The housing market may have been a little unsteady in recent years, but the real estate industry is reviving. Buyers need to be sure the properties they're considering are good deals on steady ground.
Even if a house looks great from the curb, lots of trouble spots may be lurking in and around the home.
"Look for cracked bricks on the outside," says Kelly Watkins, broker associate with J.P. Weigand and Sons Inc. "That's always a red flag."
Check the property's surroundings, too.
"The main thing outside is drainage," says Watkins. "The slope of the yard should be going away from the house, so when it rains, water goes away from the house."
Inside a home, check out windows, doors and flooring for signs of defects.
"Door jams are a good indicator if they're not square," says Rob Ernst, the owner, inspector and energy auditor for Certified Structure Inspector. "Look for doors that rub or have been trimmed."
Stairs and railings should be secure. Make sure walls aren't leaning and flooring isn't uneven. Often floors appear to be OK, but in reality, they feel uneven.
Potential problems can be all around the home.
"It's important to look beyond eye level," says Ernst, who is licensed by the National Association of Home Inspectors Inc., a nonprofit for certified and licensed home inspectors. "Look up and look down."
Look up, and you may find, for example, spots on the walls and ceilings, which are signs of water damage.
Get an inspection
Though homes "settle" over time, typically that settling won't result in major defects.
So what's a big deal, and what's nothing to worry about? That's often tough for homebuyers to decide and is at least one reason why many buyers hire an independent home inspector.
"Most people realize this is the biggest investment of their life," says Marv Goldstein, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors, a professional society of home inspectors, which has 5,000 members.
He estimates that about 70 percent of homebuyers hire an inspector. "You're really gambling with your financial future if you don't get a home inspection," Goldstein says.
Inspectors check out a home's plumbing, heating, roofing, grading and structural soundness, and look for wet basements. Remember that inspectors can only inspect; they can't do any repair work or recommend anyone to make the suggested fixes. They also can't tell you whether or not to buy the property.
"There are so many little things that can be left undone," says Watkins, who recommends getting inspections done on old and new homes. "Make sure something hasn't been missed."
Many buyers also have their insurance agent visit the property to decide whether it's insurable as-is or needs any repairs before it can be insured.
It's also a good idea for buyers to attend the inspection to see what's normal and abnormal, as well as to find out any nuances of the home.
Hire your own inspector. Going with a seller's inspector or their agent's "preferred" inspector could result in a conflict of interest. You want to be the inspector's main priority.
Generally, inspections happen within a week to 10 days of the offer to purchase a home. The reports are usually prepared within 24 to 48 hours after the inspection.
Prices for home inspections differ all over the country, but the range is from $300 to $600.
Though most inspections take about two to three hours, they can last longer depending on the size of the home and the surrounding property.
If an inspection reveals problems — for example, a bad roof — the buyers have the choice to walk away from the prospective deal or to negotiate with the seller to lower the asking price or fix some or all of the problems.
The good news? "Most everything is fixable," says Watkins.