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Do you really need a home inspection? The short answer: yes! In a hot housing market, would-be-buyers may be tempted to submit a “clean” offer on a home, meaning their offer doesn’t include any conditions on it, such as confirmation of financing or a home inspection. Most smart shoppers will have spoken with their bank or broker to verify how much of a mortgage they’d qualify for before going to their first open house, but forgoing an inspection can be a risky gamble. Here's what you need to know about the home inspection process, and how to hire a pro.

Hiring an Inspector

Fees will vary depending on your location, how far the inspector has to travel, and their experience, but $400 is a rough ballpark price. In addition to a checklist of the various flaws noted on the inspection, the inspector will also leave you with a binder full of background information on how to understand and maintain the various components of your home.

In most of the country, there are no qualifications or certifications required for anyone to call themselves “home inspectors.” That said, there is a national association, the Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors, which runs a certification program and provides a list of certified inspectors across the country.

As with any service for hire, a recommendation from a friend or family member is the best place to start. HomeStars is another great place to get (mostly) honest opinions.

Before hiring an inspector, some things to ask include:

  • How long have they been an inspector, and how did they get into the business? (Inspectors are often engineers or contractors who’ve embarked on second careers.)
  • Do they use a ladder to take a close look at the roof and chimney?
  • How long will the inspection take?
  • How long will it take to get a full written report? (This is particularly important if you’re trying to squeeze in an inspection before making an offer.)

The Home Inspection Process

You’ll want to coordinate the inspection for a time when you (and your partner) can be onsite with the inspector. They will provide you with a hardcopy report afterwards, but you really should be there to hear firsthand about any potential concerns, and to ask questions about things you’re unfamiliar with.

It typically takes at least a couple of hours for the inspector to go over the interior and exterior of the property. On the inside, they’ll do a visual inspection of the heating and cooling system, inspect the basement for any signs of water infiltration, run various plumbing fixtures to determine water pressure, inspect the fuse panel/breaker panel, use a receptacle tester to make sure electrical outlets are wired properly, and poke their head into the attic access hatch to asses the level of insulation.

On the exterior, they’ll be looking at things such as the stability of the foundation, the grading around it, the condition of the windows and doors, roof, and eavestroughing, and any building code issues relating to decks, stairs, and railings.

An inspector will not inspect the household appliances (stove, washer, dryer, etc.) or make comments on cosmetic conditions, such as that tacky wallpaper that really must go.

Remember: It's a Surface Assessment

One of the biggest flaws with the home inspection process is that it only provides a very superficial look at a building’s condition. For obvious reasons, an inspector isn’t going to start poking holes in walls or ripping up floorboards to see what may be lurking behind. That means there are a number of hazards that can be missed, including runs of knob-and-tube wiring, mold, or insulation and other materials containing asbestos. This is where buying a home with an unfinished basement can actually be an asset, as they’ll be able to visually inspect at least a portion of the wiring and plumbing.

Schedule Your Inspection When It's Sunny

Weather can impact how thorough the inspection is. Some inspectors arrive on site with a ladder so they can get an up-close look at the condition of the roof, eavestroughing, and chimney. But many will simply try to find a vantage point on the ground to “inspect” these details, perhaps with binoculars. In icy conditions, they definitely won’t be climbing a ladder, and snow on the roof may be covering up problems.

A standard home inspection contract also includes a page (or more) of “Limitations and Conditions” on the inspection, proclaiming that the inspector offers no warranty on any hazardous materials or defects.

The bottom line: even if a home inspection report gives a property a clean bill of health, that doesn’t not mean there aren’t any potentially costly fixes the new owner may soon have to deal with.

Presale Inspections

In some cases, homeowners or their real estate agent will pay for an inspection before putting the house on the market. These are handy in that they’ll show you any major flaws with the home. (Often, if an inspection does raise any red flags, the homeowner will correct the problems before going on the market and include paperwork verifying that it was done.) But the downside to relying on an owner’s inspection is that you don’t get to walk around with the inspector and ask questions.

If you’re keenly interested in a property and want to put in an unconditional offer, but have some concerns, one option is to book an inspection prior to the offer date. By doing that, assuming the inspection doesn’t turn up any deal-breakers, you can submit a clean offer, but run the risk of paying for an inspection on a house you still end up being out bid on.

In our home-buying experience, my wife and I have spent money on home inspections for two different houses we didn’t end up buying. But, in each case, we considered it money well spent since we didn’t end up overpaying for a home we’d end up regretting.

Allan Britnell

Toronto-based freelancer Allan Britnell is an award-winning writer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He covers a diverse range of topics, including DIY and professional home renovation projects, nature and the environment, small business, personal finance, and family and health issues. He is also the managing editor of Renovation Contractor, the publication written for small- and medium-sized contracting and custom home building companies. He lives in Toronto with his wife, two daughters, and their dog, Oscar.

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