QDEAR BARRY: The home I'm planning to buy has a bizarre history. Its construction was begun about five years ago, but never completed. The owner fired the contractor and obtained a temporary occupancy permit that allowed him to live in the house while completing the work. The mortgage company later foreclosed on the property, which is now being sold by a trustee. The house has still not been approved by the city, and I'm told that there are many code violations. How can I assess these violations? Lisa

ADear Lisa: The last thing you should do is to buy this home without knowing the full scope of noncompliance and how much time and money will be required to make it fully habitable. First, you should consult the local building department to learn as much as possible, from their perspective, what will be needed to bring the home into legal compliance. If possible, have a municipal inspector meet you at the site for a walkthrough evaluation.

Next, you should hire the most experienced home inspector available. A professional inspector will spend far more time than a municipal inspector and will check areas of the building where the city employees seldom crawl or tread, such as the attic or basement.

Finally, get bids from licensed contractors to determine the estimated costs of making repairs and corrections specified by the home inspector and building department. Any purchase offer you make should be contingent upon the outcome of these fact-finding procedures. Failure to exercise these precautions could subject you to financial obligations of unpredictable magnitudes. Whatever you do, don't buy a "pig in a poke."

DEAR BARRY: In a past article about choosing a home inspector, you advised asking an inspector for a sample report. You said that a well-written report should focus on defect disclosure, not on less important data about the house. I'm wondering what constitutes "less important data." Could you please explain this further? Elizabeth

Dear Elizabeth: There are many details about a home that must be included in an inspection report if the inspector is to comply with professional standards. For example, various kinds of building materials must be specified. The report should state whether the exterior is made of wood, stucco, masonry, hardboard paneling, etc. Plumbing materials must also be specified: Are the water lines copper, galvanized steel, PVC, or PEX? Are the drainpipes cast iron, ABS, or PVC? Details about electrical wiring are also needed: Are the wires copper or aluminum? Are they Romex or in conduit? Disclosure is also necessary for types of roofing materials, interior wall coverings, floor surfaces, attic insulation, and so on.

All of this information is important, but it is seldom of particular interest or concern to homebuyers. What they really want to know are the property defects, and they want the answers without having to wade through heaps of boilerplate verbiage about building materials. A well-designed report, therefore, contains all of the essential information but lets the defect disclosures stand apart visually. This is what constitutes "user friendly" in the realm of report writing and is an element missing from many home inspection report systems.

Barry Stone is a professional home inspector. If you have questions or comments, contact him through his Web site, www.housedetective.com, or send mail to 1776 Jami Lee Ct., Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401.

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