Good home inspectors can help potential homeowners make sure that their investment will serve them well past the settlement date.
But homebuyers, real estate agents and even inspectors themselves say not all inspectors are as thorough, or as accountable, as they should be.
And what galls many real estate agents, and surprises some inspectors, is the lack of a state licensing requirement for home inspectors. "To mow grass in Baltimore you have to have a license, but you don't need one to be a home inspector," says A. George Pilat, a Parkville home inspector with a company of the same name.
The American Society of Home Inspectors, a national trade organization based in Arlington, Va., says inspectors don't need to be licensed. The organization says it serves a licensing function, requiring members to pay an annual membership fee of $200, to complete three technical written exams and to conduct 250 home inspections.
"Over the past three years only 10 complaints were registered in Maryland, while other industries that are licensed get thousands of complaints," says Vera Hollander, an ASHI spokeswoman. "We haven't seen the number of complaints that would justify control."
Maryland has about 200 practicing home inspectors, including 100 who are ASHI members. She says the cost for the state to set up a licensing program isn't justified. In fact, Ms. Hollander says, only Texas requires licensing of home inspectors.
"That's a nice cop-out," says Harry Blum, president of Fiola Blum Realtors in Baltimore. "But if there's 200 people in the business, I think they should know what they are examining."
He adds, "There are some very good inspectors who know what they are talking about. But I can be a home inspector and I think most agents in my office could be home inspectors. What do they have to learn? How to fill out a checklist?"
Mr. Blum says professional inspectors should be required to take engineering courses or to have an engineering degree.
Good inspectors search the house top to bottom for defects, says Wayne Norris, a partner in the home inspection team of Dallmus-Norris Associates of Baltimore. But, he admits, they inspect only what they can see.
Sometimes defects are hidden. Experienced inspectors might detect signs and symptoms of hidden problems, but that doesn't always happen.
And if they find defects that make prospective buyers unhappy, Mr. Norris says some real estate agents are equally displeased.
"I've heard the term 'deal killer,' " he says. "Some sales have fallen through. A lot of Realtors point their finger at the home inspector. But all we're doing is pointing out what's going on."
Real estate industry specialists recommend that homebuyers research inspectors carefully before hiring them. Mr. Norris says inspectors should be members of ASHI; then the buyer has some assurance that the inspector follows professional standards and ethics.
He also recommends making sure the inspector has errors and omissions insurance. The insurance covers inspectors for oversights in their work, and gives homebuyers some compensation for problems an inspector should have found.
Mr. Pilat, an ASHI member, says membership in the organization may not mean much to most people. He suggests buyers check with the Better Business Bureau to find out if anyone has complained about the inspector.
Mr. Blum says that if he were buying a house, he would hire a qualified roofer, heating expert, plumber, electrician and a building contractor or engineer, and pay them to inspect the parts of the house they know best.
Most buyers don't want to go to that expense, however.
So he provides potential buyers with a list of various home inspectors. "They won't know this guy from Adam," Mr. Blum says. "But something is better than nothing."
Carole Glick, a Realtor in Mr. Blum's office, says a home inspection before settlement gives her extra legal protection. If a buyer says he doesn't want an inspection, he has to initial his decision on the sales contract.
"When a buyer is spending thousands of dollars on a home, after settlement the problems are theirs," Ms. Glick says. "I think they should know what they are getting into prior to settlement."
Still, she admits that she's frustrated when a potential buyer backs out of a deal after an inspector discovers a defect.
"It's upsetting because we don't get paid until we get to the settlement table," she says. "After six months of showing homes, planning financing, arranging a home inspection, we find major problems. The seller won't correct and the buyer wants out.
"It's frustrating. But it's only fair."