What to expect when you're inspecting: a home inspection checklist

A home inspection is a professional, third-party inspection of a property that you intend to buy. During an inspection, the professional will evaluate the home from a structural and safety standpoint, as well as to ensure you’re buying a hazard-free, up-to-code property that’s a good investment of your dollars.

Home inspections aren’t always required, but there are few cases where you’d want to forgo one. Use this home inspection checklist to learn more about the process -- as well as what to do afterward.

Step 1: Include a home inspection contingency in your contract

Your first step is to make sure there’s a home inspection contingency -- also referred to as a “due diligence” contingency -- in your purchase contract. This gives you a specified time period in which to have a professional inspection performed on the property.

If the inspection reveals issues or serious damage, you can use it as a bargaining chip to ask the seller to make repairs or lower the price. The contingency clause also lets you back out of the deal if the issues are too severe or you’re unable to negotiate with the seller on repairs.

Sometimes, buyers waive inspection contingencies in hot markets or multiple-bid situations. Though this might help them stand out from other bidders, it can also put their safety -- and their cash -- at risk.

In some cases, sellers might provide inspection reports up front. Though this is rarer, it would make it a little safer to forgo a home inspection of your own.

Step 2: Understand how your home inspection contingency works

In most cases, the inspection period is anywhere from 5 days to 2 weeks from the date your purchase contract is signed, though it depends on your specific agreement.

The contingency period is supposed to give you enough time to:

  • Find a good inspector
  • Set up your appointment (and, ideally, attend it)
  • Receive your inspection report
  • Get any follow-up or additional inspections (more on that later)
  • Decide how you’d like to move forward

Keep in mind: time is of the essence here. Once the contingency period is up, you’ll no longer be able to renegotiate or take action based on the home inspection’s results.

Step 3: Hire a good home inspector

Hiring a thorough, experienced home inspector is incredibly important. They should be current on all certifications (NACHI, ASHI, etc.) and up to date on all training and educational coursework.

They also need a full insurance policy (this protects you if they’re injured on your property) and should have deep experience in the area you’re buying in. This ensures they’re aware of any current problems with soil, pest and even home builders in your region.

You should also make sure to check your potential inspector out on Google, Yelp, Home Advisor, Angie’s List and the Better Business Bureau. High ratings from past clients is a good sign, and bad ones? Well, you might want to steer clear. You can also ask your real estate agent for recommendations in your area.

Remember: price isn’t everything here. Though inspectors will vary in cost, the goal isn’t to find the cheapest one in the book. You want a thorough, comprehensive inspection by the absolute most qualified professional. Cutting corners could cost you (especially in repairs) in the end.

Step 4: Make sure your inspector follows this home inspection checklist

Every inspector does things a little different, but there is a basic, standardized home inspection checklist they’re supposed to follow. Certain inspectors may go above and beyond this, or they may report their findings in a different way.

Regardless, most home inspections will cover:

  • Structural elements: This includes the home’s foundation, walls, ceilings, roof, floors, and attic beaming. The inspector will specifically look for leaks, cracks in the walls, and possible movement in the foundation.
  • The home’s exterior: Everything from the bricks and siding to landscaping, grading, drainage, fences, and driveway are included here. They will also inspect the doors, windows, and outdoor lights/outlets.
  • The roof and attic: These are two of the most important pieces of the inspection puzzle. The inspector will check both for issues with framing, flashing, ventilation, and more. They’ll also note the type of roof construction, shingles, and quality. Most inspectors will also tell you the expected lifespan of the existing roof -- and when you might expect to repair or replace it.
  • The plumbing: The inspection will cover all facets of exposed plumbing -- from the drains, faucets, toilets, and tubs to the quality of the pipes below the sink. General home inspectors aren’t able to cover things like wells, septic tanks, or sewers, though. These require a specialized inspection.
  • The HVAC system: This includes any water heaters, air conditioning units, sprinkler systems, fireplaces, furnaces, and more. The inspector will even look at the ductwork while in the attic, as well as the chimney while on the roof. If issues are suspected with the chimney, a second, more specialized inspection may be required.
  • The electrical system: Though a general home inspector isn’t a trained electrician, they will evaluate the basic electrical elements of the home, including the circuit breakers, the grounding, the main panel, and more. They will also check to make sure the electrical panel is up to code and has not been recalled.
  • All appliances: The inspector will take time to inspect any appliances that are installed in the home. This includes things like the dishwasher, oven, and garbage disposal, as well as smoke detectors and even washer/dryers if they’re being left for the new buyer.
  • The property: Various property and land elements are also covered in an inspection. The inspector will look at the property’s grading, drainage, and check for any cracks in the driveway or sidewalk that could pose a hazard. They will also evaluate the fence, gate, and outside doors, as well as any additions such as decks or patios.
  • The garage: The inspector will evaluate the garage like any room of the house, check the door, lights, windows, vents, and openers, as well as make sure there are no cracks or structural issues at work.

As you can see, home inspections are designed to be very thorough and comprehensive. Even for a small home, inspections typically take around 2 to 3 hours. If the inspector doesn’t take at least this long, they’re likely not spending the time they should on your property.

home inspection

Step 5: Read your home inspection report

Once your home inspector is done on your property, they’ll put together a full report of their findings. The report should have a section for each room or area of the house, as well as a note about anything that needs repairs, is damaged or isn’t functional.

Generally, you’ll see the following terms for any issues they spot:

  • Material defect, meaning an issue that might pose a potential safety hazard or have a significant impact on the home’s value
  • Major defect, meaning a system or component that is not working, not functional and needs replacement or repair
  • Minor defect, meaning a small issue that can usually be fixed by a contractor or the homeowner themselves
  • Cosmetic defect, meaning a superficial flaw or blemish that doesn’t impact safety or functionality

Go through the report carefully, but make note: even brand new homes will have a laundry list of issues.

You’ll want to sift through the findings and hone in on the big problems -- ones that threaten your safety, could be super costly to repair, or that might make it hard to sell the home down the line. Be sure to ask your inspector if you have any questions about their findings or need a professional opinion about an issue’s importance.

Step 6: Get additional inspections

You should also use your report to gauge what other inspections might be necessary. If the inspector sees potential termite damage, you’ll want to get a termite inspection. If he notes mold on the report, you’ll want to have a mold inspector evaluate the property.

Just a few of the additional inspections you may want to consider include:

  • Asbestos inspections
  • Pest inspections
  • Radon inspections
  • Termite or wood-destroying insect (WDI) inspections
  • Mold/mildew inspections
  • Lead inspections
  • Sewer or drainage inspections
  • Structural inspections
  • Chimney inspections
  • Geological inspections

Additional inspections also depend on what features and systems are present in the house. If, for example, the house you’re looking at has an in-ground pool, you’d want to get a swimming pool inspection done before your contingency period is up.

Generally, your inspector will alert you if they think there is an additional inspection you should seek out. They also may be able to point you toward the right professional in your area or even schedule the inspection on your behalf.

Step 7: Decide what’s important -- and what’s not

Once you have the results of all your inspections, it’s time to decide what to do with those findings. What will you ask the seller to repair? Are there any deal-breakers? What would it take for you to follow through with the deal?

Remember, few homes will go through inspections without any issues or recommended repairs, so don’t feel bad about going back to the seller to renegotiate. Just don’t let the requests get out of hand.

You’ll want to consider:

  • Which issues pose a hazard to you and your loved ones?
  • Which ones would cost a lot to repair?
  • Which ones would prevent you from moving in on time?
  • Which repairs can you handle on your own?

Call in a local handyman or contractor to give you a quote on any potential repairs, as this can help you gauge which ones to focus on when re-negotiating.

make your decision

Step 8: Make your decision

After you’ve reviewed your inspection reports and determined which issues are big and which aren’t so important, you’ll need to make a decision.

Do you go through with the deal, re-negotiate it or go back to the drawing board?

As long as you’re within your contingency period, you’ll have these options:

  • Continue as planned, with the same sales price and terms as you initially agreed to
  • Re-negotiate the price with the seller or ask for credits toward your closing costs to cover the damages/repairs
  • Ask the seller the make certain repairs
  • Cancel your purchase contract outright, and back out of the deal

If you want to back out, you’ll need to sign a form, essentially saying you’ve found the home to be unacceptable after inspection. If you opt to continue as planned, you’ll need to take no further action. Just work with your lender to finalize your loan, and come closing day, the home will be yours.

Re-negotiating will take a little more work, but with the right agent on your side, it’s not so difficult. Because most sellers are on tight timelines, they may be more apt to lower the price point rather than oversee tons of repairs themselves. If you do ask for repairs, try focusing on the big stuff -- items that pose a safety risk or just can’t be ignored.

Step 9: Confirm any and all repairs have been completed

If you choose to have the seller make repairs to the home, you’ll need to make sure these are completed to your liking. Have your agent schedule a walk-through of the home once the repairs are made so you can check in on the work and keep your closing on track.

In the event you had the seller make major repairs to the foundation, roof, or other important features in the house, you might want to have your inspector come back out for what’s called a “re-inspection.”

These allow the original inspector to come back out and verify that issues have been properly resolved. They do come with a cost (though usually a small fraction of the original inspection price), but considering they can prevent safety issues and future repairs down the road, they’re usually worth the nominal investment.

Step 10: Close on your home

Finally, after you’ve re-negotiated, confirmed that the appropriate repairs were made (and made properly), you can move toward closing. As long as things go well with your lender, you should be able to sign your paperwork and get those keys, come closing day. 🎉

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