With buyers finally breathing a little easier, thanks to a gentle shift in the Ontario real estate market in their favour, we are seeing a (very welcome) return of the practice of including a home inspection clause in offers to purchase.

In case you’ve been out of the loop for the last two or three years, it was beginning to look like the Professional Home Inspector was doomed to taking his place in the Museum of Natural History alongside the woolly mammoth – so rare was it to ask for an inspection.  With buyers climbing over each other to win bidding wars, firm offers (ie without conditions on financing, inspection, or anything else) became the norm.  Everything was sold “as-is,” and buyers got what they got, hoping there would be no serious latent defects to deal with after closing.

These days, the frenzy is on hold, and buyers have a little power to negotiate terms in many cases.  Given a choice, the vast majority of buyers prefer to have an inspection.

What, though, is the inspector’s job, exactly?  Should you expect him to tell you absolutely everything about the property? Or are there limits to his usefulness?

A home inspector has the primary function of providing information that will benefit his client.  According to the Ontario Association of Home Inspectors: (Especially) “For first-time homebuyers, that means educating them on the various systems of their home: heating, ventilation, plumbing, electrical, mechanical, septic and more. As homes become more complicated, it is imperative buyers understand how their homes work.”

Your inspector will fully examine all the visible components of the property you are considering (including any ancillary structures), and assess the condition of each one.  This includes estimating the remaining life expectancy of different systems, determining the safety of various elements, rating the urgency of necessary repairs,  and possibly offering a suggested budget for required items.  It is important to note that a home inspector is not a building code inspector.  You will be informed of obvious hazards, but specific compliance with current local building code requirements may not be identified.

It is common practice in the industry to use an approach that is known as “Outside-in, Top-down.”  This means that your inspector will usually check the exterior first, then the roof and the garage before looking inside.  On the inside, “top-down” means starting at the attic and working toward the basement (or crawl space).  On the way down, part of the inspection involves plumbing systems.  By the time the basement is being examined, any leaks that originated in the plumbing systems would have had time to drip into the space and be brought to light.  You see, there is method to this madness!

Equally important is that buyers understand what a home inspection *cannot* detect.  Being a visual inspection, if something is unseen and unseeable, it cannot be identified by a home inspector.  Wiring that is fraying behind a permanent wall or mould spores that exist in the studs underneath the surface may not be visible.  During a dry spell, even a foundation leak may be difficult to pinpoint, although there may be telltale signs that there has been water present on the inside of the structure.  Overall, though, despite their limitations, the expertise of  an experienced Home Inspector is an invaluable resource for most home buyers.

On a related note, there are some properties with elements that could require the skill set of different types of inspectors.  For example, country property, or any place that has a septic system, holding tank, or well, should be inspected by someone qualified to assess such things.  Well water can be analyzed, in most cases, at a municipal facility.  An online search in the local area should offer a few names of companies that will do an inspection on a septic system or holding tank.

Other things, and this is by no means an exhaustive list, that could require a separate professional, include:  Farm property or building lots with running water or near conservation or hazard land may need a hydrogeological report before allowing any building.  If there is any suspicion of contamination, perhaps on a site that had previously been used for a dump or some industrial operation, an environmental site assessment may be in order.  If you fear termite infestation, or some other endemic pest is common in the area you are considering, there are inspectors who can help you assess the property you want to buy for that, too.

Unless you have training and skills to analyze the true condition of a property that you are thinking of buying, the price of a home inspection can be a very small price to pay for the peace of mind that comes from knowing what you are getting.  Ask for a recommendation or two and interview some professional inspectors.  Find someone you feel comfortable with and you feel you can trust to help you make an informed decision.