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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/1/2007 1:47:57 PM ET 2007-08-01T17:47:57

You’d have to be a fool to buy a house without having it inspected first. The challenge is to find a competent home inspector who can give you an accurate picture of the property, so you know whether to go forward with the purchase.

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Pick the wrong person and you could be in for years of headaches and heartache. Anyone can make a mistake, but when a home inspector misses critical defects, it can cost you a bundle. I’ve seen some of the horror stories, and trust me; you don’t want this to happen to you.

John Shaw and Marlene Koltin are paying the price — in dollars and mental aggravation — for what they say was a botched inspection of the home they bought last year in Seattle, Wash.

From the street, the house looks lovely. But it’s riddled with hidden problems that will cost them at least $280,000 to repair.

“This house was supposed to be a joy,” Marlene says. “Now it’s just a source of worry and frustration.”

There’s dry rot around the windows. They all need to be replaced. And there’s more dry rot throughout the garage. It may need to be torn down.

The most serious problem is under the house. The joists holding up the floor have clear signs of deterioration caused by bugs. These wooden beams will have to be replaced to keep the house from collapsing.

“The inspector was down there three or four times taking a look and hopefully identifying the problems we needed to know about,” John says. “And he didn’t catch this.”

John and Marlene say if the inspection report had noted all of these problems, they would have walked away from the deal. 

How do they feel about the experience? After a long sigh, John replied, “Let down, disappointed, mad, frustrated.”

What to expect from an inspector
You hire an inspector to do a visual survey of the property and structure at that moment in time.

“We can’t see through walls,” saysFrank Lesh, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors. “And we can’t tear into walls and look for things. We are in somebody else’s house.”

Even so, a good inspector is trained to spot the warning signs of a problem or potential problem; everything from inadequate wiring to substandard plumbing. But not all inspectors are up to the task.

“There are a lot of people out there doing this who honestly don’t know what they’re doing,” says Alan Mooney, President of Criterium Engineers in Portland, Maine. His company has offices in 35 states and has been doing home inspections since 1957.

Mooney told me, “I would not be uncomfortable saying that 25 percent to 30 percent of the inspections that are done are superficial or inaccurate.”

According to the National Association of Home Inspectors there are no licensing standards or regulations for home inspectors in 21 states and the District of Columbia.

While regulations in some states insure a minimum level of competency, they can’t guarantee that your inspection will be done properly. That’s why it’s so important to do your homework before hiring someone.

Check your state: http://www.nahi.org/public/48.cfm

You’d think that when an inspector misses an obvious defect, one that costs you a substantial amount of money to correct, you’d be able to sue for damages. But that’s rarely the case. Most home inspectors have clauses in their contracts that limit their liability to what you paid them.

“Even if they miss tens of thousands of dollars in defects that they should have caught, you may only be able to collect the cost of the report,” says Seattle attorney Dave Von Beck, who specializes in construction cases. Von Beck says most home buyers probably don’t realize this.

When you are interviewing potential inspectors, find out if they have errors and omissions insurance. “A responsible, prudent inspector is going to carry E & O insurance,” says Everett Rawlings, President of the National Association of Home Inspectors.

Be realistic
Home buyers need to have a realistic expectation of what a home inspector — even the best inspector — can do for them. A home inspection is not a guarantee or warranty of condition. It’s an opinion.

That’s why the training, experience and professional judgment of that inspector is critical. “Just like a doctor, dentist, or attorney, it’s his or her opinion and judgment that you are relying on,” says Alan Mooney of Criterium Engineers.

“If we don’t see dry rot, but we suspect rot,” Mooney says, “we should express that opinion.”

There’s nothing you can do to guarantee the inspector will spot all the visible problems. I’ve spoken to homeowners who used highly-recommended companies that missed costly defects. Still, it’s the best thing you can do to prevent expensive surprises.

I’d look for a certified inspector who belongs to the American Society of Home Inspectors or the National Association of Home Inspectors. A certified inspector must pass written tests, have performed 250 paid inspectors, and take continuing education courses. Both ASHI and NAHI have a set of standards and code of ethics members must follow.

The National Academy of Building Inspection Engineers has significant standards and requires members to be licensed professional engineers.

If you live in an area where mold or pests are a common problem, make sure the inspector is trained for that.

The prime rule: Be there for the inspection
You need to be involved in the inspection process. If you are there, you can see what the inspector sees and have things explained to you. By walking around with the inspector and asking questions, you should feel more confident and comfortable with what he’s telling you.

One more thought. Considering how much money is on the line, I would urge you to consider having two inspections. Hire a general home inspector and a structural engineer. The structural engineer might spot things the other inspector missed.

Is it worth spending more for a second opinion? “Absolutely!” says Marlene Koltin. “It’s money very well spent.”

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