Getting a home inspection has become standard operating procedure for buyers.
Since 1980, the percentage of home sales that were contingent on a home inspection has increased from 5 percent to probably 75 percent nationally, according to the American Society of Home Inspectors.
An inspection is less a part of the repertoire of a home seller, on the other hand, but there are signs that this may be changing. A growing number of sellers appear to be worried about hidden defects that could be serious enough to delay settlement or even kill a deal when the buyer's inspection uncovers it.
"We've seen a large increase in the number of [seller-originated] inspections in the last year," said Peggy Varani, president of 20-20 Inspections, a home-inspection company. "Sellers want peace of mind when they put their houses on the market, and inspections can provide that."
A need for peace of mind was what motivated Judy Dore and David Dammerman to hire Varani's inspection firm before they put their three-bedroom row house on the market.
"The house was built in 1860, and, although we've lived in it for three years, we don't know everything about it," said Dore, who is relocating.
"Although we are fairly certain that there's nothing wrong with the house, we wanted to be certain that there weren't any issues that needed to be addressed before we put the house on the market. It was simply a way to preempt any problems."
Dore said her real estate agent supported the idea of a seller inspection. "He was all for it," she said. "He even got us in touch with the inspector."
Other agents aren't as enthusiastic about seller inspections. Some even recommend against it.
"I've never had a seller ask to do an inspection," said Michelle Dayoub, an agent with Re/Max Services. "In a seller's market, with so few resale properties being listed, there's no reason for a seller to do it."
Dayoub said she's never recommended that a seller have an inspection done because she's never listed a property that was in such bad shape that one would be warranted.
"I think a seller inspection generally invites legal problems," said John Duffy, owner of Duffy Real Estate. "When sellers ask whether or not they should, we usually recommend against it.
"The major reason is that if that the buyer is going to pay $400 to have his own inspection done, and if that inspection uncovers something that the seller's didn't, it could become a legal issue," he said.
The typical home inspection costs $200 to $400, depending on the size of the house and the complexity of the survey. Some home inspectors are certified to perform termite, asbestos, radon and lead-paint testing.
On rare occasions, such as when the house is in really bad shape, Duffy said he would go along with a seller's inspection to get the defects down on paper and address them before the house goes on the market.
"But in most cases, I don't think it's appropriate," he said. "I believe that most sellers want to be open and honest with buyers, but, for some reason, the more open and honest you try to be, the more problems seem to result."
Most inspections follow a narrative or a checklist, or a combination of the two. Before choosing an inspector, consumers should review a number of sample reports so they can choose the report that meets their needs.
If seller inspections were required by law, Duffy said he would welcome them. But not now.
"Some sellers have asked me if they should have radon tests done in advance of putting the house on the market, and again I have said no," Duffy said. "When the issue first came up, I talked to a couple of lawyers who warned against it because radon readings can change every day.
"If the seller does the test and it comes back 3.2, and then after the buyer moves in and has the test done the reading is 5.2, the buyer can come back and sue the seller."
Concerns about litigation seem to be motivating everyone since the courts began chipping away at the principle of caveat emptor, or "let the buyer beware."
According to David Rapp, a New York real estate lawyer who also practices in Massachusetts and California, the straw that broke caveat emptor's back was dropped in California.
"The problem with people leaving California is that they carry their notions of law with them," he said. "All you have to do is sue, sue, sue. . . . Because of the extraordinary legal costs that usually are involved, submitting to extortion is cheaper."
In 1963, Links v. Savage required California brokers to inspect property beforehand to disclose settlement and erosion problems. It put this burden on the broker, not on the seller, "because, in most instances, a broker has a personal interest in the transaction and derives profit from it," Rapp said.
That and other decisions resulted in development of a disclosure form that needed to be completed before any property could be transferred in California. If the form was filled out improperly, the buyer could begin action to rescind the transaction.
Sometimes the cases that arise are understandable, Rapp said. In Ohio, a seller-financed inspection showed a potentially deadly furnace defect. The seller got another inspector to give him a clean, though fraudulent, report. The sale went through. However, the seller left the first report in a drawer, and the buyer found it when he moved in.
In San Francisco, people contracted to buy a house designed by an architect whose name added a premium to the house's price. The buyers doubted the architect had designed it but closed on the house anyway. Then they sued for rescission and damages. In this case, the court ruled the buyers could sue because they were in "an inferior position to the seller."
"Anything that affects the habitability and salability of a home must be disclosed," Rapp said. "In California, this means that if there ever was an ax murder in the house, you have to disclose it."
After you call the police.