Home Inspectors: How They Keep the (Bad) Surprises Out of Home Buying

A home inspector takes notes while inspecting a home.
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Whether you’re just beginning the hunt for the perfect house, or already in the process of buying one, chances are you’ve at least heard them mentioned: home inspectors.

Think of them as one of the last lines of defense before you close on a house. By checking the working condition of appliances, looking for structural problems and going over major systems like plumbing and electrical, they issue a bill of health on a house that lets you know it’s safe to proceed with the purchase — or that it’s time to back out.

We spoke to real estate professionals about hiring and working with a reputable home inspection company, plus what to expect throughout the inspection process.

Here’s everything you need to know about hiring a home inspector.

What is a Home Inspector?

“A home inspector is basically a professional ‘discoverer’,” says Realtor Dylan Lennon. “Their job is to carefully audit the major systems and document any problems or insufficiencies they find.”

In addition to inspecting all of the structural aspects of a home like the walls, floors and roof, inspectors are also responsible for looking at the systems in the home. This will include everything from the plumbing in the bathrooms down to the smallest electrical outlet.

Their job is basically to make sure there’s nothing wrong with the home, and if there is — to record it.

What Home Inspectors Look For

A good home inspector may spend hours or even a full day combing through every corner of a home.

Not only are they checking the major systems, they’ll also be looking at the home’s foundation, its windows and doors, and if the heating and air conditioning system works properly. They keep an eye out for any sign of termites or pests, or any other type of structural wear and tear that could jeopardize your home’s interior. They’re also trained to find builder oversights or things that aren’t in code compliance, which could cost you later when it’s your turn to sell the house.

But a really good home inspector doesn’t just give you a yes-no checklist saying what looks good and what doesn’t. They include details on the current state of things like the water heater or HVAC system, and when you might need to replace them.

“A good home inspector will note the expected remaining life span and general condition of all components and structural features of a home,” says real estate investor Tucker Long of Truepath Properties. “Furthermore, they’ll identify any components in need of repair or further evaluation.”

Why You Need to a Home Inspector

For buyers, you’ll generally want to hire a home inspector once you enter a contract agreement with the seller. The inspection report will tell you the exact condition of the home you’re buying, and whether or not it makes sense to negotiate down the price based on what the inspector finds.

This is where having a good inspector on your side really comes in handy.

“Home inspectors provide a safety net for homebuyers who aren’t experts in construction,” says Long. “They’re trained to identify costly repairs and safety issues, both of which can easily be overlooked by the untrained eye.”

When they do find concerning issues, they record exact details in their report — which is then passed onto the seller and used for negotiation purposes.

“Hiring a home inspector could save a buyer huge amounts of money,” says Long. “If a problem is identified, a buyer will have the opportunity to terminate the contract or request the seller makes the necessary repairs. In most cases, an inspection will typically pay for itself many times over if even a single unexpected issue is identified.”

Say, for example, a home inspector finds a few shingles on the roof that need to be replaced, or a problem with the home’s septic tank. With roof repairs costing an average of $$1,086, and septic issues starting around $627 all the way up to $6,000 — this makes the home inspector’s fee a worthy investment.

What does a home inspection cost? Generally about $281 to $402.

Not only will identifying problems while under contract save you money later, it also acts as a bargaining chip during the negotiation. Rather than paying thousands of dollars in repairs out-of-pocket, you’ll be able to reach an agreement with your seller — either they fix it, cover the cost by giving you cash back at closing, or you can terminate the agreement.

First-time buyer? Here are our best home-buying tips.

How to Hire a Home Inspector

First rule: Find one you trust. Be wary of hiring an inspector through the seller. It’s best to work with someone without any conflict of interest, who can prioritize helping you and pointing out anything that might be wrong with the home or property. Work with your real estate agent to hire someone reputable with the proper licensing.

You’ll also want to review the inspector’s contract before the home inspection, to be sure you understand exactly what they’ll be looking for. While most inspectors have a standard list, this can vary based on your location and their accreditations.

“Reviewing the inspection contract prior to hiring an inspector can avoid a lot of heartache later,” says Lennon. “I’ve had buyers go into inspections thinking that the inspector was going to flag cosmetic items, only for them to later find out that cosmetic items are rarely covered in inspections.”

Depending on your inspector’s qualifications, you may need to hire more than one person — to check a septic system, for example, or look in-depth for any signs of termites or other infestations.

Most contract agreements have a series of built-in protections for the buyer, also called objections. These allow buyers to get out of the contract (penalty free) at various points in the process. One is known as the inspection objection, and you’ll want to have your inspection report in hand with plenty of time to negotiate the findings, before the inspection objection deadline. That way, if your seller isn’t willing to accommodate your requests, you can terminate the contract without issue.

Lastly, it’s always a good idea to tour the entire property of your new home at least once before the inspection. Make note of anything concerning, and pass these concerns along to your home inspector beforehand. That way, you can be sure that all of your concerns (if the inspector finds them valid) make it onto the report for the seller to see — and you’ll have the best possible chance of successful negotiation.

Contributor Larissa Runkle frequently writes on finance, real estate, and lifestyle topics for The Penny Hoarder.