspector is knowledgeable, so extreme care should be used in selectingthe firm.

Generally, it is preferable to be referred to a firm rather than to choose one at random. Out-of-work carpenters and builders, for example, have been known to start property-inspection businesses when times are hard. A trusted recommendation will increase your chances of satisfaction.

An accurate, well-written property-inspection report may help in negotiations for your next house. At the very least, you'll know what you're buying.

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