Years ago, home inspections were unheard of in residential real estate transactions. Instead, buyers simply relied on their own impressions of the home and the representations of the seller's real estate agent. Today, the process is dramatically different. Most real estate purchase contracts give the buyer fairly broad rights to order one or more professional inspections of the home before completing the purchase.
The right to have inspections comes with the challenge of hiring diligent and competent inspectors. Finding the right person isn't as easy as it may seem because in most states, just about anyone with an official-looking checklist and a flashlight can set up shop as a home inspector. The exception to this free-for-all is that special training is required to perform inspection or remediation work for such potentially hazardous materials as asbestos and lead-based paint.
A good real estate agent should be willing and able to recommend several well-qualified home inspectors. The tricky part is selecting the best candidates among the group. Here are six of the many factors to consider:
1. Qualifications. Ask open-ended questions about the inspector's training and experience as it relates to home inspections. The inspector should have some training in construction and building maintenance standards and a track-record of experience in the home inspection business. Depending on the location and age of the home, you may need to hire an inspector who's qualified to deal with asbestos, lead-based paint or other potentially hazardous substances. You may also need to hire a geologist or structural engineer.
2. Scope. Ask the inspector which components of the property are -- and are not -- included in his or her inspection. Will the inspector check out the roof? How about the swimming pool? The built-in appliances?
3. Sample report. Ask the inspector to provide a sample of his or her checklist or inspection report. Does the report include a narrative description or just check-off boxes? Is the information presented and explained clearly and completely? Does the report highlight any problems that could present a safety hazard?
4. References. Ask the inspector for the names and telephone numbers of several homeowners who have used his or her services. Call those people and ask them whether they were satisfied with the report and other services they received. Be sure to talk to some people who have owned their home for a few months or longer. Some problems overlooked by an inspection can take a while to surface.
5. Memberships. Many good inspectors don't belong to a national or state association of home inspectors. However, all else being equal, an association membership is often a plus. These groups provide their members with training and certification programs and up-to-date information about industry practices and inspection standards.
6. Errors and omissions. Even top-notch inspectors are only human and can make errors or overlook problems they probably should have noticed. Ask about the company's policy in such situations. Does the company have insurance for errors and omissions? Does the company or individual inspector stand behind the report? Many companies ask customers to sign a waiver limiting the company's liability to the cost of the inspection.