You’ve taken the leap and made an offer on an old house, and the seller has accepted it. Caught between euphoria and dread, you have only a few short weeks to reassure yourself that it’s the right house for you—and make sure you haven’t agreed to sink your life savings into a proverbial money pit.
And while you need to investigate the neighborhood, the zoning, the schools, and other concerns, the biggest piece of what the real estate people call “due diligence” will be the physical inspection of the house. Much of your decision on whether to go ahead with the sale, and a large part of your plans for fixing the house after you buy it, will be based on this document.
An inspector will look at the building’s systems and components and let you know if they are functional, when or if they might need replacement, whether they could be upgraded, or if their present state constitutes an immediate threat to life safety. A home inspection may not cover absolutely everything—extras like swimming pools, septic tanks, or burglar alarms will probably not be covered, so you might want to get separate inspections for these. (Especially septic systems—if not properly maintained, they can cost thousands of dollars to repair.)
The Inspector Hunt
First, you’ll need to find an inspector. Real estate agents will often refer you to one, but you may want to find one on your own to ensure you’re getting what you want from the evaluation. Inspectors are not licensed in most states, though many inspectors belong to ASHI (American Society of Home Inspectors; ashi.org) or NAHI (National Association of Home Inspectors; nahi.org), which may be able to provide referrals to members in your area. In addition, a subset of ASHI members has formed the Historic Building Inspectors Association (inspecthistoric.org), whose members specialize in older buildings. Many general contractors also perform inspections, but remember, you want someone who is experienced and trained in inspections—knowing how to build a house is not the same as knowing how to inspect one.
Any inspector you hire should carry both general liability insurance and errors and omissions insurance, and the contract should spell out what will (or won’t) be covered in the inspection process. Personal referrals can be helpful, so ask around. It may be more difficult to find an inspector who is familiar or knowledgeable about old houses, especially if old houses are not in the majority where you live. It requires more know-how to inspect an old house than one that’s only a few years old—the inspector needs to know how things were done back in the day, as well as how they’re done now. If you can’t find an inspector who is conversant with old houses, then be prepared to take some of the recommendations you get with a grain of salt.
Nationally, the cost of an inspection ranges from around $300 to $700, and it should take three to four hours. A larger or more complicated property may cost more and take longer. A $99 inspection with a checklist is probably not adequate for a historic home. You should make sure the inspection includes a narrative written report in addition to whatever the inspector will tell you verbally during the inspection.
What to Expect When You’re Inspecting
If it all possible, you should be present during the inspection, and if you want to follow the inspector into the crawl space, then you might want to leave your dress slacks or high heels at home. How much an inspector will look at varies; some will climb on the roof or go into the attic, while others will opt for examining hard-to-reach spots with binoculars. Inspectors are not Superman: They can’t see through walls, behind furniture, or into areas that are inaccessible, and obviously they’re not allowed to poke holes to get a better look, since most inspections take place before the close of escrow.
A good inspection should cover both the interior and exterior of the house and its various systems, including plumbing, heating, and electrical. This doesn’t mean that every single electrical outlet or window will be tested—generally just a representative sample—but the major stuff should be looked at. A good inspector should have tools like moisture meters, electrical testers, carbon monoxide detectors, and water pressure testers. Be aware that even the best inspector may not find everything—depending on the timing of the inspection, certain problems (such as roof leaks or drainage problems in the summer) can be difficult to uncover. Usually the report will include some recommendations for correcting issues that were found, often boiling down to “Get somebody to fix this” or “Get a new one.”
Don’t be disheartened if the inspector comes back with a seemingly endless list of things to fix. Even a brand new house will have a few things wrong with it, and an old house is likely to have lots of things wrong (but no matter how neglected a building has been, it takes a very long time for one to actually fall down). Some will be in the category of annoying rather than life-threatening—broken sash cords, non-functioning doorbells, or missing window screens. Other things that an inspector may consider unsavory will be the very things you find charming about the house—a vintage stove, functioning gas lights, or an original bathroom. Many things in old houses are now considered obsolete, and the inspector might use phrases like “the end of its useful life” or “average lifespan,” but that doesn’t mean that component of your house is going to fall apart tomorrow or that you can’t go on using it for the next 50 years. On the other hand, there may be things that are an immediate life-safety threat, such as gas leaks, a porch in imminent danger of collapse, or rats living in the stove. Most of the inspector’s finds will fall somewhere between these extremes.
In most cases, there’s no need to fear the inspector—take the report, along with your subscription to OHJ, and set forth into the wonderful world of old-house ownership.
Longtime contributorJane Powellis a restoration consultant and the author of several bungalow books.