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How to select a home inspector

A good home inspector should go up into the attic. (Justin Pierce)

Pierce, a real estate investor based in Northern Virginia, writes an occasional column chronicling his experiences buying, renovating and selling houses in the Washington region.

Most people are only involved in a few real estate transactions during their lifetimes. So it makes sense to call in experts to help them navigate the home-buying process and assess the condition and value of the deal.

But, with limited knowledge on the subject, most home buyers may find it difficult to be sure that their expert will live up to the title.

When it comes to a home inspection, most people just hire the person whom their real estate agent recommends. Yes, agents have probably seen numerous home inspectors in action and they are in a great position to help you select a good one. Just keep in mind, however, that the role of the home inspector can be in opposition to the interest of the real estate agent. The home inspector’s job is to find problems if they exist. Real estate agents by nature don’t like people who find problems with their deals.

In full disclosure, I am a licensed real estate agent in Virginia. I am not saying that all agents are out to railroad you into a deal. I’m just saying that technically the agent’s interests are not aligned with yours when it comes to finding problems with the deal.

You should be aware that you can interview and select your own home inspector. You should also have a good basic idea of what to expect from your home inspector whether you hire one yourself or just go with the one your real estate agent recommends.

The first step in selecting a home inspector is being aware of what an inspector is and is not. The very best possible home inspection would require you to hire a structural engineer to evaluate the framing and foundation. They would probably need to open drywall or dig up the foundation which would have to be repaired at your cost. (And, needless to say, the homeowners likely wouldn’t be open to such damaging, invasive probes of their properties.)

You’d then have to hire a certified HVAC tech, a plumber, an electrician and an appliance repair person to inspect the other major systems in the house. An inspection like this would probably cost you thousands of dollars and a whole lot of time.

So a home inspection would really be a bargain at $400 if it were equal to what I just described above. But it’s not equal and you need to keep that in perspective. Home inspections are not home guarantees.

I spoke with Matthew D. Alegi, chair of the residential real estate practice group at the Shulman Rogers law firm in Potomac. He has many years of experience in real estate law and dispute resolution and he chairs the Maryland State Bar’s Closing and Title Committee and co-chairs the Montgomery County Bar’s Real Property Law Section. He’s also a licensed real estate broker.

Alegi says that many inspector agreements he’s read incorporate the performance standards of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), which limit the inspectors’ obligation to inspect only “readily accessible, visually observable” systems and components of the home.

Readily accessible is defined by the ASHI as available “for visual inspection without requiring moving of personal property, dismantling, destructive measures, or any action which will likely involve risk to persons or property.”

So the inspector doesn’t have to move the couch or bookshelf. ASHI standards also provide that an inspector is not required to “provide any engineering or architectural service or analysis” or offer an “opinion as to the adequacy of any structural system or component,” which, in Alegi’s opinion, would probably surprise most consumers.

Alegi also points out that most home inspection contracts have limitations of liability provisions in them. This provision, in essence, states that the inspector’s liability for negligence is limited to the fee he or she is paid for the service.

Most courts have upheld this provision and therefore many lawyers are reluctant to take on cases against home inspectors that will cost thousands to litigate and will likely only yield a few hundred dollar service fee in refund.

This fact does not mean that you shouldn’t expect much out of your home inspector. A good home inspector can save you a lot of money. He or she doesn’t have to be an engineer. They just need to be thorough. A good visual inspection can still uncover many things. Most of us are not going to get on the roof, in the attic or in the crawl space; a good home inspector should, if possible.

It’s important that you meet your home inspector at the property and be present for the entire inspection. As a rule of thumb a good home inspection should take at least two and half to three hours for an average size home. I like my home inspectors to identify all major water shut off valves. Many will show you how to operate the furnace and its major maintenance requirements such as identifying where the filter goes and how and when to change it. The inspector should check every outlet and switch and run every appliance. Most of us will find a home inspection extremely boring. I could never do that job day in and day out and that’s why I’m willing to pay someone else to do it for me.

A good home inspector should look like a good contractor — ready to get his or her hands dirty. He or she should have a ladder, a flashlight and at least a basic tool kit. I once saw a home inspector show up in a compact car wearing slacks and a collared shirt. He had no tools and no ladder. I didn’t stick around to see him work but he didn’t look like he was prepared to get dirty.

I also talked with Ed Blazek, president of Blazek Building Inspection Services in Spotsylvania, Va. Blazek has performed thousands of home inspections in Virginia and is a certified home inspector with the state and is a member of the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI). I have personally seen Blazek in action on several deals in which I’ve been involved.

Blazek says any home inspector should at the minimum be a member of one of the major national certifying bodies such as the National Association of Home Inspectors or the American Society of Home Inspectors. They must also have error and omission and general liability insurance. In Virginia, being licensed with the state is voluntary for home inspectors.

Blazek advises people to ask the home inspector for the standards of practice for his or her association. Regardless of what a home inspector tells you, the standards of practice will actually outline what he or she can and should do.

Your home inspector is most likely not going to be an expert on every system in the house. He or she cannot guarantee the home will be problem free after you move in. For the most part, courts have agreed that a home inspector’s liability for missing something is extremely limited.

However, this does not mean that your home inspector should just show up with a clip board for a quick stroll around the house. A good home inspection requires diligence and thoroughness.

That means they should be looking at just about every accessible inch of the home. If your home inspector does not seem both knowledgeable and thorough, then you may need to get another home inspector.

Follow Pierce on Twitter at @justinpierce1.

Read Pierce’s previous posts:

Setback may push Temple Hills renovation beyond Oct. 1 deadline

Crews make up for lost time in pop-top project

With plan approved, race is on to reconstruct house for fall sale

Pop-top renovation becomes pop-back plan

Gone are the low lying fruit of real estate investing