Low inventory in the housing market means quick showings and quick decision making. Gone are the days of sleeping on it and scheduling a second showing. These days, buyers are waiting in line to look at a house and only have a matter of minutes to decide if they feel like that’s the right home for them. Some showings last as little as 15 or 30 minutes.
In the rush to make a decision, things can get overlooked — especially if you're a first-time homebuyer. That’s one of the reasons why a home inspection is critical.
During the home inspection process, you’ll have several hours in the property with a house expert to look over every inch and ask questions. You’ll see the bones of the house and get to decide if it's a good investment as-is, if there are things the seller should take care of before you buy it, or if the house is something you should just walk away from.
A Home Inspection is a Wise Investment in Your Big Investment
The home inspection is going to cost you several hundred dollars, but it's money well spent when you consider the costs to repair or replace big-ticket items in a home – many of which a home inspection can help you uncover and even deal with before move-in.
The inspector is going to look at the major systems and components of the house as well as potential health and safety issues. Most inspectors also offer appliance checks, sewer scopes, radon tests, or mold inspections for an additional fee. Going over the house with a fine-tooth comb isn’t meant to scare you – it’s intended to ensure that you’re making an informed decision.
Buying a used house means that many of its parts and systems will be well-used by the time you start using them. Most of what the inspector finds will probably be run-of-the-mill, but occasionally they’ll find problems that will fail a home inspection. Here are a few items to keep an eye out for that could fail a home inspection.
Roof Replacement (Cost: ~$5,000 – ~$20,000)
A typical asphalt shingle roof can last anywhere from 15 to 30 years, depending on the quality of materials used and weather conditions throughout its lifetime. Your inspector will look for cracked, curled, or peeling shingles, wear patterns in the roof, and any signs of mildew or fungus growing on the shingles. The cost of major roof repairs and replacement can vary significantly with larger roofs and more complex rooflines dictating a much higher budget.
Major Foundation Issues (Cost: ~$1,000 – ~$7,000+)
When the inspector heads to the basement, they’re going to look at the foundation walls for signs of cracking, leaning, displacement, or bowing. Your foundation is what’s holding up the entire house, so a wall that’s failing may have broad implications for the whole home.
Some cracking is natural, especially in cement block foundations, but your inspector will be able to tell you if the cracking is serious enough to require more attention, like an assessment from a structural engineer or costly repairs.
Fixing a foundation wall is no small feat, but it is possible. It's often done by sinking specially designed anchors into the surrounding yard, effectively pulling the wall back into place. The cost of this type of fix can be expensive, though, with a single wall costing more than $5,000.
Water Damage (Cost: ~$1,000 – ~$8,000)
Water damage can show up throughout your house, sometimes in spots where you don’t expect it. It can come from broken or leaking pipes, ice dams in the roof, poor exterior grading, and missing gutter downspouts. The inspector will look at ceilings, walls, and floors for spots, moisture, and more telltale signs of water damage.
To make sure it's properly repaired, it's important to understand where the water damage is coming from. For example, a leaking pipe on the second floor of a building can cause damage in multiple locations in the house as the water finds its path. It's also not always obvious, like behind finished basement walls, where some inspectors will run a moisture test to ensure there isn’t any hidden water damage.
Mold (Cost: ~$500 – ~$30,000+)
High humidity or water damage, even if it has been fixed, can lead to mold problems in a house. Black mold can be costly to fix and dangerous to ignore. According to the Mayo Clinic, mold can cause serious allergy problems and asthma-like symptoms, including breathing complications.
In a house, mold can be an especially tricky problem to diagnose unless you’re an expert. What looks like mold can often just be mildew that can be cleaned up with soap and water and won’t cause any long term issues.
If you see what you suspect is mold, have it tested by an expert and remediated appropriately. Depending on the type of mold and how far it's spread, that could mean anything from a thorough cleaning to replacing drywall or insulation and ripping out wall-to-wall carpeting – all of which can rack up a hefty bill.
HVAC Replacement (Cost: ~$2,500 – ~$8,000)
Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) units keep your home comfortable. They typically have an expected lifespan of 15-20 years, although they’ll often last longer with proper annual maintenance. Depending on how old they are, HVAC units can be expensive to replace.
Here's the average costs we're talking about, broken down by equipment type:
- New boiler: $3,500 – $8,000
- New furnace: $2,500 – $6,000
- New A/C: $3,800 – $7,500
When an HVAC unit does eventually fail, it’s typically going to be on either the hottest or coldest day of the year when the unit is under the most stress. An inspection can reveal impending HVAC issues so you aren't blindsided by a broken unit during the blistering summer or deep chill of winter.
Major Electrical Issues (Cost: ~$1,500 – ~$4,000)
The inspectors will check the outlets throughout the house and open up the breaker panel to make sure everything looks like it has been properly installed. Most often, inspectors will find minor issues like improperly grounded outlets or missing ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets near sinks or in the garage where water might be present. Those are things that are easy to have fixed at a relatively low cost.
Occasionally, more serious wiring problems can be found, including a few outdated circuit breaker panels, which need to be replaced. Federal Pacific Electric Panels and Zinsco Panels installed between 1950 and 1980, for example, can fail to properly trip and cut power. The problem has led to thousands of house fires across the country. If you come across one of these panels during your inspection, your inspector will recommend that it be checked by an electrician.
Major Plumbing Problems (Cost: ~$4,000 – ~$20,000+)
Most plumbing problems are relatively easy to fix, but occasionally inspectors will find more costly problems.
Low water pressure inside the house can be a symptom of a clogged water main from the street to the house. Replacing that can mean digging out the old water line and replacing it – a pricey proposition, but a necessary one. You can have a similar issue in the waste line leading out of the house.
Some communities require homeowners to have their sewer line (or septic system) inspected and repaired before they can sell the house, but not all communities do. Even if it's not required, it's a good idea to have a sewer scope performed to make sure the waste line is in good condition and free of major cracks, tree roots, and other obstructions.
Work With Sellers to Fix Big Issues – But Don't Count on It
There’s an old saying in real estate: "Everything is negotiable." After the inspection is complete, you should read through the results, think about what the inspector showed you, and talk with your real estate agent about next steps. Some sellers are willing to step up to the plate and repair items that might otherwise kill the deal.
In other cases, it might be better to cut your losses, walk away from the deal, and hope you have better luck with the next home on your list.