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Should you do your own pre-purchase inspection? Yes and no. Yes, you should inspect a house before you write an offer on it. Then you should put an inspection contingency clause in the offer, and hire a professional inspector. Why do both?
Doing your own inspection can help you get a better deal. Each cracked window or leaky toilet you can find is a negotiating point. You see, you could just make a low offer, but a seller is more likely to accept your offer if you have reasons for it being lower. In fact, you should attach a list of your concerns to the offer, as an explanation and justification for your price.
Use a list as you walk through the house. Using a home inspection checklist keeps you from forgetting things. You don't have to know the difference between 12-gauge and 14-gauge wiring, or become an expert on all the building trades, as useful as this would be. Just use what you do know, and make a note if something looks "odd" or "smells funny." Afterwards, you can have a professional inspector take a closer look.
Pay for a professional pre-purchase inspection. Unless you really know a lot, it can save your neck financially. An acquaintance of mine just discovered that the house he made an offer on was almost beyond hope, because their was so much termite and other damage. He backed out of the deal, and considering the tens of thousands of damage he hadn't planned on, I don't think he's regretting the $300 he spent on inspections.
Do a walk-through inspection yourself, by all means. Just also put that clause in the contract allowing you to have professional inspections too. Now, how do you choose the right person to do the inspections? Carefully.
Pre-Purchase Inspection - Choosing An Inspector
For specific inspections that are customary in your area, you can rely on most reputable companies. Termite inspections are the norm here in Tucson, for example, and it's cheap to get one done by a pest control company (they hope to get the job if there are termites to be eradicated). If the roof has obvious problems, you can get a roofer to take a look and give you an itemized quote.
For general pre-purchase inspections, though, it isn't as easy to hire the right person. In many states it is relatively easy to get licensed for general home inspection. What you really want, though, is not someone that read the right books and passed a test, but an inspector with real life experience. Ideally, you want a former builder or tradesman that has real experience with everything from electrical work to roofing to plumbing and more.
You want to know what is wrong, but you also want to know what it will cost to fix these problems. Not all inspectors will have that information for you. Ask if they can give you estimates for repairing any problem they find, even if only in the form of a range of the possible cost. You may be re-negotiating the price based on his findings. You could call in contractors to get quotes on big problems, but you need to at least know which are big problems, and a good inspector should be able to tell you.
To sum up: Do your own walk-through inspection, then hire a professional. Ask about their experience. Ask if they can note estimated costs next to problems found. If you want to learn more, ask if maybe you can tag along for the inspection. Do these things and you'll have a thorough pre-purchase inspection.
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