For Buyers

The importance of a home inspection

So you’ve found a house you love. Great backyard, gleaming hardwood, and the kitchen of your dreams. But what about the furnace? The wiring? Leaks in the basement? Before you buy, have the home inspected; no matter how experienced you are as a homeowner, it’s the best way to make sure you really know what you’re getting into.

A home inspection will give you the information you need to make an informed decision. The inspector will determine the condition of the house you’re thinking about buying, and let you know if there are any problems. (And the great thing is, the inspector doesn’t care if you buy the house or not, so you can be sure he or she is being objective, even if you’re not.) If you have to make an offer before having a home inspection, make it conditional on a satisfactory inspection.

If there are any problems, you have three options:
1. Walk away.
2. Use the results to negotiate a better price.
3. Give the seller a chance to fix the problem.

What happens during a home inspection?

The inspector meets you at the home you’re thinking of buying, and takes about 3-4 hours to carefully inspect the entire house for structural, mechanical or other issues. He or she examines everything from the roof to the foundation and everything in between, including heating and air conditioning, plumbing, electrical, insulation, roof, windows and doors, walls, ceilings, attic and basement. You can accompany the inspector as he or she goes through the home – it’s a good way to get to know the home quickly, and will give you a head-start in your home care “learning curve.”

The inspector then prepares an inspection report that outlines problems (breaking them down into major repairs that need to be done right away and areas that will need attention in the future, with accurate cost estimates for each), highlights good points, and gives you an idea what kind of maintenance you’ll need to do to keep the place in good shape. Make sure you ask for a detailed report that’s written in a narrative style. Never accept a verbal report or one that’s just a checklist.

How much does it cost?

Most inspections cost between $250 and $500. Think of it this way: a few hundred bucks could save you thousands in home repairs. It’s a pretty small price to pay for significant peace of mind.

How do I find a good inspector?

Look for a reputable, qualified company that has been in business for a while, can provide references from previous customers, is fully insured and offers guaranteed inspections. Inspectors should be licensed in building-related fields such as contracting, architecture or structural engineering. Your REALTOR® can recommend a reputable, objective inspector at your request, or you can find one by asking friends or by looking in the phone book.

When you’ve fallen in love with a house, it’s hard to see any faults on your own. Make sure the decision is a good one, and get it inspected so you can be sure you stay in love – for years to come.

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How is buying a cottage different from buying a home in the city?

We’re at that time of year when people think about their summer getaways. While a cottage can provide a retreat, it can also raise issues that don’t apply within city limits.

For example, what is your water source and sanitation infrastructure? What form of heating does your dream property use? Cottages often present costs and concerns that go well beyond where to buy seasoned firewood for your wood stove.

When scouting out a cottage, it’s best to hire a real-estate representative who has experience in that part of the market and understands its unique characteristics. It’s also a good idea to find someone who has knowledge about the area where you want to buy.

In addition, I strongly recommend a professional home inspection from an individual with knowledge of recreational properties. They’ll be able to identify underlying issues with the cottage’s major systems, including heating, cooling, plumbing and electrical.

Also, consider the two big-ticket systems you don’t usually have to worry about in the city: the water source and the septic system. Ask for a water quality test. It’s also a good idea to hire a water inspector to ensure you’ll have sufficient water for your use and that the system installation meets provincial standards.

The health of a septic system is harder to determine. Your agent can ask for its service records, or find the records at the local health unit. It’s also important to remember that septic systems are not typically included in a regular home inspection. You may need a specialized inspector to ensure the system is functioning properly and that it has been installed in compliance with provincial standards.

Access and easements are other matters that your real-estate rep should look into. If you don’t have year-round access directly by a municipal road, how do you get to your property in the winter? Do you have to go through a neighbour’s property? If so, is there a formal agreement in place? Informal agreements may not be extended to you as a new owner.

Also consider beach or water access. Do you have direct access, or do you have access rights through a nearby property? How formal and secure are those rights? Ask your representative to confirm whether you will own the shoreline, or if not, whether you have the right to use it.

It’s always a good idea to ask if there’s an existing survey of the property. If there isn’t one, it may be worth the expense to have one done.

If the property is zoned “seasonal,” does the municipality provide emergency services or road plowing in the winter? Are you allowed to be there year-round? How are neighbouring properties zoned? Could new development intrude on your view? These are key questions that should be answered before you put in an offer.

You should also consider the carrying costs for the property. Even if you’re only there six months of the year, the mortgage payments, insurance and property taxes continue year-round.

The cost of utilities can be particularly tricky, because they vary according to how the property is used. Even travel time and costs should be taken into account.

Relaxing in the country can be a dream come true, but it’s important to take the proper steps before you dive into a purchase.

Joseph Richer is Registrar of the Real Estate Council of Ontario (RECO).