Editor's note: As a special feature for April, TheStreet.com offers 20 stories on everything you need to know about real estate. Today's story, which originally ran as part of Good Life, is the sixth installment.
My wife Lorraine and I have been known to do things backward.
We have, for example, already
furnished an entire house, lacking only the house to house these furnishings.
That would come soon enough, we figured; in the meantime, our parents' basements and storage sheds are fit to burst.
Likewise, most people do home inspections after they've put in their offer on a property, as there's no sense to spending the $500 or so on the inspection if the offer isn't accepted, and the inspection report often uncovers flaws that will serve as renegotiating points.
(I learned this latter tactic from watching Bravo's deliciously sleazy miniseries
Million Dollar Listing
But Lorraine and I found a gorgeous 1870 farmhouse up for auction in a few weeks and thus needed to know what repairs would be needed, short- and long-term, to help calculate our bid.
Given the current state of the housing market, our circumstances may not be so unusual. As more subprime borrowers go into foreclosure, there are going to be be an increasing number of properties going on the block.
While not as immune to economic cycles as, say, morticians, home inspectors are well-shielded from the market's rises and falls; if property is exchanging hands, whatever the sales price, their services are needed. (Not doing a home inspection is tempting fate in the extreme, even when it comes to new constructions.)
From the prospective of the potential buyer -- like us -- the key things to understand are how to choose an inspector, what to expect for your money and how to manage and most benefit from this temporary but important relationship.
We were in the unusual position of not working with a realtor on this property, but we still relied on a familiar realtor for references.
This can be an issue in and of itself, as realtors, bless their black hearts, have an interest in selling houses and thus, for the less scrupulous, in partnering with home inspectors who soft-pedal potential problems.
Our inspector, the wonderfully thorough Greg Hill of Cornerstone Home Inspections in Rosendale, N.Y. (845-687-8960), says he understands such concerns but that they're rarely merited -- particularly if would-be buyers check that the inspector is a member of a professional association such as the
American Society of Home Inspectors and take the added step of getting references.
It's worth noting, too, that realtors should provide a list of inspectors to the client, not just one.
We met Hill outside what I was already thinking of as "our" house at the appointed hour, by which time he had already done a visual inspection of the exterior.
I appreciate both promptness and self-starters. Beyond that, I didn't know what to expect, so I let the man work and sat back on the wraparound porch, which sure seemed sturdy -- but turned out that, with three steps, it should really have a handrail.
Hill later told me that stepping back is the exact right thing for the prospective buyer to do.
"I think the prospective homeowner should definitely attend the inspection," says Hill, who also notes, for obvious reasons, that the current owner should not be present. "It's a reinforcement of the information you'll get in the written report, and it allows for dialogue and clarification.
"At the same time, I prefer not to be shadowed," he adds. "If the buyer's with you all the time, with a lot of questions, you go off on tangents and get distracted ... The inspection is a puzzle that you put together as you go around. A wet spot here might be because a gutter's detached over there. After you've seen everything, you have a more global view of things, instead of tunnel vision."
Part of the reason for keeping my distance was that -- like many homeowner virgins, I presume -- I had no idea what exactly Greg was looking at, other than making sure the house wouldn't collapse on our heads the moment we bought it.
But there is, I learned, a continuum of worries, with the roof, the foundation and safety issues atop the priority list.
"You want to focus less on the cosmetic things -- almost all houses have imperfections -- and more on the things that will impact the buyer the most, safetywise or financially," says Hill.
"Your priorities are to make sure there's no rot, no potential structural failures, that the roof and the electrical system are good. You comment on the age of the utilities, so people know what to expect, and what may require timely repairs, so things won't deteriorate further," he continues.
Though his patience, meticulousness and nosiness would be the envy of any Buddhist fact-checker grandmother, Hill, who was armed with a digital camera and laptop, and also performed septic and radon tests at our request, wasn't in this alone.
He subcontracted the wood-destroying insect inspection report (yikes!) to another firm, the unimaginatively named but equally methodical ABC Pest Control, which turned up the unsurprising news of carpenter ant and bee activity, which would require immediate attention.
Further, had there been an underground oil tank, or if we had wanted to inspect the water treatment equipment, we would have had to seek additional specialists.
About 3 ½ hours after we arrived, Hill completed the inspection.
He had by this time walked us through each of the key findings at the appropriate moment. Lorraine and I prodded him for an overall, big-picture sense of the house's health.
Choosing his words carefully, Hill said that the house was in very good condition for its age -- we should all look so good at 136 years old -- while noting that there were issues that should be dealt with pronto, and others over time.
I appreciated his measured approach: We paid him to deal first and foremost in facts.
He told us that we would receive an emailed report the next day. And so we did, 25 pages in all, covering the roof, attic, heating system, insulation, walls, ceilings, floors, windows, doors, foundation, structure and basement ... oh my! It used a grading system of green, yellow and red flags (essentially good, OK and fix).
Hill also said that we'd do well to take the report to people who might subsequently do the work -- general
contractors, electricians and the like -- to get a sense of our future costs.
"Sometimes, I'll give my best guess regarding repair costs if it's very straightforward," he said. "But I always recommend people get an
official estimate, which is more tangible and concrete."
Like all home inspectors, Hill has dealt with people who have made up their mind to buy the property, no matter his findings, as well as nervous Nellies who panic at the sight of chipped paint.
We were fence-sitters. (The fences, by the way, were in good shape.) We followed Hill's counsel and used another industry contact to get a free estimate of the most pressing work on the horizon, felt comfortable that it would be within our means, and have since decided to participate in the auction.
I only wish there were an inspector to make sure there were no shills in the crowd driving up the price. Some things you have to take on faith.
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Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. A former executive editor at Golf Magazine, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.