Jerry and Jamie Hall were ready to buy their first home, a remodeled single-family house on a big lot in Alexandria. Then they brought in home inspector Reggie Marston.
Marston, owner and president of Springfield, Va.-based Residential Equity Management (703-923-9769), found warped floors, faulty wiring, water in a crawl space and a chimney that wasn’t tall enough. As the problems added up, the Halls decided this wasn’t the home for them.
“Reggie characterized the house as having ‘excessive amateur workmanship,’ ” says Jerry Hall, 35. “We ultimately walked away, and it’s a good thing we did. He saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
And lots of headaches. A home inspection lets buyers know what they’re getting into and whether a house lives up to its price and the seller’s promises. It alerts buyers to any major repairs that are needed and helps them decide whether to tackle them on their own or negotiate fixes with the seller.
For buyers like the Halls, it can prove invaluable. Here are five tips for getting the most out of your home inspection, whether you’re buying a condo, historic rowhouse or 1950s-era single-family home.
1. Choose Your Inspector Wisely
Often, a buyer’s agent recommends a home inspector they’ve forged a relationship with over the years. But if you want to do your own research, ask local family and friends if they’ve had a good experience with a home inspector recently. You can also go through such organizations as the American Society of Home Inspectors and Maryland Association of Home Inspectors to find folks who agree to adhere to specific standards.
Home inspectors in Maryland are required by the state to be licensed. In Virginia, licensing is voluntary, and there are no licensing requirements in D.C.
Expect to pay about $300 to $1,000 for an inspection, depending on the size and price of the property. The bigger and more expensive, the higher the cost.
2. Ask What Kind of Report You’ll Receive
Inspectors’ reports can range from notes jotted on a yellow legal pad to fancy printouts with lots of photos.
“Find out how the inspector is going to inform you of various issues and whether they’re big issues or little ones, if they’re safety concerns, and how urgently they need to be taken care of,” says Larry Wasson, owner of Chevy Chase, Md.-based Affiliated Inspectors (301-986-8866), who’s been a home inspector for 40 years.
Without details, a buyer might not be able to assess how serious any problems are, how costly they might be and what needs to be negotiated before purchasing the home.
3. Know What’s a Big Problem for You …
Common deal breakers for buyers include structural issues; major problems with plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems; and mold or water intrusion. The cost — and sheer scale — of repairs can often scare buyers away, especially if sellers won’t agree to make fixes or lower their asking price. But problems needn’t be deal breakers if buyers have the facts they need to make an informed decision — and the money to spend on fixes.
“I’ve gone into houses and found 3 feet of white mold in the basement and discovered that the back of the house is collapsing,” Marston says. “And the buyers will say they’re going to fix it up and make it beautiful because it’s in a good location and it’s the house they want.”
A thorough inspection helps buyers determine whether it’s worth pouring their money into a home. In the case of a home that’s been foreclosed on or vacant for years, pouring in money is often the only option. Those types of properties are often sold as-is.
4. … And What’s a Small One
As the inspector’s notes grow longer, buyers (especially first-time ones) can lose sight of the severity — or lack of severity — of some issues. Clogged gutters, loose handrails and problematic light switches are all easily fixed at little expense.
“With any house that’s more than 20 or 30 years old, you can find a boatload of things wrong,” says Bob Adamson, an associate broker at Alexandria. Va.-based McEnearney Associates (703-967-8033). “I drill my clients in advance to not worry about the dials on the appliances or anything else cosmetic.”
Buyers should ask sellers to address such things as leaky roofs, which could cost thousands, instead of loose bathroom tiles.
5. Think Twice Before Skipping an Inspection
When multiple offers are being made on a particularly desirable home, some buyers might be tempted to forgo the home inspection contingency to make their offer more desirable to the seller. But that can be a big mistake.
“I would never waive the home inspection contingency,” says Nancy Harvey Steorts, an associate broker at Long & Foster in Northern Virginia (703-790-1990) and the former chairwoman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “The house could have a foundation crack, which would be a very serious situation. … You just don’t know what you might find.”
Even condos, where roofs and windows are often covered by the condo association, could still have major issues with the electrical and plumbing systems, especially if they’re older units. Buyers should ensure that any remodeling has been done up to code.
The Halls made an offer on a second house in Alexandria and again called in Marston for an assessment. He found inadequate insulation in the attic, missing window screens and weather stripping, and loose and uneven deck stairs — minor issues compared to the previous house. The seller agreed to address and pay for the repairs, and the Halls officially purchased the home in early December.
“Reggie’s an expert,” Jerry Hall says. “He’s great at pointing out little details that a novice like myself would never notice.”