An illustration for a home inspection depicting a home under a microscope

Your bid just got accepted on the home you want, and suddenly there’s so much to think about—the mortgage, the homeowners insurance, your move.

As the clock ticks toward closing, your real estate agent hurries you along. In such a high-stakes rush, braking for a slo-mo walk through your future home as an inspector peers over rooftops, pokes at basement walls, and peeks into crawl spaces may seem like a luxury you can ill afford.

But of all the things you need to get done, a home inspection should be at the top of the list. It’s your one opportunity to have a trained professional diagnose the health of a home’s mechanicals, structure, plumbing, roof, and all sorts of other components.

It’s a chance to get to know the house a little better before you fully commit. And the report the inspector produces gives you leverage to negotiate a lower price, especially if costly issues turn up.

For all those reasons, we recommend that you make time to attend your home inspection, which typically takes 2 to 4 hours. You’ll see firsthand what the issues are and also get a chance to really examine the house yourself.

More on Home Inspections and Home Buying

Some inspectors are fine with your coming for the whole time, and others prefer working alone for the first couple of hours so that they can concentrate and then have buyers come for a walk-through toward the end of the inspection. Either way, plan on being there.

“A home inspection is like a medical exam,” says Bob Acuff, owner of RE/MAX Services, a real estate brokerage based in Blue Bell, Pa. “It’s an education for the buyer about something very complicated. So take the time to ask the inspector questions, study the report you get afterward.”

To make sure the precious few hours of your inspection pay off—not to mention the report itself—follow this advice from experienced home inspectors and real estate agents around the country.

What to Know Before You Go

Don’t bring your kids or pets. This is definitely an instance where you’ll want to drop off your little one at grandma’s and leave your dog at home, because both you and the inspector need to be able to focus on the inspection. “Having kids around is a distraction,” explains Raymond Hogan, a home inspector and owner of Second Look Home Inspections in Cobden, Ill. Another concern: They could get hurt or accidentally break something.

Wear the right footwear. This is no time for flip flops; wear sturdy close-toed shoes. You want to be able to follow your inspector around wherever he goes, and that may include muddy yards and damp basements. These areas could be where your inspector identifies the most troubling concerns, like water damage or a sinking foundation. 

During the Inspection

This is your chance to get an in-depth look at a place you may call home and ask all the questions you want. “There are a lot of systems in a house to go over,” says Don Norman, a senior building consultant for BPG Inspections in Alpharetta, Ga.

Do the following as you walk through the house:

Take your time. “Most people bid on a house after they’ve viewed it for 15 minutes,” Norman says. “I’ve had people walk into a house and say they thought the dining room was in a different place. The inspection is a good time to look again and make sure the home is how you remember it.”

Listen for hints of trouble. It’s not the inspector’s job to tell you whether to buy a home or bail. But during your time together, listen for clues, advises Gary Roholt, owner of A+ Inspection Specialists, based in Rice Lake, Wis.

“Listen for words and phrases like ‘major,’ ‘significant,’ ‘immediate repair,’ ‘get estimates,’ and ‘needs to be fixed now,’ ” he says.

If you hear the words “fungal material,” your inspector is talking about mold, but because of liability reasons, he may not want to come out and say the word “mold.”

Your inspector should know local building codes and will let you know, both in person and in his or her report, when something in the house could be unsafe or is outright dangerous. “If it’s a safety issue, we’re going to comment on it,” Norman says.

If the inspector finds a significant concern and you really want his opinion on whether to steer clear of the home, frame your query in a way that doesn’t put him on the spot.

For instance, you could ask him whether it would be a deal breaker for him or a family member, suggests Tina Marie Jung, a Realtor with RE/MAX Results in St. Louis, Mo., who represents buyers in half of her transactions. Jung says an inspector once told her client point blank: “I’d tell my daughter to walk away.”

Note where key controls are. Pay attention when the inspector points out important components, such as the electrical breaker panel, the furnace emergency switch, and the water main shutoff. It will save you headaches later if, say, you need to turn off the water when an internal pipe bursts.

The inspection report may include photos or even videos identifying those items, but you’re more likely to remember them if you see them for yourself, Hogan says.

Get referrals for other experts.
Some home inspectors have specialized training or certification to inspect, say, artificial stucco or log homes. But they aren’t experts in every building trade. Also, they can only point out problems they can see.

And though an inspection report may point out potential concerns with septic systems, pest infestations, radon, asbestos, water quality, and possible signs of mold, it’s not meant to outline the entire scope of those problems. For that, you’ll need experts who have specialized training in those fields.

Ask the inspector for referrals for specialists. You can also approach friends who’ve hired these professionals in the past for referrals, or check online reviews of specialists to home in on a candidate.

Your inspector finds worrisome foundation cracks? You’ll want a structural engineer or an architect to check it out more thoroughly. The house has a septic system? You’ll want a septic-system testing company to come out and make sure it’s in working order.

Looking at a home that’s 70 years or older? Consider hiring a plumber to use a “sewer cam”—a big plumbing snake fitted with a video camera—to scope out blockages in the waste pipe that connects the home to the municipal system.

“In my area, a sewer cam costs $175,” Jung says. “But if the waste line turns out to need replacement, it could be $15,000 to $20,000 to jackhammer the sidewalk to get at it.”

At the Negotiating Table

Inspectors usually complete the report within a day or two. Once you have it in hand, task your real estate agent or attorney with presenting the items of concern to the seller for further negotiations.

And if the inspector has mentioned specific issues that an expert should look at, don’t be shy about telling the seller you need time to get those evaluations and estimates.

Focus on major concerns. In your negotiations, bring up concerns that require remediation and repairs. There's often the most wiggle room for addressing problems with the major components of the home, such as the roof or HVAC, or concerns about radon or termites, Jung says.

Bringing up minor concerns, though, may antagonize the seller. “Stay away from mentioning the small nuts and bolts,” she says, “the squeaky floors, missing locks on the door, the dishwasher needing to be replaced in a year.”

Be firm on fixing safety and health threats. Sellers are more likely to negotiate on safety problems, such as a missing handrail on the stairs, especially if fixes are required for occupancy, says Jonathan Mernit, a real estate agent with Coldwell-Banker in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

And health concerns that surface from further tests—like radon in basements—are a no-brainer, he adds. If the test comes back with results over the limit, the seller will have to remediate. “The issue’s going to come up with other buyers, so they’re not going to say no,” he explains.

Be open-minded about compensation. Keep in mind that you have more options than just asking for a lower price. For instance, you can ask the seller to give you a credit at the closing for the repair costs or see whether they will hire a professional to make the necessary repairs.

Be realistic. If the seller agrees to repair or replace an item, don’t expect her to pay for anything except the most basic work necessary, Jung warns. In a roof repair, for instance, you’ll need to specify whether you want higher-quality shingles, and pay the price difference.

“The seller isn’t going to give you the Cadillac of roofs,” Jung says.

Be aware that your negotiating success may depend on whether the real estate market currently favors buyers or sellers.

“Seven or eight years ago, it was clearly a buyer’s market where they were able to negotiate potentially thousands of dollars off for minor defects,” Acuff says. “Sellers just wanted to get their house sold. That’s not the market we’re in today.”

In fact, real estate agents told us, in a seller’s market you could be competing with a buyer who doesn’t require an inspection at all. In that case, you’ll have to decide whether to back off your demands or walk away.

“Sometimes the best deal you do is the deal you don’t do,” Acuff says.

After Your Closing

If you do buy the home, use the inspection report as a road map for repairs and maintenance. And don’t be shy about contacting the inspector, even long after you’ve moved in. Norman notes that he doesn’t charge anything to discuss his report—even years after the inspection—and in his experience, most home inspectors would do the same.