Professionals inspect the unexpected for home buyers

It's the home-buying season again, and people are going to open houses, comparing mortgage rates, and looking for one of the last major tax breaks. But they should also be asking around for the name of a good home inspector. Some 3.6 million existing, not newly built, homes were sold in the United States last year. But only a third, or about 1 million, came with a home inspection.

As for the other 2.6 million buyers, they either know everything they need to about leaky foundations, improper drainage, plumbing, and electrical systems, or they're leaving themselves open to some nasty surprises.

There are many reasons for people going without a home inspection, says Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors. One of those reasons has to do with the hot real estate market, particularly last year when prices were going up fast and houses were selling even faster.

``People were buying houses without a home inspection in order to get the house,'' Mr. Molony says. ``They would put contracts on houses only to have them bid out from under them'' by someone who would pay full price, or more, and not worry about an inspection.

In other cases, a home may have been sold without an inspection because it was bought by a relative or friend of the seller, or because the buyer knew someone in one of the building professions who did the inspection for them. Or, the buyers figured they could find any important faults on their own.

The truth is, home inspectors not only find problems, they also show you how the house works.

``We bought a house last year,'' Molony recalls. ``I followed the inspector around for three hours. I learned a lot about the furnace, how to turn off the water coming into the house, all kinds of things.''

Molony spent $140 for his inspection, which is somewhat less than the national average. In most cases, you shouldn't pay more than $200 for an inspection of a home that's of an average price or somewhat above average, says Kenneth T. Austin, chairman of Housemaster of America, an inspection firm with offices in 24 states.

For many homebuyers, finding a good inspector may be as hard as finding a leak in the roof on a hot summer day. The Yellow Pages has a listing of inspectors, or someone you know may have recently used one he or she could recommend. Once you find a name, check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any outstanding complaints about the firm. You might also call the city inspector's office or a state licensing board for any record of complaints.

``Ask lots of questions, too,'' Mr. Austin says. ``Ask them how long they've been in business. How did they get in the business? Were they contractors? Are they still contractors?''

If they are still contractors, Austin says, they may be using the inspection ``as a conduit for repair work.'' These people find a problem, then offer their services - for an additional fee, of course - to repair it.

The problem has also come up with pest inspectors. ``We see termite inspectors getting into home inspection,'' Austin says.

For the inspectors in his firm, there are some pretty clear rules for avoiding conflicts of interest. If your inspector violates any of them, you may want to consider filing a complaint and looking for another inspector.

Never recommend a contractor. This avoids the appearance of recommending a friend, relative, or even someone who is paying the inspector a kickback for the recommendation.

Don't pass judgment on the value of a house. An inspector is not qualified to know what other houses in the neighborhood sell for, how much prices have gone up or down in recent weeks, or what an unknown buyer might pay for this or a similar house.

Don't make a buy or no-buy recommendation. Even if the inspection turns up a host of problems, the buyer may be paying a fair price and can afford the repairs. ``There are too many factors involved and condition is just one of them,'' Austin says.

Like the Realtors' Molony, Austin recommends going along with the inspector. ``If the inspector says don't come, don't hire him,'' he says.

In most states, Austin points out, the inspection comes after buyer and seller agree on a price and sign a purchase and sales contract. That contract should contain an inspection clause that says something like, ``This sales agreement is contingent upon a satisfactory structural, mechanical, and electrical inspection of the house.'' That clause lets you renegotiate the price if the inspection turns up significant problems, or even back out of the deal completely if you and the seller can't agree on a new price.

The most common problems that turn up in inspections, Austin says, are found in the plumbing, and cooling and heating systems. After this, come problems with the roof, water penetration (often in the basement), kitchen appliances, the electrical system, and the foundation.

Just because a house is newer, that's no assurance it's in better condition. If it has been well maintained, a home built before World War II may be in better shape than one built in the last 20 years.

For one thing, Austin says, houses used to be framed by two-by-fours (that really measured two-by-four inches) on 16-inch centers, or 16 inches apart. Today framing is often done with two-by-threes on 20- to 24-inch centers. Or instead of hardwoord floors, a house may have plywood floors covered by ``free'' wall-to-wall carpeting.

While it's easy enough to spot this trick, there are plenty of other hidden problems that can make an inspector's fee seem cheap, indeed.

If you have a question that would make a good subject for this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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