Will he or she will actually inspect a lot of stuff?

Most inspectors supply in advance contracts that specify what they will and won’t do. Before hiring one, ask for a contract and a sample report; then check them for, or ask about, the topics below. You’ll find that hardly any inspectors do all of this. That’s okay. Focus on those who at least do most of them. And if you have specific concerns from your previous home tours, such as a possibly wet crawlspace, don’t hire someone who refuses to enter crawlspaces.

  • Can I see sample reports? Due to customer confidentiality agreements, you might not get to review real ones, but some inspectors redact customer information or provide mock reports. If you can’t get samples, ask how many pages their reports usually run and how many pics they usually include. Also check for thoroughness: The best are lengthy and include both checklists and narratives that clearly describe problems and suggest solutions.
  • How long will my inspection take? Obviously, it takes longer to inspect a big space with lots of problems than it does a studio condo. Beware of inspectors who tell you they’ll be in and out of a typical-size home in under two hours.
  • If there is a crawlspace, attic, chimney, wood-burning stove, detached garage or large shed, retaining wall, burglar alarm, or skylight, will they inspect it? These are some of the many features inspectors often won’t check. If the house has one of these, hire someone who will check it or get a separate inspection from a specialist.
  • Will the roof get a close-up look? Many inspectors won’t climb ladders. We get it, ladders are dangerous. And sometimes it’s possible to do a careful roof inspection from the ground using a drone or binoculars. But avoid the jokers who examine faraway roofs by simply looking up at them or peering at them via zoomed-in smartphone cameras.
  • Will you test every window by raising and lowering it? Some check only a sample. It takes only a moment extra to test each one.
  • Will you inspect every electrical outlet? As with windows, some companies test only a sample of outlets, which is ridiculous. Testers cost less than $10, and it takes only a few seconds to plug one in to see if an outlet functions, is grounded, and, if it’s a GFCI model, is safe.
  • Will you operate every light fixture? As with electrical outlets, it’s easy to test all light fixtures, but not all companies bother. Extra-diligent inspectors even carry an array of lightbulbs to check fixtures with missing or blown-out bulbs.
  • Will you test all appliances? It seems obvious that they should, but some don’t.
  • Will you operate all heating and A/C equipment? Here’s another job all inspectors should do, but double check. But note they can’t test A/Cs if it’s too cold outside.
  • What gadgets will you use? Will they use an infrared camera to check for air leaks and insulation behind walls? A moisture meter to hunt for hidden drips? Since these tools are inexpensive and easy to use, inspectors should use them.

Keep in mind that inspectors can scrutinize only what’s accessible. If there’s exposed wiring or mold behind drywall, they won’t discover it. If there’s no way to access the attic, its contents and condition will remain a mystery. Because most inspectors also won’t move furnishings to access blocked doors or panels, ask the owners to clear such paths first.

Also, if something doesn’t work, don’t expect your inspector to always tell you why; it’s merely his or her job to indicate problems, not to offer a diagnosis or write up a repair order. And while it’s okay to ask your inspector for opinions on what to replace, what to ask sellers to pay for, or even whether or not to buy the place, don’t be surprised if he or she demurs—many inspectors refrain from giving such subjective advice. On the other hand, if the inspector utters ominous phrases like “This house has some major problems,” or “I guess you really love this dump’s location,” read between the lines.

What do past customers say?

Here at Checkbook.org, you’ll find customer reviews of area home inspection outfits. To collect these ratings, we regularly survey Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers plus other randomly selected individuals. The ratings we receive indicate that home inspection customers tend to be satisfied with consultants they hire, but some firms get quite poor ratings.

When reviewing these ratings, know that they are grouped by company, not by individual inspectors. The quality of individual inspectors can vary at companies employing multiple workers.

What is your fee?

Most charge based on the home’s size. You’ll find big price differences from company to company for the same structure: Prices for the 12 inspections of our typically sized test house ranged from $300 to $750. Don’t assume a high fee indicates high-quality work. In our tests, low-fee inspectors often performed just as well as, or even better than, their high-priced peers.

Are you certified? (Does it even matter?)

Given their important roles in many residential real estate transactions, you’d think all home inspectors are well-trained and tightly regulated. Well, not necessarily. Many states require home inspectors to obtain licenses, which often involves completing coursework and passing difficult exams. But Minnesota has no licensure requirements for home inspectors.

There are various membership groups home inspectors can join. The two biggest are the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI). Membership requirements for both appear well-conceived, well-managed, and demanding.

ASHI inspectors must first pass the National Home Inspector Examination, which consists of 200 multiple-choice questions with a four-hour time limit, taken at a proctored testing center. The minimum passing score is 500 out of 800, and it’s a tough test: Only about half of test-takers pass. Those who fail have to wait 30 days to retest. Anyone who pays the $225 fee can take the test.

Note: ASHI offers three membership levels. “Certified inspectors” and “inspectors” have taken and passed its exam; “associates” have not.

InterNACHI offers its own test, which consists of 120 multiple-choice questions and has a one-hour time limit. It’s also a toughie: Passing scores are 80 percent or better, and only about 45 percent pass on the first try. Our very capable and smart research director scored 65 percent; I humbly quit at the 20th question.

In addition to passing tests, both ASHI and InterNACHI require additional coursework prior to admission and continuing education afterwards. As with most professional associations, members must sign (fairly unenforceable) codes of ethics and agree to work according to a set of standards of practice (also difficult to enforce, but at least both groups have thoughtful and rigorous standards).

The big difference between the two groups is the testing process. InterNACHI’s is free, open-book, and available online to everyone. On the one hand, this means someone could take it using a fictitious name and email address, obtain all the questions, and then retake it with lots of advance knowledge. On the other hand there’s much to say for a free and transparent approach. Conversely, ASHI’s commitment to rigorous and proctored testing is also admirable.

There are also “licensed professional engineers” who have engineering degrees, licenses from their states’ boards of engineers, and often membership in the National Academy of Building Inspection Engineers or National Society of Professional Engineers. They are allowed to use the “P.E.” credentials after their names. Most professional engineers who conduct residential inspections specialize in structural engineering and are summoned to evaluate potential problems beyond the scope of generalist inspectors, but some perform basic inspections, too.

By satisfying the many requirements to join these groups, membership at the very least indicates a sizeable commitment to the profession and suggests that a certified inspector has enough knowledge about residential construction and inspections to pass a difficult exam. But keep in mind that stringent membership requirements don’t guarantee that an inspector does great work. As our undercover shoppers discovered, competent, certified inspectors missed many obvious problems, and some performed perfunctory inspections.

Remember that even challenging coursework and exams can test only knowledge, not thoroughness and diligence when inspecting homes. It’s not as if the membership organizations are regularly reviewing inspectors’ work to make sure they do topnotch jobs. That’s not a knock on the membership associations; few professions are subject to that type of review. It’s not as if dental societies inspect fillings and root canals done by their members.

What is your background and experience?

Ask candidates what they did before becoming home inspectors. This is a field where experience for sure matters. Some have extensive backgrounds in home construction, some are engineers, some just decided to become home inspectors. Even someone in the latter group might do great work—as long as he or she knows what to look for and does careful, thorough work.

Less important is how many inspections the person does annually, and how long he or she has been at it. Avoid part-timers, but keep in mind that while experience matters, volume probably doesn’t; an inspector who does a lot of reports each year might have tons of knowledge and experience—or might simply breeze through them.

Should you rely on your real estate agent for home inspector referrals?

If you completely trust your agent’s judgment and motives, sure, ask away. Experienced agents have seen numerous home inspectors at work and eventually receive feedback from their clients about big misses.

But keep in mind that the interests of the best (pickiest) home inspectors work against those of even trustworthy real estate agents, who want to avoid trouble and close sales. Your agent might refrain from recommending a zealous inspector who might delay or even kill the deal—but you want that picky inspector. Worse, inspectors who get a lot of referrals from your realtor might shy away from pointing out lots of problems or major flaws for fear of losing that business.

Our advice: Find and hire your own inspector to get an impartial expert who is loyal to you, not your real estate agent.

Who does the work?

Many inspection outfits are owner-operated, but there are also large companies and networks. It’s worth making sure that the person you’re checking up on is the one you’ll get.

Can you supply references to past customers?

Ask for the names of clients who hired them to inspect similar homes in the area, but realize, of course, that you won’t get a list of outraged customers.

What happens if they miss something?

Ask about guarantees. You’ll find most contracts limit the companies’ liability to their inspection fees. This means if your inspector fails to notice a major basement moisture problem or an inoperative furnace, the company might simply refund its $300–$700 fee.

Inspection outfits might tell you they carry errors and omissions insurance coverage, but don’t assume this coverage grants you recourse if the company misses a big defect. These policies provide legal representation to the inspection company in the event of a lawsuit and pay (rare) judgments against them; this insurance is not carried to protect you from lousy work.

Do you charge fees for follow-up questions or inspections?

You shouldn’t be charged extra if you have questions about your report. But for a re-inspection following repairs or to have the inspector attend your final walkthrough, some charge and some don’t. If yours charges, nail down these costs in advance.

Will you supply sample reports?

You might learn the most about inspectors by comparing their reports. Ask for lots of samples and check them to make sure they are lengthy, thorough, and include pictures and notes that clearly describe each problem.

When will you receive your report?

Some write their reports as they work and immediately supply the final draft. Others take a few days to review everything, which is fine. But if your deadline to complete a home inspection (and use it as a reason to back out of the deal or demand repairs) is a few days away, make sure the inspector works fast.

Can you attend the inspection?

It’s a huge red flag if you can’t.

Do you offer repair services?

Avoid inspectors who offer, for an extra fee, to fix problems they discover. It’s a conflict of interest.