What Exactly is a Home Inspection (and What is it Not?)
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
The intent of a home inspection seems straightforward, but the outcome can be confusing or unexpected if the right questions aren't asked. We'll get into all of that, but first, when is a home inspection conducted? Typically, someone - let's call her Mrs. Seller - is (you guessed it!) selling her house. Along comes Mr. Buyer. He loves the listing photos he saw on Zillow, has a great Realtor, can visualize being surrounded by friends and family in a backyard BBQ, and is ready to move in tomorrow...but real estate transactions don't usually happen overnight. Offers are made, negotiations between the parties take place, banks and title companies have their say, and the appraisal process unfolds. Oftentimes a Home Inspector is called in to take a good look around and make recommendations based on his or her professional judgement. The Home Inspector does not conduct the appraisal (I get this valid question a lot from first time homebuyers), does not comment on the market value of the home, and should not advise his or her client on how to proceed with their real estate transaction. The Home Inspector does, however, provide a written report on the overall condition of the house and make recommendations based on their findings. We'll explore that in detail a bit later.
Back to Mr. Buyer...if he did his homework, he would have reached out to a number of local Home Inspectors, discussed their experience and credentials, and made an informed decision about who to hire. Like in any profession, not all Home Inspectors are created equally. Many states have few - if any - regulations on who can perform a home inspection.
That said, the vast majority of clients I've served had done their due diligence and made an informed hire...and for good reason! Purchasing a home is a large investment and can be nerve wracking, emotional, and overwhelming! The Inspector's job is to alleviate some of that stress through their knowledge, experience, and complete objectivity - answering any questions along the way while leaving no condition overlooked. Most of the Home Inspectors I've crossed paths with (and myself) are vetted members of a professional organization like the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). We've been comprehensively trained and tested, and are required to follow strict guidelines found in the Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics. We complete 20 or more hours of continuing education every year. Many of us offer additional services (sewer scrope, mold/indoor air quality testing, thermography, etc) that vastly increase the value of your home inspection.
So let's dive into it! Mr. Buyer has asked all the right questions to narrow down his decision on which Inspector to hire:
Tell me a little bit about yourself, your company, and your qualifications.
Are you a member of a professional inspection organization?
Are you background verified?
Do your inspections have any exclusions?
When will I receive my report? In what format?
Do you offer any additional services and how long do those reports take?
This list is by no means all inclusive, but is a good start that left Mr. Buyer satisfied and ready to hire his Inspector. Typically, the client will be presented with a pre-inspection agreement. This contract will discuss in detail the scope of the inspection, any limitations or exclusions, additional services the client elected to purchase, and the total fee due.
According to ASHI (most other professional inspection organizations have similar verbiage), an Inspector is required to inspect readily accessible, visually observable, installed systems and components. If, for whatever reason, a system or component was present but not inspected, the Inspector needs to annotate why. If an inspected item is not functioning properly, has a significant defect, is unsafe, or is near the end of its service life, that should be noted. Any recommendations to correct, monitor, or seek more technical evaluation on a deficient item should also be included.
A written report comes with your inspection. Nowadays, most Inspectors utilize electronic reporting software. Some generate the report on a tablet in real time while others take photos, jot down notes, and then compile the report from a computer that evening. Once in a while you'll still see hand written reports from an era gone by, but these are few and far between. In today's computer-based world, an easy to read inspection report delivered by email is the standard. You should expect nothing less than a professional report from your inspection, and requesting an example or two prior to making your hiring decision is not uncommon. Inspection reports, like Inspectors themselves, vary greatly. This document is ultimately the finished product you're paying for and is what will be referenced in our hypothetical situation when Mrs. Seller negotiates any final repairs with Mr. Buyer prior to closing. Your report needs to be clear and concise and you should be comfortable reading and understanding its contents. A few of my sample reports can be found here - the final product is clean, well organized, intuitive, absent of confusing technical jargon, and even has imbedded videos when applicable. Prefer a paper copy? No problem. Most inspection software allows the finished report to be exported and printed as a .pdf file.
Let's break down a couple phrases from the ASHI Standards...this will help illustrate what an inspection is, and clear up some questions on what it is not. But first, know that my inspection (and generally most other professional Inspectors) will be looking critically at your house, top to bottom - inside and out. This includes elements of your foundation and structure, exterior, roof, plumbing, electrical, heating and cooling, interior, insulation and ventilation, and fireplace systems. These are the "systems and components" listed in the Standards.
But what do those terms "readily accessible" and "visually observable" mean? Well, take for instance an electric panel located in the garage. If that component, which obviously should be inspected, is not readily accessible because a mountain of storage shelves, moving boxes, bikes, vehicles, or other personal belongings that are blocking the path, the Inspector typically will not move any of those items out of the way. The condition will be documented and a recommendation for further evaluation will be given as soon as the space is cleared enough to inspect the component. That said, some Inspectors will go spelunking through the labyrinth to reach the panel. Others will see if the homeowner is available to clear a passage, or maybe even return at a later time to inspect the component once it's more accessible.
"Visually observable" seems pretty obvious, but is a very important term to define and understand. Inspectors cannot comment on something they cannot see with their own eyes. Sure, there are specialized tools that many Inspectors carry to help "see" more, but using additional means beyond one's own eyes exceeds the standard that many Inspectors adhere to. Probably the most common example of an installed system that can never be inspected visually is the inside of a sewer pipe. Without the use of a sewer scope camera (an additional service that I and many other Inspectors offer), we simply cannot comment on the condition of a sewer system. We do conduct a "functional flow test" as the next best thing that can be visually observed during the home inspection (more on this process, repair costs associated, and the benefits of a sewer inspection here), but that simply cannot give us an accurate picture of what's going on inside the sewer pipe.
Another common example of an inspection item I often run into that cannot be visually observed is attic insulation. Of course, if attic access is available, that's a different story. But many of the homes I inspect are older (early-mid 1900s) with limited or no attic access. Based on our understanding of building practices during that period, we can surmise that the insulation in the attic is probably insufficient, but the only way to tell would be through destructive measures ie. poking a hole in a wall or ceiling to have a look inside. Some attics with knee wall access panels may provide clues, but visibility varies greatly from home to home based on wall and ceiling coverings.
With that in mind, I offer an infrared inspection add on service. Infrared wavelengths are certainly not visible without specialized equipment, but offering this additional service provides a better overall inspection with my clients' best interest in mind. By using infrared technology, I've been able to find defects in insulation, inefficiencies in heating and cooling systems, and hidden roof leaks - just to name a few - all of which would have been invisible to the naked eye.
What about "installed systems and components?" Doesn't that include...everything?! Well, no. The goal of an inspection is to determine safety and function. Inspectors are as thorough as possible given their knowledge and if they choose to exceed the Standards - but inspections are not technically exhaustive. Regardless of inspection methods, some latent defects simply cannot be seen and may not surface for quite some time, especially in a vacant home in which the systems have not been used regularly. This is why a home inspection is sometimes referred to as a "snapshot in time"...the conditions noted were at the time of the inspection only - not before, not after. Additionally, Inspectors typically will not comment on cosmetic issues (minor carpet stains, peeling wallpaper, thin cracks in plaster or drywall that are common with seasonal changes, etc).
In addition, Inspectors are typically generalists. We pride ourselves in uncovering problems, highlighting safety concerns, answering questions, speaking intelligently about systems and components, making recommendations, and seeking higher credentials throughout our careers. Most of us, however, are not technicians or specialists. We do not hold the licenses or qualifications required.
Compare this, for instance, to your family's doctor. He or she is probably a General Practitioner. A doctor, no doubt, with an impressive educational background and a wealth of knowledge about health conditions and anatomy combined with the requisite credentials to practice medicine. If your doctor has a concern or uncovers a condition that warrants further evaluation or treatment, they refer you to the appropriate specialist. The same holds true for Home Inspectors. If we find a condition that, in our professional judgement, is unsafe or defective, we refer you to the correct specialist who holds the technical knowledge and regulated licensing to evaluate and fix the problem. Just like a General Practitioner probably isn't qualified to conduct brain surgery, a Home Inspector likely isn't trained to overhaul a Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system.
Now let's discuss repairs and costs associated. No house is perfect, and your inspection will almost certainly yield defects (minor and/or major) and will have comments and advice as necessary. While some homes have been better maintained than others, they are all constructed of materials that can degrade and they all contain systems, equipment, and components with their own "useful service life." Different climates, overall usage, quality of installation, and how often maintenance or tune-ups have been conducted all impact that service life.
Three of the many components that we look at are your furnace, air conditioner, and water heater. A general rule states that the service life of a furnace is approximately 20 years, an air conditioner about 15 years, and a water heater 10 years or so (these will vary with different systems like geothermal, tankless, etc). That said, I have seen a 40 year old gas furnace still going strong. Because we know the typical service life is half that, I would report as such and recommend further evaluation. That old furnace might be fine today and the homeowners may insist they've maintained it perfectly with no issues, but that doesn't mean it will be fine tomorrow or after you close and move in. On the flipside, I have seen a 3 year old water heater at nearly complete failure - could have been a faulty product or an improper installation, but these big ticket items can be costly to repair or replace.
How much will the repairs cost, you ask? Your Inspector typically can't say with certainty because again, we're not licensed technicians or installers. Labor and material costs can vary greatly among different contractors, too. I can say, though, that multiple cost averaging websites like Home Advisor, Modernize, and Home Guide all have a national average of more than $5,500 (as of 2020) to replace central air conditioning. Costs will differ by region and by scope of the job, but these large systems are worth having a licensed technician analyze in much more detail if your Inspector notes a concern.
I hope this information has helped clear up some questions while providing a better understanding of the home inspection process. If you found it useful, please share it with a friend and as always, call, text, or email at any time with questions or to schedule your home inspection! Don't want to miss future blog posts? Click here and subscribe at the bottom of the page!
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.