What Home Inspectors Don't Notice

Buyers face big expenses when they don’t discover these common problems before they move in.

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3. Think about your current, and future, lifestyle. So much of home safety comes down to who's living there. A three-floor home with outdated railings and electrical systems that was perfectly safe for empty-nesters in their 60s can be filled with dangers for a young couple with an infant, seniors who can no longer make their way upstairs easily, or a Chihuahua.

When Julie Lowe, 38, and mother of two in Seattle, bought her first house pre-parenthood, she didn't consider child safety such as railings and chipping lead paint because those concerns weren't on her radar. But as she and her husband shopped for their second house as parents, they focused more on safety. She also wanted all three bedrooms on one floor for easy access to babies in need of comforting in the middle of the night, as well as for security. When her daughter's bedroom was on the lower level and at the front of the house, Lowe says she "had a paranoia about someone breaking in and snatching her." But in the new house, she says, "she and her brother are steps away. It won't be so great when they're older, but for small children, having three bedrooms grouped at the back of the house is a luxury," she says.

Inspectors often tailor their checklist to what they perceive to be the buyers' specific needs. If a couple with children is purchasing a Victorian house with widely spaced railings, Salomon says he wouldn't make as big a deal about the safety hazard as he would if the buyers had young children. "I'll write it up different for a single person with kids, versus a couple with kids," he says.

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4. Consider bringing in additional safety experts. In addition to paying a home inspector for extra services such as lead testing, some buyers decide to work with electricians, chimney inspectors, or child safety professionals in advance. Larry Stone, founder of Safety Matters, a Chicago-based childproofing company, says he often works with buyers before they move into a new house to make sure it's safe for little ones. (While buyers will want to wait until they close on a house to make any improvements in case the deal falls through, they can get cost estimates before making their final purchase decision.)

Some of the most common solutions include covering railings with custom-fit plexiglass so children can't fit through them or get their heads stuck, installing alarms and covers around pools, and installing window bars or stops on low windows. Stone also installs high locks on doors, out of reach of small children, and covers electrical outlets with safety plates. His average job costs about $750, but new three- or four-bedroom homes can easily cost $1,500 to be fully childproofed, he says.

5. Spread out costly repairs and updates. While anything posing an immediate danger will need to be addressed right away, other changes can happen more slowly. "My job is to talk her out of doing all this right now," says Curtis of her client with the many unexpected problems. Instead, Curtis recommends spreading out repairs and updates over time, so budgets don't have to survive the simultaneous shock of a down payment, new mortgage payments, and contracting work.

Many buyers are already dealing with more run-of-the-mill expenses, such as window treatments and moving costs, Curtis adds. Plus, typical home maintenance, from roof repairs to stopping a leaky faucet, run about 1 to 3 percent of the purchase price, or as much as $9,000 a year on a $300,000 home. "You have to know what old things you can live with, like a floor you can't refinish for a year or two. Otherwise, you'll end up running up debt on credit cards," Curtis says.

Bottom line: To avoid unexpected costs after closing, home buyers should consider going beyond a standard home inspection, especially if they're living with seniors, children, or pets. Then they can ask the seller to cover some of the costs or at least factor them into their budget, and avoid ugly surprises after the move-in date.