- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Although the number of homes sold has slowed compared with the fast-paced market of 2005, one group of real estate industry professionals has seen an upturn in business: home inspectors.

While the market was firmly in control by home sellers, many buyers opted not to have a home inspection out of fear they might lose the home they wanted to other buyers. Home inspectors were kept in business simply because of the high volume of transactions, some of which included inspections for information-only purposes and others for negotiating purposes.

Now, inspections have once again become a routine part of the home-buying process.

“More buyers are opting for home inspections now that we are seeing a level playing field in the housing market,” says Mark Dewey, marketing manager for Home Pro Inspections, which does inspections in the entire Washington area.

Joseph Walker, president of Claxton, Walker and Associates in Annapolis, says his company is experiencing a very busy winter, but he points out that home inspectors have a steady business no matter what the housing market does.

“When the market is really good, we do a lot of inspections just because the market is good,” Mr. Walker says. “When the market’s bad, more people get inspections. Now they are getting inspections for leverage, for getting the best price possible, not just for information.”

Home inspections typically cost $400 to $500 in the Washington metropolitan area, Mr. Walker says, although several factors influence the price, including the cost, size and age of the home.

Mr. Dewey says his average in Northern Virginia is $457.

“The cost also depends on how many heating and air conditioning systems a home has,” Mr. Walker says. “Some large homes have three, four or even five systems.”

Mr. Walker’s average cost for a home inspection is about $600, but sometimes a large, expensive home can cost $1,500 to inspect.

Buyers typically pay for the home inspection, although sometimes sellers opt to have a home inspection prior to placing their home on the market in order to determine what defects a buyer’s inspector may find.

“More conscientious sellers and more savvy sellers choose to do a home inspection before they put their home on the market because it can be better to know about a problem before a buyer is in the picture,” Mr. Dewey says. “The worst possible time to hear bad news about a problem in the home is when a qualified buyer wants to buy it.”

Mr. Walker suggests that seller inspections can be a “double-edged sword.”

“Once you know about a material defect you must disclose it,” Mr. Walker says. “On the other hand, you have an opportunity to fix things before the house goes on the market.”

Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List, a consumer group that provides members with access to local contractors and companies, says sellers of older homes may want to have a home inspection so they can be aware of issues they will need to fix or disclose prior to settlement.

“Buyers should never rely on the home inspection provided by a seller,” Ms. Hicks says. “Even if the sellers have had a home inspection, the buyer should pay to have their own. The buyers weren’t present at the seller’s inspection and cannot know whether the inspection was thorough.”

In today’s buyer’s market, home sellers typically need to either repair a problem found on an inspection or provide a cash credit for the work at the closing.

“Lots of buyers have the seller fix a problem found on an inspection, but it’s easier for the transaction to just provide the money for the repair,” Mr. Dewey says.

“The truth is, there are many ways to fix or replace things, and you can save thousands of dollars by doing it cheaply,” he says. “If the seller has had the inspection up front and is in control, they can choose who they want to do the job and how they want it fixed.”

Mr. Walker says that most often, buyers opt for sellers to provide the money for a repair work through a credit at the closing.

“If you’re a buyer, the last thing you want is the cheapest possible repair job done, which is likely to happen if the seller takes care of it,” Mr. Walker says. “The last thing sellers want is to get involved with fixing things in the home when they really just want to get out and move on to their next home.”

For buyers, the priority should be having a thorough inspection so that as many defects as possible can be identified before they purchase a home.

Many buyers rely on the recommendation of their real estate agent for a home inspector, but buyers should also check references and can find a home inspector on their own in addition to the one suggested by an agent.

“Home inspectors are not licensed in the D.C. area, although in Virginia there are qualifications which are required before becoming a certified home inspector,” Ms. Hicks says. “Becoming certified is voluntary in Virginia.”

Mr. Dewey says that in Maryland, home inspectors will be required to be licensed beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

Ms. Hicks says consumers should look for an experienced home inspector who has conducted at least 1,000 inspections and has been in business for a minimum of three to five years.

She also recommends searching for an inspector who is a member of either the National Association of Home Inspectors (www.NAHI.org) or the American Society of Home Inspectors (www.ASHI.org), both of which require demonstrated experience as an inspector.

In addition to checking on the inspector’s certification, consumers should ask for references, check their record with the Better Business Bureau or look for their record on Angie’s List.

“Consumers should make sure the inspector has insurance and ask to see a sample report before the inspection in order to understand what to expect,” Ms. Hicks says. “They should ask when to expect to receive the written report.”

Ms. Hicks suggests that, rather than waiting until they find a home and are rushing toward settlement, consumers should research home inspectors before looking for a home.

“If you find two or three home inspectors with a good reputation, then you have alternatives if one of them is busy when you are ready to put a contract on a house,” Ms. Hicks says.

Mr. Walker recommends that consumers ask how many inspections the inspector does per day.

“A really fast inspection on a small house could take as little as two hours,” says Mr. Walker, “but it’s more typical for an inspector to spend three or four hours on-site for a standard 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot home. But some inspectors do just the bare minimum, and it’s important for the buyer to quiz the inspector about the level of detail to expect.”

Home inspectors stress the importance of buyers attending the home inspection personally and asking questions.

Inspections are an opportunity for buyers to learn about the systems of their potential new home, where the water shut-off valve is and items that may require future attention, not just a negotiating tool for the purchase.

“If an inspector doesn’t want you to attend a home inspection, you should run the other way,” Mr. Dewey says. “You are simply not getting the education you need if you skip the inspection.”

Mr. Walker says it is particularly important for consumers to talk to the inspector during the entire inspection and to try to understand the relative importance of things.

“Sometimes the written report will make something minor seem as if it has greater significance than it does,” Mr. Walker says. “In person, a buyer can get clarification on what could be a more important issue.”

Ms. Hicks says consumers should be sure they understand what will be included in the home inspection.

“If they want a radon inspection or a pest inspection, that usually is a separate inspection,” Ms. Hicks says.

Mr. Dewey says the two most important places for a home inspector to check are the attic and the crawl spaces, since those are areas of the home few people inspect themselves.

Mr. Walker says, “While almost every house has a drainage issue or a cosmetic issue, negotiating usually focuses on other issues, such as an older furnace or windows that need replacing. We often find chimney issues in homes with fireplaces because even though people get them cleaned, they often neglect miscellaneous issues such as fixing crowns and pointing bricks.”

Inspectors usually focus on furnace and air conditioning systems and anything to do with water and potential or past leaks, such as the bathrooms, kitchens, walls, windows, roofs and flashing.

Mr. Walker says the biggest defect is usually homeowner workmanship.

“Inspectors usually wonder what’s behind the shoddy workmanship you often see when an inexperienced homeowner fixes something themselves,” Mr. Walker says.

Inspections are recommended even on small condominiums and new homes, Mr. Dewey says, because most condominiums have their own heating and air conditioning system, electrical panel and appliances.

Mr. Dewey and his company’s inspectors have often found defects in new homes.

“Buyers of new homes should absolutely have a home inspection because big problems can be found even in new construction,” Mr. Dewey says.

“Usually we find problems because the subcontractors on a new home each do their own thing without coordinating with everyone else,” he says. “For instance, the electrician has smashed the air conditioning ducts without realizing it. Sometimes things are simply forgotten or overlooked, such as insulation in the attic. Attic space is typically not a place the homeowners are going to be in, and it can be hard to access, so it’s important for an inspector to look at it.”

Now that the market gives buyers breathing room, having a home inspection could be the most important part of a real estate transaction.

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