BOSTON (MainStreet) -- That enormous McMansion or cute little Cape house that you have your eye on might look great on the surface, but a good paint job or a new custom kitchen could be hiding major problems.
"You always want to look for material defects in what home inspectors call 'The Three S's' -- structure, sanitation and safety," says Kurt Salomon, owner of Utah-based Advocate Inspections and president of the American Society of Home Inspectors.
A professional home inspection before a home is put on the market for sale can catch problems before you lose a buyer.
Home inspectors typically charge about $600 to check out properties, providing house hunters with written reports detailing any problems found plus estimates of how much repairs will cost. A would-be buyer then generally goes back to the seller and tries to cut a deal to cover some or all of a repair.
Inspectors sometimes come across bigger problems, though, prompting a major renegotiation of a property's price, if not a decision by the house hunter to kill the sale outright.
"It's all a question of cost," Salomon says. "If there's a repair that will cost $5,000 and you plan to live in the house for five or 10 years, that really isn't that big of a deal. But there are other things that are."
Here's a look at five problems that can cost big bucks to repair -- and that would-be buyers might simply want to avoid altogether:
Bad synthetic stucco siding
$20,000 to $150,000
Salomon says the No. 1 deal killer he finds is improperly installed synthetic stucco siding, also known as "Exterior Insulation Finish System" or EIFS.
EIFS is an exterior home cladding that consists of a roughly 0.75-inch-thick piece of Styrofoam with a mock stucco surface on the outside.
European builders have long used EIFS as an inexpensive, energy-efficient finish for the continent's stone houses. Problems emerged when American contractors began using EIFS with wood-frame homes in the 1970s.
Improperly installed EIFS can allow moisture to collect on wood frames, leading to potentially serious wood rot -- especially in the Southeast or other humid climates, Salomon says.
"It's a problem that varies from region to region," he says. "In the South I'd say, 'Walk away from EIFS,' because they get so much moisture down there. But here in Utah with our high-desert climate, EIFS takes a lot longer to cause problems."
EIFS is easy to spot. It looks like stucco, but protrudes about three-fourths of an inch from the home's foundation and feels somewhat spongy
But it's hard to check for problems, so Salomon usually calls in a special stucco inspector -- which costs the would-be buyer an extra $600 to $1,200.
The stucco inspector will typically want to cut small holes in the EIFS underneath some window sills to check for moisture or wood rot. Sellers won't like that, but Salomon says house hunters should insist on getting the green light.
Finished basements with foundation problems
$5,000 to $100,000
Finished basements can sometimes hide serious foundation problems and raise repair costs because you'll likely have to rip out the finish work to fix things.
"If you've got a basement finished with, say, knotty pine, you won't even see any foundation problems," Salomon says. "They'll all be hidden."
Fortunately, a good home inspector can spot cracks or uneven floors elsewhere in the house and realize that they point to foundation flaws.
Remediating the problem generally involves adding what's called a "pier system" to the foundation, which can cost $5,000 and up -- sometimes way up.
$100 to $1,500 per room
Two potentially expensive electrical problems are degraded "knob-and-tube" wiring and the use of aluminum wires with incorrect switches and outlets.
Knob-and-tube wiring is an old electrical system seen mostly in houses built before 1930. "After 80 years, the insulation has often become frail -- creating a potential fire hazard," Salomon says.
Knob-and-tube wiring also predated modern insulation and can get warm with use, creating an additional fire hazard in houses where homeowners have put insulation over it without realizing the risk.
Upgrading knob-and-tube wiring can cost $1,000 to $1,500 per room -- mostly because you often have to cut into walls to replace it, then refinish affected surfaces afterward, Salomon says.
Aluminum wiring can cause problems when it's installed with the wrong light switches or electrical outlets, a fairly common occurrence.
Salomon says installers sometimes mixed aluminum wires with switches and outlets designed for copper wiring only, opening the door to oxidation that can create fire hazards. Cost to fix: About $100 per room.
Structurally unsound decks
$2,000 to $10,000
Salomon sometimes finds homes with structurally unsound decks built by do-it-yourselfers or inadequately trained workers.
"Every few years, you'll hear a story on the news about a catastrophic deck failure with fatalities," he says. "Usually, it turns out that the deck was just nailed together -- almost like a kid's treehouse."
Contractors who build decks properly will use special ties, metal brackets, screws and other materials. Amateurs or insufficiently skilled pros often won't.
$1,000 to $2,000
Radon is an odorless, colorless radioactive gas created by the breakdown of uranium that often exists naturally in soil, especially in areas with lots of granite deposits.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates 6% of all American homes have dangerous radon-gas buildup, which can cause lung cancer after long-term exposure.
Home inspectors or house hunters can easily detect the substance using radon-test kits that cost about $10 at hardware and home-improvement stores.
But even though effective radon-removal systems run about $2,000 or less, Salomon says positive tests will often send home buyers running for the hills.
"It's usually not a question of the dollar amounts involved, but of the emotions involved," he says. "Radon gas can kill people."
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