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March 20, 2013

Inspections are a must for first-time homebuyers

By Sara Kandel
C & G Staff Writer

For first-time homebuyers, a quality home inspection is a must. Without one, what appears to be a dream home can easily transform into a nightmare.

There is an old saying that warns not to prejudge something by its outward appearance. It’s a saying that is as true for homes as it is for books. A quality inspection should tell a prospective buyer not only the current state of the house, but its work history and potential costs in the future.

“Inspections are critical, especially for first-time homeowners, because if you never bought a house and you don’t know anything about the history of the house you’re buying, then you really don’t know what you are getting into,” said Andy Konopada of RE/MAX in the Hills, located in Bloomfield Hills.

Konopada is a third-generation home builder and Realtor with 32 years of experience, and one of the things his experience has taught him is that a good inspection will always take at least a few hours and isn’t cheap, but it is always worth the time and cost.

“A good inspector is always worth his fee,” Konopada said. “A good inspector will be in the house for three to four hours. He’ll go in the attic and crawl spaces and look for signs of mold or boards that have rotted out. A good inspector will climb up on the roof.

“A good inspector will check every appliance in the house — the garbage disposal, furnace, and he even might run a cycle on the dishwasher. It might cost a few hundred to $1,000, depending on the size and style of the house, but a good inspector will check everything about the house, from the amount and quality of insulation to the presence of black mold under basement tiles.”

Konopada said an average inspection for a 1,400- to 1,500-square-foot house is about $300-$350. The price increases with size and level of difficulty. He estimated an inspection for a 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot mansion would ring in around $750-$1,000.

There are inspectors that offer flat rates — some as low as $200-$250. And they could be quality inspector, but unfortunately “could” is the key word.

“There’s the trick right there — how to tell if you have a good inspector,” said Glenn Sexton, the building director in Roseville and the chief building official in St. Clair Shores. “The state of Michigan does not license home inspectors.”

Sexton recommends homebuyers put a little time into researching an inspector before deciding whom to hire.

“I would suggest a first thing a potential property owner should do is check the background of their home inspector,” he said. “I would suggest they go with an ASHI-certified (American Society of Home Inspectors) home inspector or someone that has some credentials — a certified home builder that has been in the business for a while.”

He also suggests prospective buyers contact the city in which the house is located to see if the building department has any information on the house, such as past problems, inspections and work permits.

“A lot of times, we are aware of problems, and until they come in and file their property transfer affidavit, they don’t know that we know of problems with the property,” Sexton said.

Contacting the city isn’t just for financial security before buying a home; it can be a safety issue, too.

“If you go into a house to buy it, and you see a brand new furnace, and you contact the city and see there was no permit for a new furnace, you could have a furnace that was installed improperly and is unsafe,” Sexton said. “That can be deadly if it is not operating correctly.”

Both Roseville and St. Clair Shores require permits from the building department when installing a new furnace. Most cities do. Roseville also requires permits for any additions to the home — decks, porches, garages and sheds. St. Clair Shores goes beyond that to require permits for outside doors, roofs, gutters and more.

The permits required by cities vary, but the building department page on most city websites will list required permits and, with an address search, which ones have been obtained. The city can’t tell a prospective buyer everything, though.

In Roseville, Sexton keeps a stack of home inspection checklists. He requires his workers to complete one for each inspection, and he keeps extra, just in case a potential homebuyer wants to make sure their inspector is covering everything.

The checklist includes more than 75 required checks and tests broken into eight categories: exterior property; exterior building; interior; light, ventilation and occupancy; plumbing; electrical; mechanical; and fire safety.

Home Inspector Jim Osterhout said a good inspector goes over each item on the list and marks off any that require attention, don’t meet code or are dangerous. Osterhout specializes in electrical, mechanical and building inspections for Roseville and St. Clair Shores.

He can’t stress enough the importance of finding a quality inspector. He’s seen what’s happened to folks who haven’t.

“The worst case I’ve ever seen was an older house with structural members that were rotted out and never caught,” Osterhout said.

“A crawl space is not a pretty place to go to do an inspection, but a lot of times, it’s wet, there are spiders, it stinks and some people don’t want to go in there and do that inspection. But you really need to go in there and do that inspection because that is where the problems could lie.

“If he would have went in the crawl space and went all the way around the crawl space, he would have seen it, but he probably stuck his head in there and everything looked good at the entrance point, but there was damage at the far end.”

Structural problems can lead to partial home collapses. It’s not common for home inspectors to miss such obvious and detrimental dysfunctions, but it’s not uncommon, either. What’s more common, in Osterhout’s career at least, is a home inspector missing the telltale signs of water damage on basement walls and floors — a problem that can cost thousands to fix.

There are a few things potential homeowners can do to prevent unexpected, high-cost repairs.

Beyond what Sexton recommended about homebuyers doing their research, he advised they make note of potential red flags in the home. Those potential red flags include fresh paint on basement walls; cracks on basement walls; new carpeting in basements; water stains on walls, floors or ceilings; yellowing around floor drains; and drop ceilings.

For more information on home inspections, visit www.ashi.org. Realtor and home builder Andy Konopada can be reached at (248) 646-8416.