If you’ve ever been to an open house or toured a home then you’ve most likely marveled at different home layouts, lamented over beautifully designed kitchens or critiqued the color choice in the bathrooms. But beyond the veneer that makes a house shine to potential home buyers, have you ever wondered what could be lying below the surface?
Is the home you’re touring actually in good shape or are there hidden issues that only a trained eye can spot? Here’s your chance to learn what to look for when buying a house so you too can begin touring homes like a professional home inspector.
Inspecting the driveway
All parts of the home need to work in unison and that includes your driveway. When entering a driveway you’ll want to look at its surface conditions, levelness, and the areas around the driveway.
Walk the entire driveway, noting any deterioration, cracking, heaving or settling. Driveways are known to crack over time but the reasons behind these cracks can vary, such as:
- Improper compaction of the soil prior to pouring the concrete.
- Trees near the driveway can cause heaving if their roots grow underneath the concrete.
- A slope in the driveway can cause rainwater to settle, causing it to erode the supporting dirt below.
- Deterioration of any wood used in the pouring of the driveway may leave a gap that can both become a tripping hazard and a means of moisture entering the fissure, causing more damage.
Inspecting the living room
When inspecting the living room, use three passes to look at everything.
On the first pass, walk the floor in a circle and look for any signs of the floor moving or shifting, water damage, or any damage to the floor itself.
During the second pass, check out the ceiling by walking around the room again. Check for water stains and any cracks that could indicate a structural problem. Also, check out any air conditioning vents to see if they are clean, as dust or other debris around these vents may signal a lack of maintenance.
On your third pass, look only at the walls, keeping an eye out for cracks or separations between the walls, the ceiling, or the fireplace that could be another indication of a structural problem. Look at the electrical outlets to make sure they are clean (not painted) and don’t show any indications of smoke or burn marks. And don’t forget to check all of the light switches and ceiling fans to make sure they work.
Inspecting the fireplace
Fireplaces can be an attractive focal point in many homes. It’s a place where family and friends get together to relax and warm themselves during the cold winter months. That’s why when touring a home you’ll want to know if that fireplace with a great mantle is a winner, or if it will be in need of repair.
First, you’ll want to inspect the exterior of the chimney by looking for any structural issues around the foundation, as well as the chimney case, crown, flue, and cap (if installed). Whether it’s around the foundation, firebox area, or chimney case you should make a note of any signs of cracks as these indicate some deterioration. These cracks could have occurred from normal settling of a home, movement from past earthquakes or the deterioration could have been caused by years of moisture seeping into these cracks, resulting in more damage. Most of the time these areas can be repaired by a mason.
Inspection of the chimney crown, flue and cap usually means a trip up to the roof, which during a home tour you most likely won’t do. If you decide to make an offer on the house, your home inspector will look for any damage to these areas to make sure dangerous carbon monoxide or moisture is not re-entering the home.
Inside the home, you’ll want to inspect the fireplace for signs of cracked or damaged mortar and brickwork. Your home inspector will go one step further by inspecting the fireplace throat and determine if it has a properly sized hearth and that the mantel is secured properly.
Inspecting fire and carbon monoxide detectors
In a newly constructed home, smoke detectors should be installed inside each bedroom and in the adjoining area outside the bedroom door (such as a hallway). Newer homes are required to have smoke detectors wired into the electrical system with battery back-ups. They should be interconnected so that activation of one alarm sets off all alarms. In older homes, at least one smoke detector is required per floor, including basements, and should be within 21 feet of each bedroom.
Carbon monoxide (CO) detectors are highly recommended for homes with gas appliances such as stoves, hot water heaters, furnaces, and when the home has an attached garage. They should be installed on each floor of the home and within 15 feet of all bedrooms.
After you buy a home, it is a good idea to test the smoke and CO detectors every 2-3 months to ensure functionality. You’ll also want to replace your batteries regularly and it is recommended that you replace your devices after 10 years.
Inspecting the kitchen
A good idea for prospective homeowners attending an open house or touring a home privately is to look under the kitchen sink, which can actually tell you a lot about the overall condition of a house.
If you see a well-kept cabinet under the sink, it’s usually a good reflection about the upkeep of the rest of the home. In fact, if you see water damage or possible mold under the kitchen sink, it usually means the rest of the house is in disrepair. Of course, this doesn’t always hold true but more often than not, it’s a great barometer of the house as a whole.
When touring a home like a home inspector, the kitchen is obviously a major component since they are unique in regards to the volume of items that can have issues.
During a typical inspection, home inspectors usually operate all installed appliances such as the dishwasher, range/oven, microwave, vent hood, disposal, and sink. They also note issues with the countertops, cabinets and drawers, R/O systems, compactors, and built-in refrigerators (if any).
In each bathroom, you will want to turn on all the lights and the bathroom fan. If there isn’t a fan, make sure you take note because if you end up buying the house you’ll need to open a window every time you shower. Also, you’ll want to check and make sure there is a heat/air conditioning vent.
Next, look for water stains around the toilet, the bathtub/shower, and especially under the sink. You’ll also want to make sure the toilet is secure. Start by straddling it and then using your knees see if the toilet rocks or moves.
Look at any glass within five feet of the shower or bath and make sure there is a tempered stamp etched in the corner. Do the same for the shower doors as well if they are glass. You’ll also want to check for water damage around windows of the shower enclosure. Then make sure the shower head pipes and faucets don’t wiggle.
Check for an electrical outlet within thirty inches of each sink and that they are 3-prong (grounded). One of the bathrooms should have a GFCI electrical outlet. You can easily spot it as it’s the outlet with the two buttons in the middle.
Finally, look at the ceiling, walls, and floors to make sure there isn’t any damage. If the bathrooms are on an upper level, go downstairs and look for water stains or patches on the ceiling under the bathrooms.
Houses with bedrooms that are too small, too few or on the wrong floor can make a great house dysfunctional for your needs. Luckily, when it comes to inspecting, bedrooms are easy for most homebuyers to evaluate for themselves.
You’ll want to note the number of windows each bedroom has. Something that most people do not realize is that building codes do not require a bedroom to have a closet, so make sure to see if each bedroom has one.
Bedrooms also require several important features and security measures, such as a smoke alarm, an emergency escape/rescue opening (such as a window or door), heat, and some means of light and ventilation. The condition of the bedroom will often be indicative of the overall condition of the house as damaged and scratched doors, stained walls and carpets, and dirty ductwork can indicate a poorly maintained home. Consider the heating and cooling system for each room and note any bedrooms above garages as with older houses these can be less comfortable.
Inspecting the basement
The basement may not be the place you seek out first on a home tour. However, basements can offer great extra space in a home that you can potentially use as extra bedrooms, a family room or playroom, or storage area.
If the basement is unfinished and insulation is not covering the foundation walls, then you have a great opportunity to view the foundation wall for signs of structural concerns. While minor concrete cracking is somewhat typical, larger cracks and, in particular, horizontal cracks, can be an indication of structural movement.
A white powder-like substance called efflorescence, can be an indication of poor drainage around the home and possibly a grading or gutter issue. Your nose is one of the best tools for inspecting a basement. If things smell musty or damp, this can also be an indication of moisture concerns.
Lastly, look around for signs of any unwanted insects or rodents who tend to make their way into a home through the basement. Droppings could indicate a pest concern.
Inspecting the garage
When entering the garage make sure all light switches work. Though you most likely won’t check electrical outlets during a home tour, your home inspector will do it for you during the home inspection and report any that are not working.
You’ll want to check the walls and ceiling to see if they are fully sheetrocked. Sheetrock provides a fire barrier to your home when properly installed. Also, make sure that the access point to the attic also has a sheetrock cover; if it’s just plywood this would be a breach in the fire barrier.
Test the garage doors and the wall mounted remote as well. Look at the condition of the springs, tracks, and rollers of the garage door. Do they appear to be in good condition? Your home inspector will go further by testing all remotes, the laser eye barrier, and reverse sensor to make sure it meets minimal resistance.
Look at the garage floor, also known as the garage slab. Slight cracks are pretty common, but you should take note if you see excessive cracks or settlement.
Below are things you won’t typically see during a home tour. However, your home inspector will certainly look into these areas of the house during a home inspection.
Inspecting the HVAC
One of the largest systems in the home, the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems (HVAC), require periodic maintenance to ensure they run properly for years. Neglected and dirty HVAC equipment is the main reason for system failures. Though you most likely won’t inspect these systems, here’s an overview of what’s involved during an inspection:
- Visual inspection of each component of the system if it is accessible.
- Check for loose connections, leaking gas lines, worn out components, and damaged coolant lines.
- Inspect the heat exchanger and evaporator coils to ensure they are clean and in good condition.
- Listen for hard starts, irregular combustion, and worn out bearings.
- Check for clogs in the condensate line and verify there is a proper discharge location.
- Check the filter to ensure it has been changed regularly.
The average gas furnace lasts 15-25 years, the heat pump about 12-20 years, and standalone AC 12-15 years. An annual inspection is a small investment to protect your HVAC system. It’s a good idea to maintain your HVAC system biannually in the spring for air-conditioning units and the fall for furnaces. To improve efficiency, use a small portable vacuum to remove any dust buildup on the system and the air-conditioning coils.
Inspecting water heater
You probably won’t personally inspect the water heater during an open house, however, you can count on your home inspector to:
- Visually inspect the surfaces of the tank and plumbing lines for signs of leakage and overall condition.
- Verify proper earthquake strapping—one strap on the top third of the tank, one strap on the lower third.
- If it’s a gas water heater, the home inspector will inspect the fuel supply piping, ensure a proper sediment trap is present, check the length and type of the flexible fuel supply hose, and look at the burner and venting from the water heater.
- If it’s an electric water heater, they will ensure the electrical supply is protected in the conduit, check for a ground wire attachment on top of the tank, and ensure the element covers are present and properly secured.
- Inspect the Temperature Pressure Relief (TPR) valve and ensure proper material, routing, and termination of the discharge piping.
- Evaluate for vehicle impact if in a garage – typically, a bollard (post) should be present in case the water heater is in the path of a vehicle.
- Look at the area around the tank checking for past leaks, ensure the tank is sitting on a stable base.
- Refer to the manufacturer’s identification label for size, age, and capacity of the tank.
Inspecting the home’s exterior
When approaching the home, take a look at the roof ridge to make sure it is level and not sagging. This will give you a clue that the house itself is not sinking and the walls are not spreading. It can also give you a feel for the solidity of the roof support.
Look at the grounds around the home and make sure the soil is sloped away from the home and that gutters, downspouts, and downspout extensions are present and in good shape. This is especially important if the home has a basement as it helps prevent water intrusion into the basement and to protect the integrity of the foundation.
Walk around the home observing the condition of the siding, eaves, fascia, and soffits. Look for wood rot, termite damage, and water staining, as well as carefully examine caulking and flashings. Look for deteriorated or missing caulk and flashings especially around windows, doors, butt joints, and siding transitions. These simple observations can save some huge expenses down the road.
Inspecting the Landscape Irrigation (sprinkler) System
On a home tour, take note if the property has an irrigation sprinkler system, as many homes have these types of systems to water the lawn. Though you probably won’t be able to test it, your home inspector will inspect the irrigation system controller along with each sprinkler zone.
Any broken sprinkler heads and leaks found will be noted, and the backflow valve will be visually inspected for damage. The findings of the inspection will be included in your home inspection report along with photos of each zone during operation.
Inspecting the fence of a residence is extremely important as it provides for the safety and security of a home. During a home tour, you’ll first want to note what material the fence is made of (most commonly treated wood) and then see if there is any indication of rot, damage, and other signs of deterioration.
The home inspector will also look for those same things but then test the amount of resistance the fence can withstand and what type of code may need to be applied. Once those items have been identified, the inspector is notified about the property line to ensure they are inspecting the proper fencing for the specific property. Next, the inspector will then assess whether the standard expectations associated with the fence have been applied, including:
- 4×4 posts should be at least 2 feet in the ground and they should be 6 to 8 feet from each other depending upon the crossbar and planks being used.
- Concrete used to hold each post in place should be 3 times the width of the 4×4 posts.
- The crossbar should be a 2×4 if being used with the standard 4×4 posts.
- Each post should be perfectly vertical or plumb.
- The proper industry standard brackets need to be used to secure the cross beams to the posts.
- Any insect damage will be carefully identified.
Only if all of these standards are identified with the fence in mind can the inspector be sure that the fence is meeting code and will provide safety and security for the homeowners.
Decks can be a great asset, especially during the summertime, but also they may have hidden hazards. Often times, they were added to a home by do-it-yourselfers who had good intentions but may not have used safe construction methods.
During a home tour, pay particular attention to how decks attach to the home, which is usually done with a ledger or starter board. A pro will use ½” lag bolts with washers in a staggered pattern to attach this board. They also will protect the ledger with flashing to stop water infiltration. If there is no flashing water will weaken and rot the ledger over time, possibly finding its way into the home and causing hidden pockets of rot and mold.
Railings also get extra scrutiny at inspection. Did you know that railings need to resist 200 pounds of force at any point along their length? Always look at a deck with safety in mind. If someone stumbles at your next BBQ, the railing needs to prevent them from going over the edge.
There are many considerations when it comes to deck construction and all decks should be professionally inspected and regularly maintained.
Inspecting retaining walls
Retaining walls are used to hold back earth and landscaping and are typically made of poured-in-place concrete and then backfilled. You want to make sure these walls are perfectly plumb (vertical) without any leaning away from the retained earth.
This rule also applies to basement foundation walls as well. Besides the retaining wall being plumb, there should not be any significant cracks. Small fractures are typical but any differential movement on either side of the crack may be of concern.
If there is a crack, see if it is wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, which would indicate one portion of the wall is sinking in relation to the other. If one part of the wall is sticking out in relation to the other side of the crack, that is a concern as well. Sometimes these walls can be lifted back into position or pulled back towards the earth but this generally requires excavation and added structural support.
Inspecting the roof
Each type of roofing has a different life expectancy. However, the variables of installation, exposure, attic venting, and maintenance are what determine the actual life of each roof.
Roof inspection begins in the attic by checking for water staining, leaks, damaged roof members, and evaluating the available venting. Heat and moisture build up quickly in improperly vented attics and shorten the lifespan of the roof.
An accurate assessment of the roof condition can only be determined from closely examining the surface of the roofing. Inspectors will look to determine the number of roof layers, such as multiple layers of roofing hold more heat which causes more wear. Once on the roof, we evaluate the surface of the roofing, flashing, and roof transitions. We also evaluate roof penetrations (skylights, vents, chimneys) and note conditions like overhanging trees that can damage the roofing.
Inspecting the foundation
The most important part of any home, foundations are primarily built with stone, brick, concrete or block. A home inspector will inspect the foundation for any damage that can affect the integrity of the house.
When inspecting the foundation the inspector looks at both the exterior and interior for cracks, deterioration, and other environmental factors. Most foundation damage is the result of water infiltration such as a missing gutter system, which can result in water entering cracks and crevices of the foundation and then, in the colder winter months, freezing, resulting in damage due to hydrostatic pressure.
Type, size, and location of cracks in the foundation are very important to note. Any cracks in the foundation should be monitored over time for movement and water penetration. Shrinkage and settlement cracks are common in most homes, as are hairline cracks in foundations. V-Shape cracks are something to be concerned about as these could be evidence of structural settlement. Depending upon the size and location, these cracks generally require further evaluation, especially those greater than 3/16 of an inch.
Inspecting crawl spaces
Every part of the country has their own unwanted pests, so when inspecting the crawl space be aware that you might not be alone. As such, a strong flashlight and keen eyesight are required.
The most important system in the crawl space is the foundation. There are several types of foundations, each with their own unique components and possible problems. Regardless of which type of foundation the home has, look for loose material (stone, bricks, etc..), bulging walls, excessive settling, sagging, moisture intrusion, and how the building structure is secured.
Ventilation and moisture control are another key factor. Is a vapor barrier required in your area? Is there sufficient vent area for outside air to displace the moisture? Dryer vents should never end in the crawl space, and HVAC ducts should be supported and insulated. In colder climates, the floor should be well insulated from underneath.
Plumbing components in the crawl space should not only be inspected for leaks but also for proper supports, hangers, and insulation. Some crawl spaces have a sump pump to remove excess water and these should be inspected as well.
Electrical connections and terminations must be contained in sealed junction boxes and often, mechanical systems are found in the crawl space and require inspection.