Inspectors typically check your home after you’ve pretty much decided you’ve found “the one.” But wouldn’t it be far smarter to have a checklist in hand as you look at different houses to rule out—and rule in many? And wouldn’t it also be wiser to learn to look at homes based not on the bling—fancy kitchen appliances and open-floor plans now so popular—but how structurally sound they are? Then, after you’ve narrowed the list and made a bid, call in the inspector who will offer more sage advice.
Certified home inspector Dylan Chalk, owner of Orca Inspection Services, LLC in Bainbridge Island, Wash, and an ASHI member, a national organization of certified inspectors, certainly thinks so. He’s performed more than 5,000 inspections in the last 14 years. We asked for his advice to find the perfect home—or since there’s no such thing—the best house for you. His advice is also found in his detailed book, The Confident House Hunter: A Home Inspector’s Tips for Finding Your Perfect House (Plain Sight Publishing, 2016).
As you start your hunt, know that all houses share these four guiding principles:
- All houses have shortcomings but some of those imperfections are more or less important to you, so pay heed. Example: Many houses warrant wiring and plumbing updates, even though sellers and former sellers lived happily and safely in them for years. The systems remain safe and workable. The key, Chalk says, is to decide how important it is to have an updated house or how important it is to have that eat-in kitchen when the house you’re considering doesn’t have it.
- Simplicity is your friend—in terms of living more maintenance free and saving expenses down the road. More complicated homes, Chalk says, tend to have higher maintenance costs associated with them, and sometimes those may break a family budget. “It’s similar to owning a more expensive car,” he says. An example he cites is that houses built in the 1950s usually have simple roof lines which are easier to maintain than those with hips and valleys.
- Water is the enemy, and that means water in plumbing, from rain, from the ground, and moisture. Any rain can damage your home and lead to wood decay, mold and wood destroying organisms. What an observant homebuyer needs to do is check for signs of water and possible damage at gutters, rooflines, ground locations, and even by taking a whiff since mold can smell terribly.
- Location, location, location. It’s not just about being near good public transportation, a school, jobs, downtown or favorite restaurants and shops. It’s about the location of your house that may spell trouble and can’t be fixed easily or at all such as being located on a steep hillside, which may mean erosion! Sometimes, checking with a soil engineer can help determine if remedies are possible such as a sturdy retaining wall.
Do more looking and research as you bear in mind these five guiding principles that relate to your home and your future happiness:
- Know the history of the area, which will help you gauge how well it was built. Some homes may now be in areas that have increased in value but the area had “poor” roots, so the homes weren’t built well. In Chalk’s area, waterfront houses weren’t built well in the 1920s since it tended to be a “poor” area where summer cabins were constructed. Many who now live there in remodeled older homes are surprised by the area’s humble roots—and sometimes surprised by the poor construction of the older homes.
Know more local trends that can provide information on the core systems of homes such as its slab foundation, basement, and roof. Area building codes can reveal a lot about what was required of homes because of area weather. For example, in Seattle, which receives a lot of rain, a well-built house has a good roof, overhangs and sturdy facade materials. A house with a flat roof would be out of place and could mean trouble. “It’s not likely to perform well with the typical Seattle weather and rain,” Chalk says.
- Rooflines matter for more than just weather. A home with a structural problem may have a sagging roofline, and water won’t drain well.
- Remember the 20-year rule. Most systems and building parts have a 15-to-20-year life cycle. So if the furnace, for example, is 20 years old or even 18 or 19, there’s a good chance you’ll need to replace it soon, which will add extra expense to your purchase.
- Imagine the worst. You may see a house on a sunny day with a blue sky overhead. Now close your eyes and picture it in the area’s worst weather—snow, hail, torrential rain or blazing heat. How well will the house and its site hold up? Find out. Ask around for expert advice regarding what should be expected.
Understand and manage these three guiding principles related to potential problems:
- Core systems—the bones of the house—are vital to its durability. These include the foundation, floor plan, access to the property and access to the house itself. If not structurally sound or easy to access, problems may arise.
- Beware of the unknown. If you’re knowledgeable enough to spot amateur wiring, you should wonder what else you don’t know. Maybe there are loose connections or outdated wiring that presents a serious fire hazard. Or if you spot decay in some beams, then you should wonder what else has been weakened.
- Look at the big picture and have others help you asses what’s in view. Heed the advice of your real-estate professional and any other experts you decide to call in. You still may decide to buy the house because the location is so great or there are a few features that make the difference—a great remodeled kitchen or large finished basement, but at least you’re making a well thought out, educated decision.
Finally, remember to try not to be swayed by the health or weakness of your area’s market and inventory. In certain markets where inventory is extremely tight now—such as Chalk’s Seattle—he is seeing buyers forgo an inspection so they have a better chance at getting their bid accepted without any contingency. He advises not to do that. “You could end up with liability you didn’t anticipate. Take your time, even if it means at first losing a few houses,” he says. The goal is to get a house that works for you in terms of its location, condition, and price.