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ASK THE INSPECTOR

Advice for Finding a Competent Home Inspector

October 11, 1998|BARRY STONE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

QUESTION: Last year, I purchased a large 5-year-old home. Before closing escrow, I hired a home inspector.

Since I have taken possession, numerous plumbing and electrical problems have surfaced, requiring repairs in excess of $5,000.

It is now apparent that I did not hire a competent home inspector. How can I avoid this kind of mistake in the future?

ANSWER: Home inspection is a relatively new field and thus far is not regulated in most states. At present, anyone can claim to be a home inspector because licensing and certification are not commonly required. Therefore, buyers must exercise extreme care and cautious consideration before hiring someone. To begin, I would recommend the following criteria:

* Professional affiliation

In most areas, the only practical standards for home inspectors are those enacted by professional associations such as the American Society of Home Inspectors and the California Real Estate Inspection Assn.

Membership requires adherence to professional standards of practice and participation in ongoing education. When you choose a home inspector, you should specify membership in one of these recognized guilds.

* Inspection experience

Of paramount importance is an inspector's actual level of direct experience in the practice of home inspection. Any contractor who has done fewer than 1,000 inspections is, in my opinion, still an apprentice. A general contractor's license is an important credential, but when it comes to home inspection, a license to build indicates very little as it relates to competence as a property inspector. The experience that matters most is inspection experience, not building experience.

* Building code certification

Although the primary focus of a home inspection is not code compliance, many of the conditions evaluated in the course of a home inspection have their basis in code-related building standards.

To ensure that an inspector is competent in this area of building knowledge, it is wise to seek someone with certification from the International Conference of Building Officials. This is the credential required of municipal building inspectors in most areas of the United States.

* Ask for a sample report

The proof is in the product, so be sure to request a sample report. What you're looking for is a report format that is not only detailed and comprehensive but that is easily interpreted and makes a clear distinction between defective building conditions and "boiler plate" verbiage. Some reports are so heavily loaded with general building information and liability disclaimers that the pertinent information about the property is obscured.

* Let the choice be yours

When choosing a home inspector, let the final selection be your own. Don't rely on someone else to make the choice for you. What you want is the most meticulous, detail-oriented home inspector available, one who will save you from costly surprises after the close of escrow. Ask the inspectors you interview for a past client list so that you can make some inquiries as to the level of satisfaction they received.

* Length of inspection and price

Do not be swayed by a cheap price for inspection. The value of home inspection is in the quality and knowledge of the inspector and not his fee. Often a cheap price is an indication of a less than adequate job by a less than adequate inspector. A thorough inspector should spend a minimum of two hours (that is based on a moderate-sized house of 1,200 to 2,000 square feet.) When considering the overall investment value of your property as well as the potential for inherent defects that could incur expensive repair bills, this is one area in which you should not look for a sale.

Recurring Cracks in Ceiling Delay Sale Q: Our home was built about four years ago and is situated on a hill. It's in escrow, and the buyer had a home inspector look it over. In the report he made note of long cracks that have developed in the ceiling of our living room and the adjoining kitchen. The buyer wants them fixed. We have already patched them several times, but each time they reappeared. What could be causing them, and what can we do to rid ourselves of them permanently?

A: Cracks in walls and ceilings are common to most wood-frame homes and in most instances are the result of normal building stresses. The most common causes are soil expansion caused by seasonal moisture changes and shrinkage of the lumber components within the building, also caused by moisture variations.

Most often, interior cracks are cosmetic in nature, depending on the degree of expansion and contraction that is occurring. The handy homeowner approach is simply to fill the cracks with spackling paste. The problem with this method is that cracks are not static defects. They are lines of continuing movement, as the tides of building stresses continue to ebb and flow. Dried spackling is brittle. It may be great for filling small holes, but wherever movement occurs, it offers a temporary solution at best.

To achieve a more permanent repair, each of the cracks should be taped as though it is a drywall seam. For best cosmetic results, hire a professional drywall finisher.

It should be remembered, however, that cracks can also be indicative of significant structural problems, especially where hillside property is involved. If the cracks in your ceiling are wider than mere hairline fractures, it would be wise to have the building professionally inspected for significant geological or foundational defects before attempting to correct the symptoms.

Got a question about any aspect of the home inspection? Send it to Barry Stone, Los Angeles Times, 540 Atascadero Road, Morro Bay, CA 93442. Queries can also be sent via e-mail to: inspector@fix.net.

All questions will be considered for use in "Ask the Inspector" but cannot be answered individually.

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