Q. I am negotiating to buy an older house in the District of Columbia. It has been suggested to me that I make the contract contingent on my obtaining a housing inspection that is satisfactory to me. Is this really necessary?

A Absolutely. Several years ago, a popular writer wrote that, when people buy automobiles, they "slam the doors and kick the tires" to satisfy themselves about the condition of the car. I find it incredible that people who are making such a major purchase as a home often do not even "kick the tires."

When you sign a contract to purchase real estate, you are committing yourself legally to buy a house -- on the condition that you can obtain the necessary financing. Although a lender usually will inspect the property, this inspection will not provide the same kind of protection that you need.

In my opinion, it is absolutely critical to include in the written contract for the purchase and sale of any real estate an inspection contingency. That contingency should read as follows:

"The purchaser shall have the right, at purchaser's expense, 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 (5) working days from the date of acceptance of this contract (or not later than 5 p.m., -------, 198-.) The inspection report must be completely satisfactory to purchaser, or all deposit monies will be immediately refunded and all contract obligations considered null and void."

The burden is on you, the purchaser, to obtain such an inspection within the stated period of time. Usually, this is between three and seven days. To be on the safe side, include the exact date in the contract.

There are a number of competent inspection firms in the city, and you should contact them as soon as possible to arrange the inspection. When you call the inspector, ask a number of questions:

*What is the cost of the inspection?

*Is the inspection firm going to physically inspect the roof?

*Is the firm knowledgeable about all areas of property, or will you have to obtain other inspections to satisfy yourself as to the condition of the house? Often, the inspector may not be an expert in certain areas such as termite damage, roofing, or plumbing and heating.

*Will you receive a written report, and if so, when?

After you have made the appointment for the home inspection, I strongly suggest that you go to the property and stay with the inspector until he is finished. I also recommend that you dress in your oldest, dirtiest clothes so that you will be able to crawl into all of the nooks and crannies of your potential new house.

An inspection, in my opinion, should answer four major questions:

*Are there immediate problems with the house? If, for example, the boiler is defective, the roof is leaking or there is flooding in the basement, perhaps you would prefer to walk away from the house immediately. That is the function of a contingency. If you are not satisfied with the inspection report for any reason whatsoever, you should have the right to walk away from the contract and obtain a full and immediate refund of your earnest-money deposit.

*Are there any short-range problems with the house? Here we enter into the area of value judgments. While the house may be structurally sound, there may be some potential problems lurking that could cost you time and money in the near future. The inspector should be able to list these areas and attempt to give you ballpark figures on what it would cost to repair or correct the problems. Often, you may want to negotiate these items with the seller before you remove the inspection contingency.

*Are there long-range problems with the house? Let us assume that the roof is sound and watertight, but the inspector projects that it has a useful remaining life of only three years. You know that to replace the roof in three years may cost you $5,000 to $7,000, and you should be prepared now to make that financial commitment -- or to back out of the deal while you still have the opportunity to do so. Thus, do not include in your inspection contingency a provision merely stating that you can back out of the contract if the house is "not structurally sound." In our example, the roof, in fact, is structurally sound -- although it may cause problems down the road.

*How does the house work? In addition to all of the other aspects of the inspection, your housing inspector should be able to assist you in learning how the house works. How do you turn off the electrical system? Where is the central water cutoff valve? How and when do you change the air-conditioning filters?

Keep in mind that, once you have obtained an inspection report, unless new problems occur between the time of the inspection and the time of settlement, in most instances you will not be able to raise the condition of the house as a means of getting out from under the contract. If there are problems, once you have had a building inspection, you usually can look only to the building inspector for relief.

One of the most serious problems facing most home buyers -- especially the first-time home buyer -- is what is commonly referred to as "buyer's remorse." The buyers fall in love with the house, sign a contract to buy it and then, for the first time, start to get cold feet. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no such thing as a cooling-off period when you sign a contract to purchase property. A carefully drawn inspection contingency can give you this "cooling-off" opportunity, in addition to the other protections discussed earlier.