Be Your Own Inspector (to a point)
While I recommend that home buyers ALWAYS use the services of a qualified home inspector when purchasing a new or used home, it’s not feasible to call an inspector to look at each home you may be considering. It’s helpful for prospective buyers to learn a few basics of home inspection.
There are numerous, simple and non-technical aspects of a home that an average buyer can inspect. Exterior items such as obvious problems with roofing, siding, paint, drainage are just a few. On the interior it’s easy to observe the apparent condition of kitchen cabinets and appliances, sinks and bath fixtures, the operation of doors, the condition of flooring, and other readily visible items.
Here are a few guidelines for prospective homebuyers that will allow them to do a preliminary inspection to help determine whether or not a home should be further considered. Prior to beginning buyers should purchase or have available the following tools:
Powerful flashlight—Tape measure (at least 20’)—Binoculars—Clip board and checklist—Old shoes—compass.
Begin your inspection outside as follows:
Check the slope of the land. Does water flow away from the home in all areas? Are there potential drainage problems? I use the “basket ball theory” of drainage. If a basket ball would roll away from the home, it probably has sufficient slope, if it would not, poor drainage may be an issue. Water is one of the biggest problems for home owners. If it flows towards a house it can create wet basements and crawlspaces and can even damage a foundation.
Look at the trees. You’re looking for two things. Are there trees so close to the house that branches might fall onto the roof? While shade is nice, trees too close to a home can be a danger if they fall in a storm and may shade a home so much that they create mildew problems, both inside and out. If it’s in season, look for dead or dying trees. In winter, ask the owner if they are aware of any dead or diseased trees. Tree removal, especially large ones near a house, can cost thousands to remove.
Check the plat or survey if one is available. If a survey is available you can determine which direction the home faces (perhaps an issue if the afternoon sun would make a deck unusable). The compass will also tell you if no survey is available.
You should also look for easements such as sewer or drainage that may not be visible on the surface. While such easements are common and generally not a problem, they are a huge problem if they are in the area where you plan to install a pool or construct a garage.
Check the condition of the roof. This is where you’ll need the binoculars. Examine the roof from as many angles as possible. Look for missing, curled, or cracked shingles. If a roof is more than fifteen years old, it’s probably nearing the end of its life. While many purchasers immediately rule out a home needing a new roof, it shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-killer. Replacing a roof usually costs less than most people think, that is, if you get and compare several estimates from reliable contractors. But it’s something of which you need to be aware if you plan to make an offer. A home inspector will be able to provide more detailed information regarding the roof’s condition.
Check the gutters and downspouts. If the house has gutters, do they look sound? Look underneath for obvious signs of rust. Do the downspouts actually direct the flow of water away from the home? If not, water is likely to find a way into or under the structure.
Check porches, decks, and railings. The surface of a wooden porch or deck usually conveys their condition, but, when possible, look underneath. Do the structural members look sound? Are there wooden or steel posts that extend into the ground? If so, the wood or steel could be unsound. Make sure your inspector reports on this. While porch railings may look secure, give them a gentle tug—you don’t want to pull the rail off, and you don’t want to fall. A gentle tug will give you an idea of their soundness. Also, if there are exterior stairs, give them a good inspection. Look for loose or damaged step tread and handrails.
Examine the exterior veneer. If it is masonry, do the mortar joints look sound, or is mortar flaking and missing in places? Look for cracks that extend for several feet or more, a possible indication of foundation settling. If you have wood or composite wood siding, do the joints appear well caulked and secure? Is the paint surface smooth, or are there signs of a recent repaint over a rough surface? That could indicate an ongoing problem.
Check the soffits, roof overhang, and trim. Look for the obvious. Is it clean, smooth, and are joints tight and secure? General problems with trim are usually apparent upon inspection.
Check the drive and walkway. Is the concrete generally smooth and free of pits and large cracks? While some cracking in concrete is normal, large open cracks or areas where cracks are uneven can be an indication of a failure of the soil underneath. Also, large areas where the concrete is pitted and unsightly will require repair or replacement if appearance is an issue.
To inspect the interior of the home, proceed as follows:
Kitchen. Look at the flooring. If it is wood, look for the condition of the finish and for obvious damage, particularly from water. Previous water damage is usually indicated by separation of the individual boards or by a curled, “wash-board” look. With vinyl flooring damage is usually easy to spot by looking for open seams, tears, or areas that are worn or stained. If the floor is ceramic tile just look for loose or broken tiles or areas where grout is missing. Check the appearance of the appliances. Don’t be afraid to open the oven and dishwasher looking for obvious signs of wear of neglect. Open cabinet doors and drawers to check for proper operation.
Family room. If there is a fireplace, look for signs of leaking at the ceiling, and check the condition of the wood or masonry surround. Look for anything that seems unusual. Use the flashlight to look up the chimney. Does it appear to be in good condition? The inside of a chimney is nasty and soot-filled, and it’s not pretty. Look for deterioration in the mortar of the fire-brick or metal liner, or an unusual accumulation of soot or creosote on the interior of the chimney. If so, it may need cleaning.
Baths. Look at the condition of the fixtures, cabinets, counter tops. Do they appear ok? Open cabinets and to check for past or current leaks. Flush the toilets. Turn on water at sinks, tubs, showers. Check the condition of ceramic tile and flooring.
Basements, cellars, and crawlspaces. If the home has a basement, check it out thoroughly. It’s usually pretty easy to determine if there are leakage problems. One of the best tools for determining if there are moisture problems is located between our eyes—the nose knows. If it smells musty, it is. Look for damp or discolored areas on walls and floors and for mildew growing on wood framing members. If the basement is finished and has rugs on its floor, lift them up to check for signs of moisture or mildew, especially at exterior doorways. In unfinished areas, look for signs of water staining on walls or floors and check for foundation cracking. While some minor cracks are normal, large, especially horizontal, cracks can mean problems. If the wall seems to bulge in at cracks, it may indicate foundation movement.
If there is only a crawlspace, you may not want to go inside, but a quick look from the access doorway should give an idea if a crawlspace is dry. Look at the general condition and check for obvious signs of leakage. The home inspector will check it more thoroughly.
Miscellaneous. Locate the electrical service panel. It’s possible that an older home could have a fuse box instead of circuit breakers. If so, replacement can cost one to two thousand dollars. If the home has a circuit breaker panel, it’s not necessary to be an electrician to spot some problems. Look to see if all the circuit breaker spaces are full. There are break-away tabs in electrical panels to allow space for additional circuits. A panel that is completely full may not allow space for additional circuits. While an electrician might be able to add an extra panel, such work can be expensive. Here again, the home inspector can provide more complete information. If there is a central vacuum, alarm system, or other features, asks about their condition.
When you are finished, make note of anything you didn’t understand or areas where you felt there might be problems. Then, if you decide to make an offer on the home, have your home inspector pay particular attention to those areas of concern.