Real talk: buying a house can be intimidating. So we created the first-time homebuyer series to take the mystery and anxiety out of the house-hunting process. Dive into our complete guide which covers every step of the process: why you should buy a house, how to get pre-approved for a loan, how to find an agent, how to search for a home, how to make an offer (and negotiate!), how an inspection works and how to close once you find the dream home. Don’t worry we spell it all out for you so that if this is your first time (or third) you’ll have all of the information you need for a successful purchase right at your fingertips. Read the entire series here.
Once you find your dream home and have an accepted offer on it, it’s time for the home inspection! Cue the dramatic music. You’ve probably heard experienced buyers and sellers joke about how stressful a home inspection is and to prepare yourself for the absolute worst. Yes, it is true that the sale of a home can ride on the inspection- that’s why it’s always a contingency in the purchase agreement. Inspections can be stressful for both parties involved. However, it is not a part of the home buying process you should dread. With an experienced agent and inspector by your side, you’ll get through this and be one step closer to owning your first home!
This guide will cover everything you need to know about home inspections including:
- How and when to set up an inspection
- What the home inspection process is
- Home inspection deal breakers
- What the pest inspection process is
If you’d like to jump to a certain section of the guide, just click the links above.
Let’s dive in!
Insight from Local Inspectors
When to Do a Home Inspection- and How to Set it Up
Once your offer on a home has been accepted, it’s time to inspect the house. There are three different inspections you need to have done: the home inspection, the radon test and the pest inspection.
A home inspection, while not legally required, is highly recommended. That’s when you’ll discover any big issues that aren’t in the seller’s disclosure that may take you back to the negotiating table with the seller. You, as the buyer, are responsible for setting up a home inspection and covering the cost. A home inspection will cost you around $300-$400 (depending on your area) and you will have to pay at the time of service.
You should do the inspection as soon as possible. You might not know this but technically inspectors do not have to be licensed in Iowa- you can use a family member to serve as your inspector! However, it’s in your best interest to use a licensed inspector who’s going to know exactly what to look for. As a first-time homebuyer, trust your home inspection to an experienced professional.
“Any good inspector will have taken the time to get educated on the process and parameters of an inspection by taking the properly accredited curriculum and passing the numerous exams,” explained Andrew Bode, owner of Bode Home Inspections. “However, this doesn’t mean every certified inspector is good! The absolute most important factors that go into being a top-notch inspector are training and experience. There is no substitute for those.”
If you’re not sure how to find an inspector, your agent will be a great resource. They have worked with many local inspectors and can recommend a few who will do the job well.
What is a Home Inspection?
Let’s breakdown exactly what happens during a home inspection, what the inspector is looking for and what questions you should be asking during the process.
The inspector checks the exterior and interior of the house for any significant damage, deterioration or code issues. They have an extensive checklist to work through and the inspection can take 2-3 hours to complete, depending on the size of the house and the number of issues found.
“I start on the exterior of the house, which includes the garage,” said Bode. “Then I move to the interior of the home, starting on the top level, and working my way down. I do it this way so I can run water and test the plumbing as we move downstairs. That way we can look for watermarks or signs of leaks.”
These are the biggest issues an inspector is looking for:
- Water damage
- Structural issues with the foundation or support beams
- An old or damaged roof
- State of windows, doors and frames
- Faulty electrical system
- Plumbing issues
- Problems with the HVAC system
- Inoperable appliances
- Anything that would present a fire, health or safety issue
The most common issues Bode has encountered? “Evidence of water in the basement, double-tapped breakers in the electrical panel and minor plumbing leaks,” he said. Even if you’re buying a newer home, an inspection will still reveal characteristics of the house you’ll want to keep an eye on.
What is a radon test?
Another part of the inspection is a radon test. Just like the home inspection, this test isn’t legally required but highly recommended. It can be done by the home inspector you use if they offer it. If your inspector doesn’t do radon testing, you can schedule a separate radon test with a specialized inspector, which will cost you about $100.
“Radon is a radioactive gas that permeates out of the soil,” explained Bode. “It can be found in roughly 60-70% of homes in Iowa. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists radon as the second leading cause of lung cancer in the country, next to smoking.
“Testing for radon is a two-day process. We leave a special piece of equipment in the house to take measurements. At the end of the two days, we average a score from the measurements and you’ll get a report that shows the radon levels in the house.”
If the home is found to have dangerously high levels of radon, your agent can negotiate on your behalf for a radon mitigation system from the sellers to treat the problem. This involves hiring a specialized contractor to vent the house, evaluate the ventilation systems and properly seal any cracks in the foundation.
You should attend the inspection.
This is the best time for you to talk to the inspector and get more information on any issues found in the house and learn more about home maintenance- something you’ll need to stay on top of as a new homeowner. Your inspector will also give you their take on everything they find in the house and what could become an issue in the future as the house ages.
“You will get far more out of an inspection by being present,” explained Bode. “A good inspection is more than just pointing out defects. We spend time pointing out some of the positive attributes of the homes, as well as maintenance tips and suggestions.”
You should also bring a tape measure and take photos while you’re there. This will likely be the last time you’re in the house until the final walkthrough so it’s a good idea to measure the rooms and doorways and take pictures so you can start planning for your move.
What happens if the inspector finds an issue?
As your inspector is compiling the inspection report, they can share their findings with you. “We can give our opinion on how big or small of an issue it is and recommend possible remedies that would fix them,” said Bode. “But we’re not contractors and we can’t give you price estimates. If major issues exist, we will always recommend a qualified contractor to give you a more precise answer on repair cost.”
If the inspector finds problems with the house, it will all go in the report. It will cover almost everything from something as small as a leaky faucet to as big as a deteriorating roof.
You and your agent will have to discuss what’s laid out in the report and decide what would be reasonable to ask the seller to address, what you can live with and what you will want to invest in fixing once you own the house. Once you decide what you want to ask the seller to address, your agent will begin negotiating again with the seller (or their agent). Not everything is a deal breaker- although there are some big issues you don’t want to ignore.
This is the best time to do any and all inspections you need to do. That way any issues that are found can be negotiated with the sellers before you get to the closing table.
What are Home Inspection Deal Breakers?
There are some home issues that are difficult to overcome- especially if the seller is reluctant to spend money on big fixes. You and your agent should have an in-depth conversation on the inspection report and decide if the cost to fix the problems is worth it, compared to the home and what you’re paying for it.
Not everyone will have the same deal breakers since every buyer’s needs and budgets are different. But these are some common ones:
- Foundation problems
- Roof issues
- Faulty wiring
- Poor plumbing system
- Upgrades/renovations that don’t have a permit or aren’t up to code
Foundation problems- Big cracks or bulges in the foundation can be signs of settling, poor drainage or shifting soil. Not all cracks are serious, but when they are they can cause water damage and structural issues with the home. A serious foundation problem might require excavation and construction work. If your inspector finds a serious issue with the foundation, you’ll want to call in a contractor or structural engineer to evaluate it.
Roof issues- A problem with the roof is exactly what you don’t want. If the inspector finds serious problems with the roof, or the seller’s disclosure notes leaks or damage, you definitely want your agent to address it with the seller. Roofs are an expensive fix and depending on the severity of the issue, it can be difficult to persuade a seller to invest tens of thousands of dollars in the fix. Discuss the inspector’s report with your agent to decide on the best course of action.
Sewage- Some inspectors will do a sewage scope during the home inspection. If they don’t, it might be in your best interest to hire a specialized inspector who can. Sub-par sewage systems or issues can also be an expensive (and stinky) fix that you should address with the seller. The inspector can also check to see if tree roots are growing into the system and affecting it. If you’re in a rural area, you may need to call a specialized inspector to check the septic system.
Faulty wiring- An inspector will check visible wiring, electrical panels and outlets to evaluate the electrical system. If they find problems with the circuit breaker, frayed wiring, warm or vibrating outlets or notice a burning smell, they may recommend bringing in an electrician to evaluate and possibly replace the wiring. This is an expensive fix that you and your agent should talk to the sellers about covering.
Poor plumbing- Low water pressure, leaky pipes or an outdated plumbing system can cause your inspector to recommend calling in a plumber to evaluate the need for new plumbing. Older homes especially may have deteriorating pipes that need to be evaluated. If the home was built in the 1930s or 1940s, the inspector should check for Orangeburg pipes. These were made out of hot pitch and wood pulp and were cheap alternatives to steel pipes during World War II. If the home was built in the 1970s or the 1980s, they’ll also want to check for polybutylene pipes. These were commonly used then as cheap alternatives to copper pipes. Unfortunately, both types of pipes degrade quickly and can leak or cause flooding. If previous homeowners didn’t notice any leaks, they may not have known to replace them. Poor plumbing can cause serious damage to your home down the road.
Renovations not up to code- The inspector will make sure that any upgrades or additions to the home that were made over the years are up to code. Unfortunately, if the current owners were self-proclaimed DIY-ers but didn’t get the permits they needed, it can cause issues if something later proves to be structurally unsound. Any issues that arise because of poor unpermitted work, may not be covered by your homeowner’s insurance. It’s important to note that any changes made to the house before existing codes came to be, or any additions made before the current owners, won’t be something the seller can address.
These are all big structural issues that are expensive to fix and dangerous to ignore. If any of these issues are discovered in the home, you and your agent will have to work with the sellers on finding a solution to the issues. If the fixes are too expensive for the sellers or you can’t reach a satisfactory answer for everyone, the inspection contingency in your purchase agreement allows you to walk away from the home.
What are Not Home Inspection Deal Breakers?
There are some issues your inspector might find that are either not worth asking the seller to fix because they’re minor or that aren’t actually issues at all. This might include:
- Small sidewalk shifts
- Aesthetic changes
- Basic maintenance like changing light bulbs
- Lead-based paint
- Hairline cracks
Sidewalk shifts- The inspector will note shifts in the sidewalk outside the home- no matter how small. Of course any big shifts should be taken seriously but many times it’s an insignificant movement that you might not even have noticed if the inspection hadn’t pointed it out. Most of the time, these are not worth asking the seller to address.
Aesthetic changes- Design choices like paint colors, carpet, flooring and countertops are never asking the seller to “fix” because they’re purely cosmetic. A bright pink bathroom- while not necessarily pleasing to look at- is not a health or safety issue. Most cosmetic problems you have with the house can easily be fixed once you own it.
Basic maintenance- The same logic goes for any basic maintenance fixes like replacing the light bulbs or replacing the air filters. These are basic home maintenance projects that you will assume as the new homeowner. Don’t waste your time (or the seller’s) by asking for these to be fixed.
Lead-Based Paint- This sounds like a deal breaker, but it doesn’t have to be! This is more common in homes built before 1978 when lead-based paint was not banned from use. Obviously, you don’t want your inspector to discover lead-based paint in your home. But if they do it’s not the end of the world. You can hire a certified contractor to remove the lead-based paint.
Issues that Might be Deal Breakers- Or Might Not!
Hairline cracks- Your inspector may find hairline cracks around door and window frames or small cracks in the foundation. Don’t panic! It’s not unusual to find these in older homes and it doesn’t necessarily mean the house is falling apart. The inspector will give you an idea of how serious it may be, but many times it’s nothing to worry about.
Mold- This one might come as a surprise to you and honestly it will vary by situation. No one ever wants to discover mold in their home but it’s not always as bad as it sounds. If you notice a little mold between the tiles in the bathroom- it’s okay. It happens and it’s easily addressed. However, if you discover mold in the walls or mold that’s toxic, that can be a big problem. You’ll have to decide if it’s a deal breaker depending on the type of mold, severity of it and if the seller is willing to treat it.
Pests- This one can also be tricky. In addition to a home inspection, you should also do a pest inspection with a pest management company. We’ll go into detail about the pest inspection below, but it’s not necessarily a deal breaker if pests are found in the home. Spiders or a mouse or two? Probably not a big deal and easily treated. Termites or carpenter ants? That can be a different story. Just like mold, you’ll have to decide if it’s a deal breaker based on the type of pest and how serious the infestation is.
Home inspections can reveal a lot about a house that you may not have really wanted to know. But remember: “The purpose of the inspection is not to make the house perfect, it’s to assess any major issues or safety items,” stated Bode.
What are Pest Inspections?
In addition to a home inspection, you should also have a pest inspection with a certified inspector. Most loan programs will not allow you to close on a house with a completed inspection and subsequent treatment for pests if the inspector recommends it.
Does a buyer pay for the pest inspection or the seller? It really depends on your market. In the Des Moines area, the sellers usually order and pay for the pest inspection, sometime between the home inspection and closing. But in other cities, the buyer orders the pest inspection.
What is the pest inspection process?
A pest inspector will check the basement or crawlspace, interior, attic, garage, exterior and porch of the home.
“It’s a visual inspection of the structures on the property,” explained Allen Lehman, owner of Perfection Pest Management. “We do not open up the walls or move appliances and furniture. I go from room to room, typically starting at the highest level of the structure and work my way down. I’m looking for signs of wood-destroying pests.”
Wood-destroying pests include carpenter ants, carpenter bees, powderpost beetles and of course, termites. These bugs will do their best to destroy the wood in the foundation and structure of your home, especially termites. Carpenter ants and bees use wood to make their nests but termites and powderpost beetles eat wood and can cause major damage.
“Because of the nature of these pests, the big issues we’re looking for are conducive conditions for them,” said Lehman. “For example, a water stain on the ceiling of a second-floor bedroom would be a good environment for termites and carpenter ants. The pests themselves may not be present or visible, but it would send up a red flag and I’d investigate it further.”
Hughes describes their pest inspection process as looking for three things: live insects; dead insects, insect parts, exit holes or staining; or visible damage from wood-destroying insects. Even if no live insects are seen, if Hughes finds evidence of termite damage or dead termites and there is no document of treatment from a pest inspection company, he will recommend treatment.
“We will typically recommend treatment if there is no documentation from a pest inspection company that says the house has been treated,” said Hughes.
If a pest inspection turns up evidence of damage or evidence of pests, you’ll want to talk to the seller about when the home was last treated and possibly even get a second opinion.
Just like home inspections, the pest report will be sent to the person who ordered it right away.
The most common pest that inspectors find?
Termites. “The biggest misconception people have is that their house doesn’t have termites, or can’t get them,” explained Hughes. “Termites are more common in Iowa than people think. Especially if the home is in a wooded area or was in a development that was built on a wooded area.”
Even new homes can get termites! If you’re looking at homes in a new development that stands where woods used to be, it’s not unusual for termites to still be there. Termite colonies live underground and can travel up to 130 feet to food sources- so the colony might not even live under your home. “They’re seeking new food sources,” said Hughes. “And builders are not required to pre-treat homes for termites so you should still do a pest inspection for new homes.”
Termites can be treated in two ways: with liquid or with baits. Hughes explained the difference between the two: “Bait treatment is setting stations around the outside of the house that are filled with product that attracts the bugs. They’ll take it back to the colony to eat it and the colony will die off. However, this treatment is not as effective in the winter if the termites can’t access the traps because of snow.
“Liquid treatment is when the inspector digs a trench around the house and fills it with the same product. They will also drill holes in the slabs of the foundation of the house and fill them. This product is non-toxic to people and animals but should wipe out any insects living in the home.”
Ask the pest inspector about a warranty.
Yes, pest inspectors can have warranties! “You should always ask if a treatment is covered by a warranty,” said Hughes. “It’s the most important thing you can ask a pest inspector and it tells you all you need to know about the company. You don’t just want them to keep coming back to treat the same problem. You want a company that will treat it and repair the damage.”
Pest Professionals’ Advice for First-Time Buyers
Our pest professionals had a lot of great advice for first-time buyers who might feel overwhelmed thinking about their new home having a pest problem.
1. Pest inspections are visual.
Unfortunately, inspectors can’t see through walls or floors and they can’t predict the future. They can only tell you what evidence they find.
“It’s important that first-time buyers know this inspection is visual,” said Lehman. “Unfortunately, I don’t have X-ray vision. It’s a common misconception that a home is going to be completely pest-free but the inspection is intended to find wood-destroying insects. So it’s not impossible for the home to have an ant problem pop up in the spring or a mouse in the winter.”
2. If you can reach out to the inspector, ask questions about the condition of the home.
If you’re able to talk directly with the pest inspector, make sure you ask questions not just about what they found, but about the condition of the house overall. As we said, inspectors can’t predict the future. But they can tell you what to keep an eye out for.
“First-time buyers should ask about conducive conditions and what to correct to avoid a future pest problem,” said Lehman. “Although the inspection is for wood-destroying insects, they should ask about other general pest concerns, the possibilities of a pest problem and prevention. Ask about the neighborhood! More than likely, I have an idea of the level of pest activity in that area.”
3. Do your due diligence with the seller.
Carefully review the seller’s disclosure for any mention of previous pest problems or treatment. If you don’t see it, you can ask the seller’s outright for documentation of any pest treatments that may have been done.
The pest report the inspector sends to the seller and closer has to be signed by you. Make sure you read it carefully so you know exactly what the inspector found. If they mention any kind of treatment recommendation, your agent should talk to the seller about it.
“Always ask about termites before you close!” said Hughes. “Always read the seller’s disclosure and always read the pest inspection form you have to sign before closing. Termites can live in a house for years before you start to see any visible evidence, so always ask questions and speak up if you think there’s a need for treatment.”
4. Just because a house has or had a pest problem, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it.
Like we said before, a pest problem is not necessarily a deal breaker. It depends on the pest and the severity of the problem. “Just because a house has, or once had, termites doesn’t mean it’s a bad house or that you shouldn’t live there,” explained Hughes. “It just means you need a good pest inspector.”
A pest inspection is a vital part of the home buying process. Make sure you receive all the information you need from the seller so you can close with confidence.
Don’t fear the home inspection; see it as an opportunity to learn more about the home you want to live in and get ready to learn how to take care of it.
If the inspection brings your agent back to the negotiating table with the seller, remain calm! An experienced agent will make sure the seller takes care of anything big and you can decide what issues you are comfortable addressing on your own. It is possible you may end up walking away from a home you love because of the inspection- this isn’t the end of the world. Your agent will help you find a new home that you’ll love just as much.
We’ll cover negotiating issues with the seller in the next part of the first-time homebuyer series.