If you're buying a home, the last thing you want is an expensive surprise.
Unfortunately, most of the things that can go wrong with a house tend to pack a powerful punch in the wallet.
If you have to replace your hot water heater, expect to spend upward of $600. If you have to replace your furnace or central air conditioner, you could spend twice that or more. Even seemingly small problems, such as broken pipes, badly wired outlets or cracked paint, can cause a slow leak in your financial stability.
And because homebuyers typically spend just about every penny they have buying the house, and often fail to plan for even ordinary expenses associated with owning and maintaining a home, these kinds of surprises can wreak havoc on a budget.
That is why it is so important for homebuyers to have a professional home inspector check the house from top to bottom, including all mechanical systems.
But having a home inspector find things that are wrong with your house will not matter if you do not include a home-inspection contingency as part of your contract.
An inspection contingency is an addendum to a contract that gives buyers the right to have a professional house inspector or other third party examine the property within a certain period of time after the agreement to purchase has been signed.
The point of the contingency is to protect you from purchasing a home that may have serious structural problems or material defects that are not plainly visible. If you have a home-inspection contingency in your contract and find something terribly wrong with the home, you can walk away from the deal.
For sellers, home-inspection contingencies are a stress-inducing ("Will my house pass inspection?") but necessary part of selling a home.
A proper home inspection takes two to four hours, depending on the size of the property and the complexity of any issues that are uncovered.
In addition to a regular home inspection, you might choose to add other inspections to the contingency, including:
Radon. An odorless substance that rises from the ground, radon has been shown to harm the development and growth of children. You can get rid of radon by opening a basement window or introducing a ventilation system that allows fresh air to circulate, but you need to know whether it is there.
Asbestos. Asbestos is a hazardous material that was frequently used as a fire retardant and as pipe insulation. But asbestos can cause lung cancer, and it is expensive and difficult to remove.
Lead. Sellers are required to disclose to buyers if they have lead paint in their house. There are inexpensive swipe tests that you can do to see if there is lead in the paint or water. Or you can hire a lead inspector to provide a full report.
Toxic substances. If the property is near a gas station, dry cleaner, dump or other waste disposal facility, you may wish to have a specialist take soil samples to determine whether your property is contaminated by toxic substances. You can also send a sample of the water to a laboratory.
Structural engineer. If the property has a crack in the foundation wider than an eighth of an inch, or if the doorways are misaligned, you may wish to hire a structural engineer to determine if the property has severe, moderate or normal structural issues. This type of inspection is increasingly common in places such as earthquake-prone Southern California, although you may wish to hire an inspector if you are uneasy about the structural integrity of the home.
Pests. Worried about uninvited guests? You can hire an inspector who specializes in pests, including termites, mice, rats, roaches, carpenter ants, chipmunks and other things you'd rather not have in your living space.
Your contingency must be in writing, and it must allow you to cancel your deal and get your good-faith deposit back if the property fails to pass inspection.
Don't think that your contingency gives you a free pass to cancel the deal for any reason. All houses -- even new ones -- have some minor issues. Canceling the deal without allowing the seller to attempt to fix the problem (or reduce the purchase price) is not a very nice thing to do.
Contact Ilyce Glink through her Web site, www.thinkglink.com, by mail at Real Estate Matters Syndicate, P.O. Box 366, Glencoe, Ill. 60022 or calling her radio show at 800-972-8255 from 11 a.m. to noon Sundays.