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.

The District, Maryland, and Virginia have very different laws regarding what sellers must disclose to buyers about past and current problems.

District law requires sellers to completely disclose to buyers known problems about their homes. The primary way is via the lengthy “Seller’s Disclosure Statement,” 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 asbestos, easement disputes, and historical preservation designations.

The District’s disclosure laws are different from most states’ in that they require sellers not just to indicate whether problems currently exist but also to provide specifics about them. And unlike in most states, sellers in the District must report on most types of major problems, even if they were repaired.

Maryland’s disclosure laws require that sellers can choose between giving the buyer a list of all known defects (using a lengthy reporting form similar to the District’s) or providing a disclaimer about the overall condition of the house. If the seller goes the disclaimer route, the home essentially is sold “as is”—but that doesn’t let the seller off the hook for revealing defects and problems, especially if the problem is concealed (for example, a hidden leak must be reported).

Virginia has almost no disclosure requirements. Sellers there must disclose facts like the existence of septic systems and defective drywall, and inform buyers if the home was used as a meth lab, but otherwise must simply warn about a laundry list of problems that might exist; it’s up to buyers to sniff them out.

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 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, the burden of discovering problems largely lies with you. Even the District’s rigorous disclosure laws don’t require sellers to investigate and report problems they don’t know about.

Prepare a written list of questions for the seller to answer before your inspection so you can make sure any known problems are examined. Focus on things that might create expensive headaches for you later. Ask sellers if they have any knowledge of existing problems or knowledge of previously repaired ones, as past problems often repeat themselves. Examples of items to cover:

  • Previous fires
  • Flooding or recurring moisture in the basement or crawlspace
  • Whether the home is located on a designated flood plain
  • Defects in the basement or foundation, including cracks and bulges
  • Defects in the roof, ceilings, chimney, or fireplace
  • Defects in the walls, windows, doors, or floors
  • Defects in the electrical system
  • Defects in the plumbing system, including water heater, sump pump, water treatment system, well, pool, hot tub, septic system, or sewer
  • Previous sewer backups
  • Defects in HVAC systems
  • Unsafe levels of radon gas
  • Existence of asbestos-containing materials (possibly present in homes built before the 1989 ban)
  • Existence of lead water pipes
  • Excessive settlement, sliding, or other stability issues
  • Existence of unsafe mold buildup
  • Existence of termite infestations
  • Existence of underground fuel storage tanks
  • Existence of urea formaldehyde foam insulation (used in the ’70s and ’80s)
  • Boundary or lot line disputes
  • Legal disputes regarding ownership or inheritance of property

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.

Keep in mind that sellers can only report about problems that they know exist or existed. If they don’t know a sinkhole will soon gobble up your abode, then you won’t learn about it, and if there was a fire before they bought the house and they never learned about it, you won’t, either. Also—and this is a real shocker—people sometimes lie when there’s a lot of money at stake.