It seems as though everyone is looking for a qualified home inspector these days. Buyers want someone to tell them that the home they’re about to purchase is going to be problem-free (or at least give them some warning about what’s in store). Sellers want to know what the home buyer’s inspector is going to find before they even list their property.

But if you’re going to pay $250 to more than $500 for a home inspection report, you should find an excellent home inspector (or structural engineer) and know what you’re going to get before you sign the inspection contract.

According to Sig Anderman, chairman of Inspectec, a home inspection company based in California, the very best way to find a good home inspector is to ask around for referrals. Real estate agents work frequently with home inspectors in the neighborhood, and they should know who gives a good inspection and who simply slides by.

“Home inspectors aren’t licensed by most states,” Anderman notes. “In fact, there are only 3 states that require licensing, so there is really no objective standard.”

There are several home inspection organizations that certify home inspectors. Perhaps the best-known is the American Society of Home Inspectors, located in Arlington Heights, Illinois, requires would-be members to go through a mentoring process, complete 250 inspection and pass an exam before being ASHI-certified.

Another way to go is to use a structural engineer as a home inspector. Criterium Engineers, based in Portland, ME, is nationwide network of structural engineers and architects who perform home inspections. Structural engineers and architects must be licensed by every state, and usually carry liability insurance to cover their mistakes, something many home inspectors don’t do.

What kind of information can you expect from your home inspector? According to Anderman, you should receive a written report that comprehensively describes all of the essential systems, and components and structural components of the house.

“Regardless of their operating condition, an inspection report should reference the types of systems, their age, their general condition and their capacity to perform as intended,” he says. “In addition, of course, any defects or non-performing components should be noted, whether they are mechanical systems, heating, electrical, air conditioning, plumbing systems, or structural components like roof or structural foundation. The report should detail any components that aren’t up to current construction standards.”

Finally, Anderman says the report should absolutely tell you about any condition that could affect your health or safety.

What are some of the most common problems inspectors find? Aside from the minor inconveniences, drainage problems around the perimeter of the house are common and could be expensive to fix. The roof is always a concern because it has a limited useful life and therefore almost always has a predictable time at which it would have to be repaired or replaced.

If you’re planning to buy in the next month or so and you live in a cold-weather climate, you should be aware that weather can hamper even the best home inspector, says Jamie Dunsing, who runs Dunsing Home Inspectors in Chicago.

Cold and snow “can severely limit the ability to do an inspection,” says Dunsing. Snow is particularly difficult, “because there’s a great deal of the exterior of the house, including the roof and ground, and walkways and driveways that can’t be inspected with the snow.”

So what’s an inspector to do? “You do your best. Unfortunately, if a foot of snow is on the roof, the best you’re going to do is maybe getting on a ladder up to the edge of the roof to determine the number of layers of shingle. But you’re looking at the condition of a one-square foot area on a roof that maybe is 3000 square feet, so it’s a very limited inspection you can do,” Dunsing adds.

One of the inherent problems with a home inspection is that it takes place during one two- to three-hour stretch of time. A foot snow can seriously impair the inspection. In these cases, Dunsing suggests that home buyers either ask for an extension of the inspection contingency, or go back to the house after the snow melts to look for additional problems.

“If you have an opportunity to go by the house after the snow has melted, try to get a look at the way the roof looks at least from the ground and the way the property looks and the condition of the sidewalks and driveway after the snow has melted,” he says.

You should also be concerned with the way the ground slopes toward the house. Poor landscaping can wreak havoc with foundations.

Testing an air conditioning system during the winter is impossible, Dunsing adds. “Unfortunately, if you try to run an air conditioning system when it’s cold you can actually harm the unit to the point of breaking it.”

“What we do to test it is basically take some information down, determine the age of the system, and really just get a general feel for it. Age really comes into play. If we see a 20-year old air conditioning system, whether it’s summer or winter, I’m going to tell my client it’s an old one and they really need to budget to replace it.”

Published: Jan 19, 1998