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Home inspections can help buyers avoid unexpected and expensive repairs

AP Real Estate Writer

MIAMI (AP) _ With their wet shoes, dirty jeans and sweat dripping down their faces, home inspectors can be called the grunts of the real estate industry.

Home inspectors climb on roofs and squeeze into attics as part of a process that lets buyers and sellers know which repairs are needed on a house for sale. Inspectors help determine a home's value and give all parties a clear picture of what needs fixing. With home safety and financial costs in mind, inspectors concentrate on the most important elements _ plumbing, air conditioning and heating, roofs, electrical systems, attics and basements, and structural issues.

Inspections are a critical piece of a real estate deal. Buyers want a detailed rundown of what needs to be repaired as they decide if the home fits their budget. Sellers interested in the growing trend of pre-listing inspections can catch any problems that could snag negotiations or expose them to liability.

And, if the home is a foreclosure, inspectors are in key in evaluating a house that may have been abandoned for months.

"People really have to get a home inspection now more than ever because they are concerned about home values, and conditions that could be wrong with a house can certainly reflect negatively on the value of a home," said Kathleen Kuhn, president of HouseMaster, a national home inspection franchise. "The last thing you want to do is move into a home and find very expensive problems."

There are several ways to find a good home inspector in your area to make the real estate transaction as painless and transparent as possible.

There is no national licensing body for inspectors, but they can be certified by a state body or any one of several home inspector organizations, including the American Society of Home Inspectors, the National Association of Home Inspectors and the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. These groups offer training and exams, and their certifications carry significant weight.

About 33 states regulate home inspectors in some way, said Brion Grant, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors. Buyers and sellers should check with the state to find out what requirements home inspectors must meet to get a license or certification, if there are any.

The Internet is a good place to start looking trade organizations have Web sites that direct consumers to inspectors in their area. Buyers and sellers can ask their real estate agent to recommend a home inspector, but they should do their own investigating as well.

Another method is using a home inspection franchise like HouseMaster, Pillar to Post, ProSight Property Inspections or AmeriSpec Home Inspection Service. While the options offered by these companies may differ, most have a network of inspectors who get training from the companies.

When vetting an inspector, ask what certifications and experience he or she has. Ask if the inspector has passed the National Home Inspector Examination, which anyone can sign up for and take for about $80, Grant said. Look for a strong base of knowledge, such as inspectors with more than five to seven years on the job, or someone who worked in construction before becoming a home inspector.

Ask for proof of the inspector carries general liability and "errors and omissions" insurance, which Kuhn describes as "kind of like malpractice insurance for a home inspector."

Also, make sure to ask how much the inspection will cost and how long it should take. The price usually is based on a home's square feet, though industry experts say a typical inspection for an average-size single family home should cost around $400 or more. The cost could move higher, depending on whether the inspector is searching for Radon, or inspecting a swimming pool or septic tank. (Inspections for townhomes and condominiums run less than $400 because they tend to be smaller).

The inspection should be done in one visit, and the client should be present. Thorough, detailed home inspections should last two to three hours at the minimum, experts say.

"When I go into a house, or onto a property, I take the position that nothing works until it proves to me it does," said Kim Douglas Moore an Orlando, Fla.-based inspector.

Once an inspector is found, he or she must have full access to the home. Doors and fences should be unlocked, and the water and electricity must be turned on. Electrical panels, attics and basements, closets and cabinets should be accessible.

Inspectors should investigate for what the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors considers "material defects" that would negatively affect the property's value and safety. When it's over, the client is given a report that describes the main systems in the home and outlines any defects or repair issues.

Good inspectors will turn on air conditioning, heating systems, lights and faucets all over the home. They'll check power outlets and garage doors, and search for mold in wet areas like bathrooms and behind refrigerators. They will investigate the working ability and longevity of the furnace, water heater, washer and dryer, and kitchen appliances such as refrigerators, ovens, dishwashers and garbage disposals.

Sharp inspectors will even see if the stove or oven has shoe that prevents it from tipping over when the door is open, says Moore, who also takes down serial numbers of appliances and water heaters during his inspections.

Quality inspectors check electrical wiring and breakers, and whether any light fixtures need replacing. They'll open and close windows, drawers and cabinets.

Outside, they study the quality and age of the roof, telling the client whether roof repairs are needed now or in a few years, or not for a long time. They'll identify cracks in the structure and check outdoor air conditioning units.

Inspections can differ by geography and local building requirements. For example, Miami inspectors check if the roof is braced properly and the wind resistance of windows, with hurricane season in mind. Meanwhile, inspectors up north must deal with things that inspectors down south don't have to worry about: snow, basements, Radon.

Moore says he does not give cost estimates on suggested repairs or maintenance, but inspector Angel Calle and the rest of Pillar to Post's franchised inspectors do give rough cost estimates. On one inspection, Calle, who takes digital photos, estimated partial roof repair at $12,000 and replacement of missing light fixtures at a total of $600.

"They can take that information and either go and renegotiate with the seller or they can say, `Look it, I'm so in love with the house and I think I got a good price, I'll just take the information and know that in my planning in the coming year I should plan for replacing the air conditioning," said Dan Steward, president of Pillar to Post.

In the past, buyers have been most interested in home inspections. Now, inspections by sellers are gaining popularity as sellers seek to eliminate negotiation snags and make their home stand out, said Nick Gromicko, founder of the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors.

Gromicko does note that buyers and sellers must do their homework to root out inspectors and real estate agents who may engage in "patty-cake inspections." These inspectors charge a relatively low price and do a more lenient, seller-friendly inspection in return for continued referrals by an agent.

"The most dangerous combination is a real estate agent who is starving and a home inspector who is starving," Gromicko said.

Gromicko also offers a tip he has never given anyone else _ except for his sister. Hire an inspector from out of town but within driving distance, offering $50 extra for their trip.

That way, you get an inspector who is not concerned about getting future referrals from any of the parties involved, Gromicko said.

Consumers have recourse if they find their inspector missed something significant or did a bad job. Consumers can complain to the state regulatory agency, if there is one, or the organization that certified the inspector, who could lose the certification if standards of practice or ethics are found to be breached. Small claims court, and even complaining to the state Attorney General, Grant said, are also options.