In real estate transactions, the unspoken rule is caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware.
Sometimes, it's even the spoken rule. For example: If you're purchasing a home in Massachusetts, the seller has no legal responsibility to tell you … well, almost anything, other than letting you know about the presence of a septic system and lead paint.
(Some states expect sellers to be a bit more forthcoming – you can browse a list of state disclosure laws here.)
Sellers are obliged to answer your questions honestly, which relies on you knowing what to ask. If you discover an issue after purchase, it's on you to prove the seller knew about it first.
So what is the best response to caveat emptor? Naturally, it's the home inspection – a tool that helps you make sound, fact-based decisions about the home the seller hopes you're already mentally moving into.
What is a home inspection?
A home inspection evaluates your home's property, structural soundness, and major systems, and any appliances that will be sold with it.
When does a home inspection happen?
Soon after you and the homeowner agree on a selling price; most buyers specify that the offer is contingent on the home passing an inspection.
Who can perform a home inspection?
There are three inspection licensing bodies:
- American Society of Home Inspectors
- International Association of Certified Home Inspectors
- National Academy of Building Inspection Engineers
Working with an inspector who's achieved certification through at least one of them is strongly suggested. Check that their company is bonded and insured. Discuss the options with your agent and ask for referrals. They know the professionals in your area, and they know their own reputation rests on future recommendations from satisfied clients. They have a significant incentive to guide you in the right direction.
How much will a home inspection cost?
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, $300 to $500; in expensive markets like Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco, it's safe to estimate higher. That said, $500 – or even $1000 – to ensure an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars is safe seems like a good deal.
Who sets up and pays for the home inspection?
The buyers' agent makes the arrangements, coordinating with the seller's agent to schedule the visit. The buyers are responsible for the cost of the inspection.
How long will the inspection last?
The inspection generally takes up to four hours, though it may take more.
Who goes to the inspection?
- The home inspector
- The seller's agent
What will the inspector look at?
From the roof, gutters, and flashing around the chimney; across the siding, around each door and window frame, to caulking, grout, and masonry; into the attic, with its ventilation and insulation; through the electrical, heating/cooling, and plumbing systems; scoping for hidden signs of water damage or decay, pinpointing evidence of old problems that may have been fixed or current ones that may have been camouflaged; surveying cracks on the wall – cosmetic or structural? Back outside, checking grading and drainage, exterior structures, downspout locations, the soundness of decks and stairs; the basement and mechanicals; the presence of pests (like termites) – the inspector can cover these things and so much more.
What happens after the inspection?
Within 48 hours – in many cases, within a day – you will get a copy of the inspection report.
Your agent will walk you through it, and you'll start negotiating which issues the seller will address and how. They may offer to make the repairs, promise credit, or drop the sale price – or they may stand firm with a take-it-or-leave-it line.
No matter what happens afterward, having the result of the inspection empowers you to be a smarter buyer.