When examining a house that you are considering buying, make safety your number one consideration. Do not do anything that is potentially hazardous or takes you outside your comfort zone. If you do not feel knowledgeable about some area, hire an expert, such as a home inspector and, if needed, specialists such as roofers, engineers, electricians, plumbers, and sewer scopers. The most dangerous things you might do are: go on the roof, go into the crawl-space, and examine the electrical service panel (breaker box). They all have dangers which could lead to serious injury or death.
Exterior and Structure
The type of roof-covering materials should be noted along with any indications of active roof leaks. Check existence of proper flashing and weatherproofing around the vents, skylights, chimney, and other roof penetrations. Observe the condition of the gutters and downspouts. From the readily accessible panels, doors or stairs, establish the general structure and condition of the roof. If there is a chimney, check the mortar to ensure it’s not crumbling and loose. Look for a rain cap on the chimney. Do not go on the roof. That is a job for a professional. Walking a roof is a learned art. If you see something that concerns you, hire an expert to go up and take a closer look.
Observe the type and condition of all exterior wall-covering materials, flashing and trim. Examine all exterior doors; adjacent walkways and driveways; stairs, steps, stoops, stairways and ramps; porches, patios, decks, balconies and carports; railings, guards and handrails; and the eaves, soffits and fascia for evidence of damage, rot, and improper installation. Wherever there are guardrails, check for any improper spacing between intermediate balusters, spindles and rails.
Examine the siding carefully for damage or improper installation. Are there cracks in the masonry? Is the siding beginning to deteriorate? Must the house be scraped, caulked and painted? Are there nail pops or are the nails over-driven into the siding?
Check the landscaping, vegetation, surface drainage, retaining walls and grading of the property, wherever they may adversely affect the structure due to moisture intrusion. Grading should slope away from the house in all directions. Plants requiring water should not be present within 6 feet of the house. Check driveways and walkways to ensure they are even, free of trip hazards, spalling and crumbling.
Basement, Foundation, Crawlspace & Structure
Caution: a crawl-space can contain hazards of electrocution simply from touching a pipe or duct that was electrically energized through improper or deteriorated electrical conductors. Dangerous gases may also be present. Vermin, including wasps, bees, hornets, poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders, feral cats and dogs—both dead and alive—may be found there.
The foundation is a very important area to inspect properly. If there is an under-floor space (crawl-space), you should locate the access door or panel. Once inside the crawl-space, the perimeter of the foundation should be checked for cracks, signs of moisture intrusion, mechanical damage, undercutting of the supporting soil, and signs of movement. Make sure the area is adequately ventilated at several points along the perimeter. Look for indications of active water penetration, such as powdery white efflorescence stains on the concrete foundation.
If supporting beams and columns are present, make sure the columns are properly installed, resting on a secure footer, perfectly vertical, centered under the beams, securely attached and in sound condition. Be on the alert for indications of wood in contact with or near soil. Look at all the beams and joists, checking for cutting, notching and boring of framing members that may present a structural or safety concern. Check that the floor joists have proper blocking installed between members.
Examine all plumbing—gas supply, water supply and waste drainage—to ensure that it is properly installed and not leaking. Look for deficiencies in any ductwork present, both venting and HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning). If a furnace and water heater are present, this is the time to test the operation of those as well.
Look for excessive moisture in the soil. If a sump pump with an accessible float is present, its operation and mechanical condition should be checked.
If there is a basement and no crawl-space, it is harder to check for some items, but the same checks apply in general.
While inspecting the portion of the home above the foundation, be on the alert for any indications of possible foundation movement, such as sheetrock cracks, brick cracks, out-of-square door frames, shifting of the sill-plates on the foundation, and unlevel floors.
Heating and Cooling (HVAC)
Determine the location of the thermostat for the heating system. Inspect the operation of the heating system, using the normal operating controls. If it is not electric, listen for the furnace to make unusual sounds, such as booming when lighting. Check for scorch marks on its exterior. Note the energy source, whether natural gas, LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas), fuel oil, electricity, wood, or solar. Establish the heating method; i.e., forced air, gravity, or radiant. Note any heating system that did not operate and whether the heating system was hard to access or inaccessible. Locate the system filter and check that it is clean an installed correctly (many are not).
Examine the combustion gases venting system for proper installation, including correct size, slope, routing, and duct type, particularly where the hot duct penetrates walls and ceilings. Make sure there are no exhaust leaks.
Fuel-fired forced air HVAC systems require a good air supply to operate correctly, so check for adequate venting for make-up air to enter the furnace/water heater enclosure.
The distribution of air with a forced air HVAC requires that return air ducts be present and unobstructed. Doors should be undercut to clear flooring by at least 1" to allow air to circulate.
Determine the type(s) of cooling system(s) installed and their location. These might include an air conditioner, window air conditioner(s), heat pump system, evaporative cooler (swamp cooler), whole house fan (incorrectly called an attic fan), or a combination of several types. Locate the thermostat and or controls, if any, for the cooling system(s). Inspect the operation of the cooling system(s), using the normal operating controls.
Note any cooling system that did not operate and if any cooling system was deemed inaccessible. Note if any air conditioner has either too large or too small electrical breaker for its rating. A cooling system should operate with a temperature difference of 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit between the air coming from the air handler and the air returning to the air handler (between an outlet vent and the return air vent).
Do NOT operate any main valves. Find, but do not operate the main water supply shut-off valve. Establish whether the water supply is public or private based upon observed evidence. Note if the main water supply line is copper, galvanized iron or lead (lead is a health hazard). Test water pressure by placing a meter on a threaded exterior spigot.
Find, the location of the main fuel supply shut-off valve and the location of any observed fuel-storage system, i.e., LPG or fuel oil.
Establish the type and capacity of the water heating equipment, including the energy source (electric, natural gas, LPG or solar). Examine the venting connections, temperature/pressure-relief (TPR) valves, and the pressure release pipe. Do NOT operate the TPR valve.
Check the operation of the interior water supply, including all fixtures and faucets, by running the water. Note deficiencies in the installation of hot and cold water faucets. Note mechanical drain stops that were missing or did not operate if installed in sinks, lavatories and tubs. Check all toilets for proper operation by flushing. Check deficiencies in the water supply by viewing the functional flow in two fixtures operated simultaneously.
Check all sinks, tubs and showers for functional drainage, including checking for drain leaks. Examine all visible components of the drain, waste and vent system for proper installation. Water stains, sagging floors and mildew indicate water leaks. Note any toilets that were damaged, had loose connections to the floor, were leaking, or had tank components that did not operate.
Determine if the branch water supply plumbing is copper, PEX plastic, polybutylene, galvanized iron or lead (lead is a health hazard).
Always have the sewer line scoped by a professional . . . he will pass a TV camera through the entire line. Repair costs for sewer problems can reach tens of thousands of dollars.
Outside, determine if the electrical service is overhead or underground. If overhead, check the electrical service drop (power wires) for adequate clearance from the ground, trees, decks and roofs. Examine the overhead service conductors and their attachment point; the service head, gooseneck and drip loops; the service mast, and the service conduit and raceway for proper and secure installation and insulation. For safety, these and all other electrical components must meet stringent code requirements.
Next, check the electric meter and base, the service-entrance conductors, and the main service disconnect, including the amperage rating of the main service disconnect, if labeled. Beyond these visual checks, checking the electrical service panel can be very hazardous. If you are not an expert, you should hire one to do this next phase.
The service panel (breaker box or panel) must be easy to access and it should be in good condition. It is generally located in the vicinity of the meter, either outside or inside the house. Before opening the service panel, touch the panel with the back of your knuckles. That way, if an electrical short is present, the shock will jerk your arm and hand away instead of freezing you to the panel. After opening, do NOT operate any circuit breakers. Do NOT remove the cover (dead-front) that surrounds the breakers and protects you from the high voltages inside the panel, an extreme safety hazard. Check the over-current protection devices (circuit breakers and fuses) to see if there is an adequate number of breakers and that there are no unused openings without covers.
At this point you may want a professional certified or master certified home inspector an a professional, certified, master or qualified electrician to check the inside of the panel for proper wiring and grounding. He will remove the dead-front and look for deficiencies only a trained professional will recognize. This is a critical and very important part of any home inspection. Inside the panel, an inspector will examine the service grounding and bonding, the type of wiring, the presence of solid conductor aluminum or copper branch-circuit wiring, improper breaker application, burned or damaged insulation, and any unused circuit-breaker panel opening that was not filled. He will also look for any other irregularities, such as non-professional installations or modification.
Inside the home note the number of electrical outlets to ensure that the house has sufficient outlets for your needs. You should test a representative number of receptacles to see if power is present, polarity correct, and grounding is proper. Note if the receptacle cover is missing or broken, the receptacle is broken with exposed wires, there is evidence of arcing or excessive heat, and it is properly and securely attached to the wall. You should also test a representative number of switches and lighting fixtures.
You may ask the homeowner to test all ground-fault circuit interrupter receptacles and circuit breakers that are observed and deemed to be GFCIs using a GFCI test tool (the button is not an adequate test), where possible. Test receptacles observed and deemed to be arc-fault circuit interrupter (AFCI)-protected using the AFCI test button, where possible. Do NOT use the GFCI test tool or AFCI buttons yourself unless the homeowner is present to help with a reset.
You may also ask the homeowner to demonstrate that smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors function properly. Determine that smoke or carbon-monoxide detectors are in all required locations. Check with local jurisdictional authorities for the current code requirements regarding the placement of these devices.
Inspect readily accessible and visible portions of the fireplaces and chimneys looking for evidence of joint separation, damage or deterioration of the hearth, hearth extension or the combustion chamber. Check the lintels and mantels above the fireplace openings. If readily accessible and manually operable, operate the damper doors by opening and closing them, and inspect the flue or exhaust system. Examine the cleanout doors and frames making sure the cleanouts are made of metal, pre-cast cement, or other non-combustible material. Watch for the lack of a smoke detector and a carbon-monoxide detector in the same room as the fireplace.
In the case of a gas fireplace, is the gas shutoff located a safe distance from the fireplace and is the key present?
Attic, Insulation & Ventilation
Locate the attic access point(s). Examine the attic from the port—entry is not advised and potentially dangerous—and look for evidence of water leakage and damage to the structure, ceiling and walls. Look for blackening indicating possible extreme heat, fire or smoke damage. Look for evidence of prior repairs or painted rafters, which my conceal damage. Are there any musty odors? Is the insulation wet?
Determine the type and condition of insulation in unfinished spaces, including attics, crawlspaces and foundation areas—asbestos insulation may be present. Watch for the general absence of insulation or ventilation in unfinished spaces. Is the insulation adequate and evenly distributed. Also note the approximate average depth of insulation observed at the unfinished attic floor area or roof structure.
Examine the mechanical exhaust systems from the kitchen, bathrooms and laundry area. Note the method of exhaust and that they are properly exhausted to the exterior and not into the attic or interior.
Be especially alert for damage or modifications to structural members and trusses. Modifications to trusses must be approved by a structural engineer. Look for improperly constructed rafters and purlins in older "stick built" homes. If in doubt, call a structural engineer.
Doors, Windows & Interior
Check a representative number of doors by opening and closing them. Check at least a representative number of windows for proper operation, damage, and leaks. Note any window that is obviously fogged or shows other evidence of damaged seals.
Examine all floors, walls and ceilings, particularly for moisture stains. Examine drywall to be sure it is securely attached to interior wall framing. Check for cracks in walls and ceilings . . . cracks could indicate structural or foundation damage. Check floors for any spongy or weak areas. Check floors to see if they slope.
Examine all stairs, steps, landings, stairways and ramps. Check their railings for structural integrity and for improper spacing between intermediate balusters, spindles and rails.
Using normal operating controls, test garage vehicle doors and their door openers. Test the photo-electric safety sensors to see if it operates properly.
Is the garage floor level and relatively free of cracks? Is there a ventilation system (HVAC) shared with the house? If so, that is a safety hazard. Is there a water heater in the garage? If so, it should be elevated above the floor to avoid igniting fumes from chemicals.
There are numerous materials, gases and conditions present in a house which could be hazardous to your health and that of your family. These include asbestos (a carcinogen), radon (a carcinogen), mold, methamphetamine deposits, fuel oil leaks (a carcinogen), combustible gas leaks (explosion), carbon monoxide from improper furnace combustion and venting (asphyxiation), and improper electrical installations (possibility of fire or electrical shock).
Be on the lookout for these serious hazards, some of which require specialized equipment for their detection. Hire a professional when in doubt.
If you observe structural additions or modifications, confirm with the local building permitting authorities that permits were issued.
Certain tools will be useful when examining a structure:
- Electrical outlet tester
What is a General Home Inspection?
A general home inspection is a non-invasive, visual examination of the accessible areas of a residential property (as delineated above), performed for a fee, which is designed to identify defects within specific systems and components defined by industry standards that are both observed and deemed material by the inspector. The scope of work may be modified by the client and inspector, by mutual agreement, prior to the inspection process.
The general home inspection is based on the observations made on the date of the inspection, and not a prediction of future conditions. The general home inspection will not reveal every issue that exists or ever could exist, but only those material defects observed on the date of the inspection.
A material defect is a specific issue with a system or component of a residential property that may have a significant, adverse impact on the value of the property, or that poses an unreasonable risk to people. The fact that a system or component is near, at or beyond the end of its normal useful life is not, in itself, a material defect.
A general home inspection report normally identifies, in written format, defects within specific systems and components defined by industry standards that are both observed and deemed material by the inspector. Inspection reports may include additional comments and recommendations.