Many states have so-called lemon laws that protect consumers who buy a brand-new car that turns out to be defective. But no lemon law protects homebuyers.
Safeguards do exist for homebuyers:
- Sellers usually are required by state law to disclose, though not necessarily repair, material defects.
- Builders typically offer warranties for brand-new houses.
- Home warranty policies can be bought for resale houses as well.
Still, no house is perfect, and none of those protections is a guarantee against the risk that any house could wear out, fall apart or break down in myriad ways after it's bought. In fact, all houses suffer wear, tear and damage over time.
Inspect to detect defects, insects, imperfections
A buyer's best protection against a lemon house right at the start could be thorough inspections of the home and its components before the sale closes, says James Budrow, owner of Sacramento Inspection in Sacramento, Calif.
"The bottom line is that there is no guarantee, but if buyers put their faith in a home inspector, they are going to be a lot further ahead," Budrow says.
Find a home inspector
To find a good inspector, Budrow suggests asking about:
- Background -- preferably in construction.
- Tenure in the business.
"Inspectors who've been in the business 10-plus years are normally the cream of the crop," Budrow says. "They've been able to sustain the market and make a living. They tend to be a little bit more expensive, but in the long run, that's better for the client."
The eyes, ears and nose know
Sharp inspectors rely on their eyes, ears and nose as well as skill and experience, Budrow suggests.
Eyes look for stucco or ceiling stains or swollen baseboards. Ears listen for rats, chipmunks or squirrels in crawl spaces or slapping sounds that could indicate a loose plastic water supply line. The nose smells for mold, pet urine or sewage.
"A lot of times, painters forget to paint the ceilings in the closets. If there is a moisture issue, a lot of times, it will show up there," Budrow says.
Reputation trumps costs
Buyers shouldn't choose the least expensive inspector in town just to save a few bucks on what likely will be the costliest purchase of their lifetime, says Ken Pozek, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty in Northville, Mich.
"Don't go with the cheapest person," he says, adding:
- "Go with the most reputable person."
- "Go online and read their reviews or call them and ask about their experience."
- "Talk to two or three inspectors until you find one that really sounds the most knowledgeable."
Does the house have a finished basement? A new roof? Some other major repair or improvement? If so, Pozek has another tip:
- Ask the city's building department for a list of permits that have been pulled for the property. Do the improvements have accompanying permits? If not, the workmanship could be shoddy or not in compliance with building codes.
You might want multiple inspections
Buyers typically can have more than one inspection, though the time frame permitted for multiple inspections might be short, says Amy Butterworth, associate broker for Gibson Sotheby's International Realty in Boston.
"If buyers have an inspection contingency, we often see a full professional home inspection followed by specialists and contractors, depending on what the findings were. It's a very time-sensitive window, but we often see buyers cram in as much as they can to feel comfortable," she says.
Examples of supplemental inspections include:
- Checking for mold.
- Detecting termites or other pests.
- Identifying any structural problems.
Another tip, also from Butterworth:
- If the property is a condominium, make sure the inspection includes the common areas as well as the individual unit.
Older home means more repairs
A thorough inspection is especially crucial for an older home because it typically requires more maintenance. In fact, older homes can be so problem-prone that Budrow advises first-time homeowners to steer clear of them.
"The older the house, the more costs to upkeep it," he says. "It's better for a new buyer to go for a newer home."
Buyers should be most concerned about the age and remaining useful life of what Budrow characterizes as "the big expensive things":
- Air conditioning and ventilation.
- Water heater.
Inspectors who have been in the business in the same area for some time "can shed some light on issues they've seen in the neighborhoods," Budrow says. He adds, though, that every home is different and "to generalize about a neighborhood might not be completely fair."
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