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Inspecting your home inspector

Home buyers hire inspectors to learn about needed or soon-to-be-needed expensive repairs. But how thorough and helpful are the home inspection list?

Undercover shoppers from Washington Consumers’ Checkbook, an independent nonprofit consumer advocacy group, rented a typical three-bedroom, three-bath, two-story, single-family house in Arlington and — posing as prospective buyers — scheduled home inspections with 12 local companies to put inspectors to the test. Highlights from the report:

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers were astonished by how often many of the inspectors missed obvious defects. Before the inspections, Checkbook staff identified or created 28 problems they thought any inspector should catch — including a big leak under the kitchen sink, inactive electrical outlets, roof damage and signs of a rodent infestation. As a group, inspectors caught these problems only half the time.

But what really surprised Checkbook’s staff was how little work many inspectors bothered to do for their average fee of $540. Few performed up-close inspections of the roof; several didn’t test all the windows, outlets, appliances or fixtures; and the reports supplied by some were meager.

  • Only three inspectors raised ladders to inspect the roof, which was significantly damaged. Many of the non-climbers failed to report its broken shingles and missing drip edges.
  • Only about half bothered to test the windows by opening and shutting all of them.
  • Several did only cursory inspections of the furnace and water heater.
  • Five didn’t inspect all the window air-conditioning units. Only three checked the filters, which were filthy.
  • Seven didn’t check every light fixture.
  • Four didn’t bother to test every indoor electrical outlet.
  • An astounding four inspectors failed to record obvious water damage to the living room ceiling. All they had to do was look up to see discoloration and peeling paint.
  • While many home inspection companies disavow responsibility for inspecting chimneys, it was still surprising that four failed to spot that the damper was missing.
  • Three inspectors were in and out in 90 minutes, compared with 2.5 hours or longer for a few others.
  • The written reports supplied by several inspectors were very short, some filled with uninterpretable codes. One gave a 10-pager with no pictures. Another provided a way-too-brief 14-page report that noted only 20 problems.
  • One inspector recorded no information about the plumbing system, noting that he “can’t evaluate plumbing because the home is not presently inhabited.”

A major reason for superficial inspections is many inspectors explicitly deny responsibility for checking lots of major home components. Many companies refuse to check chimneys, climb ladders or enter crawl spaces. Citing “industry standards,” some firms test only some electrical outlets, light fixtures and windows. Some inspectors won’t run HVAC equipment, remove panels on circuit-breaker boxes or test water heaters. Checkbook’s staffers kept wondering, “Well, then, if they won’t do all those checks, then what are they doing for their fees?

Before you hire an inspector, ask what exactly they’ll do and how long it will take them to do it. You can often determine the thoroughness of inspectors’ work by looking at sample reports they should readily supply if requested. Already have a concern about the home? Make sure your inspector will check it.

 

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