Inspections: Looking Under the Hood

Nobody wants to buy a lemon.

And when it comes to houses, that's why they get home inspections.

Before you seal the deal on the home of your dreams, make sure it won't become the home of your nightmares. Call in a licensed, insured home inspector to poke, prod, and peer into its inner workings.

A complete inspection - which should cost $175 to $500 - examines the foundation, plumbing, electrical, furnace, air conditioning, windows, major appliances, and wood (window sills and structural lumber) for signs of rot or insect damage.

Inspectors can also look for radon gas, and lead paint and pipes. Remember: Some states have strict, and costly, laws about kids in homes with lead paint.

Inspectors generally can't move furniture or look under wall-to-wall carpet, so are not responsible for hidden flaws they miss.

"If you can't see it, you can't inspect it," says Ray Jackson, a home inspector in Medford, Mass. (Avoid inspectors who see it and offer to fix it, experts say. That's a conflict of interest.)

Tag along on the inspection. You can learn a lot about how the house works. Ask about big expenses, such as a new roof, in the next four to five years.

Check out the fences, driveway, retaining walls, and trees. They're bound to cost money sooner or later.

But the most expensive repair items are the furnace, the roof, and any structural damage, Mr. Jackson says.

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