Home inspectors, often hired by prospective buyers to examine used houses, say they now are being asked to inspect an increasing number of new homes--the result of growing costs of buying homes and consumer concern about housing defects.

While most industry observers interviewed here agree that inspections are valuable aids to used-home buyers, opinion is sharply divided on the question of new homes. Some felt that new-home inspections provide added protection for the buyer, but others contend that county and state building-code inspections, as well as those done by the purchasers themselves prior to settlement, are more than adequate.

For buyers who don't think they know enough to inspect houses on their own, "it might be worth the investment to employ an inspection firm," said Gloria Kornasiewicz, chief of the investigations division of the Fairfax County department of consumer affairs. Since there are so many complicated aspects of home construction, "it's pretty fair to suggest that there will be some minor problems" and possibly some serious ones, even in a new house, she said.

"Frequently we will find more problems with a new house than with a used house," said John Cox, who runs Building Inspection Services Inc. in Oxon Hill and is president of the mid-Atlantic chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors. He said most new-home inspections pay for themselves by uncovering hidden, nonwarrantied defects--such as leaking garage roofs--that would cost the consumer time and money if not reported to the builder before settlement.

A private inspection of an average single-family home in the Washington area costs about $200 and generally takes from two to three hours, Cox said.

A study of construction defects in new houses made by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Trade Commission in 1980 showed that buyers may not be able to identify faulty construction without expert assistance. While 1,800 homeowners contacted ranked faulty roofs last out of six major problem areas, follow-up field inspections of their houses indicated that roof defects should have been ranked third.

"An inspection is very valuable for both new and resale homes," said Thomas H. Stanton, executive assistant for special projects at the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Affairs. He noted that it's wise to get recommendations from other homeowners to find an inspection firm with "a good track record."

Rick Lawson, Fairfax County's deputy director for inspections, said private inspection firms can provide "a valuable service" by acting as "strong consumer advocates," espcially for first-time buyers of new and resale homes. "At pre-settlement inspection, it's a good time for home buyers to have someone looking out for them," he said.

Although county building-code inspectors are on the job during construction, they're not looking for variations in materials or workmanship the way a private inspector would prior to settlement, Lawson said. Some builders who do high-quality work don't object to buyers hiring inspectors, he said, adding that if a homebuilder strenuously objects to the presense of a private inspector, "you probably need one," he said.

Eric Friedman, an investigator handling new-home complaints at the Montgomery County office of consumer affairs, said he advises prospective buyers to check on a builders reputation and to hire a professional inspector before purchasing a new home.

Although "it's usually sensible to have a private inspection done" when buying a used home, building codes and government inspections will generally insure that a new home is structurally sound, said Susan Matlick, executive vice president of the Suburban Maryland Home Builders Association. In addition, various implied and expressed warranties against defects will cover hidden or latent problems that might occur after purchase, she said. Private inspections may provide "peace of mind" to the new-home buyer, but otherwise are unecessary and costly, she added.

Hiring a private inspection firm isn't necessary because most buyers know what to look for on their own, said Linda Kelleher, vice president of consumer affairs for the National Association of Home Builders.

"A builder goes with the buyer on a walk-through inspection hoping to catch as many things as possible because it's cheaper and easier to make repairs before anyone moves in," she said. "Remember that fee inspectors do not inspect everything, nor do they warrant anything," she added, noting that a private inspection "is not going to give them any extra coverage."

If a prospective purchaser choses a new home warrantied against defects by the Home Owners Warranty Corp. (HOW), the hiring of a fee inspector is "an unnecessary expense," said Jane Snow, spokeswoman for the Washington-based insurance firm. HOW has paid $46.2 million in warranty claims since it began issuing coverage in 1973. "We think you should be able to walk through the pre-settlement inspection with the builder or builder's representative, and that should suffice," she said.

"We certainly wouldn't object" if a buyer hired an independent inspector, "but in our case it certainly isn't necessary," said builder Charles A. Veatch, president of Environmental Concepts Inc. in Reston. He said that none of the 150 homes he has built in the area during the past five years has been inspected by a private firm.

While the independent inspector may help buyers feel more confident about purchasing a new home, "I really think it's a waste of a purchaser's money," said builder Anthony J. Castro of Castro-Holdsworth Associates in Reston. "With housing costs as high as they are, it's one more expense that doesn't really create value for the homeowner," he said. "We go through a series of inspections by county inspectors who are pretty thorough," he added.

While local code inspectors are likely to conduct an adequate inspection, they check only for code violations, said John Cox of the home inspectors society, noting that private-fee inspectors also look for non-code problems--such as pools of water on the property or inferior weather-stripping around doors and windows. In addition, "we advise our clients" about "detrimental" construction techniques permitted by some local codes, which might cause problems in the future, he said, like the venting of kitchen exhaust into attic space. "If you're warned of problems ahead of time, you can take protective measures," he added.

"I've done over 4,000 inspections and not one of my clients has thought it was not money well-spent," said Michael P. Lennon, a private fee inspector who operates Homepro Systems Inc. in Falls Church. "We like to do a two-part inspection on a new house," he said, noting that many potential problems are often hidden behind the dry walls of a new home, making it helpful to do the first inspection before the walls are completed.

Although some prospective buyers fear that by hiring a private inspector they will offend or upset their builders, Lennon said, most builders "don't resent" an inspection "because it's a lot easier and cheaper to correct a problem" before a new owner moves in. In addition, "when builders recognize that they're dealing with a serious buyer, they deliver better housing," he said.

"We neither encourage or discourage the use of an outside inspector," said Samuel W. Barrow Jr., a vice president of Kettler Bros., developer of Montgomery Village in Gaithersburg. "Most builders want to avoid any problems" and are "anxious to satisfy their customers," he said, noting that many are involved in "warranty programs of one sort or another."

There are also "fairly stiff" code inspections in the Washington area that make private inspections redundant, Barrow said, also noting that homes sold to buyers who obtain federal financing must meet additional minimuim standards prescibed by the financing agencies, including those requirements set by the Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration.

In a related development, the Supreme Court said this week that it will decide whether the federal government can be held responsible for repairs required on homes it helps to finance when its pre-purchase inspections fail to uncover defects. The outcome of the case--brought by a Tennessee woman who sued the federal Farmers Home Administration for failing to detect faults in a home she bought--could affect all government inspection programs.