Vickie Lewis was raised on a farm in Oregon, so she was entranced when she visited a small yellow house for sale in rural Damascus in late April.
It was dilapidated and needed a coat of paint, she thought, but it was situated on a 61/2-acre lot with a beautiful sloping hill, overlooking a stream and a grove of trees. Lewis knew the house, built in the mid-1960s, would likely sell quickly in the spring's feverish real estate market. She spent several hours that sunny afternoon strolling the property.
The real estate agent told her that the sellers would not accept an offer requiring a home inspection, but Lewis went ahead with the $437,750 purchase anyway. She was worried that she would lose the house otherwise to a more eager buyer, she recalled.
"I didn't buy it with my head, I bought it from my heart," Lewis said recently. The sale closed in July.
This week she had her first chance to get a full analysis from a home inspector, Arthur S. Lazerow, president of Alban Home Inspection Service in Frederick. As she walked the property with Lazerow, who pointed to one problem after another, Lewis found out the cost of deferring the inspection until after the sale. In an intense afternoon session with the inspector, Lewis learned many things she hated to hear.
Back in April, Lewis wasn't alone in going forward with a home purchase without securing a home inspection first. But now, as the market appears to be cooling, home inspections are becoming more frequent, although not as much as work-starved inspectors would like.
From 2003 to early 2005, however, sellers were firmly in command of the market. Buyers desperately bid against each other for the opportunity to buy from the unusually small pool of homes for sale. By some estimates from local real estate agents and inspectors, more than half of buyers dropped the home-inspection contingency from their purchase contracts -- even though many in the industry consider it an essential protection for buyers. A home-inspection contingency allows a buyer to walk away from the sales contract if the inspection uncovers major defects that the seller won't fix.
Buyers waived the contingency because otherwise they would lose bidding wars: Many sellers rejected such offers outright, viewing them as bothersome and potentially expensive if problems were uncovered.
"You were doomed if you included it," said Diana Whitfield, an agent with Long & Foster in Burke. "If you kept it in the offer, you didn't get the house."
Whitfield said that many real estate agents urged home sellers to allow home inspections until they were "blue in the face," trying to explain to them that an inspection also relieved them of the prospect of future liability for problems. But sellers then "were on a different planet," she recalled.
"They were quite unreal about their expectations, about what they had seen and heard about the market," she said. "They'd say, 'My next-door neighbor didn't have to have an inspection; why should I?' Sellers had a lot of clout."
Many home inspectors, whose incomes plummeted along with the number of inspections, say that some real estate agents appeared to welcome the change. Without vexatious inspection issues, selling homes came to be "the most streamlined of transactions," said home inspector Tim Hockenberry, owner of Vienna-based Home Facts Inc.
About 353,000 homes were sold in this region in 2003, 2004 and the first six months of 2005, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the local multiple listing service.
"So many people wanted to buy so few houses that they were waiving home inspections, appraisals, termite inspections -- they were waiving everything but the kitchen sink," said home inspector Reggie Marston, owner of Residential Equity Management in Springfield.
In some cases, sellers found they could sell even houses with structural problems, he said. He recently visited a house in Alexandria, bought without an inspection, where cracks in the foundation had been covered with plaster and paint. "I'm encountering them on a daily basis," he said.
In Lewis's case, she learned soon after the deal closed that the house has a wet basement, a serious mildew problem and contaminated well water. She claims that she got sick from the water and developed blurred vision and chronic sinus problems and headaches, probably from exposure to mold.
Lewis, 46, a small-business consultant and real estate investor who worked as a freelance photographer for high school sports events for The Post in the 1980s, had already decided the property had substantial problems. Anxious to get a second opinion, she agreed to permit The Post to set up an inspection. Lazerow, a 12-year industry veteran who serves on the board of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors, was asked to inspect the house. He was told little about the property and arrived on site without background preparation.
He quickly confirmed Lewis's worst suspicions. He showed her how he would have detected what appeared to him to be a substantial mold problem, and that he would have advised her to have a specialist check the property. He also would have recommended a well inspection. He also reported that the kitchen floor is spongy and appears to have a water-infiltration problem; that the electrical system is flawed; that the chimney is out of plumb and "at risk of collapse"; that the house has no insulation; that the interior windows are not installed properly, and that the roof leaks.
He watched as brownish water gushed from the kitchen tap. "She's got Coke coming out of her water spigots," he said with a faint attempt at humor.
The problems he found were serious, he told Lewis, adding that making adequate repairs would likely cost $40,000 or more. "It might be a tear-down," he told her.
Tears rolled down Lewis's face as she listened to the lengthy litany of defects.
"It's very hard; it's heartbreaking," she said.
Lewis was no real estate novice; she had bought and sold houses in the past. She had previously gotten homes inspected but had never found a major problem. She accepted the demand that the inspection clause be waived, which she says she thought she had to do to ensure that she was the selected buyer, given the frenzied pace of sales. She is not sure what she will do next. She has considered making a complaint to the Maryland Real Estate Commission.
In the meantime, the $3,200-a-month mortgage payments came due each month on a house Lewis now considers uninhabitable. She lived for a time in a motel, and during the warmer months, in a tent on the property, using a nearby campground for showering. She has since moved into a rental house she owns, losing the rent she needed to support the mortgage on it, while she gathers estimates on how much it would cost to repair the other house, or whether it makes sense to tear it down and start over. Building a new house on the site might cost $175,000 or more.
For home inspectors such as Lazerow, the past two years have been difficult, although the steady decline in business has stopped now because buyers are beginning to ask for inspections again. Lazerow's business fell 30 percent, he said, and he has heard of inspectors who lost 60 percent of their business. Michael Tallman, chief operating officer of Home Pro in Falls Church, which employs 30 inspectors, said his firm's business dropped nearly in half, falling from 10,000 inspections a year in 2002 to about 5,200 in the past year. Many home inspectors have left the business, Tallman said.
"Each year it was a little worse than the previous year," he said.
The drop in business came as a shock to many inspectors because their role had grown over the past two decades, as awareness increased of the potential pitfalls in home purchases. In the early 1970s, there were only a handful of inspectors listed in the Washington area yellow pages; by 1979, there were 20 such firms advertising. By contrast, in Northern Virginia alone, there now are hundreds of home inspectors listed in the telephone directory. Many of the newcomers among them, and part-time inspectors, have picked up and gone, longtime inspectors say, while more experienced people, who have seen real estate cycles wax and wane, were more likely to have saved money in rainy-day funds to tide themselves over.
But after such a prolonged slump, even veteran inspectors have neared the ends of their tethers and are anxious for what they believe will be an inevitable upsurge in business. It is slower in coming than they expected, they said, for a variety of reasons.
"Some real estate agents have gotten into the habit of not having inspections done, and they're slow at getting back into the habit," Hockenberry said. Meanwhile, sellers continue to resist home inspections, even as the market changes to favor the buyer.
Orthopedic surgeon Scott Edmonds recently took advantage of sellers' dislike for home inspections. Edmonds, who just bought a six-year-old Colonial-style house in McLean, was comfortable passing up an inspection contingency in his sales contract because the house was so new he thought it probably would have few problems. He wanted to make his low-ball offer as attractive as possible to the seller. He bought the house for 30 percent less than the asking price, he said.
"We took the gamble that the house was in good shape," Edmonds said. He did arrange for an "informational" inspection that he assured the seller was solely to flag future issues, but would have no impact on the sale and negotiation. He learned the house has a mold problem, but he believes it will be easy to fix, particularly since he has saved so much money on the purchase price.
"It makes your contract more enticing to the seller, so they are more willing to meet your price," said Edmonds, who is chief of hand surgery at Georgetown Hospital. "I know it worked. They came down in price and we signed the contract the next day."
But many people entering the market now consider it inconceivable that they would buy a home without an inspection.
"Forgoing a home inspection was not an option for us," said Frank Moore, 39, a communications executive for a defense company. "We believe it's too big of an investment to buy a home simply on the basis of a walk-through, of just a visual inspection. And I'm not a handyman, so I'm not sure what I'd be looking for. "
He recently bought a six-bedroom, 4 1/2-bath home in Great Falls and was pleased when the inspector found only "small minor issues."
He said, "It was very reassuring."