Despite Americans’ obsession over brand-new homes, our housing stock as a whole has a few theoretical gray hairs. As of 2017, the average owner-occupied house in America was 37 years old, compared to 31 years a decade before, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
Regardless of the cause, structural issues can lead to sagging roofs, angled floors, or cracks that leave your home vulnerable to pests and water damage. So when you set out to sell a house, you can bet that your buyer will want to make sure it’s structurally sound before they agree to purchase it.
While serious structural defects are rare, general inspectors frequently refer buyers and sellers to professionals who have the knowledge to conduct specialty inspections when red flags crop up. If there’s a suspected issue with the home’s foundation, frame, or other weight-bearing areas, you may have to get a structural home inspection before closing.
It sounds scary, but you can stay zen throughout the process with this basic run-through of how structural inspections work, a list of pro tips to prepare for one, and your options if you get bad news from the engineer.
Who performs a structural home inspection?
During the overall home inspection—which involves a visual assessment of your home’s basic systems including plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and roof—problems could pop up that a home inspector won’t be able to confidently assess. In these cases, the general inspector recommends the buyer call in a specialty inspector. A structural home inspection is one such area that requires this specialized expertise.
Say the general inspector noticed non-functioning locks or sticking windows and doors. Without the right background and training, it’d be hard for them to diagnose the problem as evidence of a larger structural issue, even though it might be.
However, the general inspector could suggest that the buyer get another set of expert eyes on it—in this case, the opinion of a residential structural engineer.
“However, a structural inspection is something that is done by a structural engineer, or someone who has a lot of experience looking at the different structural elements of the property.”
Oftentimes the general inspector can provide a structural engineer referral. These professionals do need to be licensed (check with your state’s engineering licensing board) to give a qualified opinion.
Are there any other cases where a buyer would request a structural home inspection?
A buyer can hire an engineer to come and take a look at the home they’re thinking about purchasing—no referral required.
“Even before hearing from the inspector, I encourage the buyers to hire a structural engineer if the house has a distinct slope as you walk it, diagonal cracks above the doorways or multiple doors that are out of alignment,” says Paul Holub, one of Houston’s top-selling agents.
These could be symptoms of foundational issues that might be costly for buyers down the road—as of 2016, the average cost of a foundation repair was between $5,000 and $6,000.
In addition, if you’re selling a home in an area that’s recently experienced a natural disaster, don’t be surprised if your prospective buyer wants to bring in a pro to make sure the building’s structure remains in good shape and free of water damage.
What can sellers expect from a structural home inspection?
During this process, a structural engineer will come to your home to investigate any structural red flags brought up in the inspection and see whether your property needs work on a skeletal or foundational level.
Specifically the engineer will visually review a property’s:
- Basement or crawl space (particularly drainage issues)
- Interior and exterior walls (including all stucco or concrete)
- Brickwork and masonry (including chimneys)
The goal of this inspection is to make sure that:
- The home was properly designed and built to securely withstand the weight of its anticipated loads.
- The integrity of the structure has been maintained so it will continue to safely perform as intended for the foreseeable future.
Upon completing the inspection, the structural engineer will offer their findings and expert opinion in the form of a post-inspection report.
What are some typical issues that a structural engineer identifies?
There are a number of things that can come up as red flags during a structural inspection, and none of them are great news. Here are some of the issues that come to light:
- A faulty or damaged foundation.
Foundation problems can be costly to fix, but a healthy foundation is essential to make sure the structure of your home is stable. Though some settling of the house is to be expected over time, too much can result in structural weakness. If drainage issues are the source of your foundation’s damage, you’ll end up (at best) with a leaky basement.
- A compromised roof.
Roofing issues are notoriously expensive and labor intensive to repair. A roof that sags either on the ends or in the center can be indicative of shifting or settling that may compromise the integrity of the structure.
- Pest damage.
A structural engineer can assess how much damage has been caused by a termite infestation, and identify what steps you’ll need to take in order to get your home back on track.
- Masonry issues.
Water damage in brickwork or masonry is no joke and can cause serious damage to any structure, especially in colder climates. A structural home inspection will let you know whether your home’s chimney or walls have been compromised by water, age, or the elements, and will give you an idea of what to do next.
When should a seller hire a structural engineer proactively?
Even though a structural home inspection usually takes place on the recommendation of a general inspector, there are some cases where a seller might want to get their own report from a structural engineer.
If you already know that your home has a structural issue that’s going to get flagged during the pre-sale inspection, it may be a good idea to have an engineer come and take a look. This is often the most direct way to figure out what repairs you’ll need to make to get your home ready to sell without spending extra cash on unnecessary fixes.
In other situations, sellers may want to obtain their own report from a structural engineer after the initial inspection, even without a referral.
In these cases, the inspector might penalize the home for a flaw that isn’t actually as problematic as it looks—like hairline cracks in the foundation, for example. A structural home inspection can give you a leg to stand on when refuting these issues, and can help to assure buyers that the home is indeed in good condition.
How to prepare for a structural home inspection
As the seller, your job is to make your home is as accessible as possible when it comes time for a structural home inspection to be completed.
That means completing as many items as possible from the following checklist:
- Clear any dirt or debris from around the foundation of the home.
- Cut back plant growth near the home.
- Repair any minor damage to siding and/or trim.
- Clean out the gutters and repair any cosmetic issues.
- Clear off brush and debris from the roof (a broom works well).
- Clear out the crawl space and/or attic for easier access.
- Repair any minor leaks in the plumbing or water heater.
The goal here is to make sure the engineer can easily access every area they’ll need and show that the house has been well-maintained.
What happens if the structural home inspection gives you news you don’t want?
So, the engineer’s report came back and it flagged some structural issues in your home. As a seller you’ve got a few options from here depending on the severity of the issues and what the buyer requests to have fixed.
With any type of inspection negotiation, you can choose to hire a professional to remedy the issue, offer a credit to the buyer at closing for the estimated cost of repairs, or reject the buyer’s request (and risk that they’ll walk away from the deal).
Most buyers aren’t going to purchase a house with serious structural defects, so if the issues are major, there’s a good chance you’ll need to pay to have it repaired, get a clear inspection, and provide the buyer with some kind of warranty.
With smaller requests, you may be able to negotiate a credit—this can be beneficial if you’re on a tight timeline to close, but it all depends on what the buyers demand and how much leverage you have.
Can’t afford to fix major structural defects? See what a cash buyer would offer for your house
Major foundation repairs can run a homeowner upward of $20,000-$30,000 in extreme cases, and not all homeowners have the upfront funds to fix the issues and get their house in marketable condition. Most states require sellers to disclose upfront any known issues about a house to buyers in writing, so once you’ve got a bad inspection report to deal with, it’s hard to shake it.
If you’re not confident your home would attract a conventional buyer in its current state, there is another option on the table: to sell your house directly to a cash buyer “as is.”
You likely won’t get fair market value for it, but you’ll get to skip the negotiations over repairs for a cut-and-dried choice: Take the cash offer, or leave it.
Curious how much a cash buyer would offer on your house? HomeLight partners with over 100 nationwide pre-approved iBuyers (instant home buyers) to connect sellers with competitive cash offers in their market. Just fill out some information about your home and location and we’ll present you with the best price ranges available from a Simple Sale buyer. Then you can make an informed decision from there.
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Concerned about the structural home inspection? Take it one step at a time
It’s natural to worry if you hear that your house could have structural flaws. But a structural home inspection is far from a kiss of death from your home sale. Foundation issues don’t mean your house is going to collapse, and even the most expensive problems aren’t the most common.
So take it one step at a time: allow a structural engineer to give it a look, review the results, and determine the best course of action with the help of your real estate agent.
For further information and advice, consult HomeLight’s guides on selling a house with foundation issues and how to tackle structural repairs. The most important thing to remember is to keep your eyes on the prize. A structural home inspection isn’t the end of the world; it’s just another hurdle to cross.
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