We don't claim that the following list is absolutely complete. Just when we think we've thought of everything, something else crops up, but this is a great checklist of factors that could affect the property you're considering. If any of these could apply in your area, you might want to ask your broker or attorney about stipulating in the inspection clause of your offer that the inspection may include, but not be limited to, any issues of concern.
The most important thing we can say about inspections is to tell you to have one. Inspections are much like everything else - you get what you pay for. A good one should take around three hours and in our area will probably cost between $300 and $400, depending on the size of the property. Most of the best are accredited with ASHI, American Society of Home Inspectors, possibly with one of the nationally franchised organizations. These organizations provide stringent training for their affiliates, and you'll be more likely to receive a thorough inspection with an organized report. We recommend that our clients attend the last part of the inspection so they will know first hand about normal maintenance and trouble areas.
1) Structural integrity of the house, including the foundation and drainage, roof and gutters: Your inspector should be able to assess the roof condition, the effectiveness of the gutters and downspouts, and determine if the drainage around the house has been handled properly. Even though your inspector will probably not be an engineer, he should be able to identify telltale signs of possible structural problems, improper grading and drainage or swelling soils, and may recommend that you have an engineer inspect the foundation or perimeter drainage system. An engineer's opinion in this case would be money well spent.
2) Plumbing and electrical integrity. Homes built years ago may not meet current building codes, but make sure they are safe and that the service is sufficient for the size of the house and the needs of your family, and that any hazardous conditions are corrected by licensed contractors, with building permits and inspections if required. Old water and sewer lines between the house and the street may not be large enough or may have tree roots growing into them. A plumber can check water pressure or run a scope (a flexible, lighted probe with a camera on it) through the sewer lines pretty inexpensively (about $250 if they inspect the rest of the plumbing at the same time). This kind of inspection might be a little extreme unless you see that a tree has been removed or that the yard has been disturbed. Roots can allow sewage to go through the lines for short periods of time before backing up, so a normal inspection may not reveal that a line has been displaced due to tree roots... you may not know it until your plumbing backs up after you've moved in (and every few months until you've had it replaced!).
3) High radon gas level: A radon test costs between $95 and $150 in our area. Your agent or your inspector should be able to give you an information booklet published by the EPA, Home Buyer's and Seller's Guide to Radon. The EPA's guidelines now dictate that two canisters be set in the lowest possible living level for at least two days (depending on the type of device used), and that the average reading of the two must be at or below 4.0 pCi/ls. If the reading is high, you may want to ask the Seller to hire an experienced professional to mitigate the problem. Higher radon readings are usually corrected by inserting PVC pipe into a hole cut in the basement concrete, installing an in-line low volume fan, and directing the resulting air flow through the pipe to the outside. Caulking basement cracks and covering crawl spaces can sometimes lower radon readings to below 4.0 pCi/ls. But someone experienced in radon mitigation needs to assess the situation. If you can’t find a radon mitigation specialist in your area, contractors who address basement water troubles and drainage problems around the foundation can usually mitigate radon levels. An average cost in our area would be somewhere between $600 and $1000, depending on the materials and time required for the size of the house. Radon readings can be different for the same property at different times of the year. Hire a professional.
4) Integrity of the mechanical components such as the furnace, water heater and appliances: Be sure to read the Seller's Property Disclosure before you do inspections. This is a form the seller usually fills out when he lists the property with a real estate person, before your inspection. Then you can have the inspector pay special attention to anything the Seller tells you isn't working properly. It would be a shame to flood the kitchen because you neglected to tell your inspector the dishwasher wasn't operating. Most real estate contracts make you, the buyer, responsible for any damage done by your inspector.
5) Termites and other pests: The inspector can usually tell if there is evidence of pests, but the only way to be sure is to get an inspection and certification from a reliable extermination company. Also, the Seller's Property Disclosure provides a place for the Seller to disclose any known tree pests or diseases. A local nursery usually has a specialist who can assess these types of problems.
6) Water well test: You and your lender will want a safe water test, showing 0 harmful bacteria. The Department of Environmental Health in your county will give you the information. If the well is found to have bacteria, the DEH and a qualified well contractor will be able to advise about how to proceed. Sometimes just chlorinating the well/water line once will produce a clean water test, if the bacteria originated from somewhere in the system. If the water is found to continue to be contaminated, other measures may have to be taken. There are well water companies working in the rural areas that will do testing and mitigate any problems. Just be sure that your contract allows for time to deal with these issues - the process could take two or three weeks.
The well flow refers to the number of gallons per minute that can be sustained over a set period of time. Your quality of life could depend on whether you can get water out of the tap while your teenager is showering, so you want to be sure not only that the well is producing but also that the pump is working. If the seller doesn't have recent tests and you decide you want them, you'll need to get a professional involved. A local well contractor/plumper can educate you about water levels and capacities for that area, and about testing the water for radiation and minerals. Well water sometimes has a high mineral content, such as iron, making drinking water unsavory and washing clothes difficult. In addition to a softening system, an in line paper-type filter that's replaced as necessary is an inexpensive way to remove many deposits effectively.
If you're thinking of buying some land and building on it, be sure to determine whether or not you can get a well permit and what kind of permit it will be. In Colorado, unless you can prove that your property is located over a certain aquifer, you'll probably only be able to get a "household” permit" to drill your well from the State, meaning that you’ll only be able to use the water inside your home. No landscape watering. People with this kind of well might have a cistern installed and water trucked in if they wish to water outside.
7) Septic test: If the property has a septic system instead of being connected to a public sewer system, it's smart to require evidence that the seller’s had the tank pumped recently by a qualified septic contractor. A very good reason to have the Seller do the pumping and have the inspection done at the same time is that the seller is more likely to know where it is! If the lid to the tank is not located, and you try to find it after you're the owner, you could be in for some frustrating digging. My kids found ours in Surrey Ridge – they were playing fort and digging around in one of the holes left from our extended search for the tank.
The pumping contractor can check to see that material appears to be moving correctly through the system. When the tank has been emptied, the contractor can also visually check the integrity of the tank. A swampy area over the leach field is not usually a good sign. Otherwise, the leach field itself can be difficult to check or even to find, without accurate diagrams. It's smart to be sure that county regulations have been complied with concerning the capacity of the septic tank (such as 1250 gallons for a three bedroom house). Some counties require a septic inspection when property transfers. Again, call the Department of Environmental Health in your county for these requirements. Recommendations for routine pumping of the septic tank vary from area to area - we have the one at our house pumped about every three years. Some have it done annually. You might also want to be sure that the county "signed off" or gave final approval for the septic system. Old systems may have been installed before county approval was required, but it might be prudent to determine whether or not the system was engineered professionally or not, also to be sure the county approves of the distance of the septic to yours or your neighbor's water well. If your system doesn’t comply with certain current regulations, you could be required to replace the entire system. Checking before you own the property could save money and brain damage later on.
8) Lead based paint: The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) now requires that all sellers and landlords of properties built before January 1, 1978 disclose any knowledge of lead based paint to a prospective Buyer, and to give that Buyer ample time in the contract to investigate. If contamination is suspected, such as peeling paint that's been allowed to contaminate the dirt surrounding an old house, there are now companies that do lead abatement that can determine the extent of the contamination, and the remedy. Your real estate person must give you a booklet and a disclosure about lead contamination if you are looking at properties of this vintage. Lead abatement contractors have told us that one of the most significant dangers of contamination is in the dust generated from the removing or sanding of lead materials, which is particularly hazardous to young children. Lead poisoning can still be a present danger if care isn't taken when old finishes are sanded or removed.
9) Asbestos: If the Seller has knowledge of asbestos in the property, it's a material fact that he or she must disclose. There are asbestos abatement companies that can remove asbestos materials from homes. It's difficult and fairly expensive to remove asbestos. The area must be “contained” or sealed off to prevent asbestos particles from being released and contaminating the area. Some believe that certain types of asbestos are better left alone. Your house inspector can tell you if he sees certain evidence of asbestos, such as wrapped around old heat runs. He can recommend a competent abatement company to assess the situation to give you a bid for removal.
10) Mold: If there are signs of rotting drywall, excess moisture, certain odors you should ask your agent or inspector for an abatement contractor to assess the situation. The molds we're currently hearing so much about lurk in insulation and crawl spaces. The cause could be, for instance, from synthetic stucco having been applied in a way that traps moisture between the walls and siding, or a crawl space area with excessive moisture and lack of air circulation.
Molds can cause some very real illnesses, but sometimes the fix is less hassle than you might think. I had a house under contract once in which some bad wallboard had been installed. Seems that some fungus or bacteria had contaminated the water they'd used to manufacture the product in the factory. The smell in the house was overpowering - it resembled strong Romano cheese. The manufacturer took responsibility for it and painted the entire interior with a white-pigmented shellac product, which sealed the wallboard and eliminated the smell. By the way, this product is wonderful to seal off dog and cat odors on floor underlayment after cleaning and before re-carpeting. Or to seal water spots in ceilings, or dark stained wood, before painting.
11) Special Needs: Don't forget to think of things that could affect your use and enjoyment of the property. If the back yard is charming but postage stamp size, your buddies could obliterate the begonias with one barbecue. A darling brick garage that your car won't fit into would be pretty expensive storage. Make sure all the areas accommodate your lifestyle as closely as possible.
2) Flood Plain: Cities and counties keep current flood plain maps showing where the property lies in relation to the flood areas as determined by state and federal engineers. You or your agent should check. The city and county have FEMA maps, and may even have detailed maps that show where each individual house sits. Many even have this information on computer. Sometimes the flood information service hired by the lender will say the property is in a flood plain by looking at the larger picture, when in reality it may not be. Go to the planning and zoning office for the city or county and find out for yourself. If the property is in a flood plain, your lender will require flood insurance, but as long as you've investigated within the dates allowed by your Contract, you’ll have a choice about purchasing the property or not. Occasionally only a portion of the lot is in the flood plain, and an Elevation Certificate can be obtained from a licensed engineer proving that the house itself is not. If your property is in a flood plain, federal flood insurance can be purchased through designated homeowner's insurance carriers.
3) Subsidence: In areas that have had underground mining operations going on, there’s a possibility that the land could subside when an old mine shaft collapses. Some areas have had exhaustive studies done so that the potential subsidence areas have been identified and either found not to be a threat, or else prohibited from being built on. Older homes may have already been built in some of these areas, so it's smart to be sure you check the subsidence maps if you’re buying where mining operations could have taken place. Some states offer subsidence insurance, though limited, available for those who have been determined to be in potential subsidence areas.
4) Traffic: You may need to go back to a property at night or during drive times to find out what it would really be like to live there. If you've included traffic as one of your inspection concerns, or if your inspection clause allows you to inspect anything relating to the property, not just physical aspects, you'll have a choice.
5) Prior use of the property: If your property is rural, and the former owners kept the mile-long dirt road "watered" down by spreading used engine oil on it routinely, that's a problem. Not long ago we had a seller tell us that the neighbors would be sorry to see them leave, since the neighbors had always been allowed to bring over their used oil to help remedy the dust problem. Staggers the imagination. If you see signs of oil dumps, telltale areas in the soil, old barrels of unknown contents stored around the place, etc., and you really want the property anyway, you might consider requesting that the seller provide an environmental study to determine the presence or extent of possible contamination. Your lender can get Environmental Lien Protection from the title company, but you can't. If contamination were found to be present, it's our understanding that the EPA looks to the current owner for cleanup, whether he or she caused it or knew about it or not. Most of us could not afford the type of clean up that would be required.
6) Future development or annexation into a municipality: Again, go to the city or county planning office or call the planner on duty. The planner should be able to tell you about development plans currently in progress. Even if homes are built all around, if the property is in an unincorporated area something could be in the works for annexation into a city. That may not be a bad thing, but it's better to be aware of it before you buy.
7) Schools: The school districts have annual reports, procedures, philosophies and statistics available for the asking. If you're relocating and you're not familiar with the schools in the area, you can get the school information mailed to you ahead of time or check them out on the web. Go to our COMMUNITIES page for links to local school districts.
8) Crime statistics and offenders: These are easily obtained from the local police and sheriff's offices for any areas within their jurisdictions.
9) Utility costs: Most areas allow anyone to call and get an average of the last 12 months’ gas and light bills. You should be able to call the utility companies for an average of the past 12 months bills.
10) Location of Utilities: Particularly if you are purchasing vacant land, find out if utilities are available for that lot, and how far you'll have to bring them to the property. The cost to run lines can be prohibitive if you have to bring electricity from the last home site, and it's five miles away. If you need extra phone lines, even for an existing house, check to see that they'll be available.
you're absolutely in love with the property you're buying,
you won't want your agent to have the same rose colored glasses (or
blinders) on that you do...all the more reason to be sure that agent
is working for you.