One thing all brand-new homeowners have in common is that they do not like surprises. Like a rotting floor under the toilet. Or a cracked foundation. If there are any big problems lurking in your home-to-be, you want to know about them before you own them!
The best way to make sure you buy with your eyes wide open is to hire an excellent professional home inspector. But what do you look for in a home inspector? It’s not as if you’ve ever hired one before.
The 10-point checklist below will help you hire a true pro to examine your home for good-to-know flaws and big bad deal breakers. We recommend that you interview at least two inspectors before you choose.
It’s best to have an inspector picked out well before you make an offer on a home, so you can move quickly if your offer is accepted. You’ll probably have no more than five days to get the inspection done, and you don’t want to rush or use an inspector you’re not sure about.
1. Certification by ASHI or InterNACHI
Your best bet is an inspector certified by one of the two professional organizations that they can voluntarily join: ASHI and InterNACHI.
Here are their inspector lookup pages:
- American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI)
- International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI)
Certification by a professional association is a step up from state licensing, which often requires only minimal experience or continuing education. Some states don’t even require home inspectors to be licensed.
“If an inspector belongs to an association, a really good association, then he’s going the extra mile,” says home inspector Frank Lesh of ASHI, a decades-old not-for-profit with an especially rigorous certification process. “He doesn’t have to do that. He’s doing it because he wants to have the education.”
The profession is still very much dominated by men, BTW. (Ladies, we sense a career opportunity here.)
Can’t find an ASHI or InterNACHI home inspector near you? To see whether your state at least licenses inspectors, visit this ASHI resource page. If it does, the licensing agency’s website probably has a “license search” that lets you check whether an inspector is current.
2. Plenty of practical experience
Long experience as an inspector and a past life in the building trades is ideal.
It’s always a good sign when an inspector has been in business for a while. If they used to work in the building trades — which has traditionally been the case — all the better. At the same time, a former contractor isn’t automatically a great home inspector. And a former teacher or firefighter who went back to school for it might be amazing. It’s all about training and real-life inspection experience.
Are you considering an inspector who’s on the less experienced side? Lesh suggests asking whether they’ve had a peer review.
“ASHI has a lot of guys who will take novice inspectors out to a vacant house and let them find the problems,” he says. “It’s sort of like being a doctor. You don’t just go to medical school and then, all of a sudden, you’re a surgeon and you start operating. You have to train. Practical experience is worth its weight in gold.”
Along those same lines, don’t give too much weight to any high-tech equipment inspectors might advertise. Thermal imaging and moisture testers, for example, are enhancements, not substitutes for knowledge and experience. As Lesh points out, “Just because you’ve got the latest-and-greatest tool doesn’t mean you know how to use it.”
3. A reasonable fee — meaning not too low
Your real estate agent can tell you the normal range for your area. Just remember that a “bargain” can be a red flag.
“Here’s the thing,” says Lesh. “Most inspectors who are good are not going to charge bargain-basement prices. If the fee is really, really low, there’s something wrong. If it’s really high, it could be that this guy is really good, and he’s in demand.”
4. Special expertise
Is the inspector familiar with the type of property you’re buying?
As we said earlier, it’s best to line up an inspector before you make an offer on a home. So of course you can’t fully predict the kind of expertise you’re going to need. But to the extent that you can, try to find an inspector who has it.
For example, older homes have issues that newer ones don’t, and new construction might incorporate materials that aren’t in wide use. Is your target neighborhood full of historic homes? Or are you determined to buy in a brand-new development?
Then there’s specialized inspections for things like lead, pests, and radon. If, for example, you expect to buy an older home and you’ve got kids, lead testing might be a priority. Home inspectors are generalists, so a standard inspection doesn’t cover these kinds of things, but some do have more training and offer extras for an additional fee. You might not save money by having the same person do an extra test, but at least you won’t have to coordinate with another inspector.
5. The inspector really wants you to be there
You’ll learn a lot if you shadow your home inspector. If an inspector has a problem with it, hire someone else.
In fact, a good inspector will strongly encourage you to be there, says Lesh. Or, if you can’t be there for the whole thing, to at least show up at the house at the end to go over the report in person.
6. A clear contract that you can go over in advance
You should have in writing exactly what the inspection covers, and what happens if there’s a conflict.
“The contract should have the limits of the inspection,” says Lesh. “So from an inspector’s standpoint, I am not going to walk on the roof if there’s snow on there or if it’s unsafe. I am not going to take apart walls.”
The contract should also explain the inspector’s limit of liability and whether arbitration would be required in the event of a conflict.
7. A sample inspection report to look over in advance
You’ll have a better idea of what to expect that day, and you might get more out of your time with the inspector.
Again, a good inspector won’t have a problem with supplying this, says Lesh. You’ll get either a blank report or a filled-out one that’s been redacted.
8. Availability post-inspection
You might have questions later. Follow-up should be easy and come at no extra charge.
Even if you follow your home inspector around for the entire inspection, you might have questions about the report later. That should be covered by the fee, within reason — expect to be charged if you want the inspector to make another site visit.
9. References and a clean record
Don’t choose an inspector based on a single referral. And do check around for any formal complaints.
A lot of homebuyers just hire the inspector their real estate agent suggests. But it’s good to have more than one person’s recommendation for any given inspector. Besides, there’s a potential conflict of interest there: your agent gets paid only if the deal goes through. Did you hire an agent you can trust?
“Years ago, when I first started, the conflict of interest was just horrendous,” says Lesh. “I found that some agents were not using me because they had labeled me a deal breaker. You know, I found problems.”
As a precaution, check your state government website and the Better Business Bureau for any complaints or disciplinary actions against the inspector.
You can also ask the inspector for references from a few customers. Did the inspection report seem comprehensive to them? How well did the inspector communicate with them before, during, and after the job? Your own interview with the inspector will also give you a sense of whether communication will be easy.
Liability, workers compensation, and “errors and omissions” insurance are all good things.
Liability insurance is the big one, on the off-off-chance that the house that gets damaged during inspection. If the inspector were to break something or, say, fall through the ceiling, the seller could potentially come after you. That’s exceedingly rare, says Lesh. “I’ve never had that happen. I don’t even know any inspectors who have had that happen.” But still.
Many inspectors are solopreneurs, but if they do have employees, they should have workers compensation insurance.
Errors and omissions insurance covers inspectors (and, by extension, you) in case they miss something big. Most have it, yet not all, since a big miss on something that truly could have been caught is rare for a good inspector. Lesh says that he himself has always self-insured for that.