What does a home inspection involve? Standards and specifics vary from state to state, but in general, the inspector is responsible for making sure there are no glaring, obvious issues with a home that's being bought or sold. Sellers can hire an inspector before listing the home to ensure they tackle anything major before putting it on the market, and a buyer's mortgage loan will almost always require a home inspection so that the lender can feel confident that the home is in good shape and habitable.
There are dozens of features that a home inspector will examine to ensure the home's safety and habitability. Here are some of the things you can expect your inspector to look at -- if it's at all possible, it's always best for a buyer to be present during the inspection so that the inspector can explain any issues in person and so the buyer can ask questions (although it's usually best to wait until the inspection has concluded before you bombard the inspector with queries).
Puddles or standing water outside
The inspector will check outside the home for a number of things, including whether there are any puddles or standing water that could indicate a drainage problem. Water is an element that can wreak havoc on a home, and standing water or puddles are a sign that there could be water damage inside the house, or that the foundation is faulty.
If there are sheds or other storage buildings on the property, the inspector will take a look at those to ensure they are safe -- no crooked or leaning walls, solidly built, and with doors that open and shut smoothly. After all, you don't want a shed falling down on top of you while you try to stash your lawn tools.
Pathways, retaining walls, and fences
Any pathways to and from the house, retaining walls, or fences should be inspected to ensure that they are in good shape; buckling in a pathway, or a leaning retaining wall or fence, could be other indications that the ground underneath the house isn't entirely stable, and that's a red flag for inspectors.
Decks and patios
In addition to making sure that decks and patios don't have any holes or aren't skewed in a dangerous way, inspectors will take a look at the railings on your decks and patios to determine how safe they are. Decks or patios without railings or with large gaps in the railings might need to be repaired, and it's the inspector's job to check them out and decide whether they meet safety requirements or not.
Trees and shrubs
Inspectors aren't arborists, but they'll still take a look at the trees and shrubs on the property and check for any obvious issues; if there are branches overhanging the roof or falling off a tree, or it looks like it's about to come down on top of the house or the driveway, the inspector will note the safety hazard in the inspection notes, and it will probably need to be addressed before sale.
A cracked or shifting foundation can mean big trouble for a house, so expect your inspector to spend some time taking a look at the foundation and determining whether it's stable -- and dry, too; a wet foundation means there could be water seeping in (or out) from somewhere, which could potentially undermine the home's stability in the future.
Mold and mildew
Not all mold or mildew is toxic, but in general, it's best not to try to cohabit with spores, which can irritate lungs and trigger allergies. And some mold and mildew is toxic, which poses its own set of problems. Inspectors will look in several places in the home (notably the foundation and attic) to see if there are any signs of mold or mildew present.
Basements and crawl spaces
Basements and crawl spaces are areas that can be subject to both moisture damage and pests, so inspectors will check for signs that either moisture or pests are present, but the inspector will also look for adequate ventilation, ensure that any exposed pipes are insulated, and check to make sure the insulation is sufficient.
The attic is a part of the house that can show if there's damage to the roof or leakage from outside, so inspectors will spend some time looking for evidence of moisture or water seepage, including stains that might indicate water penetration. There shouldn't be any open electrical splices or plumbing, exhaust, or appliance vents that terminate in the attic, so inspectors will look for those, too; there also needs to be adequate ventilation and sufficient insulation that's been appropriately installed in the attic.
Windows and door frames
Windows and door frames can be places where foundation issues emerge, so inspectors are going to make sure that the windows and door frames are straight -- not askew or bowed in any way -- and will also check the caulking and glazing on the windows, in addition to ensuring that the window glass isn't broken and is the appropriate type for the climate and area.
Depending on how tall the house in question is, the inspector might or might not actually get up on the roof to look for signs of damage or any problems -- if the home is three stories high or taller, then the inspector might use binoculars and other tools to make the best assessment possible from the ground. They'll use different criteria depending on the roof material, but in general, they'll want to make sure there aren't any holes, that there isn't any decay, look for stains, and make sure that any vents are clear and clean.
Gutters and drainage
The gutters need to be well-built and securely fastened to the house, with no decay, rust, sagging, or missing pieces. Gutters should also be clean to facilitate good drainage, and the inspector might also check to make sure that the gutters are draining away from the foundation just for good measure.
There are many different materials that can be used to construct a house, and the specifics of the inspection are going to depend on the type of siding material used. In general, the inspector is going to look for any stains and signs of damage, ensure that the walls are straight and not bowed, and ensure that there are no cracks in the siding. Vines and flaking or peeling exterior paint are other items that an inspector might look for to ensure the home's structure is solid.
Inside the home, the inspector is going to look at the walls to see if they're straight or if they happen to tilt one way or another, or whether there are cracks -- all signs that the foundation might be problematic. The inspector will also look for any stains or signs of water damage or even smoke damage on the walls, especially if it hasn't been reported by the seller.
The ceiling should also be level and stain-free, with no cracks, and any trim should be installed properly and in good condition. Again, the inspector is looking for any indication that there might be leaks or water damage happening somewhere in the home, which often manifests on the ceiling.
Inspectors clearly aren't going to tear open your walls to ensure that there's insulation and that it's adequate, but they will look for clues that the walls are well-insulated and that the insulation has been installed correctly.
Depending on the climate, the inspector is going to check for both heating and cooling sources in habitable rooms; in most of the country, a source of heat will be critical (after all, even in desert climates, it gets pretty cold at night).
The fireplace and chimney
If you have a working fireplace and chimney, then it might be worth having an additional and more in-depth inspection done to ensure there aren't any issues with it, but the home inspector will take a brief look at the fireplace to check for cracks or damages, and will typically shine a light around to make sure the flue is clean and lined.
Range hood or exhaust fan
The range hood or exhaust fan in the kitchen need to be checked so the inspector can ensure that the fan or hood is vented to the outside of the building and that either the hood or fan (or both) is working correctly.
Outlets by the kitchen sink
Any electrical outlets by the kitchen sink will need to be checked for a ground fault circuit interrupter, a safety precaution, so you can expect the inspector to spend some extra time and attention on those outlets.
The kitchen sink itself
Water flow, leaks, and stains are going to be top priorities for the inspector when checking out the kitchen sink; the inspector will spend some time looking underneath the sink for any signs of leaks or stains, and will check for rust or deterioration in any garbage disposals or in general around the sink.
Does the dishwasher drain properly and close all the way, and does it leak? Does the stove, range, and any other built-in appliances operate properly? The inspector will look for any signs of problems in the kitchen appliances and note them in the report.
Cabinets and drawers
If kitchen cabinets or drawers don't open or close correctly, or all the way, this can be another sign that the foundation or stability of the house could be compromised. The inspector will ensure that the cabinets and drawers are in good condition and that everything opens and closes the way it should.
Not only should toilets operate correctly -- flushing when you press the flush mechanism -- but toilets should also be securely fastened to the floor: no rocking or looseness, and there shouldn't be any stains around the base of the toilet. Inspectors will check all of those factors for each toilet in the house.
Inspectors will check drains in sinks, tubs, and showers throughout the house to check for any blockages or potential issues, and inspectors will also check the drainage pipes that lead to the sewage or septic system to ensure that the pipe slopes appropriately and that there is no evidence of leaks or stains around the drain pipes.
Showers and tubs
As you've no doubt learned by now, water can present a serious problem if it's somewhere it's not supposed to be in the house, and showers and tubs are a danger zone for water leaks and issues. Inspectors will check to make sure the walls, tiles, flooring, and caulking is stable and in good condition, and that there are no stains or signs of leaks around the tub or shower; inspectors will also check the shower or tub's drainage.
If there's any visible damage to the plumbing pipes, or it looks like there are stains on the materials around the pipes, those are two indications that the plumbing might need some attention before the sale closes, so you can expect the inspector to check for those.
The size of the water heater is one thing that inspectors will check to make sure is correct for the size of the home and the number of bedrooms and bathrooms in the house, but inspectors will be looking for more than that -- signs of rust and proper ventilation included.
Water temperature and pressure
Hot water should be hot, but not too hot; inspectors will check the water temperature and pressure to ensure that the water heater works and that there's adequate pressure for the home. (Sellers may want to set their heater to between 118 and 125 degrees Fahrenheit if they happen to have it hotter than that, so the inspector doesn't have to do any investigation into why the water is too hot -- or even worse, come back a second time after the temperature has been adjusted.)
Visible wiring isn't a dealbreaker in and of itself, but it needs to be appropriately wired and cared for -- there should be no visible splices, and any cables should be secured and protected. If the visible wiring is in good condition, then you should be all set.
Some electrical panels don't have adequate capacity for the size of home they're servicing -- a scary but true fact. Inspectors will make sure that the panel is sufficient for the size of the house and will also make sure there are no overheated fuses or breakers, in addition to checking the connections of any cables running into the panel.
The inspector will look to see if there's an adequate number of outlets in each habitable room, for starters, but you can also expect the inspector to spot-check outlets here and there to see if they're working properly, and to ensure they're of the correct three-pronged type.
Light switches might seem like a small thing to worry about, but inspectors will nonetheless check to make sure that the light switches are working in the house. Sellers should do a self-check before the inspection and swap out any problematic light bulbs, and possibly even label a light switch if it connects to an outlet (with a floor lamp, for example) instead of an overhead light.
Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
It might get loud when the inspector checks the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, but of course, you'd rather know those are working well before the house sells. Expect the inspector to check and even trigger the alarms to make sure everything is in good working order.
Floors and stairways
Inspectors will determine whether floors are level and look for any cracks, stains, or signs of damage; the inspector will also want to make sure that stairs have hand railings (if necessary) and that the treads and risers are solid, with no loose boards or other issues that might literally trip someone up.
In addition to checking for structural issues and leaks in the garage, inspectors will want to make sure the garage door is in good working condition -- it opens and closes with no problems, and that automatic garage doors stop where they're supposed to stop.
If it sounds like there's a lot involved in a home inspection, well, there is! The inspection is one part of the process that's helpful for both buyers and sellers in terms of protecting everyone's interests, so ask for references (and even a sample inspection report) when choosing an inspector, and do your best to be present for the event itself so you can hear firsthand about any issues uncovered.