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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Mice, mold, and leaking bathtubs are among the last discoveries home buyers want to make after moving into a new home. But that's exactly what a client of Oakland, Calif.-based financial planner Cathy Curtis found shortly after closing. "The first week she moved in, she emailed me in a panic that there are mice, she needs a new furnace, and the ducts, bathtubs, and kitchen cabinets need to be replaced," says Curtis. Total cost to fix everything: tens of thousands of dollars. "I'm surprised that more of this didn't come up in the inspection," she adds.

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Home inspections, it turns out, are much more limited than many first-time buyers realize. "The purpose of a home inspection is to look for material defects of a property—things that are unsafe, not working, or that create a hazard," explains Kurt Salomon, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors and an inspector based in Salt Lake City. Home buyers, however, "think we can see through walls and predict the future," he says.

What home inspectors don't do, in addition to harnessing psychic powers, is test for environmental safety, such as lead in the paint or radon in the air, although they might recommend that the potential buyer do so. Inspectors can also overlook mold or vermin, if evidence of their existence is hidden behind floorboards or otherwise obscured. Nor do they examine more pedestrian child-safety issues, such as how easy it is to get into cabinets or fall down staircases. And most inspectors lack specific expertise in pool safety, one of the biggest risks for young children.

That means buyers not only need to take matters into their own hands—they should also budget for unexpected expenses that pop up post-purchase. Here are five ways to eliminate, or at least mitigate, those surprise costs:

1. Interview your home inspector. Many buyers, especially first-timers, accept their real estate agent's recommendation for a home inspector. After all, how different could two inspectors be? Very different, it turns out. "The value an inspector brings is his knowledge, and not every inspector is as educated as the next one," says Curtis Niles, president of the National Association of Home Inspectors and a home inspector in Upper Darby, Pa.

Niles says buyers should ask potential inspectors how much experience they have, whether they get on the roof of the home, and whether they have particular expertise in child safety, environmental-friendliness, or any other special concerns. If the property has a pool, the inspector should have specific knowledge and experience about pool safety.

2. Look for common hazards. Older homes often have outdated railings, with spaces so wide that babies and toddlers can crawl through them. "Back in the '50s, the space between railings was over six inches. An infant can crawl through that and fall down. Now, the rule is four inches," says Salomon. Backyard pools should be enclosed by gates that are at least six feet tall with self-closing hinges and latches at least 54 inches off the ground, out of reach of young children.

Home inspectors generally don't test for environmental toxins such as lead paint, asbestos, and radon, all of which pose significant risks and can be costly to remove, although they might point out that homes are at risk for such dangers. Homes built before 1978, for example, often contain lead, and nine-by-nine floor tiles in basements are likely to contain asbestos.

If buyers are aware of these toxins before closing, they can ask the seller to pay for all or some of the abatement, containment, or removal costs. A radon system, for example, can cost around $1,500, says Salomon. Lead paint abatement, which requires an EPA-certified professional, can be similarly expensive, costing double or triple a standard paint job. Since exposure to lead during childhood can cause serious development problems, buyers with young children should pay special attention to this hazard.

Older houses also often come with outdated electrical systems, which can require upgrades ranging from costly new wiring to simple outlet covers. Every bedroom should have a smoke detector, too, and every floor a carbon monoxide detector. While these additions are relatively inexpensive, buyers can shorten their own "to-do" lists by asking the sellers to make the updates. (The seller, of course, can refuse; such back-and-forth is part of the negotiation process.)