Home Inspection

A web log for homeowners, prospective homeowners and home sellers in the subject of Home Inspections, presented by I. G. "Zack" Lilienfeld, PE, Licensed New Jersey Home Inspector and Consulting Engineer


Selling? How to Prepare for a Home Inspection


Will your home be inspected shortly at the request of the buyers of your home?  The home inspector is required to perform this inspection following a set of State or Association standards.  It is a visual, generalist inspection, along with the use of some testing equipment including a moisture meter, outlet tester, combustible gas detector, and perhaps other diagnostic tools.  During the inspection, the home inspector will need to have safe access to the front of the electrical panel(s), entry areas for crawlspace or attic, as well as having access to the water heater, and heating/cooling equipment. 

It is in your best interest to have your home "inspection-ready".   Home inspectors cannot perform their job properly if components or systems that they need to evaluate are either inaccessible or unavailable to operate. And, more importantly for you, the buyer of your home can be left with unanswered questions and uncertainties as to conditions of equipment or areas that cannot be inspected, which may create doubt about their moving forward with the purchase of your home.  When a home inspector reports that a key component is "inaccessible" or "out of service", and the buyer asks the inspector to make a return trip to inspect these items after they are made available, the seller is often looked upon to pay for the inspector’s return visit fee.   Do not expect that the home inspector will move your furniture, belongings or laundry to access appliances or key inspection areas; they are not required to do so by the home inspection standards of practice, as this activity can lead to damage of flooring, possessions or furniture.

To assist you in preparing for the home inspection, here is a checklist with some important tips:

  • Clear out clutter and supplies from bathroom vanities and under the kitchen sink, to allow the inspector to view pipes and valves when checking for condition, and for leaks.
  • Remove clothing, shelves and clothes racks from closets containing the attic access hatch, to enable the home inspector to reach the hatch with a ladder, and to prevent dust and insulation from the attic from dropping down onto your possessions and clothing.
  • If one is installed, remove the insulating blanket from the water heater to permit a visual inspection of the tank, and provide access to the manufacturer's nameplate on the side.
  • Remove laundry from washing machines and dryers, in the event the home inspector elects to optionally test these appliances.  If the laundry equipment is not going with the sale, it is recommended that you place a note explaining this on the laundry equipment.
  • Ovens (including built-in microwaves), cook-tops and ranges will be tested for function, so remove any decorative burner covers, pots, pans, plastic and wood items and other combustibles that do not belong in, or on these appliances
  • Open all of the blinds, shades and curtains on windows and doors.  These are considered decorative items and are not part of a home inspection.  Window or door blinds can fall off or break when attempting to open them, and sometimes window blinds fail to retract after opening.  Blinds and shades can be fragile or improperly mounted, and when they detach or collapse, can cause consequential damage to breakables below.
  • Remove trinkets, ornaments and collectables from harm's way, including the top of the range, windows sashes and sills, doorways and other areas the home inspector will access.  
  • If the home has a natural gas fireplace, be sure it is set up and ready to go with the flip of a switch or press of a button.  Home inspectors who are following the standards of practice will not turn on primary gas valves or ignite pilot lights.
  • Clear out the area in front of fireplaces, including andirons, logs, and screens.  And, open any hinged glass doors to permit free access to these areas.
  • Place all remote controls for ceiling fans, fireplaces and ductless split system air conditioners in plain view, so that these fixtures and appliances can be tested.
  • Open all locks on outside showers, garage doors, keyed bolt locks, outdoor electrical main disconnect compartments, crawlspace or attic access hatches, storage rooms and closets, to enable these areas to be opened up and visually inspected.
  • Clearly label any defective appliances, garage doors or other components that you are aware of, so the home inspector does not attempt to operate them without this knowledge.  While home inspectors are liable for negligence (and most have liability insurance), do not expect a home inspector to assume responsibility for direct or indirect damage caused by attempting to properly operate a defective component or system.
  • Be sure that all circuit breakers are switched on in the panel.  Home inspectors who are following the standards of practice will not turn on breakers, and appliances or outlets that are inactive cannot be tested.  Also, be sure to turn on water valves to the washing machine, and outside shower & hose bibs (winter months excepted) so these items can be tested.
  • Where practical, consider moving furniture away from electrical outlets behind them, since home inspectors following the standards of practice will not move furniture or possessions to reach blocked outlets.
  • Dogs and cats and other house pets should be caged or removed from the home, otherwise they may escape via an open door during the inspection.
  • Lastly, remove child-proof devices from electric receptacles and cabinet doors & drawers.

Attending the Inspection?

If you are purchasing a home, do you plan on attending the home inspection service?  If so, I am sure that you want the best possible inspection.  So, I recommend that you avoid some inspection day pitfalls.  here's what you need to know:
  1. Please always keep in mind that this is still someone else’s house.  You have hired your inspector to test and operate systems and components within and outside the home, so there is no need for you to spend your valuable time doing what I will be doing (or have already done).  I unfortunately have stories of clients who damaged something in a home I was inspecting.  For example, attempting to operate a powered garage door that is latched shut can result in significant damage to the door or hardware.  Likewise, sliding out a refrigerator from the wall can cause the icemaker line to disconnect or tear, causing a flood.  And, tearing a window blind off the wall.   Please be aware that should you (or one of your guests) cause damage to the home or its contents, you will be responsible for any repairs.  Bringing food into the house will cause some sellers to go ballistic if it is not clean.  Also, testing or operating appliances may make it more difficult for me to properly evaluate conditions.  For example, opening the door to the dishwasher that I am testing will shut it down, so that it does not complete its cycle before the end of my inspection. 
  2. Your home inspector realizes that you are excited and may want your family and friends to see the home.  However, the day of the home inspection is not intended for family gatherings.  To the extent reasonably possible, please limit the people you bring to your “significant other”.  Toddlers and curious parents (and grandparents) can create unintended consequences, not the least of which is damaging furnishings and the seller’s family heirlooms which are likely irreplaceable.  Children can get into places they don’t belong in a matter of seconds, with injury or damage a real possibility in a home they don’t know.  Friends and family can re-open exterior doors I have already locked, so I may inadvertently leave the home unprotected when I depart.   Operating an oven that I have already tested may result in it being accidentally left on, a safety concern and potential for high utility bill charges.  Turning thermostats up or down will adversely affect my testing process, and I will not be able to put everything back the way it was if I don’t know the original setting.  And, while answering your questions is welcome, having multiple people who are not buying the home asking me questions can become a distraction which impairs my ability to do a thorough job for you.  Lastly, kindly leave your pets outside, in your car, or at home; the day of the home inspection is not the time to introduce your new home to your pet. 
  3. The most important part of the home inspection is the very end, when your home inspector can go over their findings.  If I find something significant that warrants pulling you aside during the inspection, rest assured that I will show you.  Otherwise, I will concentrate on doing the most thorough job I can in evaluating the systems and components of your now home, and cover what I find at the end.  If you don’t have the time to attend the entire inspection, consider arriving about an hour before your inspector plans to be done.


Awkward Home Inspection Situations

Besides needing to know their business, home inspectors also need to be adept at handling awkward situations with grace and dignity. Here are a few situations that come to mind that I encountered during or after inspections:

  1. "I need to have you say in your report that the water heater needs to be replaced". (Alternatingly, replace "water heater" with "roof", "A/C unit", or "electrical wiring"). These statements, from clients, suggest that the home inspectors needs to be coached to obtained the desired outcome. If a water heater needs to be replaced, I say so. If it is old, dirty, or ugly, those are not valid reasons to replace a water heater. If it heats water and is not leaking, and is safe based on a visual inspection, then it does not need to be replaced. So, I let my client know the facts, and let the chips fall where they may.
  2. "Why are you here so long... There is nothing wrong with my house". This was told to me by a 93 year old circuit court judge, 45 minutes into my inspection of his five bedroom home. I'm glad that he was not hearing a case where my life was in jeopardy, since he was not clearly dealing with the facts. I asked my client to distract the gentleman while I continued on.
  3. "Wow, that must have just started leaking!" Typical statement from a home seller when I find a water intrusion issue that was clearly visible and long-standing. I try to be diplomatic.
  4. "You are wasting your time up there. The city building inspector just inspected the house and it passed with flying colors." A classic line from a builder, just before I found that his plumbing contractor failed to solvent-weld the A/C condensate drain line in the attic, leaving the pipe sections and fittings laying neatly on the attic insulation ready to be assembled. As this was a winter inspection, the next summer A/C season would have likely resulted in a collapsed ceiling in the master bedroom.
  5. "There is no underground fuel oil tank on the property, you must be mistaken". Told to my client by the current seller of the home, who swore to that because when he bought the home, that's what he was told by the seller. Oh well.........
  6. "This house is in "PERFECT SHAPE". Told to my client by the agent representing the seller, in my presence, before I began the home inspection. I suspect this was a case of wishful thinking. Perfection is in the eye of the commission recipient in this case, I suppose.
  7. "I'll keep referring you to my clients until you f*!# up my deal". Comment from a very successful real estate agent. While embarassed at this transparent attempt to influence my objectivity, I nonetheless responded by thanking him for including me on his "short list" but suggested that he only refer me to clients that were interested in a thorough home inspector who's job it is to look out for my clients' best interests.


Reporting Structural Defects

Home inspectors are generalists, and as such, are usually not equipped to report on the nuances of the many types of structural defects except to note areas of concern and, perhaps some detail when the defect is obvious. So, as a home buyer or seller, you may be told that a structural defect was found, and that an "engineer should be consulted to evaluate and make recommendations". Mind you, this is not a cop-out by the home inspector, its just that they are not specialists and indeed, there are structural issues that do require an engineer to give the final word. However, because many a real estate deal has hit the wall because of a simple statement like "consult with a structural engineer", I thought it appropriate to elaborate on my somewhat unique perspective as a licensed NJ home inspector and professional engineer.

Lets start with the definition of a "defect". In New Jersey, inspectors are required to report on "material defects". While there is some disagreement among inspectors as to the precise definition of this phrase in the real world, I interpret it to be "something wrong that a buyer might want to know about". Some of my clients are the type who obsess over the smallest detail, others tell me that they don't care except if its "major". So, I report the insignificant to the major defects, but educate my clients on which is which. In particular, I consider what the NEXT home inspector will say when the home is re-sold a few years down the road. They may not be so precise in their description of the issue.

Now, on to structural "defects". As I stated earlier, many real estate deals have died a painful death because the home inspector called out a defect and recommended a consulting engineer. Some of these were no doubt legitimate, however some were the result of inexperience or poor wording of the report by the inspector. Myself, I avoid inflamatory words/phrases like "severe", hazard", and "structural failure" in my reporting, preferring to use these only when the home is indeed falling over. In which case, I would not be inside doing the inspection out of my own desire for self-preservation. Rather, I give the condition a thoughtful reflection, and report honestly and fairly on what I see. I can do this, because my goal is not to perform the fastest home inspection possible, but rather to give the most value for my client's hard-earned money. Perhaps being an engineer gives me a better perspective on the issues. However, I too refer out to a consulting engineer on occasion, because I do not do specialist inspections when performing a New Jersey Standards of Practice home inspection.

Now, on to the conditions when recommending an engineer makes sense. If the foundation wall is cracked or bowing, or showing signs of structural deformation or differential settlement, I may recommend that a consulting engineer be consulted, depending on the extent. Minor vertical cracks are not structurally significant, and if cracks are less than 1/4" and not rotated (bigger on one end than the other), these are due to either normal settlement or shrinkage (poured concrete walls in particular), and I usually note them but not as structurally significant. On the other hand, a foundation wall that is pushing in more than 1" in 4' of height is a concern worthy of a specialist, because repairs will likely be required. Likewise, I note structural roof issues that cause the ridge to sag excessively, and the walls to be pushed out where the rafters meet the wall, these too are structural concerns requiring a specialist. And, if I find support issues like lack of a column or pier under a point where one should be, these suggest that an engineer be consulted. Basically, if a repair will require a professional evaluation and design of a solution, I refer out.

When don't I call for an engineering evaluation? If it's wood framing issues related to water intrusion or termite damage, or things like wood support posts in contact with the soil, I think these can be adequately handled by a qualified framing contractor. Replacing damaged wood does not require an engineer to come in. When I find a joist or rafter cracked or delaminated, or a notched-out joist to run a plumbing drain, this is a framer's domain. However, I have seen these simple issues made needlessly scary, time and again in other inspection reports, because an inspector was quick to say an engineer was needed. I can't think of a bigger waste of money and valuable real estate transaction time than waiting for a professional engineer to visit the home for a consult, to look at a damaged sill plate and say it needs to be replaced. By that time, a framing contractor could have already made the proper repair.

Now, what do you do when a home inspector says an engineer needs to be consulted? The question is usually "who pays for this additional service"? Is it part of the home buyer's due diligence? Most buyers don't want to pay for an engineer when its possible the deal will never happen. The seller is usually obligated to repair any structural defects, but what if the problem is not substantial and does not need a professionally designed solution? Can't a framing contractor jut come out and fix the issue? In my opinion, if its a conventional framing issue, let the seller get a contractor in to repair the defect. If its related to the masonry foundation wall or is an issue that will require new underpinning such as a column or pier, or replacement of a beam that is sagging due to a long span, then the seller should get the engineer in who will specify the proper repairs. Note that if there is a structural issue requiring a municipal permit upon repair, an engineer will likely be needed to sign off on the repair anyway.



Deal-Breakers? Lenders Supplant Home Inspectors for the Role

Its pretty much a given that most real estate agents looks at the buyer's home inspection as the last potential monkey-wrench to be thrown into their real estate deal. And, while wearing my home inspector hat, I've been in more than one conversation with an agent who feels compelled to remind me of the fact that home inspectors are "deal-breakers". However, as a home inspector I'm relieved to say that a new phenomenon has arisen with real estate transactions that has taken the pressure off us as the deal-killers. Its now the mortgage lender.

Lenders seem to have suddenly found Religion. What I mean by this is that due to the well-documented real estate implosion and the dubious role some lenders had played in stoking the over-inflated real estate bubble, lenders are now super-critical of not only obsessively documenting the credit-worthiness of borrowers, but even more so, verifying that the homes being backed by their mortgage have the underlying value (duh). They do not want to be chastised as the bad guys, forcing their onerous mortgages on unsuspecting and unworthy buyers, something that the media has really played on recently. So, they no longer rely on buyers to supply their own income information (their position is that "buyers are liers"; they get your past tax returns directly from the IRS now) and they no longer play fast and loose with the appraisal (its a sad fact that some banks unfairly dangled the "future business" carrot in front of appraisers, in return for a softball appraisal that would grease the loan approval process). Everyone in the lending process is now diligently and nervously covering all of ther bases, especially appraisers and inspectors. What this means is that mortgage underwriters, who would formerly glossed over the paperwork and perhaps obsessed over a buyer's late electric bill payment from five years earlier, now scrutinize the termite inspector's report and the appraiser's report with fear and loathing. (They do not yet require a look at the buyer's home inspection report - guess what's next?) Anything that could be construed as a risk results in the loan process grinding to a halt. Hence, the new Deal-Killers.

News flash: In one recent week, I received two separate calls from buyers' real estate agents, frantic that their hard work was in jeopardy due to a lender balking at approving a mortgage because of an issue the lender was apprised of, relating to the home. I'll give you two examples.

Potential Deal-Breaker #1: A home inspection client and their agent called me the Monday before a scheduled end of week closing, to relate that their Credit Union was rejecting their mortgage application because the appraiser included within his appraisal writeup some language about structural concerns. The appraiser was simply being naturally cautions - another fallout of the real estate environment - because he had recently heard from someone in the neighberhood claiming that the homes in the area "had no foundations". This would never have required more than a cursory phone call by the ambivalent lender in the past, but in this environment, the cautionary language was treated about as warmly by the credit union as a loose jackhammer in a minefield - the deal was D-E-A-D unless the loan underwriters were appeased. As the home inspector, I performed visual inspections only, otherwise I would go outside the bounds of the NJ state statute for licensed home inspectors , not to mention my E&O insurance coverage and professional liability risk. Foundations are buried beneath the ground, and as a home inspector I cannot tell if the home is sitting on a concrete footing or mozzarella cheese, and neither can the appraiser. Fortunately, as a licensed professional engineer who also does structural evaluations through my engineering company, I was able to change hats and do some probing and shoveling of the ground. Lo and behold, a foundation! By Tuesday evening, my foundation evaluation report was in the hands of my client and presumably shortly thereafter, the credit union.

Potential Deal-Breaker #2: Yet another credit union got a case of the jitters and was thus jeopardizing an impending real estate closing because they were informed through the buyer's termite inspection report that there was "suspected structural damage possibly caused by termites and there is no evidence of a past treatment". Again, the termite inspector was being cautious because they cannot always tell if the suspect wood is structural or not, and also cannot do destructive evaluations to see what is behind an area of suspected damage that is concealed. A contractor was hurredly called in to do structural repairs, and I was asked to verify that the work was performed in a workmanlike manner. I met on-site with the parties prior to the work commencing and while I clearly saw some rot, the questionable wood turned out to be baseboard and window trim and not at all structural. I wrote up a report stating that needed repairs were by all accounts cosmetic, and the deal was back on track.

What's to be leared from this? Buyers, don't wait to the last minute for your inspections, it leaves very little time to get a prfessional back in to do further evaluations and het things back to the bank by the closing date. Second, if your home inspector or termite inspector identifies potential structural issues, get clarifications from them and if needed, perhaps a second opinion from a structral engineer to help minimize the uncertainty. Sellers, it helps to get a sellers inspection prior to putting the home on the market, so any bank or insurance company hot-button issues (structural defects, knob and tube wiring, buried fuel oil tank, roof issues etc.) are addressed BEFORE the buyers and the bank bring in their people to evaluate your home. This way, issues can be resolved way before crunch-time, when deals can become shaky.

Coming up soon - Insurance companies get Religion. (Can you spell A-I-G?) Stay tuned!


"Your Home Inspector Should Have Caught That!"

Home inspectors, like most humans, are not perfect. So, sooner or later a home inspector will get a call from a past client that they found something in their new home that was not in the inspection report. More often than not, the issue was likely something that was hidden to the inspector by the former owner's bookcase or carpet, and was revealed when the object was eventually moved, or a problem that developed after the inspection, like a water leak after a heavy rainstorm. In all cases, whether the inspector missed something or the item was undetectable to the inspector, the inspector should be consulted before the repair if possible, to give him/her an opportunity to see what's up.

Recently, I received a two phone calls where my clients explained that there was repair work required by them due to a defect, and that their plumber/electrician/handyman exclaimed "your home inspector should have caught that!" The implication was that I missed the problem, and if so, I'd be liable for the repair. These calls naturally left me with a sinking feeling, so I wanted to get to the bottom of things to see if I had indeed slipped up. In my fact-finding, I was alarmed to find out that the "issues" were not so much defects requiring repair, as they were contractors looking for work in a declining home repair market. Coupled with the fact that I operate primarily in a resort area (where owners are not local and have to rely on local tradespeople to evaluate the situation), the perfect storm now exists for less than honorable contractors to create work for themselves at the expense of home inspectors who are fingered as the culprit by the contractor, using the hard-earned cash of the unsuspecting homeowner.

One instance involved a client who was extensively renovating an older home she bought. In the process of changing out a vanity, the sink trap disintegrated. The contractor parlayed this small issue into replacement of lengths of copper domestic water pipe and the shower piping and valve, plus other incidentals. I was told by the client that according to the plumber the plumbing was a "mess". Fortunately, the general contractor saved the plumbing parts that were removed and I confirmed my suspicions after seeing the "mess". After looking over the work that was done and the pipes and components removed, I believe she was overcharged for work that was in fact unnecessary. The contractor (who did not hire the plumber) offered up that he had the same observation which he also shared with the owner.

Another instance involved a client who was told by the electrician that her electric wiring was not "up to code" and that it would need to be replaced. He said, of course, "your home inspector should have caught that". Well, for the uninformed, there is no requirement anywhere that says that a home built in 1960 must be brought up to current code, except if there is renovation work being performed. This is a make-work comment. If this were true, nearly every home built more than five years ago would require the services of a contractor to replace windows, raise handrails, install wind strapping, replace staircases, and perform a myriad of other things to bring the home up to "code". No preexisting home would be sold in this environment. Replacing an outlet or installing a ceiling fan does not require the rewiring a house, unless you are a contractor looking for a Caribbean vacation. Unfortunately, this client went ahead with the work and needlessly spent the money, and was upset with me until I explained what the truth was.

Besides these two instances, I have been brought in on several situations where homeowners wanted a second opinion on items they were told needed to be done on their homes by contractors. When I examined the situations, I can only use the word "egregious" to explain what the contractors were attempting to do. Case in point: A four-year old home where a deck extension had been installed without correct flashing, resulting in water intrusion into the pressboard subfloor beneath vinyl flooring. The owner was looking to take action against the builder for the subsequent damage, which a contractor they brought in told them would cost between $20,000 and $30,000 to fix. Mind you, the area of damaged floor was about 4" by 10" in size in a corner of the room. No framing was compromised. After looking at the "damage" and the likely cause, I figured that on the outside, $800 to $1,000 would completely fix the water intrusion problem, probably less.

A second problem called to my attention was a leak into a ceiling over a kitchen. The owners of a recently-purchased renovated home suspected a leak from where a second floor deck attached to the home, so they called in a deck contractor, whose solution was to remove the deck, install new flashing and reinstall the deck at a cost of $7,500. The owners paid a deposit but contacted me and asked for a second opinion. What I found was a hole in the exterior wall where the air conditioning refrigerant line sets enter the home (the condensing unit was on the deck, hence the hole for the refrigerant lines). The renovator never puttied the hole, so when it rained, the water went in the hole, into the wall and leaked onto the ceiling below. The fix? $3.00 worth of putty from Lowes. That's a lot less than $7,500. The people were able to get their deposit back, thank goodness.

The reality is, there are a lot of contractors out there that had tons of work two years ago but are now scratching around for tidbits in this uncertain home construction/renovation market. Rather than go on unemployment, or file for bankruptcy, those less than honorable ones are resorting to "make-work" projects and overcharging, or both. And, its convenient to tell a recent home buyer that "your home inspector should have caught that". If you find yourself in this situation, please call your home inspector right away. If nothing else, even if the inspector was not at fault, your inspector can guide you through the process of resolving the issue without you being overcharged. Or, if the inspector indeed did miss a material defect that was present at the time of the inspection, steps can be taken to amicably resolve the dispute at that time. Then, save your anger for the unscrupulous contractor!



How Much Do You Charge?

I did a lot of thinking before I decided to create this post. It seems that in this difficult real estate market, I am getting an unusual number of calls from home inspection prospects who ask me this as their lead-in question: "How much do you charge"? I wanted to address this because buyers really need to ask themselves, "Do I want value for my inspection dollar, or simply a low cost inspection?"

Certainly, everyone needs to know how much a service they are considering will cost. However, when it is Question #1 to the home inspector, this most often means that this is the most important question to a prospective home buyer. It also means that the individual is likely price shopping for the lowest cost home inspector.

In my area, most homes go for over $250,000, and the going rate for a home inspection by a qualified professional is $350 to $450 for a typical 3 bedroom home. This means that for an average $400 inspection, the buyer would be paying 0.18% of the price of their home for a professional home inspection. That's 0.18, just under 1/5 of 1%. Lets put that $400 into perspective:

  • Cost to replace one natural gas-fired water heater, $700
  • Cost of above, if adjacent HVAC unit is blocking water heater in closet, $2,300
  • Cost to replace one toilet, $450
  • Cost to upgrade antiquated and substandard electric service entrance and panel, $1,500
  • Cost to replace garbage disposal, $350
  • Cost to install new asphalt shingle roof $3,500
  • Cost to replace outdoor A/C unit $1,200
  • Cost to replace five floor joists in crawl space damaged by wood-destroying insects, $750
  • Cost of above, plus replacing 8 feet of damaged sill plate, $1,800
  • Cost to properly abandon underground oil tank left in after natural gas conversion, $1,200
  • Cost of above, if tank was found have leaked oil and requiring environmental clean-up, $10,000+

What gives me pause is that the same people who would not bat an eye when paying their auto mechanic $70 an hour to fix their car at the local gas station have a hard time paying a professional inspector about the same amount per hour to carefully look at their soon-to-be-new $250,000 home and prepare a professional report (something that takes me about six hours total, not counting drive time). And, the mechanic just fixes the car.....the home inspector ususally saves the buyer hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars that the buyer would have otherwise had to pay out themselves upon discovering the problem after moving in.

I try to determine if my prospect is looking for value, because if they are looking for cheap, I will save myself a lot of time by giving them the name of another local home inspector who charges $180 for a 45 minute inspection. This guy would be good deal if the goal is to get through the home inspection with the most money left in your pocket. I routinely hear from my clients that they want someone who is thorough, because the "last guy" missed so much. These clients appreciate that I take three hours or more, checking every accessible switch, outlet and window, rather than just "a representative sample" as required by the NJ Statutes. Also, the time I take to explain what I found, provide guidance on which items are the most importante and/or most expensive to repair, and provide a report with photos that takes all of the guesswork out of the process. A crawlspace inspection can take up to 30 minutes alone, and I walk nearly every roof when its safe and won't cause damage. I could produce an on-the-spot report like some of my peers, however spot judgements require snap decisions.

Some issues require careful consideration of things like the home's age. I often call to a manufacturer to see if a particular installation was performed as they specify, or contacting the municipality to see about permits for renovation work that I see that appeard slip-shod or incomplete. Inspectors who speed through an inspection, no matter how experienced, risk missing defects or incorrectly calling something a defect that is not really a defect. These inspection mistakes jeopardize real estate deals, especially in this market with buyers who can afford to be fickle, and are often skittish about whether they are getting a "deal" or not. And sellers who balk at fixing things that are clearly not defects.

Of one thing I am certain: My experience over the last four years is that the likelyhood of me identifying defects with a repair cost less than my inspection fee is about one in 100. On average, I find about $1,500 worth of material defects that were not known to the sellers (or the buyers for that matter). About 10% of the time, I find defects that would cost in excess of $6,000 to fix. This does not mean these deals failed; most sellers will correct defects relating to safety, because they either want to "do right", don't want to lose the deal, and realize they can't ignore what they now know when the next buyer comes along (its called disclosure).

I am not averse to turn down business to prospective clients who are looking for the lowest cost inspector. As an experienced professional, I know the value of my work. I do not claim to be the "best"; because my experience is that people who believe they have no equal are often delusional. However, I know that at the end of the day, I believe that people deserve their money's worth from the home they are buying, and from their inspection service.


Negotiating Defect Issues with the Seller

Well, now you have in your hands an inspection report listing material defects, maintenance recommendations and reams of information items. As a buyer, what is your next step? If your inspector was worth their salt, you will understand the issues clearly after reading the report. If not, you probably called your real estate agent to interpret the report for you, and he or she may be equally confused. Remember, it is not the agent's responsibility to decide for you what inspection items are important, however they can be a real help in knowing the mindset of the particular seller and what they are likely to do. So, if you have any questions, the first step should be to call your home inspector after reviewing the report, and ask for their opinion of which defect items are the most concern. Paramount in my mind is correcting safety issues, fixing items where there is uncertainty as to the extent of the problem or the potential cost to repair, as well as items that adversely affect the value of the home, and items that if left uncorrected will cost more to fix later such as roof leaks.

Now its time to get back to the seller with your feedback. You have choices:
  1. You knew about the reported defect already, and factored it into your negotiated price for the home. Asking the seller to fix it at this point would label you as a "double-dipper" and is a legitimate point of contention for the seller. Fair is fair! Let it go.

  2. The item is minor and you can ignore it, like a door that won't latch when closed, and don't bother the seller with fixing it. Save your seller repair requests for things that matter.
  3. The item is something relating to safety or adversely affects the value of the home, that you were unaware of during the honeymoon stage of your home search and contract negotiation. An example is a loose deck handrail, structural damage to wood framing in the crawlspace, or a non-functional ground fault-protected outlet. These are the things that I recommend that my clients consider pursuing with the seller.

OK, you now know what feedback to give the seller. You took the "laundry list" of defects from your inspector and narrowed it down to a list of things you want the seller to care for. As with any negotiation, do not expect that the seller will embrace the list eagerly. While some sellers do this and are to be commended - some even fix reported defects that you do not ask for them to do - more than likely there will be some push-back. After all, they may:

  1. Believe their home is in perfect condition and are upset that someone thinks it's not.

  2. Owe more to the bank on the home than they stand to get from the sale at settlement, and any repairs will be out of their pocket (this situation is very prevalent now with lower home values).

  3. Still be battered from having succumbed to your superior negotiation skills when you were working them over during the contract negotiations, or

  4. Have believed when they told you that the home was being sold "as-is", that you understood what they meant by the term "as-is". (The fact is that if you have an inspection clause, you have an "out" and they would be foolish not to concede certain things regardless of their "as-is" mindset).

At this point when you have decided what things to ask for, your agent will then likely put together a cover letter attaching a copy of your home inspection report, and providing a sub-list identifying which items on the list you are asking to be fixed. The seller then has some options:

  1. Agree to repair everything (party time!)

  2. Agree to repair some things and respectfully decline others (usually the expected outcome)

  3. Refuse to fix any and all things you asked for (warm up the car, honey!)

Assuming they agree to work with you (#2 above), then depending on the circumstances, they may give you some options back. These are:

  1. Seller agrees to fix the items using licensed contractors (ideal case, you will have documentation and maybe a warranty on the work)

  2. Seller agrees to fix the items themselves (may be fine for door stops, but not for structural repairs)

  3. Seller concedes to you part or all of the estimated cost of requested repairs at settlement (a nice trustworthy gesture by the seller that you will actually fix the defect you pounded them on)

  4. Seller offer to have funds escrowed at settlement, so that you can get your own contractor to do the work later. (This assures that you don't pocket the concession money described in the above item #3, because after a prescribed period, unused escrow funds are returned to the seller)

Sometimes the timing of the settlement makes it necessary to use Options #3 or #4, as some repairs take time to schedule or obtain multiple bids, and this can't be completed by the scheduled settlement date. In any event, my recommendation is to be fair and consider how the seller treated you during the contract negotiation process. If you got an admittedly good deal, don't beat the poor seller up any more, take the high road. If they are "underwater" on their loan, consider that you are taking food out of their children's mouths to make them hire a licensed remodeling contractor to fix that door stop. If the seller treated you with disrespect, then in my opinion all bets are off with your negotiating on defect resolution, but be prepared to walk away if they won't play ball.