Let’s get one thing out of the way: There’s no “perfect house.”
Well, a few do come close, according to Gerry Santillan, who owns North by West Inspections in Seattle. He says he sees several homes a year with only minor issues, such as a loose doorknob or paint that needs some touching up.
But the reality is that most houses are less than ideal. Even new, high-quality construction can soon produce lists of repairs that need attention, Santillan says.
What should buyers be aware of when it’s time to have their potential new home professionally inspected? Here are 10 tips from Seattle-area home inspectors who’ve seen it all, from rooftops to crawl spaces.
1. Be wary of prelisting inspections
In the past few years, it’s become more common for those listing their properties to conduct a home inspection, then provide their inspector’s report to potential buyers, says Thurston McMurray, the owner of Madrona Inspection Services. However, as interest rates climb, the Seattle-area housing market is shifting back to a more traditional model, with home sales contingent on a buyer’s inspection.
If the home seller commissioned a prelisting inspection, that’s fine — but it needs to have been done well, says Dylan Chalk, and inspector with Orca Inspection Services and author of “The Confident House Hunter.”
“I’ve seen [reports that are] so transparently thin that you might need to proceed as if no inspection was done at all,” he says. In such cases, buyers will want to hire their own home inspector.
Santillan thinks buyers should always hire their own inspector — even if the listing agent has provided a report. Plan to attend the inspection or, if you’re crunched for time, meet with the inspector afterward to review the findings, Santillan says.
Different business models exist within the home-inspection industry, Chalk says, so it’s important to hire someone you trust. Some pack as many inspections as possible into a day, while others only do one per day.
“Good inspections take time, but that time does impact what you pay,” he says.
Most inspectors we spoke with didn’t mind if house hunters called to ask specific follow-up questions about their report if it was commissioned by the seller. “Direct questions are best,” McMurray says. “Pick items that need clarification or what you’re most worried about.”
2. Get the written report
If you hire your own inspector, a verbal inspection will save you time and money. Still, Chalk says that a written report enforces a certain rigor to the inspection process and synthesizing of data. Some might assume that bigger issues are sitting there in plain sight. Not so, says Chalk.
“It can take time to find even the big, important things,” he says. “Big problems get discovered by looking hard. If I do 100 inspections as quick, verbal consults, there are high odds of missing something important.”
Chalk says normally he spends at least three hours in a house conducting the inspection before writing his report. “I might wake up at midnight that night realizing something I didn’t understand when on-site,” he says.
3. Consider the costs
An inspector can’t offer accurate repair, replacement or remodeling estimates during the inspection. While an inspector can tell you what might need urgent attention, Chalk says, they aren’t handymen or contractors. You’ll need to do your own research when it comes to costs — particularly in today’s rapidly escalating, inflationary market.
When you do get an estimate, don’t be surprised if costs tend to track alongside the home’s price. In other words, a sprawling $3 million house may require significantly more for a new roof compared to a small house with a simpler design.
4. Remember the inspection’s limitations
The home exam is a snapshot and can’t provide a complete, genealogy-like history. An inspector looks for clues wherever possible, but doesn’t have X-ray vision.
Inspectors don’t look for mold, radon or asbestos. Some inspections will require a specialist’s insights. For instance, McMurray says many Seattle-area buyers order a separate sewer scope to look into a home’s sewer system.
5. Don’t rule out older homes
Buyers sometimes limit themselves to only considering “newer” homes, but inspectors say many houses don’t start wearing out until around 20 years old. That will likely occur with the appliances, roofs, decks and siding.
According to McMurray, older homes can offer hidden appeal.
“As more sellers gained equity in the last 10 years, they’ve hired professionals for electrical and plumbing [upgrades],” he says. “So just because the house was built in 1950 doesn’t mean it’s a ‘1950s house.’ Some great houses have old bones with pro updates.”
6. Know what’s worth worrying about
Buyers often bring experiences from their previous homes to their current search, fearful that they’ll suffer the same problems again. “Of the millions of problems a house will have, it’s unlikely they’ll have the same one [again],” Chalk says.
Some buyers also get anxious about the wrong problems or overlook more challenging issues, McMurray says. An inspector can help you understand whether a problem is a small or large one. More costly challenges are typically structural or drainage problems. While some concerns don’t present as urgent, a slow-moving foundation issue could require expensive excavation and work down the road.
7. Avoid ‘HGTV syndrome’
Facts discovered about a home aren’t usually the problem; rather, it’s the homeowner’s expectations and inability to review the data realistically. “Every house is a great house for the right person and at the right price,” Chalk says.
A house may be appealing and feel like the right fit, but the list price may not be realistic if it needs serious foundation work. Or a house may have outstanding features and a reasonable price, but it just isn’t right for you.
Most homes are somewhere between turnkey and fixer-upper and not at either extreme. Watch out for what Chalk calls “HGTV syndrome,” or a disparity between a house’s appearance and its true condition. “Flipped houses often look turnkey, but if renovations were shoddy, needed repairs could be expensive and unexpected,” he says.
8. Understand what’s urgent
Use your home inspection report to plan your new home’s maintenance and remodel budget, Chalk suggests. You may have planned to spend $50,000 on a new kitchen, but it’s wiser to consider urgent issues first. Most inspection reports will separate maintenance work from more pressing matters.
9. Plan next steps
Once you’ve purchased your new home, take a close look once a year by doing a walk-through inside and out. Look for minor issues that can become bigger problems later, and monitor for any changes.
“A bit of work and maintenance can save a lot of hassle and heartache later on,” Santillan says — and you’ll avoid your own long to-do list if you decide later that it’s time to sell.
10. Watch out for water
Several inspectors noted the destructive power of water on a home. The everyday damage water causes may feel easy to ignore, Santillan says, but drip by drip, it can eat away at your home’s equity.
“A droplet of rain works its way down the exterior, where it wicks up into the wood and starts rotting away pieces of siding or trim,” he says. This slow rot can go undetected for years and can cause significant damage.
“This fall, go outside with an umbrella and see how your house deals with rain during a heavy rainstorm,” Santillan says. You might notice a clogged gutter dumping water next to your foundation. Without proper attention, you might awaken to a flooded basement on Thanksgiving morning. And that’s as far from perfect as you can get.
A home inspection will usually cost from $200 to $500, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The final inspection price may be significantly higher depending on the home’s square footage, style (condo, town house, single-family), the inspection type (verbal or written) and any travel fees for the inspector.