Hold off on paying hundreds of dollars for an inspection until you perform your own checks for big problems that might make you run away from the deal. Before making an offer, arrange to spend an hour or so in the home carefully and methodically searching for major issues such as:

  • Examine all walls and ceilings for signs of water damage, which usually appears as discoloration, stains, or peeling paint. Carefully check areas that were recently painted, which sometimes is a cover-up for moisture problems.
  • Check the electrical panel for old wire, unconnected wiring, clearly labeled circuits, and signs of previous fires. If there’s a fuse box, make sure the selling price reflects the need for an update. If the home was built before the 1980s, check when the electrical panel was installed or upgraded, and make sure the wiring isn’t aluminum.
  • Scan for drainage problems outside and evidence of moisture issues inside, especially in basement or crawlspace corners, and near walls that lie adjacent to or underneath decks and porches.
  • Inspect exposed building materials for rotten wood.
  • Look for missing or curled or raised roof shingles. Roof leaks most commonly occur where two surfaces meet (in valleys and around chimneys and around attic fans and satellite dishes).
  • Examine attic ceilings for signs of moisture.
  • Millions of appliances have been recalled in the last decade, often due to scary safety threats. Some inspectors check for recall notices, but many don’t. It’s easy to do at www.recalls.gov.
  • Compare installation dates for furnaces, A/C units, and water heaters against their usual lifespans.
  • Are there cracks and signs of repairs in basement and foundation walls? Because all houses settle, don’t assume even big cracks in masonry are red flags; but if you find them, consider hiring a structural engineer to inspect them.
  • Check that decks, porches, chimneys, and other additions are level and appear structurally sound.
  • Conduct a sniff test. If they couldn’t clear out or mask mold and mildew (or worse) odors before putting the place on the market, it’s a big, yucky red flag.

Can you save several hundreds of dollars and DIY your entire home inspection? Sure! But keep in mind it might be more difficult to convince the seller to help pay to fix any problems you discover, compared to those recorded in an official-seeming inspection report done by a pro. And if you want to do your own inspection, make sure the sales contract indicates that’s the plan, rather than language specifying a professional inspection.

Also ask the seller to disclose current and past problems.

States have vastly different laws regarding what sellers must disclose to buyers about past and current problems.

Delaware law requires sellers to completely disclose to buyers known problems about their homes. The primary vehicle for these disclosures is the state’s lengthy “Seller’s Disclosure of Real Property Condition Report,” a form that covers a broad range of topics from known roof leaks to broken appliances to previous or existing structural damage to knowledge about mold, asbestos, easement disputes, radon, and even whether they have pets.

Pennsylvania has similar requirements. Sellers must disclose to buyers all known material defects that could significantly impact the value of their properties. Most report these problems using a standardized form that asks about common issues.

Delaware’s and Pennsylvania’s disclosure requirements are different from most other states’ in that they require sellers not just to indicate what problems currently exist, but also mandate that they provide specifics about them. And unlike in most other states, sellers in Delaware and Pennsylvania must report on most types of major problems, even if they were repaired.

New Jersey’s disclosure requirements are less structured than those in its neighboring states. Its law does require sellers to tell prospective buyers about known concealed defects. So if the roof leaks and it’s not obvious, it gets reported; but if there are obvious indications of water damage on ceilings there’s no requirement to say anything. To avoid interpreting the state’s rather ambiguous requirements, many sellers prepare disclosure reports similar to those legally required in Delaware and Pennsylvania; the New Jersey Association of Realtors has a form most use, but it’s not a legal requirement.

In all states, if the house was built before 1978, federal law requires the seller to disclose that it may still possess lead-based paint. Even if the seller has no knowledge about the existence of any lead-based paint, the problem is so prevalent that you should assume it exists and deal with it appropriately if you remodel or repaint.

No matter where you’re buying, review the disclosure report! In New Jersey, if the seller doesn’t provide disclosure info ask for it. Pay special attention to problems that are expensive to fix (dying HVAC systems, termites, asbestos-containing materials, defective stucco, underground fuel storage tanks, etc.). Also ask sellers to supply copies of receipts and any warranties for HVAC equipment, water heaters, appliances, and any transferrable builder’s or contractor’s warranties, plus permit forms and inspection results for any renovations.

If there’s a homeowners’ association, review all its rules.

If it’s a condo, ask about fees, for details on all special assessments levied in the last 10 years, and if the association plans major future repair work. Although lots of past repairs might indicate that other owners are diligent about keeping their community safe and pleasant, sometimes it reveals lousy construction.

Don’t substitute seller disclosures for your own inspection, even if the sellers recently hired their own home inspector and make that report available. From a buyer’s perspective, the most important thing to know about disclosures is that sellers have to disclose only problems they know about (or are reasonably expected to know about). If they don’t know a sinkhole soon will gobble up the abode, then you won’t learn that from the disclosures. Also—and this is a real shocker—people sometimes lie when there’s a lot of money at stake.