There are three potentially costly mistakes that you can make when buying a home:

  1. Opting not to get a home inspection
  2. Failing to find a good home inspector
  3. Failing to have a 30-day cancellation clause in the contract

Years ago, my wife and I put a contract on a home in a rural area of Maryland. We had it inspected only to find that the roof was about to fall in and repairs would be a serious undertaking. I had nightmares of structural engineers, soaring cranes, and heavy roof beams swinging in the wind—in addition to the astronomical bills we would face.

Needless to say, we were relieved to know that we could cancel our contract and get our deposit back. We got off lucky, without sinking our hard-earned savings into costly repairs. Unfortunately, not everyone is so fortunate.

Home inspection basics

The standard home inspector’s report will cover the condition of the home’s heating and central air conditioning systems (temperature permitting); interior plumbing and electrical systems; the roof, attic, and visible insulation; walls, ceilings, floors, windows, and doors; and the foundation, basement, and structural components.

This written report can be used as a road map to prepare your home for sale or, if you are a buyer, to negotiate a purchase with the owner.

The report is also a terrific guide that can help you plan for future repairs and maintenance. For example, the report will tell you the age of your air conditioning system, hot water heater, boiler, and other major systems. You can save money and avoid breakdowns by planning the replacement of big-ticket items over time, and you can learn what repairs you will be able to do yourself—and which will be better left to a professional.

Special problems: Radon and mold

Radon. Be sure to hire an inspector who can check and test for radon if it occurs in your area. Radon, which comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock, and water, gets into the air you breathe and can be trapped in your home.

Radon moves up through the ground and enters your home through cracks and penetrations in the foundation and concrete slab and through well water. It is estimated to cause between 15,000 and 22,000 lung cancer deaths each year—more than drunk driving. Fortunately, testing and radon reduction procedures are inexpensive and effective.

Mold. If the home has toxic mold splotches on the walls or a wet, moldy smell, or if you experience allergy symptoms while in the home, be sure to hire a professional inspector to test for the presence of mold. These tests can run from $300 to as high as $3,000.

Mold inspectors use special equipment to find hot spots where mold is most likely growing and to look into hidden areas, such as behind walls, while barely disturbing your home. A mold inspector will also be able to tell you whether or not the mold is toxic.

If the mold is non-toxic, it will likely be relatively inexpensive to remove, and you may even be able to remove it yourself.

If the mold is toxic, you will have to hire a professional mold removal service. This can quickly get expensive, and costs increase depending on how much mold is present.

Certification and licensing

It’s virtually impossible for an amateur to conduct a home inspection with the expertise and professionalism of a licensed inspector. Licensed and certified inspectors must be knowledgeable about new materials, technologies, and products in use today, as well as those in use 50 years ago or earlier. Most states license home inspectors, and many inspectors undergo special training to achieve their certification.

Sellers are required by law to disclose major problems with a home that may affect its value, but such disclosures are not a substitute for an inspection. Rather, they make an inspection even more important. Before your 30-day cancellation clause expires, you will want to know about any serious problems and what it will take to fix them. You can obtain competitive bids from contractors to use in negotiation with the owners to either make the repairs in advance of closing or reduce the sale price.

For a buyer, there is really no reason not to conduct an inspection. It’s a way to evaluate all the systems in the house, and it puts pressure on the seller to fix major problems before the home sale is finalized.

How to find a qualified home inspector

  • Start with a short list of certified inspectors. Both of the leading home inspection organizations—the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI)—provide search tools to help you find certified members of their organizations located close to you. ASHI and NAHI also list certified inspectors in states that do not license inspectors.
  • Check to see if any of the home inspectors you are considering have received positive or negative reviews on ratings sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, or the Better Business Bureau.
  • Ask the home inspector you choose to provide three recent references.

In addition, your real estate agent or lender can be a great resource for finding competent inspectors who are familiar with local housing conditions, contractors, and building codes.

Steve Cook is executive vice president of Reecon Advisors and covers government and industry news for the Reecon Advisory Report. He is a member of the National Press Club, the Public Relations Society of America, and the National Association of Real Estate Editors, where he served as second vice president. Twice he has been named one of the 100 most influential people in real estate. In addition to serving as managing editor of the Report, Cook provides public relations consulting services to real estate companies, financial services companies, and trade associations, including some of the leading companies in online residential real estate.