How a Home Inspection Works When Your House Is in the Hot Seat

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You’ve done the work to get your home ready to sell — repainted rooms a neutral color and taken care of minor repairs, hired a great real estate agent, staged it to perfection, kept it clean for open houses and home tours — and now you’ve accepted an offer. Up next: The home inspection.

Once the buyer orders a home inspection, your home is in the hot seat. Even if you’ve gone through the house with a fine-tooth comb and listed anything and everything on the seller’s disclosure, the home inspection might reveal issues that you weren’t aware of or are worse than you thought. It can be a stressful process for both sides as buyers and sellers await the results and then negotiate repairs or other issues that were revealed during the inspection.

To help ease your mind, we’ll walk you through what a home inspection is, how home inspection works, and how to be prepared when your house is under the microscope. Remember: no home is perfect. But you can take steps to ready yourself (and your home) for the home inspection to minimize unwanted surprises.

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Much of the information that can be found about home inspections is focused on the buyers since they are the ones who order the inspection and use the information to ultimately decide whether or not to purchase a property. But as a seller, you may be just as (or more) nervous than the buyer. After all, it’s your house that’s being inspected, and it will be up to you to either make the repairs, offer credits or concessions, or refuse and potentially lose the sale.

So, to help you understand just what you’re getting into, we spoke to the former president of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and top real estate agents around the country to break down exactly what happens during a home inspection and how different outcomes can affect your home sale.

What is a home inspection?

A home inspection is an objective, professional, third-party assessment of specific aspects of a house. The home inspection will cover things like water damage, insect or pest infestation, the condition of the roof, your home’s electrical system, plumbing issues, and any structural or foundation issues. Inspections are about ensuring the safety of the home, and typically take a few hours to complete for an average-sized home.

Home inspection is often discussed as if it’s a pass/fail test with sellers and buyers alike saying that they hope the home “passes inspection.” But in reality, the process is much more nuanced, and “passing the inspection” is a relative term that depends on individual home inspectors, buyers, and sellers.

In the process of closing a home sale, the buyer typically hires a home inspector to come to the house and perform a visual observation to confirm the state of the home and identify any issues that pose a health or safety issue that the buyer should be aware of before purchasing the home.

We’ll get into the nitty gritty of what they look for a little later, but Tim Buell, the former president of the American Society of Home Inspectors, says “We look for things that are significantly deficient, unsafe, near the end of the service life, or not functioning properly.”

ASHI provides a Standard of Practice that guides inspectors during a home inspection as they address everything from the exterior to the plumbing system. Home inspectors focus on health, safety, or major mechanical issues.

Remember, because an inspection is not a pass/fail test, it will open the door for renegotiation. You’re not obligated to fix anything, but the buyer can also walk away if they’re not satisfied.

When does a home inspection happen during a home sale?

In a home sale, there can be two types of home inspections: A seller’s inspection (or a pre-listing inspection) and a buyer’s inspection. A seller’s home inspection happens before the home is listed. Some sellers choose to get their home inspected as they’re beginning to prepare their house for sale, so they can fix any potential issues beforehand and save time in the closing process. We’ll touch on the positives and negatives of a pre-inspection a little later.

A buyer’s inspection occurs after you’ve accepted a buyer’s offer but before closing the sale. After a home inspection, the buyer may be able to renegotiate their offer or request repairs if certain issues come up. In some cases, the buyer may walk away from the purchase if the home inspection reveals more issues than they’re willing to deal with.

One other important distinction: Mortgage lenders do not require a home inspection for buyers to obtain a home loan. The lender typically orders the appraisal, but requesting a home inspection is the buyer’s choice — and it’s highly recommended. Though many buyers choose to include an inspection contingency, the number often depends on the current market. According to the National Association of Realtors® November 2023 survey, 18% of buyers waived the inspection contingency, down from 22% a year earlier.

What to expect during the home inspection process

A typical home inspection takes a few hours for an average-sized house. Then the home inspection report takes about three to four days to complete. The home inspector will go through the interior and exterior of the house to record any broken, defected, or hazardous issues.

Buell emphasizes, “The key thing that we look for are safety issues.”

Who should be present during the home inspection?

Typically, the buyer and buyer’s agent are present during the home inspection, and often the seller’s agent. The home seller is allowed to stick around, but most industry experts advise against it. Sellers are often emotionally involved in the home, and it can be difficult to listen to the inspector tell the potential buyer and their agent about defects or problems.

Thomas Day, a top real estate agent who sells homes 42% faster than average in Pompano Beach, Florida, is always at the inspection when working with clients, regardless of whether they are a buyer or seller.

“If I’m working with the buyer, we can see first hand what the problem is. If I’m working with the seller, I know exactly what he’s looking at and can either rebut it or find an expert,” Day says. “Sometimes the house is crowded. Sometimes the inspector and the agent are the only ones there.”

Consider if you were the buyer. You would want to feel comfortable talking openly with the inspector you hired, and ask frank questions about the condition of the home. If, as a seller, you order a pre-listing home inspection, the inspector is working for you and you should absolutely be there.

In short, whoever arranges and schedules the home inspection should always be present while the home inspector is there.

What do home inspectors look for?

Home inspectors have a long, thorough list of things to check in the home. “An inspector’s job is to find defects, and defects they will find,” says Andy Peters, a top-selling real estate agent in Atlanta. “We have to concentrate on the health and safety concerns first, followed by major defects.”

There are a number of major things that home inspectors look for, though this is not an exhaustive list:

If the inspection turns up major flaws, like a pest or mold problem, the inspector may recommend having another expert come in to confirm their findings and give recommendations.

What home inspectors do not look for

Home inspectors are not concerned with anything cosmetic in a home. For example, if a home inspector spends time analyzing your peeling wallpaper, they’re not concerned about the appearance but rather if it’s an indicator of moisture and, potentially, mold.

Home decor, finishes, the inside of the fireplace and chimney, security systems, screens and shutters, and outbuildings other than a garage or carport are other examples of things that don’t factor into a home inspection.

How to prepare for your home inspection

A home inspector goes through an exhaustive checklist to ensure the home is safe for the next inhabitants. It’s important that, as a seller, you prepare for the inspection to avoid unnecessary blemishes on the report. But keep in mind that even the most prepared sellers can be surprised by what the inspection turns up.

Here are some things to double check before your home inspection:

  • Gather receipts of any maintenance or routine services you’ve had on your home or its components. Have them organized and ready to show to inspectors and buyers. For example: chimney sweeped, furnace serviced, filters changed in HVAC, water heater serviced, etc.
  • Clear out clutter in spaces like the basement, attic, garage, and crawl spaces. Inspectors will need to get in there to check for moisture or damage. If they can’t access it, they’ll mark it as “uninspectable,” which could prolong the process.
  • Make sure the inspector has access to the electrical panel, furnace, and water heater.
  • Lock up pets while the inspector walks through.
  • Make sure light bulbs are working and not burnt out. If light bulbs aren’t working, it could be a sign of electrical issues.
  • Run water in every sink and bath to check for clogs. Clear any minor clogs with Drano or Liquid Plumber before the inspection, as this could signify a plumbing issue in the report.
  • Replace filters in HVAC systems. Dirty air filters compromise the air quality in the home and will raise a red flag for the inspector.
  • Slope dirt away from the foundation on the exterior. This will help to avoid basement water issues, which is a top thing inspectors look for.
  • Repair any cracked windows or broken screens.
  • Proactively address any bugs with spray or professional extermination, especially carpenter ants or termites. Any sign of an infestation will alert an inspector.
  • Cap unused gas lines, chimneys, and flues to prevent debris and clogs. If caps are missing, toxic fumes could be released into the house.
  • Trim trees that are touching or close to the roof. Low-hanging branches can raise the possibility of roof damage and give rodents access to chimneys and other openings.
  • Replace missing shingles to protect the roof from leaking.
  • Reconnect or turn on utilities if the home is vacant and they’ve been turned off or disconnected.

Should you get a pre-listing inspection?

Traditionally, buyers arrange the home inspection process. However, some homeowners choose to have an inspector come in before they list the house for sale. You don’t always need to set up a pre-listing inspection, but there are a few cases where it makes sense. Here’s a quick walkthrough for when (and when not) to schedule a pre-listing inspection for your house.

When pre-listing inspections are a good idea

A pre-listing inspection could make the whole sales process faster and easier for everyone involved. According to Buell, more and more sellers have opted for a pre-listing inspection in the past five years than they used to because they can catch things early on that might create roadblocks and delays later.

Day agrees: “It’s better to know ahead of time before you put your house on the market if your home has a defect,” he says. This is especially important if you haven’t lived in the house long, inherited it, or haven’t kept up with routine maintenance and aren’t sure of any major issues.

If you choose to do a pre-inspection, Buell suggests putting the report out on the table when buyers come through. Check off things that you’ve fixed and provide receipts of service on the areas of concern. “It just gives peace of mind and confidence to the buyer that this person cares about their home, they care about the process, and they want to make sure that their house is in good shape,” Buell says. “And it speeds up the process for the buyer to buy the home.”

Day typically suggests that clients with older homes get a pre-listing inspection. “It can make the whole thing a lot less stressful. The week or two after a property goes under contract can, unfortunately, be pretty nerve-racking,” Day says.

Pre-listing inspections can take away the stressful element of surprise for the homeowner. It also helps prevent offer renegotiations, extensive buyer repair requests, and the possibility of buyers walking away while already in contract.

When pre-listing inspections are a bad idea

On the other hand, pre-listing inspections can open a can of worms, according to Carol Wolfe, a top agent who sells 85% more single-family homes than average in Los Angeles. If a seller gets a pre-inspection, they may be legally required to disclose to the buyers any problems the inspection uncovers. It depends on the disclosure laws in your state.

“Maybe something would come up that the buyer wouldn’t find in their own inspection,” says Wolfe. “Every inspector finds different things.”

For that, Buell says there’s limited regulation. “One home inspector may look at the house one way; another might look at it a different way,” he says. “Each inspector, just like a doctor, will look at your situation, and they could give you two or three different remedies. If they follow the standards appropriately, theoretically, they should come up with the same things, but that’s not always true.”

There’s no way of knowing whether the buyer’s inspector will find the same things as the seller’s inspector. So, it’s up to the homeowner and their real estate agent to decide whether or not a pre-listing inspection will affect the sale.

How home inspections affect the sale

After the home inspection, the buyer and seller can either negotiate the contract or part ways completely. What happens next is crucial to the home’s sale, so let’s take a look at a few common scenarios.

The buyer wants to negotiate repairs or credits

Depending on the terms of the contract between the buyer and seller, the buyer may either request the seller to do the necessary repairs or request a credit from the seller, so the buyer can do the repairs themselves.

The seller most likely will have to foot the bill for whatever turned up as a health or safety issue in the inspection. Wolfe adds that this is where a good real estate agent comes in handy because they can help with negotiations and make sure the seller is protected from unreasonable requests.

The seller denies the buyer’s requests

The seller can bring in their own experts to confirm the issues that the inspector found. In some situations, the home inspector could be wrong about the status of home mechanisms and components.

Day says this has happened to him before: “The buyer’s inspector thought that the electric panel was outdated and obsolete. I had my electrician go out there and look at it, and they said there was nothing wrong with it, and that the parts are still readily available and it could last another 10-20 years. We were able to squash that problem just by having our own experts.”

Depending on the contract, the seller could even walk away from a buyer’s requests, which might be the best move if there are more buyers waiting in line to make an offer.

Wolfe points out, “It puts the seller in a pretty good position to not have to negotiate if that happens. But if there are no other offers and you go into escrow, then the seller may want to think about accommodating some of the things that come up.”

The buyer walks away

If the inspection reveals issues that the buyer doesn’t want to deal with and the buyer and seller can’t reach an agreement, the seller will have to put the house back on the market. When a house goes under contract, the MLS (multiple listing service) will show that it was a pending sale or under contract.

If it comes back on the market, it’s often a red flag for buyers before they even step foot in the house. “Future buyers will question why the contract failed to close,” Day explains. “Then the seller will have to explain that they couldn’t come to terms, and it will affect the value for sure.”

Q&A: More expert tips and insights about home inspections

Set yourself up for a successful home inspection

Home inspections are meant to keep homeowners safe and are a crucial part of the home buying and selling process. Setting yourself up for success can go a long way toward smoother negotiations and possibly a better final sale price.

If you choose to get a pre-listing inspection, you can prepare yourself for repair requests from buyers. However, you may be legally required to disclose the findings of the report to buyers, which could prove to be detrimental. Once a buyer makes an offer and you accept it, they’ll bring in a home inspector, which, depending on the results, could lead to negotiations or even halt the deal completely.

One of the best ways to set yourself up for success is to find a seasoned real estate agent that you trust to walk through the process with you. In just a few minutes, HomeLight can connect you to an experienced agent with a proven track record of selling in your local market who will go above and beyond to get the most out of your home sale.

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