Before a buyer commits to the biggest purchase of their life, they need the assurance that they won’t be footing the bill to correct dysfunctional home systems, damages, and repairs once they get the keys. Enter the home inspector.
“We’re looking at all the main systems of the house — structure, electrical, plumbing, heating, cooling, roofing, exterior, etc.,” says Vahn Balabanian, a registered home inspector and the founder of Solex Group Professional Home Inspection. Home inspectors can’t actually go behind walls so it takes a trained and experienced professional to interpret the clues from a house.
“Usually, my clients don’t own the home yet,” says Balabanian. “No homeowner would allow a home inspector to take chunks of old plaster, old vinyl flooring or old wallpaper from their house. You can’t take their house apart before the clients even buy it.” And yet, almost every real estate transaction is contingent on this key step. To get a better understanding of what inspectors look out for once they’re inside the house, we asked Balabanian about his home inspection methods and the common culprits that go into his reports.
What will you find in your report?
A home inspector’s report forms the basis for continuing with the purchase, renegotiating the sale price, allowing the seller to make repairs or backing away completely.
Balabanian’s detailed reports range from 20 to 60 pages. “A condo unit could be about 20 to 30 pages — which includes maintenance reminders, the contract, a summary page, the standards of practice. These things eat up pages, the actual reporting part is maybe half of that. A house could be 40 to 60 pages.” His reports also feature lots of photos and illustrations to make it easier to digest and understand.
It is not a home inspector’s job to make a judgement call and tell you not to buy a house. They are there to provide information. Balabanian uses the analogy of taking a car you’re thinking of purchasing to a mechanic. “They take a small fee and a small amount of time to give you valuable information for you to make a more informed decision — it’s not invasive and it’s general in nature. They will report to you what they see. At that point, it’s up to you. Are you satisfied with the condition of the car?”
When Balabanian sees significant issues, he verbally flags the financial repercussions to the client. “We don’t give cost estimates in the report but in some cases, my clients will verbally get a ballpark range of what they can expect — just so they have an idea on the magnitude of possible costs. We’re not contractors — the final price will come from the contractor who specializes in fixing the issue or issues at hand. But if I see something that is going to be a major cost to rectify, my client is going to know about it.”
We all fear the house we buy will be a lemon with significant structural problems that make it uninhabitable. Balabanian assured us that major structural issues are rare to come by. “It’s not common to find major structural issues but we do come across it occasionally.”
When there are serious structural issues, there are some tell-tale signs. “For example, if we’re talking about a foundation, it could be horizontal cracking or lateral movement in a foundation, which is the beginning stages of structural failure. Some sort of movement has occurred there that’s not typical and should be looked at and addressed.”
Electrical and plumbing
Your home inspector will look at the electrical components of the house to ensure they were properly installed and that everything is operating safely. They will also take a thorough look at the plumbing — investigating drains, vents and waste systems.
“A home inspector is not an electrical specialist but we know enough to identify things that aren’t standard or poorly/improperly done,” says Balabanian. “If I see a renovated basement and there are numerous electrical issues, we can start to draw the conclusion that a non-professional did the electrical work. Possibly from there, you usually find non-standard plumping and other aspects of the renovation that are done poorly at the same time. Sometimes, it’s fairly obvious that they didn’t pull permits or hire professionals and that an ammateur did the work.”
Knob and tube wiring can usually be found in pre-1950s houses but the inspector can’t actually go behind walls to see it. “Experienced home inspectors will generally have an idea based on various factors — how a house is built, the materials used, the style,” says Balabanian. If it’s on display in an attic or unfinished basement, they will test it with a volt-meter to see if it is still active. Another technique is to use an outlet tester. “If we see that most of the outlets are grounded, that usually means they’ve updated the wiring and it’s probably not knob and tube anymore (which doesn’t have grounding).”
The greatest enemy to a house is water and at one point or another, every home will battle against the elements. The home inspector can decipher whether it’s a historical issue that’s been rectified or if it’s damp and problematic at the time of inspection.
“Water damage will happen in any house,” says Balabanian. “It could be a plumbing, basement, or roof leak and the homeowner has addressed it. You might see some water stains, water damage, or a patch repair left behind. If I test such areas with a moisture meter and moisture levels are normal, it’s not considered an active moisture issue at that point of time.”
As Balabanian goes through the house, he will look for visual signs of water damage, such as damaged finishes, stains, rust, even possible mold. If there aren’t any visual signs, he can use a thermal camera which reads abnormal temperatures.
Heating and insulation
No one likes to be in a drafty house, especially in climates with harsh winters. Your home inspector will be able to determine how sturdy the insulation is by looking at the age of the house and original construction. “An original 60- or 70-year-old house is going to have very little or no insulation in places,” says Balabanian. “On a newer house, insulation is usually an aspect of the house that we can’t visually see or confirm. If there’s an accessible attic or an unfinished basement, we can.”
The home inspector will also look out for maintenance items that have been neglected. “We look for missing caulking on the exterior of a house. This is usually a maintenance item, but not really considered a major issue. I’ll recommend correcting missing or ineffective caulking to my client — especially when I see a lot of caulking that is cracked, deteriorated, or missing.”
Checking the roof
These days, safety standards prohibit many inspectors and contractors from getting on the roof with a ladder alone. That said, there are various methods of inspecting a roof that home inspectors can employ.
“If not going on a roof (maybe it’s too high, too steep, poor weather conditions, etc.), a home inspector can maybe put the ladder on the edge and inspect from there or use binoculars,” says Balabanian. His tool of choice is a WiFi enabled digital camera mounted on a telescopic carbon fibre pole. “Mine can reach up to 40 feet (12 metres) where I can get some incredible views of the roof and snap aerial photos of it from different angles.”
Life expectancies and warranties
Another common culprit will be equipment that is at or near its life expectancy like a furnace, water heater, etc. Often these systems are installed at the same time, with life expectancies that will fail around the same time. If you need to replace them within a short range, it’s an expense you’re going to want to be prepared for.
“When we’re inspecting the equipment, we’re identifying the age by looking at the serial number to determine when it was manufactured. From there, we can give typical life expectancies of all the equipment so our client has an idea of where they stand,” says Balabanian.
They will also make a list of warranties, which come in handy particularly when you’re moving into a newer build. It’s a misconception that you can skip a home inspection in a newer home. “I come across things that are incomplete or not properly installed in newer builds all the time,” he says. Warranties for new builds often expire within one or two years of the home being built. If you catch an issue after this mark, you’re going to want to know whether or not the builder will take care of it for you.
Environmental hazards are not tested during a home inspection
Environmental hazards like air quality and mold tests are outside the scope of a visual home inspection. “To test for asbestos, for example, you actually have to sample the material. And that’s not usually done during a home inspection,” says Balabanian.
The home inspector recommends hiring a qualified specialist to do your due diligence, especially to test for radon — a radioactive gas that occurs naturally when the uranium in soil and rock breaks down. “There’s a short term test that takes 2-4 days that isn’t accurate,” he says. “Then there’s a long-term test recommended for accuracy and making mitigation decisions (if needed), which takes 90-365 days.”
Identifying if the seller is hiding something
It can be a challenge to determine if the seller is deliberately trying to hide things but an experienced inspector can often find oddities.
“If you see a bunch of storage up against a specific wall in the basement, I will always try to look behind such areas. Sometimes it’s possible and sometimes it’s not.” Other times it’s more obvious — like a random piece of storage in front of a crack. “Sometimes it’s not even a major issue, but people still do it,” he says.
Balabanian has inspected a few homes that were former marijuana grow-ops. “When the whole basement is unfinished but all of a sudden there’s drywall around/under the electrical panel, that’s a red flag,” he says.
Want to buy your first home?
Sign up for Ladies on the Ladder, the first newsletter community to broadcast the diverse voices of women who have climbed the property ladder.