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Home Inspections: What Buyers Need to Know

Sometimes stressful and always helpful, home inspections are a necessary and important part of the home buying or selling process. It's also something that's viewed very differently from the buyer's side than from the seller's side, meaning that separate posts - one for buyers and one for sellers - are in order. In this, the first of a two-part series on home inspections, we'll look at it from the buyer's side.

Let's start at the beginning: your Realtor will know to do this, but it's also important for you to understand that you need to have an inspection contingency clause in your purchase and sale contract. That way, if your inspector finds major problems with the home that the current owner is either unwilling - or unable - to repair or offer you compensation to repair, you'll be able to walk away from the purchase with no penalties.

When you agree to buy a home, whether new construction or an existing home, it's a good idea to hire an independent home inspector to examine and assess the overall condition of the home. Be sure to hire a certified inspector, and under no condition should you hire someone who also owns a home repair business. That's a major conflict of interest that could (even unintentionally) cloud his or her judgment. You may choose to get recommendations from friends and family members who have recently purchased a home, or perhaps your Realtor will have someone he or she has worked with in the past and trusts to look out for your best interest.

So why do you need an inspection? As a buyer, you need to make sure you're not going to be getting a money pit - a home that's going to start showing its age, any structural defects, non-working systems, etc. shortly after closing. Without an inspection, you could stand to lose thousands of dollars - if not the entire home itself.

Speaking of money, most people want to know up front how much an inspection will cost. The amount varies, but in general, you're probably looking at anywhere from $300 to $500, depending on what the inspector will check. Most inspectors also offer additional services (for an additional fee) that aren't included in the baseline home inspection, such as sewer line inspection. Except in very rare cases, the cost of an inspection is your responsibility as a buyer.

You probably assume that the inspector will look at the structural makeup of the home you plan to purchase, as well as electrical and plumbing systems, basement, and other "building-related" items. But he or she will also look at a lot of things you may not have thought about, such as appliances. 

The inspection will normally take anywhere about two hours, depending on the size and condition of the home. As the buyer, you'll be expected to accompany the inspector and raise any questions of your own as he or she goes through, around and even on or under the home.

During the process, you'll get a good feel for any potential problems, but once the inspection is complete, your inspector will provide you with a written list. At that point, you will evaluate the concerns and decide which, if any, will need to be rectified before you close on your new home.

Should the inspection raise any red flags, your Realtor will help put together a formal request for the seller to fix the specific problems. Some might be so major that they become deal-breakers if not properly addressed. Others may materially affect the price of the home (such as a roof that appears to need replacing soon). In this case you can ask for a price reduction to cover the cost of these factors, and in both cases, you need to make the final sale of the home contingent on the seller addressing your concerns.

When you understand the inspection process, you can make more informed decisions afterward. With any luck, your inspection will go smoothly and uncover only minor issues, if any at all, so you can move forward with your purchase. Should any major issues arise, be prepared for a potentially contentious negotiation or the possibility that you may just have to walk away.

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