Alan Beal, the president of Mid-Atlantic Inspection Services in Bethesda, examines insulation in an attic during a home inspection in September.

For prospective homebuyers, the inspection can be one of the most daunting parts of the purchasing process. But it may save many homeowners from falling for beautifully renovated money pits.

“We oftentimes are likened to superheroes, in that we go in there and help people in ways that others can’t,” says Curtis S. Niles Sr., the president of the Minneapolis-based National Association of Home Inspectors, which has roughly 2,000 members across the country and is dedicated to training and supporting certified home inspectors. “While we are relieved when we hear this, you have to have realistic expectations of what a person can check.”

An inspector can help you understand whether that crack in the ceiling is a simple cosmetic fix or whether it will empty your wallet. However, despite their excellent capabilities, inspectors don’t have X-ray vision and may not find problems buried deep inside your dream home.

The best way to ensure that you’re making a sound investment (costs can range from $300 to $500 per inspection, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) is to do your homework before inspection day. Before you choose a company, ask for a sample inspection report so you know what the inspector will look for. Also, find out whether the report will include photos — you can use them to bargain for a lower selling price.

Most homebuyers will make their offer contingent on the inspection, allowing them to back out of the deal if too many problems turn up. But how do you determine which issues are true red flags? Typically, an experienced inspector can help you figure that out.

Cracks, often found during inspections, are usually not worrisome if they are found at a 45-degree angle on a stress point, such as a doorway.

Home inspectors must endure poorly lit attics and cramped spaces while on the job.

“A lot of homeowners don’t really know what to make of cracks in the walls. When your home starts to settle after construction, it’s going to move a bit, and when it does, these cracks develop, particularly at stress points,” Niles says.

However, if a crack runs horizontally or along the basement wall, you may want to reconsider your offer. “Those cracks are more of a concern because it can be structural in nature,” Niles says. In other words, the problem is probably more than just a cosmetic fix and could come with a hefty repair bill.

Water in the basement is the issue that pops up most commonly during Washington-area inspections, says Alan Beal, the president of Mid-Atlantic Inspection Services (4605 Windsor Lane, Bethesda; 202-607-4153). Though water issues can be very expensive to fix, they don’t have to be deal-breakers.

“I went to a house this morning where they had been [sporadically] getting water in the basement,” Beal said. It turns out, “the gutters were clogged. All they had to do was change the downpipe extension [which carries rainwater down the side of the house and away from the property], and no more problem.”

First-time homebuyers Mike and Denise Hoffman put in several offers and paid for four different inspections (on three different properties) before they finally settled on their Capitol Hill townhouse this summer. Though four inspections may seem excessive, the Hoffmans say it prevented them from purchasing a home that would have required an overwhelming amount of repairs — which they weren’t prepared to make.

Soon after beginning their search, they found a “gorgeous” rowhouse in Eckington. The owners had warned them about heating problems, yet the Hoffmans remained “excited but nervous” about the inspection. That is, until they received the report.

They learned that the space heaters in every room (except the basement) were a definite red flag because they likely signaled a need for costly heating and ventilation repairs. The inspector also found major problems with the plumbing and electricity. The Hoffmans were told the waste pipe leading to the downstairs toilet could explode at any moment due to tiny cracks, and the wiring also needed to be completely redone. Their total bill for repairs was estimated at $80,000.

“That’s when I wanted to cry,” remembers Denise Hoffman, 28, an economist. Still, they didn’t back out right away. Instead, they tried to renegotiate the contract with a lower offer to account for the expensive fixes outlined in the inspection report. However, the seller wasn’t willing to drop the price, so the Hoffmans walked away.

The experience taught them to look beyond the aesthetics of a house and to focus more on its nuts and bolts.

“[The inspector’s] recommendation was: ‘Look at what I put forward as the tip of the iceberg.’ He only spends three hours in the house,” said Mike Hoffman, 28, a writer at Gannett Government Media Corp.

First-time homebuyers Stephanie Horne and Erik Plith also learned a great deal from their inspection. They had sought an older home, but both knew that a house with “character” could mean excessive maintenance bills.

“It’s very intimidating the first time you buy a home, and we were looking at historic homes, so we knew things could happen. I was very nervous and a little bit hesitant [about the inspection],” says Horne, 29, a management analyst.

Though they love the Capitol Hill rowhouse they eventually settled on and praised their inspector for walking them through the process, the couple did have a few unwelcome guests after they moved in in June. They wish the inspector would have pointed out potential holes in the walls through which rats could enter.

“We found that, especially on the Hill, where most of the houses are connected, they literally run underneath the houses, so one person tries to get rid of them and they just move on to the next,” says Plith, 32, an attorney. “Apparently, it’s common there.”

As Plith (and practically any homeowner) knows, no property is perfect. Every inspector is likely to find something wrong; the silver lining is that most inspectors want to help.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions. We like to tell people we are their advocate,” Beal says. “We are going to evaluate the house and tell them what’s going on … so they can make an informed decision about the next step.”

by Express contributor Amy McCullough