It should be pretty clear from our earlier description of a good housing inspection that it is worthwhile to spend the money to have one, even at a time when funds are usually very tight. Knowing that the furnace has exceeded its life expectancy by ten years or the garage door may present a hazard to a young child or pet is obviously worth the $300 or $700 the inspection will cost.

But knowing all the bad news isn't the only reason that an inspection makes sense.

The best inspectors are also teachers. As you walk through the house with your inspector - and if we haven't already said this, do whatever you have to do to in order to be present during the inspection - you will learn a lot about your house and its systems.

If you have never owned a house you might not know about the necessity of changing furnace filters, how to shut off the main water supply when a pipe bursts, or that stacking firewood next to a wooden deck is a very bad idea. An inspector can advise you about maintenance on any number of things in your home or give suggestions about small modifications that will increase its safety and comfort. Often an inspector will prioritize his suggestions. The water intrusion in the fuse box must be corrected immediately but you might want to think about replacing showerheads with low-flow models when you have the time and some extra money.

The best inspectors will not only tell you what is wrong with your potential home, but what is right. You might not otherwise know that you are getting THE top of the line dishwasher or will have a remarkably well graded yard. Would you know by looking that your hot water heater is very new or that it would cost a fortune to duplicate the molding in the entry hall? Unfortunately some good inspectors are also gloomy ones. Tell yours up-front that want to hear the good stuff as well as the bad - knowing the positives can be especially helpful if the overall home inspection report is not terribly positive.

At the end of the inspection the inspector will probably sit with you and run through his principal findings and give you time to ask questions. Don't pass on the opportunity. Pick the inspector's brain as much as he will allow but stick to specific questions about specific issues. It isn't fair to ask him if he would buy the house. Also, as we will discuss later, some states have rules that absolutely forbid inspectors to provide some types of information.

Shortly after the inspection you will receive a written report from the inspector, a long document that can be intimidating if not overwhelming. This is another reason why you must be present during the inspection. It is one thing to hear about various small problems while you are walking around the property with the inspector. Each problem will be discussed in context and probably modified with reassurances that "this is just a maintenance issue" or "it would be good to fix this when you get around to it." It is another situation entirely to read a long list of problems that makes your new home seem less like a dream home and more like a dump that would give Morticia Addams pause.

After you read through the report the first time take a deep breath and a drink if necessary and sit down and read it again, this time with a pen and paper at hand. Look at each "problem" item with the following questions in mind.

  1. Is this a minor maintenance problem or a major repair?
  2. Is this an issue related to the age of the house and, if so, might it be considered part of the "charm" of the home? High on this list are floors that slope a bit from settlement or door and windows that are slightly out of plumb.
  3. Is this a problem that must be dealt with immediately or just something that should be done eventually?
  4. Given what you know about house prices in your locality, might this problem have already been taken into consideration in pricing the house?
  5. Does this problem merit further investigation?
  6. Are you willing to walk away from the house because of any or all of these problems?

If there are one or two minor items, suck it up and forget about it. Every house has its problems and now you know which ones are yours. Fixing them will give you a chance to hone your do-it-yourself skills or build your list of reliable local tradespersons. If it is a major issue or if there are lots of minor issues start making a list.

If it is an age-related problem that isn't charming, such as plaster separating from the lath or if the sloping or lack of plumb might indicate underlying structural problems, add this to your list.

If this is a problem in need of an immediate fix and might break the budget, again, add it to the list.

After the second read-through take a look at the list. If there are only minor items thank your lucky stars and proceed with the purchase. However, if there are dozens of minor items it could be an indication that you are buying from a homeowner who has neglected his investment and you could be inheriting a lot of deferred maintenance that hasn't yet come home to roost. Call your inspector (you are entitled to do so) and get his opinion about this.

If the list of repairs is more than you think you should have to shoulder (and here you must ask yourself questions 3, 4, and 5 again) then it is probably time to talk with your real estate agent.

And, what should you say? We will explore that issue - and it is a very real issue - in a later article.