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Originally published Friday, May 28, 2010 at 5:54 PM

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The ins, outs of a home inspection

Most real-estate professionals and lenders strongly encourage buyers to submit offers contingent on a home inspection.

Special to The Seattle Times

Hiring a home inspector? Consider these tips:

DO

— Ask potential home inspectors for names and telephone numbers of several past clients who have been in their home for more than a few months. Find out if they were satisfied with the service and if any overlooked problems surfaced after the inspection.

— Be wary of home inspectors who promise a quick inspection to save you money.

"If somebody says they're going to do an inspection and it will only take a couple of hours, you might think twice about how thorough it will be," said Hugh Kelso, a Seattle home inspector. "Cheapest isn't best. If you're looking for knowledge and experience, don't try to shave a few dollars off the deal."

— Consider attending the home inspection. Besides finding out any possible issues with the structure, it's also an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the house and learn some maintenance tips, such as where to replace furnace filters and how to operate a home theater system.

"I always encourage the buyers to be present if they can," Kelso said.

— Read more tips on hiring a home inspector from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/sfh/insp/inspfaq.cfm.

DON'T

— Feel pressured to hire an inspector recommended by your real-estate agent or broker.

"It can make it almost seem like there is a little of collusion going on," said Stephen Stanczyk, a Pierce County home inspector. "I would say most of the times, there is not. However, there are some agents and some home inspectors that I won't say cross the line, but they get very, very close to crossing the line by having softer reports written so that the deals don't fail. You want somebody who is going to find everything that they possibly can."

Nick Gromicko, founder of the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, added: "The trick if you're a homebuyer and you're buying a piece of property or a house: Hire an inspector out of town, and offer to pay him mileage. That way that inspector doesn't know any realtor and doesn't care to earn that business."

— Hire somebody without checking out their credentials. Are they licensed? Check their status at the Department of Lincensing database at https://fortress.wa.gov/dol/dolprod/bpdLicenseQuery/. What type of education do they have? How many years of experience do they have, and how many inspections have they performed?

"When they're talking about experience, make sure they're not talking about experience in the construction field generally,"Kelso said.

Additionally, home inspectors aren't required to be part of a state or national association, but those groups usually offer training and certification programs and help keep members up to date on inspection standards.

"I wouldn't necessarily rely on national organizations as a catch all as being the best," Stanczyk said. "Some of the best inspectors in the country don't belong to any organization because they don't need to."

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Your offer was accepted, and your financing was preapproved.

But don't start picking out paint chips and curtains for that dream house just yet.

It's time to hire an authorized home inspector to take an in-depth look at the property and uncover any defects.

Home inspections are usually optional, although a few municipalities across the country require them under certain conditions. But most real-estate professionals and lenders strongly encourage buyers to submit offers contingent on a home inspection. Why?

"Did you ever see the movie 'The Money Pit' with Tom Hanks?" asked Stephen Stanczyk, owner of Safe Haven Home Inspections in Pierce County. "That's a prime reason why you should hire a home inspector."

If you compare buying a house to a romantic relationship, think of a home inspection as that initial meeting between your latest crush and your best friend: Within a few hours your pal will probably figure out any major faults that you may have overlooked or hadn't discovered, such as divorce papers that haven't been finalized, or an embarrassing spring break video posted on YouTube.

In the same vein, a home inspection may reveal things you missed, such as shoddy electrical work, leaking pipes or furry critters in the attic, while going gaga over the gorgeous bamboo flooring in the living room and flawless granite countertops in the kitchen. "This is the time for buyers; they've fallen in love with the house, they've made an offer, it's somewhat of an emotional thing," said Hugh Kelso, president of HKI Building Inspections in Seattle. "Now is the time for them to take a more critical look at it."

A good home inspector will usually find a few issues at a property, Kelso said. They can be as minor as landscaping mulch that needs to be pushed a few more inches away from a house's foundation (to lower the risk of wood-eating bugs) or a bathroom sink with a constant drip. Or they can be much bigger, such as standing water in the crawl space or an old furnace that's unlikely to survive another winter.

After receiving a copy of the home-inspection report, buyers and sellers can negotiate on which problems will get addressed before a real- estate deal moves forward.

"Most things can be fixed or repaired," Kelso said.

Here are some questions and answers about the home- inspection industry:

Question: I'm planning to buy a new home that comes with a one-year warranty. Why would I want a home inspection?

Answer: Most of the issues that inspectors find in brand-new homes are considered punch list items that the builder can repair, such as paint scratches, or doors that don't close the right way, Kelso said.

"But occasionally, I find bigger issues," he said.

There are a number of reasons that a new home could have structural or safety problems, including poorly coordinated subcontractor work, and overbooked code inspectors and appliances or building materials that were recalled, Stanczyk said.

"I have gone into new homes that looked absolutely pristine that had issues," he said. "We've had new homes that have had more problems than a home built in the '60s or '70s."

Q: What's covered in a home inspection?

A: An inspection will cover the home's structure, construction and mechanical systems. It will identify any items that need repaired or replaced and estimate the remaining life on major systems such as electrical and plumbing.

Home inspectors often begin outside to get a study of the entire house, including its roof, siding, exterior doors and windows. They'll check the grading of the house for drainage issues. They'll test to see if the gutters are in place and working.

Once inside, they'll comb through every room in the house, looking at everything from flooring and countertops to plumbing, electrical and heating and air conditioning systems.

"If there's an attic, we'll get up in there if we can, if it's safe," Kelso said. "We'll look around, make sure the framing is OK, and look for any signs of leaks."

In the rainy Northwest, it's also vital that an inspector gets a look inside the home's crawl space, Kelso said. "Usually, that's where all the sins are revealed," he added.

Q: What isn't covered in a home inspection?

A: Home inspectors don't perform any destructive testing or inspect inaccessible areas of the home, and their reports usually don't cover small or cosmetic items that would be considered readily apparent to buyers, according to the National Association of Home Inspectors. For example, a home inspector probably wouldn't report that a knob is missing from a cabinet or that there are scratches in a hardwood floor.

Outdoor features such as swimming pools and underground sprinkler systems usually aren't covered in the home inspection, either.

"Generally most outbuildings are not included, but they can be if you make an arrangement with the inspector," Kelso said.

Q: Is a home inspection the same thing as an appraisal?

A: No. An appraisal gives an estimate of a property's market value to ensure that the mortgage loan amount is not more than the value of the property. Appraisals are for lenders, and home inspections are for buyers.

Q: How much does a typical home inspection cost?

A: The majority of home inspections in the Puget Sound area start at $325 and go up, depending on the size, age and style of the home, Stanczyk said.

Q: Are there any training or licensing requirements for home inspectors?

A: Yes. Thanks to Senate Bill 6606, which passed in 2008, home inspectors are now required to be licensed in Washington state. To obtain a license, the applicant must take 120 hours of classroom instruction approved by the state's Home Inspector Advisory Licensing Board, complete 40 hours of field training by a licensed inspector and pass a written exam.

Many experienced home inspectors in the state were "grandfathered" into the certification, and were able to waive some of the training requirements if they applied for their license by last September.

Q: After buying a home, I discovered several issues that weren't mentioned in my home inspection report. Do I have legal recourse?

A: If it was a safety or structural issue that could have been seen by the inspector but wasn't caught, contact your real-estate agent and home inspector. They might be able to resolve the issues without going through the expense of legal action.

Most home inspectors carry Errors and Omissions (liability) insurance. However, many inspectors limit their liability with a clause in the contract that caps the maximum benefit to the price of the home-inspection fee.

If you think there were significant issues known by the seller or real-estate agent, but undisclosed, you might want to seek advice from a real estate attorney.

Q: Can consumers hire a home inspector even if they aren't buying a home?

A: Sometimes homeowners hire an inspector to get a good overview of any problem areas, and to get suggestions on preventive measures that might help avoid costly future repairs, according to the American Society of Home Inspectors.

And some homeowners hire an inspector to find out what repairs are needed to put a house in better selling condition.

"That's rare," Kelso said. "Most of the time it's during the sale."

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