Home inspectors are skilled at sniffing out wood rot and locating cracks in foundations. But even the most experienced inspectors can’t tell you about problems that lurk behind walls, between floor joists or inside sewer lines.
“The purpose of a home inspection is to find material defects that might have an adverse effect on the value of a home or its safety,” said Curtis Niles Sr., president of Armored Home Inspections in Pottstown, PA, and past president of the National Association of Home Inspectors. “We do that through a visual inspection, and we do it to the best of our ability. But we can’t find every single problem; no one could.”
A home inspection can help ensure your new home is both a good investment and a safe place to live, but it’s important to be aware of some key defects that can go undetected:
Problems with heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC) can be difficult for home inspectors to uncover. Many inspectors are hesitant to run the air conditioning in extreme cold or to check the heat on a hot day because they don’t want to damage the unit by running it too long in adverse conditions.
“I can tell if a unit isn’t working, but I don’t have time during a home inspection to determine if the system is adequate for the house they’re trying to heat or cool,” Niles said. If you have concerns about the HVAC system, you may want to have it checked by a licensed HVAC specialist – separate from the home inspection.
Water damage, leaks
Your inspector will turn on faucets, but if a house hasn’t been lived in for a while, any previous water damage may be dried up and it will take a few days of use before leaks reappear. Even damage to walls or ceilings can be camouflaged by paint, making them difficult to detect.
If a faulty roof is the source of the leak, there’s a good chance your inspector won’t find it. Many inspectors visually assess roofs from the ground, but don’t go up onto them. Even if your inspector climbs onto the roof, snow, ice or fallen leaves may make it difficult to examine.
In 1978, the federal government banned the production of lead paint and asbestos-based construction materials. If the home you’re purchasing was built prior to 1978, you may want to invest in specialized testing for these toxins. Elevated radon levels, which can also be detected by a qualified radon tester, can occur in any home, regardless of its age, foundation type, location or heating system.
Lead paint, asbestos and radon can pose significant risks, but they’re not the sort of issues most home inspectors test for. If you are aware of these toxins before closing, you can ask the seller to help pay for abatement, containment or removal – and those costs can be significant. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, professional lead-based paint removal, for example, costs $8 to $15 per square foot – that’s $19,200 to $36,000 for a 2,400-square-foot house.
Blocked, damaged sewer lines
Property owners are responsible for the sewer line that runs from their home to the city main, and the best time to find out if that line is blocked or needs replacement is before buying a home – not after. A sewer line clog could lead to raw sewage backing up, out of the drains.
A standard home inspection will likely determine the type of drain pipe used and estimate its age but, it won’t cover the structural integrity or condition of sewer lines. If the home you’re thinking of buying is more than 20 years old, you may want to pay for a separate sewer scope to ensure the sewer line is in good shape and that tree roots have not worked their way into the line. Expect to pay $250 to $500 for a video sewer inspection, a fraction of the cost of sewer line replacement, which can run upward of $25,000.
An experienced home inspector can provide important information about the condition of the house you plan to buy, but to avoid unexpected costs after closing, you may need to go beyond a standard home inspection. Those extra tests and inspections won’t come cheap, but they may help you avoid unpleasant surprises later on.
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