Taking a closer look Inspectors: By examining a house's structure and systems, home inspectors try to offer buyers a 'best guess' about a house's condition.

January 25, 1998|By Bob Graham | Bob Graham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Towanda Mackall is a first-time homebuyer and she's a little bit nervous.

The home inspector has arrived and, although she knows the property is perfect for her, she's concerned about what dangers lurk within the 50-year-old, three-bedroom rowhouse she is buying for $65,900 in Belair-Edison.

Enter Chris Snyder, the inspector, on this cold overcast January afternoon. He begins by telling Mackall, a laboratory technician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, what he'll be looking for, what it all means and what it doesn't mean.

It's the start of a three-hour journey that will take Snyder, Mackall and her real estate agent through the house -- from its slate roof to its numerous electrical outlets.

"My goal is to give the buyer the information they need to make a truly informed decision about what they are buying," said Snyder, president of Seneca Home Inspection Inc.

Snyder offers a monologue of what he sees.

They begin in the front yard, and he explains which way the sun will hit the house and when and where to plant a garden and how the brick walls "are super strong."

He moves along the front walk. "It looks like you have fresh sidewalk pour," he says.

He grabs a ladder from his station wagon and climbs on a neighbor's roof, explaining that he wants to check the slate on her house from an asphalt roof next door because a slate roof cannot be stepped on.

He spends 12 minutes on the roof, looking over the house, checking on the fitness of the brick chimney, counting the number of homes whose slate roofs have been replaced.

"It looks pretty good, but you can see how some of these roofs have been replaced with asphalt," he says, adding that it might be a good idea to find out how much a replacement roof might cost.

Snyder is one of the estimated 250 full-time home inspectors in Maryland. He says the industry is frequently misunderstood and criticized for a number of reasons. Among them are the belief that a home inspection is the same as an appraisal or that it protects buyers from needing costly repairs or that they will not be responsible for problems not identified by the inspector.

In reality, a home inspection is like a snapshot.

The inspection covers "visible, readily accessible components on the day of the inspection," said Stephen Showalter, a board member of the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI) and an employee of Building Specs. Inc., a home inspection company serving the Baltimore-Washington region.

Wall coverings, furniture, boxes and storage of items along walls and in closets "makes it impossible to go and find all the problems," said Showalter, who estimates that between 20,000 and 30,000 home inspections were conducted in Maryland last year.

Based on a visual inspection of the house's structure and systems -- the roof, the heating and air conditioning systems, the electricity, piping, foundation amenities and appliances -- the home inspector offers a "best guess" about the house's condition, Showalter said.

The inspection report usually includes what might need fixing and when it might need it. The report also includes statements about things that appear to be in good condition.

The final written report of the home inspector's assessment comes with no guarantees, although some inspectors offer a refund of the fee if the inspection fails to uncover something important.

"An inspector can't always predict conditions in the future," said Michael Kuhn, technical director for HouseMaster, a national home inspection chain with more than 300 offices, including one in Westminster. "He can't use X-ray vision to see through the walls. He goes by what he can see."

Experience and skill are required to be a good house inspector, but there are no requirements to conduct inspections. "Anyone can put an ad in the Yellow Pages or an ad in the paper and do it," Kuhn said.

The inspection moves to the back of the house.

There, Snyder checks the air conditioning unit, the fencing, the gate latch, the windows and the brick.

He spends several minutes on the air conditioner unit, noting that some of the combs in the rear appear to have been damaged and should be repaired to improve the efficiency of the unit.

Down to the basement.

Snyder inspects the furnace and its pilot light. He discovers that the center burning cell is putting off a white flame, which means that carbon monoxide is leaking. He suggests that the owner contact a repairman and that Mackall install a carbon monoxide detector if she moves in, reminding her to place it upstairs so it doesn't go off for minimal leaking.

Snyder uses a small tester to check the electrical outlets in the basement. He finds they have reversed polarity, meaning the hot wire is on the wrong side of the outlets. They are also two-pronged outlets, leaving no ground for three-pronged plugs. If Mackall wants to use computer equipment in the house, she may have to have the outlets updated, Snyder says.

A call to regulate

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