- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2000

The courtship is over. The papers are signed, and the house you fell in love with at first sight is yours. You are now officially "married" to the wonderful four-bedroom, three-bath masterpiece.
But as you walk through the picturesque front door, a hole in the wall that had been conveniently covered by a picture of the previous owner's dog comes to your attention. On further inspection, other imperfections annoy you and slowly drain your wallet. Maybe you should have gotten that home inspection.
Today, most mortgage companies and loan underwriters require potential homeowners to get home inspections. This thorough examination enables a homeowner to better understand the general workings, problems and structure of the house before big problems surface.
"Most of the time, a potential buyer is so involved in the romance of buying a home, it is hard for him to see some of the things that might be wrong with it," says Fred Reid, owner of Accurate Home Inspection Inc. in Warrenton, Va.
"Most buyers look at the overall picture of a home. They don't check to see if the window seals are damaged or if the caulking around the tub is sound. These are small items that can really wear on a home buyer if they have to replace them upon move-in."
There are more than 300 home inspectors in the metro area, who, on any given day, can do three to four inspections. The two- to three-hour process includes a thorough walk-through of the house by the inspector, who not only looks into crawl spaces and electrical boxes, but also checks faucets, runs appliances and looks in the smallest nooks and crannies of a home to evaluate potential problems.
"I guess it would be easy to think we are 'trying' to find fault with a home," says Tim Hockenberry, owner of Home Facts Inc. based in Vienna. "But really, we are looking at your home just like a doctor would check you out if he was giving you a physical."
Mr. Hockenberry, who has been an inspector for eight years, says medical analogies are the best way for him to explain the importance of a home inspection.
"A doctor likes to catch problems before they become bigger issues or illnesses," he says. "That's exactly what a home inspector does. It's easier to fix a small electrical problem. But when that problem is left unfixed and turns into a major electrical fire, then things can get out of hand."
Mr. Reid, who has been an inspector for six years, says a home inspector is a generalist. Although most inspectors have some specific area of expertise, they generalize their inspections when evaluating a home.
"We may be able to give you in-depth information on windows or on electrical work if that's our background, but we aren't contractors. We do not come in, inspect your home and then give you an estimate for the items we think need to be repaired or checked out," Mr. Reid says. "If a home inspector does that, his inspection isn't to be trusted. It's not objective."
The importance of an impartial home inspection goes much further, though. Not only do inspectors give you a thorough evaluation of your house and its health, Mr. Hockenberry says, but they also tell you how to keep your house in top condition.
"It really is part of the education process for being a homeowner," he says. "We give you general information on how to maintain and condition your property so that you can get full enjoyment from it."
Most inspections take two to three hours, depending on the condition of a home. Although the inspection process is the same for older and newer houses, an older house might have more visible flaws such as exposed wires and a leaky roof, while a newer house might have more "hidden" problems such as shoddy craftsmanship or construction.
"There can be a myriad of issues with older homes," Mr. Hockenberry says. "Homes were built different 30 years ago than they are today. For instance, it used to be common to place light fixtures in each room. But now, many are being built without light fixtures."
Mr. Reid and Mr. Hockenberry agree it's much easier to inspect a house that is empty, rather than one still occupied by the seller.
"An empty home gives an inspector more latitude in the inspection," Mr. Hockenberry says. "It's easier to see the walls when things aren't pushed up against them, and it's easier to move around in the crawl spaces."
Mr. Reid says home inspectors check an estimated 10,000 items during an inspection. Everything from mismatched door molding to a fully functional cooling system comes under scrutiny during the process. And while items in the home are of great concern to the owner, the inspector, when entering the neighborhood also makes mental notes when driving past other houses.
"The inspection begins long before we pull into the driveway of the home," Mr. Hockenberry says. "If we've been in the neighborhood before, we can easily figure out problems that are common to the subdivision, such as faulty roofing or sewage problems. Also, when driving through a neighborhood, we keep our eyes open to see if there are roofs being replaced throughout or if pipes have been dug up."
But inspectors are only human and guarantee they will find 70 percent to 80 percent of the problems in and outside the house.
"A good inspector will catch the big things, such as electrical problems or problems with weather stripping, etc.," Mr. Reid says. "And if he does miss anything, it will be the small things that don't amount to much."
Faults found within a house can be used at the bargaining table when a buyer and seller are negotiating the selling price. Larger items inspectors find that need maintenance can often be put into the contract to be fixed or replaced before ownership is transferred. And while do-it-yourself work by the seller is acceptable for some small repairs, inspectors recommend finding a professional in the specific field to make the necessary repairs.
When selecting an inspector, Mr. Reid says it is important to ask candidates how many inspections they have done, ask for references and also ask about their credentials. Although there isn't federal or state certification for home inspectors, Mr. Reid and Mr. Hockenberry recommend a buyer hire an inspector affiliated with the American Society of Home Inspectors.
"The society has a strong code of ethics and stringent standards for inspectors to adhere to," Mr. Hockenberry says. "If an inspector is a member, he is bound by those rules and guidelines."
Home inspections cost about $300 and are made part of the closing costs incurred by the buyer. Most inspectors are referred to a buyer by the real estate agent or a mortgage company.
"When problems are found in the home that could potentially cost a homeowner thousands of dollars, the cost of the inspection is justified," Mr. Hockenberry says. "And the knowledge a person can gain about their home is invaluable. It's an essential part of being an educated home buyer."

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