Q: Do you recommend obtaining the services of a building inspector to look over a house before entering into a contract for purchase? If so, can you recommend an inspector, and are there any safeguards or suggestion in dealing with these type of people?

A: It is ironic that when we purchase an automobile, for example, we make a very thorough inspection of the car, read many technical journals comparing the attributes of one car to another, and kick the tires before deciding to make the purchase. However, when we spend many more thousands of dollars purchasing a house that may shelter us for the rest of our lives, we often do not engage in the same protections.

Yes, I highly recommend that you engage a professional, qualified building inspector to look at the house before you enter into a binding contract.

The usual procedure is to include a contingency in your purchase contract reading as follows:

"The purchaser shall have the right to engage a professional inspector to determine the structure and the condition of the house. The inspection shall be conducted and the contingency concluded within five working days from the date of acceptance of this contract. The inspection report must be satisfactory to purchaser, or all deposit monies will be immediately refunded and all contract obligations considered null and void."

If this contingency clause is accepted by the seller, you will then have adequate time in which to locate an inspection service, and accompany them to the inspection.

The inspection basically tells you four things: First, it tells you how solid the house is, both in terms of structure and of the many components within the property.

Second, a good inspector should tell you the short-term implications of buying the house. Will the roof need immediate repair? Is the hot water heater on its last leg? Is the insulation adequate to get through next winter?

Third, the inspector should assist you in evaluating the long-term ramifications of ownership of this property. What is the useful life of the heating system? Is the basement dry or will you need major waterproofing within the next several years?

Finally, the inspector will help you to understand the house. It is strongly recommended that you wear your oldest clothes and accompany the inspector along every nook and cranny, from the basement to the attic and even the roof.

If you decide to buy, you will want to know where the fusebox is. You will want to learn how to turn off the water supply in the event of an emergency. You will get tips on cleaning the heating and air conditioning system, and in general, you will get your first lesson on living in the house.

This does not mean, of course, that you should rely too heavily on the inspection report. After all, in most cases you have already signed a contract to purchase the property, contingent on a satisfactory inspection report. Indeed, the inspection time is a cooling-off period during which you think about whether you really want to purchase this property.

No, I cannot recommend any inspector to you. You should inquire of your friends and neighbors, lending institutions or attorneys. Or look in the yellow pages under "Building Inspection Service."

But, when you hire such an inspector, here are some suggestions:

1. Determine exactly what the inspection will cost, and the qualifications of the inspector who will visit the house.

2. Are there any areas of the property that the inspector will not review - such as the roof, the attic crawl space, etc.?

3. Is there any guarantee given by the inspection service, or are there any disclaimers or limitations on the inspector's liability that will be made when you receive your final report?

4. Will you receive a complete written report, and if so, when will it be ready? Don't forget that you must act on your contingency within a fixed numbers of days.

Benny L. Kass is a Washington attorney. Write him in care of the Real Estate section, the Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, 20071.