Good buy … or money pit?

Inspections help buyers verify a home’s condition

By: Christa Buchanan | C&G Newspapers | Published February 1, 2011

 To a layman, it may be hard to determine whether there may be a problem with a home’s foundation or that a previous problem has already been fixed. Potential signs of a faulty foundation include cracked mortar around brick and cracks in basement walls and around doorways.

To a layman, it may be hard to determine whether there may be a problem with a home’s foundation or that a previous problem has already been fixed. Potential signs of a faulty foundation include cracked mortar around brick and cracks in basement walls and around doorways.

The right neighborhood. The right price. The right layout, lot and size. It’s the perfect home — or not.

There are a number of major issues that could be lurking under the cosmetically pleasing surface of a home, many of which can be very costly.

That — and liability issues on the seller’s end — is why getting a home inspection has become an essential part of the home-buying process since the late 1970s nationally and the early ‘80s in Michigan, according to Jon Ormiston, president of All Points Inspection in Rochester.

“Before the home inspection industry started, no one worked for the buyer in real estate transactions; there was no such thing as a buyer’s agent, no one to protect buyers’ rights,” he said, adding that initially there was conflict between the real estate and home inspection industries. “We were looked at as someone who came along at the end of a deal, and say the furnace wasn’t working, it may kill the deal. We were looked at as deal killers.

“Now, all that has changed. Now, the purchase agreement is contingent upon the home inspection; the relationship between Realtors and inspectors has changed, because now everybody worries about liability issues,” he said, adding that liability is also why Realtors give buyers contact information for multiple inspectors, as they don’t want to be accused of steering the seller toward a particular inspector.

Once the buyer chooses an inspector, one of the main things the inspector will check is the structure of the home, looking for telltale signs of any problems with the home’s foundation from the ground up and from the outside in, said Eric Hibbert, owner of Hibbert Home Services Inc. in Eastpointe.

Obvious signs of potential structural problems, which usually are the most expensive to repair, include cracked brick or mortar outside, cracks around interior doors or in basement walls, and buckled flooring.

“We start to think about the basement when we’re outside of the house. We check out the lay of the land; if it’s slanted toward the house, if the flowerbeds are leaning toward the house, the water goes into the basement — the same as a bad gutter system. If it don’t look good outside, that let’s us know to look closer inside,” Ormiston said.

Another potential warning sign there may be problems in a basement, the experts agree, is if it has been freshly painted, which could be, but not always is, a sign that foundation cracks or water issues are being covered up — especially when it comes to investment properties, said Hibbert.

“One thing I’ve noticed recently is investors seem to be on a kick to paint the basement ceiling black. It looks nice, but I’ve seen cases where they’re covering up issues: You can’t see a rusty pipe if it’s painted black,” said Hibbert, who suggested buyers may want to check if permits were pulled if it looks like remodeling was done to ensure everything was done professionally, especially such things as electrical or plumbing work that the inspector can’t access.

“What a home inspector does is go out and do a comprehensive inspection of the home and make an unbiased, detailed report on not just the bad things, but the good, the bad and the in-between in the areas of the home that we can access on that given day. It’s all based on accessibility: Take a day like today, we have 6 inches of snow; obviously, we’re not going to get as good of a look at the roof as say in July,” said Ormiston.

In such cases, Ormiston said, inspectors, who are often builders or contractors by trade, will use their knowledge of home design and mechanics to provide the best information possible — for example, using binoculars to see inaccessible areas of a roof and examining the underside of the roof for leaks, water stains, mold or mildew via the attic, etc.

While many things the inspectors scrutinize are based on common sense — whether the landscape’s graded properly, the roof’s shingles are in good shape, the faucets or pipes aren’t leaky, the electrical has been updated, the appliances and furnace are in good working order, etc., things that show a home has been well-maintained — other things require more extensive knowledge of a home’s inner workings. For example, Hibbert noted that the type of pipe used can tell a lot about the age of a home’s plumbing system: “If the home has galvanized plumbing system, there’s a good chance, especially with older galvanized pipes, there could be water and leak issues because galvanized pipe will rust,” he said, adding that copper and PEX plumbing indicate the plumbing is newer, but oftentimes it could be fitted to older galvanized pipe, causing leaks where the two materials are threaded together.

Another area where old may meet new is in the electrical system: “Basically knob and tube wiring denote a definitely old system. … Sometimes, I see people update the electric panels, but not the entire wiring system,” said Hibbert, adding that if the house was built pre-1940s, it’s a good idea to have a licensed electrician to check things out, as after time, the jacket of the wiring can harden, crack and expose wires.

One thing people have to remember when getting an inspection is that no matter what, every house needs regular maintenance and will eventually need repairs, a new furnace or appliances.

“Usually most problems we find can be easily fixed; it just costs money,” said Ormiston, noting that the inspection report helps the buyer determine whether the home simply needs ongoing maintenance work or whether it needs emergency repairs at the time of the inspection.

“We can’t see into the future: Say I look at the roof today; right now, it looks good, it’s not leaking in the attic; but in April, when it’s raining a lot, it springs a leak,” Ormiston said of routine home maintenance issues that can pop up at any time.

Basically, it’s the inspector’s job to give the buyer a comprehensive report of the status of the home’s structure and mechanical workings so that the buyer knows about any potential problems within the home and can decide whether to go through with the purchase based upon the findings in the report.

“What you do with the information is your business. We don’t know if the home is already priced based on a faulty roof (etc.). We simply try to provide the best possible information we can, based on the day we were there so that you can make the best decision possible on whether to purchase the house,” Ormiston said.

For more information about Hibbert Home services, call (586) 354-7136 or visit All Point Inspections can be reached at (248) 693-0900 or at (800) 343-1387.

 — Christa Buchanan