Home inspections: Doom & gloom or professional observations? #734

#734 in a series of true experiences in real estate

A general inspection of a house usually takes three to four hours. The buyer and his agent walk around the property with the inspector while he looks at every part of the house and talks about what he finds. The inspector isn’t concerned with whether the house is attractive. He is unlikely to say, “What a beautiful kitchen,” or “this is an excellent floor plan and so close to schools, too.”

The inspector’s job is to acquaint the buyer with problems the house has now, things that might go wrong in the future, what it would take to upgrade the house to current building code, and to give the buyer information on house maintenance.

Usually the inspection begins on the exterior. The inspector goes up on the roof to look at the condition of the roof structure and covering, flashing, gutters and chimney.

He walks around the outside of the house looking at the foundation, drainage, siding, retaining walls, stairs, railings, and so forth, all the while talking about what he sees.

He will go inside and under the house to inspect the surfaces, plumbing fixtures, electrical outlets and appliances, measure the water pressure, look inside the fireplace.

He will note the size of the hot water heater and whether it has up-to-date features such as a pressure relief valve, look at the furnace and ducts, attic insulation and door locks, tell what he can about the overall electrical service. He will show the buyer the main shut-offs for water, gas and electricity.

It is very common for a buyer to feel overwhelmed during (and after) the inspection. He is thinking that he chose this house and felt good about it too; he came to terms with the money it will cost, and now – wow – he’s laid out flat by so many things that are wrong.

“It’s a good idea to add ground fault interrupters. They’ve not expensive and they can save your life,” says the inspector.

On and on he goes; everything he says seems to be worrisome, another thing that needs fixing or replacement, and they’re all running together into one messy mass.

“Earthquake retrofitting is a prudent thing to do. You can get a bid for adding shear walls and having the foundations bolted. There is asbestos on the furnace ducts which should be removed or encapsulated.

“One of the stove burners is not lighting properly. Keeping water away from the foundation is very important. All of the downspouts should be extended. The main electrical panel has been upgraded but the sub-panel still has fuses.

The buyer is reeling. He knows nothing about sub-panels, doesn’t think he wants to know, has no basis for deciding how important this fact is or how much money it would take to do something about it.

He doesn’t have long to wonder though because the inspector continues to add to the list.

“Many of the windows are painted shut and some are missing ropes. Extension cords should not be strung under the house. The fireplace seems to be in good repair but there is no damper. The shower door is not safety glass.

“The roofers seem to have done a good job but they didn’t seal the flashing properly. You could do this yourself; just get some roofing compound, climb up and put it on.”

The buyer is wondering what he was thinking when he decided to buy a house. He doesn’t like heights, he has never changed a furnace filter, doesn’t even know how to caulk the tub.

He intended to buy a refrigerator with his little extra money but now it seems he’ll need it for a bunch of other things.

Virtually every buyer feels buried after an inspection. It is amazing what can be found when any house (even a new one) is gone over with a fine tooth comb. It is therefore imperative for the buyer to have or to gain perspective before deciding what to do next.

How about the fictitious house described above? Does it sound to you like it is a wreck? Might as well tear it down and start over?

Not at all. This house has good systems – roof, furnace, foundation, electricity. All of these expensive items are doing fine. It has good amenities – fireplace, wood floors, fresh paint. The house is not sliding down a hill, the structure is solid, and drainage isn’t an issue. In spite of the laundry list of deficiencies noted, this house came through the inspection with flying colors.

Here’s the deal. Houses are made up of a zillion parts. The parts get old, wear out, need care. Close inspection of this house has revealed news about some of its parts. The trick now is to figure how this information has impacted the value of this house to this buyer.

An informed buyer will not be amazed that the house is not perfect, but he may need to gather more information on the specifics. He may discover in the process that many items mentioned by the inspector do not have to be dealt with now – or ever.

The buyer must ask himself, “What is worrisome to me?” Did the inspector recommend that an experienced fireplace or furnace person or engineer be consulted? Was this done? What solution has been suggested? What will it cost? What if nothing is done – what will happen?

Is it possible that the seller will help? Renegotiation of the price is more likely when personal safety is involved (bare electrical wires, for example) than if the problem is a poor or outdated condition (very little foundation bolting). But it depends on the seller and the circumstances.

If something has been discovered during inspections that the buyer cannot live with, he can choose to withdraw from the sale unless the seller is willing to fix or compensate him for it.

We try to prepare our buyers before the inspection. We make sure that they have already read any disclosures and reports on the house made available to us. We talk about the kinds of things that will come up during inspection, deficits that are obvious in the particular house our buyer is inspecting.

There is time before writing an offer for the buyer to decide if he is comfortable with these things and to make allowances for some others that will surely come up during the inspection.

We advise our buyers to hire an inspector who will provide a written report. We tell them to allow enough time on inspection day to ask questions, to rest up afterward before reading the written report, then to quietly think, make notes and talk to us and to others who can shed light on their concerns.

A thoughtful buyer’s thinking might go like this? “The house is basically in good shape. Earthquakes scare me, so I’ll do the retrofit work. I will also call the roofer back about the flashing. But the other things will have to wait.

I like this house better than others I have seen; The light in the house and the privacy in the yard are great, and I’m going to go ahead and buy it.

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