Over at Finance Gets Personal, a post about the usually startling costs of homeownership-especially during the first year or two after move-in-is causing some rueful conversation. It reminded me of a strategy I learned by dint of hard experience: in assessing a house you’re about to buy, never rely solely on the judgment of a professional home inspector. Hire craftsman whom you trust to inspect the house, too, and make the purchase contingent on passing all inspections.
A home inspector has a built-in conflict of interest. Much home inspection work comes from referrals by real estate agents. So, it’s not in an inspector’s interest to queer a sale by telling you bluntly how much is wrong with a house and what it will cost to fix it. As a result, a defect may be pointed out to you, but it’s likely to be soft-pedaled or couched in language you don’t fully understand.
This first entered my consciousness when I sold my last house. Of course, I was present when the home inspector went through the place. But while he was there, the termite inspector showed up. Having certified the house termite-free, the bug guy happened to look up at the patio roof overhang. There, behind a poorly installed gutter, he spotted dry rot (which I knew about but wished not to discuss). Enthusiastically he pointed this out and, to demonstrate why it needed to be replaced, punched a screwdriver into it, as through a block of Styrofoam.
The home inspector was standing about 15 feet away. He saw and heard this display.
Silently, I cursed the termite guy-now, I figured, I would have to pay to replace the fascia. If there ever was any question about it, the question was just answered.
Exit termite dude. Home inspector completed his rounds and went out the front door, where he attempted to close the defective latch on the security door, which (I also knew) didn’t work. I suppressed another silent curse: add expensive security door fix to the expensive wood trim fix and repainting.
Couple of days went by and lo! Along comes the home inspector’s report: nary a mention of the dry rot, nary a mention of the nonfunctional security door.
The house I was moving into, as it developed, was the House from Hell, primped to stylish prettiness by a pair of do-it-yourselfers affectionately known as Satan and Proserpine. The home inspector did highlight the out-of-code fireplace mantel and the pet door punched through the fire door that was supposed to protect the dwelling from the hazard-laden garage, wherein a gas water heater sat directly next to the gas tank of any car parked inside. He estimated the roof had another three or four years. He noted the water heater was old but said it could last several more years.
And what went around came around.
I got away with the security door and the dry rot. Satan and Proserpine got away with…
- a DIY watering system that was out of code and didn’t water the lawn adequately;
- DIY wiring in the garage that was a) out of code and b) unsafe;
- a water heater that started to leak a month or two after I moved in;
- a refrigerator that seeped water out the water dispenser in the door-and whose annoyingly obvious evidence of prior leaking disqualified it from repair by the buyer’s insurance plan;
- a dishwasher that ran, all right, but didn’t clean anything;
- out-of-code plumbing in the bathroom;
- a block wall heaved and cracked by the neighbor’s tree;
- a rusted-out swamp cooler that doesn’t work;
- a crumbling roof that had to be replaced within a year of move-in;
- a pool cleaner whose weird thumping noise resonated throughout the house whenever the pool pump was running;
- a garage door opener that fell off its fittings onto my car…
I could go on at length.
Fortunately, I had budgeted a substantial amount for upgrades. That notwithstanding, I didn’t have in mind converting my decorating budget to an emergency fund.
Also serendipitously, a couple of weeks after I moved in, the pool was vandalized, destroying the plaster and all the equipment. My homeowner’s insurance ponied up the thousands and thousands of dollars required to deconstruct the pool, rebuild it, and replace all the equipment. That took care of the Pool Cleaner from Hell, anyway.
All of which added up to an expensive lesson: Never trust a home inspector whose business depends on making nice to real estate agents!
When M’hijito and I bought the Investment House, we decided to hire the craftsmen who had worked on the House from Hell to perform as our own inspectors. We made appointments with the roofer, the electrician, the HVAC technician, and the plumber to come and look the shack over.
Even though I offered to pay each man the price of a service call, two of them charged nothing. One charged fifteen bucks. The HVAC company gave us a year’s service contract for the cost of the inspection.
The Investment House was a fixer-upper and we knew it. But this time we had no surprises: we knew what needed to be fixed and exactly what it would cost to fix it.
- The HVAC guy estimated the age of the air-conditioning/heating unit, made an educated guess at how long it would last, and gave us an estimate for how much it will cost to replace it.
- The roofer gave us an estimate for reroofing on the spot (much less than he’d charged to reroof The House from Hell, BTW).
- The electrician explained about the 1951 wiring and what would be entailed in updating it.
- The plumber determined what parts of the black-iron system had been replaced with copper, discovered the house needed a pressure regulator, and gave us a fair price for installing it.
We didn’t keep it a secret from either the Realtor or the home inspector that we were hiring our own tradesmen to look the place over. As it develops, in Arizona a buyer can make the purchase of a house contingent on inspection by as many people as desired. No objection to the presence of these troops arose. In fact, I suspect knowing that experienced craftsmen would be examining the house may have caused the home inspector to issue a more thorough and accurate report than he might have produced otherwise.
An advantage of involving our own guys in the inspection was that the electrician and the plumber read the inspector’s report and explained some of the technical language. That was enlightening.
After this, every time I buy a house-whether it’s new or a resale, whether it’s my own dwelling or an investment-a team of craftsmen who are in my hire will do the inspections.
categories: real estate
4 Comments from iWeb site
Excellent, excellent advice.
A month after moving into my home my finger poked a hole in the metal washbasin in one of my bathrooms.The air handler quit a month after that, a leak in a bathroom… you get the idea.
Friday, April 11, 2008 – 07:07 AM
Very interesting post.I never thought of that conflict of interest.
By the way – you can make a purchase conditional on whatever you want – it’s not a legal thing.
Friday, April 11, 2008 – 07:11 AM
Great post, and great advice! More people would do well to pony up more money up front for experienced tradesmen rather than end up paying out the a$$ in repairs later on…
Friday, April 11, 2008 – 11:26 AM
Thanks for mentioning my post.
This is very interesting, and I think your idea about hiring other tradesmen who aren’t home inspectors is great.