Home buyers hire inspectors to learn about needed or soon-to-be-needed expensive repairs. But how thorough and helpful are the inspections?

Undercover shoppers from Washington Consumers’ Checkbook, an independent nonprofit consumer advocacy group, rented a typical three-bedroom, three-bath, two-story, single-family house in Arlington and — posing as prospective buyers — scheduled home inspections with 12 local companies to put inspectors to the test. Highlights from the report:

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers were astonished by how often many of the inspectors missed obvious defects. Before the inspections, Checkbook staff identified or created 28 problems they thought any inspector should catch — including a big leak under the kitchen sink, inactive electrical outlets, roof damage and signs of a rodent infestation. As a group, inspectors caught these problems only half the time.

But what really surprised Checkbook’s staff was how little work many inspectors bothered to do for their average fee of $540. Few performed up-close inspections of the roof; several didn’t test all the windows, outlets, appliances or fixtures; and the reports supplied by some were meager. For example:

  • Only three inspectors raised ladders to inspect the roof, which was significantly damaged. Many of the non-climbers failed to report its broken shingles and missing drip edges.
  • Only about half bothered to test the windows by opening and shutting all of them.
  • Several did only cursory inspections of the furnace and water heater.
  • Five didn’t inspect all the window air-conditioning units. Only three checked the filters, which were filthy.
  • Seven didn’t check every light fixture.
  • Four didn’t bother to test every indoor electrical outlet.
  • An astounding four inspectors failed to record obvious water damage to the living room ceiling. All they had to do was look up to see discoloration and peeling paint.
  • While many home inspection companies disavow responsibility for inspecting chimneys, it was still surprising that four failed to spot that the damper was missing.
  • Three inspectors were in and out in 90 minutes, compared with 2.5 hours or longer for a few others.
  • The written reports supplied by several inspectors were very short, some filled with uninterpretable codes. One gave a 10-pager with no pictures. Another provided a way-too-brief 14-page report that noted only 20 problems.
  • One inspector recorded no information about the plumbing system, noting that he “can’t evaluate plumbing because the home is not presently inhabited.”

A major reason for superficial inspections is many inspectors explicitly deny responsibility for checking lots of major home components. Many companies refuse to check chimneys, climb ladders or enter crawl spaces. Citing “industry standards,” some firms test only some electrical outlets, light fixtures and windows. Some inspectors won’t run HVAC equipment, remove panels on circuit-breaker boxes or test water heaters. Checkbook’s staffers kept wondering, “Well, then, if they won’t do all those checks, then what are they doing for their fees?”

Before you hire an inspector, ask what exactly they’ll do and how long it will take them to do it. You can often determine the thoroughness of inspectors’ work by looking at sample reports they should readily supply if requested. Already have a concern about the home? Make sure your inspector will check it.

Often, real estate agents recommend home inspectors. But the interests of the best (pickiest) home inspectors work against those of even trustworthy real estate agents, who want to avoid trouble and close sales. Your agent might refrain from recommending a zealous inspector who might delay or even kill the deal — but you want that picky inspector.

Worse, inspectors who get a lot of referrals from your real estate agent might shy away from pointing out lots of problems or major flaws for fear of losing that business. Checkbook recommends finding your own inspector to get an expert who is loyal to you, not your real estate agent.

Ask prospective inspectors about certifications they hold and inquire about their backgrounds. This is a field where experience matters. And because Checkbook found big price differences among companies, and little relationship between work quality and fees, make sure you don’t overpay for an inspection.

In many hot real estate markets — and much of the Washington area definitely qualifies as such — eager buyers competing for the same homes often waive inspection contingencies to sweeten their offers, effectively signaling that they won’t kill deals by asking for help paying for a bunch of repairs. It’s a reasonable strategy if you know there’s lots of competition — and especially if you expect competing buyers to also waive home inspection contingencies.

But waiving the contingency doesn’t mean you can’t get an inspection; you just have to get permission from the sellers to squeeze one in before you make an offer. That way, assuming you get an accurate inspection, you’ll know about problems before you commit.

In addition to learning about the home’s problems, another reason to get an inspection is that the report can act as a well-documented baseline of the home’s condition when you made your offer. If something happens to the home in between your inspection and closing — say, an appliance goes missing, there’s new water damage, or an expensive chandelier is swapped for a cheap ceiling fan — a well-done inspection report with lots of photos helps you prove something changed.

If you’re buying a newly built home, definitely get an inspection. Inspectors and real estate agents repeatedly warned about big problems with flipped houses (“often lipstick-on-a-pig situations”) and homeowner-done additions and remodels (“Homeowners who think they’re handy and DIY their remodels are the worst”). In addition to an inspection, get the builder or contractor to provide copies of any permits, building inspection reports and plans.

Before arranging an inspection, spend a few hours in the home doing your own checks, and ask the seller lots of questions about past problems. The District, Maryland and Virginia have very different laws regarding what sellers must disclose to buyers. In the District, sellers must disclose problems they know about; in Maryland, seller disclosures are effectively optional. In Virginia, buyers are largely responsible for discovering any defects. Carefully review any disclosures, but don’t substitute that info for your own inspection — sellers might not know about defects you discover.

You’ll learn a lot about your potential abode during the inspection. In addition to looking for and pointing out problems, most inspectors use the session to educate their clients on basic maintenance tasks.

Try some things yourself — switches, operation of window treatments, doors, etc. — and speak up if you see something that doesn’t look right. Act as an extra set of eyes, but don’t disrupt your inspector’s workflow.

Make sure all problems found are recorded in your report with pictures and descriptions. If you later find something was omitted from the report, ask for an amendment, especially if you want the sellers to help pay for the fix.

But know that in the Washington area, home sellers aren’t required to repair anything. If your offer includes a home inspection contingency, you have a lot of leverage in that you can back out of the deal if you and the seller can’t resolve any differences. But even if you waived your inspection contingency, it is worth asking for help paying to fix problems you discover — you just might get some. Even in very seller-friendly environments, it’s still okay to ask for repairs before closing — handing off a defect-free home is often seen as simply the right thing to do. But pick and choose your battles; too many real estate deals founder over lots of little problems that require a few hundred dollars to fix.

Most general home inspectors don’t check for many problems, including some that might generate major expense — such as asbestos, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation, radon gas, mold, termites and defective drywall or stucco. If you or your inspector suspect a problem with any of these — or a major issue with roofing, plumbing, electrical or drainage — bring in a specialist for a second opinion. The ratings available at Checkbook will help you identify the best service providers and inspectors.

Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. Until July 20, Washington Post readers can access Checkbook’s home inspectors report and ratings free of charge.