How To Look At A House

McGarry and Madsen's home inspection blog for buyers of  

site-built, mobile/manfuactured and modular homes

Can I do my own home inspection?

Monday, October 22, 2018

Yes, you can be your own home inspector—but we don’t think its such a good idea. There are numerous books on how to save money and do your own home inspection. They typically recommend that you get a few basic tools that are available at a hardware store, then follow their step-by-step instructions to evaluate your potential home purchase. And you can expect to both be educated and find some things that need repair in the house you are examining. 

    Unfortunately, books will not help you find every potential issue with a house, including often the most critical defects, that can make or break your home purchase. Some of the biggest defects are not right there in your face, but present themselves merely as a clue. In other words, they are subtle and appear as something to be examined or probed further. Even more difficult for the homebuyer-inspector are the things that are defects because they are missing—simply not there.

   Professional home inspectors have an advantage over the homebuyer inspector for two reasons. The first one is obvious: after doing thousands of home inspections, the depth of their experience and knowledge of home construction means they can process all the visual data of a house faster and more efficiently than a layperson. They know what to look for and have a mental catalog of the recurring problems common for each neighborhood.

   The second reason is not so obvious: a home inspector is not buying the house. The inspector is not excited about the home and looking forward to moving in. As a homebuyer, it’s hard to stay emotionally detached while you are examining a house. Thoughts about furniture layout, color schemes, and what a great deal you’re getting keep creeping into your mind while you are trying to focus on finding the home’s defects, no matter how hard you try to push them back. It’s easier to miss something because you like the house and want the inspection to go well. The home inspector is dispassionate, just doing a job. And that’s a big advantage. 

   So, we think doing your own home inspection is not a great idea and recommend hiring a professional home inspector. But there are a number of things you can look for in your first walk-though of a house as a kind of “pre-inspection.” They are simple, require no tools other than a small flashlight, and can serve as a baseline standard to help you decide which homes are not even worthy of an offer. The flashlight comes in handy for the dark corners in every home, and is a necessity if you are looking at a foreclosure with the power turned off.

Here’s our pre-inspection checklist:

•• Stand in front of the long side of the house and sight along the ridge of the roof (horizontal top line that each face of the roof slopes towards), holding any convenient straight-edge like a notebook or flashlight up to it. If the ridge is straight, fine. But sagging in the middle or at the ends indicates roof structure problems.

 •• Walk around the home and look at the way the land slopes around it. Ideally, you want the ground to slope away from the house, even if only slightly, on all sides. If the lot slopes in only one direction, like front to back, then look for any gullies or washed-out areas under the foundation that indicate undesirable water movement around the house during a heavy rain.

•• Sight down the exterior walls, with your face close to the wall at each corner. Any bulges indicate a structural problem.

•• Look for any significant cracks in concrete block or brick walls, especially near the ends of the walls and emanating from the corners of doors and windows. Every house settles a little, so a few small cracks are nothing to worry about. But if you can stick two quarters side-by-side into the crack, or if one side of the crack is raised up off the surface higher than the other as you run your hand over it, you likely have a structural problem that needs repair.

•• Do any large trees stand near the house? They can cause structural settlement problems over time. Tree roots near the surface of the ground can lift a foundation slab, and some tree species cause settlement by sucking excessive water out of the soil in the radius of their root system. Also, look for tree branches branches that overhang or rub against the roof.

•• Look at the windows. Do you see any cracked or missing panes? Are they single-pane (older) or double-pane insulated (newer)? Do any of the double-pane windows have a haze over the glass? Older insulated windows lose their inert gas between the panes, which reduces the insulating ability, then condensate forming repeatedly inside the windows builds up an obscuring mineral haze—which indicates the window is ready for replacement.                                                                     

•• Look at the visible surfaces of the roof from the ground. As an asphalt shingle roof ages, the edges of the shingles begin to curl, first at the corners, then towards the middle. The granules on top of the shingle wash away over time, giving the shingle surface a speckled appearance, and the edges become brittle and break off. This can be difficult to observe unless you get close to the roof. Either of these signs means the roof is ready, or nearly ready, to be replaced. More than one or two missing or damaged shingles also indicates the roof is older needs repair or replacement.

    Metal roofs age by corrosion. The fasteners (nails or screws) show signs of rust first, then the panel surfaces. If the overhang of a metal roof is open and you can look up at the bottom of the metal panels, any pinholes of sunlight shining through are a bad sign.

 •• Are there rainwater gutters? That’s a plus. A gutter system diverts water away from the foundation of the home, which both reduces the erosion and rainwater splash-back onto the base of the walls. Do they look like they’re in good condition? Do the ends have vertical leaders down to a splash plate that directs the water at least a few feet away from the house?

•• What does the exterior paint finish look like? If it looks powdery, wipe your hand across it. Paint powder on your hand indicates old paint. Peeling, curling, or blistering paint surfaces can indicate any of several things: a very old paint finish, paint that has been applied over an older layer that was not adequately prepped, or moisture accumulation under the paint surface. 

•• Look at the intersection of the exterior windows and doors with the exterior wall surfaces. Are the joints caulked? Are there areas of crumbling, loose, or missing caulk? Deteriorated caulking allows water to enter the walls, leading to wood rot and mold problems.

•• Search for veins of dirt running up interior walls, exterior walls, or foundation piers. These are subterranean termite mud tubes—mini-tunnels they use to gain access to the wood in a house.               

•• Is any of the wood in the exterior wall less than 6 inches above the ground? Wood any closer will have continual problems with rot, due to rain splash-back, like in the photo below.

•• Do the doors sit squarely in their frames? As you close each door, look at the relationship between the top edge of the door and the bottom edge of the door frame above it. The gap should be consistent for the hinge-side to latch-side. If it is not, the house may have settlement issues. Homes with multiple interior doors that are missing can be a red flag. Removing a door is an easy way to fix stuck doors in a house with settlement problems.

•• Open a couple of windows at random. Do they move easily? Again, settlement can cause stuck windows (so can cantankerous old age).

••Check for stains in the ceiling or around windows or doors. This usually means water intrusion. 

•• Locate the electric panel for the house. Open the cover. Does it contain circuit breakers (switches) or screw-in fuses (glass rounds)? If you see fuses, it means the home has an ancient electric system, more than 50 years old. The panel will likely require immediate replacement in order to get homeowner’s insurance. It also means the service is undersized—typically 60 amps.

   If you see banks of switches, then you have a modern circuit breaker system. Look at the side of the main breaker switch, which sits alone at the top of the panel, or around it, for a marking that reads 100, 125, 150, or 200A. The “A” indicates amps, which is a measure of the current carrying capacity of the home’s electric system. The minimum modern service is 100 amps, which would be used for a smaller condo or an older single-family home. Next size up, 125A would be typical for a small starter house, and 150A and 200A indicate the standard size of panels in newer homes. 

•• Do the receptacle outlets have two vertical slots with a round hole above or below, or just two vertical slots? If they are missing that round hole, which is the ground slot, it means the receptacles are pre-1960 and ungrounded. While there is nothing inherently wrong with two-slot receptacles, they indicate two things: the wiring is 50 years old or more, and you cannot plug in many modern appliances that require a three-slot outlet receptacle.

•• Is there at least one receptacle outlet on every wall of each room? If the house is occupied and you can’t see the walls clearly, do you see extension cords running around the perimeter of the rooms? This is a telltale sign of too few receptacle outlets.

••Is the water flow adequate in the bathrooms? If you get a few seconds alone in a bathroom, turn on the faucets at the sink all the way, flush the toilet, then turn on the bathtub. If the water flow slows down to a trickle, you have a problem.

   Happy house hunting! Call a home inspector when your pre-inspection observations turn up a good house. If none of the points on this checklist find a problem, you probably have.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

  To learn more strategies for getting the best possible home inspection, here’s a few of our other blog posts:

How can I make sure I don't get screwed on my home inspection? 

Should I trust the Seller's Property Disclosure Statement?

How can homebuyers protect themselves against buying a house over a sinkhole? 

What makes a house fail the home inspection?

The seller gave me a report from a previous home inspection. Should I use it or get my own inspector? 

    To read about issues related to homes of particular type or one built in a specific decade, visit one of these blog posts:

What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1950s house?

What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1960s house?

• What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1970s house?

What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1980s house?

What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1990s house?

What problems should I look for when buying a country house or rural property? 

What problems should I look for when buying a house that has been moved?

What problems should I look for when buying a house that has been vacant or abandoned?

What are the most common problems with older mobile homes?

    Visit our HOME INSPECTION  page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.

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