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Chapter Seventeen: Inspections

Before signing on the dotted line, conduct a building inspection in order to assess the physical condition of the property, and to identify deficiencies and repairs. In most cases, your lender will require an appraisal of the property. While the appraisal might tell the lender if the property is worth the mortgage, an inspection ensures that the property is worth your investment by giving you an idea of the property's condition.

An inspection is an objective visual examination of the physical structure and mechanical systems of a property, from the foundation to the roof and all of the components in between. Building inspections should be conducted by a state licensed Property and Building Inspector. While other professionals - architects, structural engineers, municipal inspectors and general contractors - can assess property, their results are not considered an official property inspection.

Washington State inspectors are regulated by the Washington State Department of Licensing, through the Property Inspectors License Act and Administrative Rule. For more information about hiring and working with inspectors, review Inspectors in Chapter 4: Professional Services. You can also contact the Washington State Department of Licensing at http://www.dol.wa.gov/business/homeinspectors/hinews.html.

Please Note: Only residential inspectors are regulated by the State of Washington, Commercial Inspectors are not, ensure your inspector has experience inspecting the type of property you are purchasing.

Usually you hire an inspector for a property you are seriously thinking of purchasing. In addition, you should also get an inspection on properties with long-term and expensive leases, which stipulate your responsibility for maintenance and upkeep or repairs.

An inspection is important for three primary reasons:

  1. It reveals to you the condition of the space and any potential problems.
  2. This in turn gives you an idea of the additional monies you might need to bring the space up to standards.
  3. Problems discovered during the inspection could be used to negotiate a lower price.

Inspectors will look for water damage, drainage and landscape grading problems, and cracks in the ceiling and walls. Ask your inspector what specialized and optional tests they offer in addition to the standard inspection, such as radon, lead, carbon monoxide or termite/wood destroying organism (WDO) inspections. The inspector is not required to complete a WDO exam, but should tell you if one is warranted.

The inspector will provide a written inspection report addressing all systems and components of the property, usually within two business days of completing the inspection. Any aspect of the property not inspected should be itemized and noted in the report , along with an explanation. The report should detail the condition of each aspect of the property and its mechanical systems (i.e. the electrical, heating, plumbing, the septic system, etc.); clearly describe the problem; and, if known, explain why the problem occurred. The best reports will tell you how to correct the problem, as well as estimate the cost to repair.

At the conclusion of the inspection, the inspector should sit down with you for at least an hour to discuss his/her findings.

Costs

The cost of a property or building inspection varies widely, and can be influenced by the property type and size, time of year, type of inspection, and inspector's experience. The average cost of an inspection in the Seattle area can be as little as $250 for a single-family property, up to $2-4,000 or more for commercial properties, depending on size.

Because the price of an inspection is typically based on a cost per square foot, be cautious in choosing an inspector. Many newly-licensed inspectors must respond to market pressure when they first start out, and keep their prices low. Cheaper does not always mean better.

A good inspection company is usually booked 3-5 days in advance, and charges more than the minimum. Most single-family property inspections start at about $350 when inspected by qualified professionals. Prices vary more drastically for commercial and industrial spaces.

There are no special licensing requirements for commercial property inspections in Washington State. When choosing someone to inspect a commercial or industrial property, ensure that they have at least five years of experience inspecting such spaces, and have completed inspections for at least 50-100 properties. If you have used or know of a competent inspector for residential properties, ask him/her to refer someone experienced with commercial spaces.

For more information about hiring and working with inspectors, review Building Inspectors in Chapter 4: Professional Services.

Inspection Reports

At minimum, your inspection report should provide descriptive and inspection information on the following:

  • Heating and central air conditioning systems (depending on weather),
  • Plumbing and electrical systems,
  • Interior walls, ceilings, floors, windows and doors,
  • Condition of the roof, attic and visible insulation,
  • Foundation, basement and other visible structures,
  • Exterior condition, and
  • Grounds or lot information.
  • Pest Infestation - although this is not a standard inspection protocol, ask if you inspector is certified to inspect for pests as this is an important piece of information for the health and status of the property.

Insist that your inspection includes estimates of repair costs for any damaged areas and systems, in order to estimate any additional funds required to bring the property up to your standards and space requirements.

Inspectors generally issue two types of reports: checklists and narrative reports. Checklist reports highlight features and systems checked during the inspection, and include basic notations about the property's condition. Used alone, checklists are often inadequate. If your inspector uses this format, it should contain at least 400-500 inspection items. Better checklists tie you into an encyclopedic-like manual of 200 pages or more of background information and explanations of deficiencies.

Narrative reports can be extremely long -- 60-80 pages or more -- but provide substantial information on the property. Computer-generated written reports might not require the inspector to address nearly every aspect of the property like an extensive checklist does.

Examples of inspection reports

The Process

Attending the property inspection is critical. Inspections usually take between 3-4 hours, depending on the size, type and age of the property. During the inspection, follow the inspector around as much as possible (s/he may go into crawl spaces or on the roof) and ask as many questions as you can. Bring a note pad and camera, and take notes and photos. Find out as much as possible about the property.

When the inspector arrives, s/he should have a ladder, flashlight, other measuring equipment -- and experience. The number of properties the professional has inspected indicates skill level. Inspection industry standards consider 5-10 years in practice the minimum for a competent, qualified inspector.

Nearly all buildings, even new ones, have problems, and might require repairs. The goal of the inspection is to discover whether or not the property has major deficiencies (needs a new roof, foundation problems, etc.) and, if so, what it will cost you to correct them. The final report will tell you which repairs need to be completed before you move in, and which can be postponed.

The remainder of this section discusses the types of problems your inspector will be looking for when examining a space. This discussion is involved, so click here for a basic checklist to evaluate potential properties. For additional information on the inspection process, read Inspect your Inspector checklist.

Review the detailed portion of this section to better understand what your inspector is looking for in a property, and to better evaluate spaces you view during your initial visit. This will also prepare you to ask questions about a property's compatibility with your artistic and financial needs, especially if extensive repairs are warranted. Neither the following discussion nor the checklists should be substituted for a professional inspection.

  • Click here to review a glossary of inspection industry terminology.

    TIP: Check out the HGTV television show, House Detectives for additional information on how the inspection process works. You can also find information on HGTV's website.

    TIP: Inspectors can only report on visually detected problems. If the seller does not disclose any major problems with the property, you might end up paying for the undiscovered repairs yourself. A property inspection is not a guarantee or warranty.

    TIP: While an inspector might provide an estimate of the cost of repair, be wary of property inspectors who offer to repair problems found during the inspection.

    TIP: You can use the information obtained in the inspection report to negotiate a lower selling price or lease. The downside is that this could cause the seller to reject your offer. Think about the consequences: Do you say nothing and take on paying for additional repairs, or do you renegotiate?

    Art Questions for Your Inspector

    Discuss these questions, which are specific to your art practice and art space needs, with your inspector:

    • Does the property's electrical system meet your energy needs? Bring information on your equipment's energy requirements for your inspector to review.
    • Will the floor support heavy equipment (visual), installation of sprung floors (dancing), etc.?
    • Does the property's ventilation system support your needs? Can a ventilation system be easily installed or upgraded to support these needs?
    • If applicable, ask if and where certain residential features (kitchen and bath) can easily be incorporated into a commercial space.
    • Can the space be opened up and/or closed off by removing or erecting walls? Where are the load-bearing walls?
    • If you have a performance organization will the space support your patrons (adequate plumbing for bathrooms, entrance and exit support, etc.)

    Your inspector might not be able to provide specific solutions to all issues that may arise from these questions. You might need to speak with other space related professionals, such as an architect, structural engineer or trade professional (general contractor, plumber, electrician, etc.). However, your inspector can give you an idea about the capabilities and needs of your space and, most importantly, its condition.

    Structure/Exterior

    You and your inspector should walk around the outside of the property to scan the exterior, chimney, roofing, gutters, siding, driveway, retaining walls and landscaping. Your inspector will look for deterioration or recent repairs that might indicate problems, and check that rainwater and yard runoff is channeled away from the property's foundation via gutters, downspouts and splash blocks. Water-collecting around the foundation can cause flooding in the basement or structural problems. When reviewing the interior space, the inspector will also check for water seepage.

    S/he will look for signs of broken or chipped masonry (stone and concrete), big cracks, flaking and peeling paint or attempted paint cover-ups, old windows, issues with the integrity of the siding, and cracks in roof tiles and retaining walls, and will note any large trees where falling branches could damage roofing and electrical lines. In addition, tree roots can be a potential problem if they start pushing against the property's foundations; trees should be at least five feet from the building.

    Your inspector will determine the kind of siding on the property and look for rot or insect damage. When a wood structure, stucco building or brick veneer building sits right on or within eight inches of the earth, certain structural problems can develop.

    The roof is one of the most important elements of a property, and can be very expensive to replace. Ensure that your inspector pays particular attention when assessing the roof. In general, all roof lines should be relatively straight; when you stand back from the property, you should see a straight line with absolutely no dips or curves. The presence of slants and curves is a good indication that the roof is in need of repair.

    If possible, the property inspector will get on the roof to more closely inspect its condition and flashings. Flashing is the flexible material placed between the actual roof surface and anything that penetrates it, such as a pipe, chimney or -- on a flat roof, the parapet walls. Ninety percent of roof leaks are due to deteriorated flashing. The inspector should also examine the chimney, skylights, antennae and anything else connected to its surface.

    When it isn't feasible to get on the roof, the property inspector should use binoculars to gather as much information about its condition as possible. In addition, the inspector will look closely at those areas known to be susceptible to water damage, such as near the chimney, pipes, flashing, and areas around torn roofing. S/he will also check these areas carefully during the interior inspection.

    TIP: Roof problems constitute nearly 60% of all lawsuits pertaining to construction issues.

    TIP: Most people don't understand the importance of regular property maintenance to prevent rot. Don't be surprised if you need to invest some money into fixing up the property; this could be as small as painting the front porch, or as large as replacing the roof.

    Electrical

    Find out what type of circuitry is present in the property. Some wiring, such as knob and tube circuitry (used in pre-1920 buildings), might need to be completely replaced when you do an electrical upgrade. Buildings built before 1960 are typically underfed electrically, and might not meet your needs; this is especially true if you work with high-energy use equipment such as welding machines.

    Investigate the cost of upgrading the electrical service and wiring. By law, inspectors must inform you if a property has solid aluminum branch circuitry. This type of wiring must completely replaced for any type of property.

    Pay special attention to the use of extension cords and other outlet expansion methods. This usually is an indication of an inadequate number of outlets and circuits in the space. Check that the fuses, circuit breaker, wiring and receptacles can support your needs, as well as how many amps and the size of electric service to the building. The inspector will look for burned wiring, overused circuits, improper wiring connections, improperly installed wiring and other components of the electrical system.

    Mechanical Systems

    The inspector will look for adequate heat and/or air conditioning. Ask them to check the age and life expectancy of all systems such as water heater and air conditioning units, so that you will know if and when replacements will be due. Furnaces usually have a life expectancy of about 12-20 years, while air conditioning systems last for 10-12 years.

    In addition to checking the systems, the inspector will look for buried oil tanks, asbestos and other environmental concerns. Most buildings built before 1978 will probably have lead paint and asbestos somewhere on the premises. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends leaving them alone if they are contained and in good shape, as they will not pose a considerable threat if in this condition.

    If, however, the lead paint begins to peel, the asbestos insulation is deteriorated pipe-wrap (which looks like gray cardboard or plaster wrapped up in old cotton cloth), or you plan a major renovation, you will need to hire experienced professionals who can work with and handle these substances safely and properly. For more information about lead-related illnesses, visit the Washington State Department of Public Health and U.S. Environment Protection Agency's (EPA) Websites. Information about asbestos can also be obtained from these sources.

    In addition, the Alliance for Healthy Homes' Website features extensive information and resources on both lead and asbestos, as well as other space-related health issues.

    Other environmental and health issues the inspector will look for include:

    • Copper piping installed before 1990 -- specifically the lead content in the sweat joints.
    • Supply piping installed before 1975, which was typically galvanized and may have calcium or magnesium (which is harmful to your health).
    • Water service lines installed before 1987, which might contain lead pipes. See the EPA's Website for information on dealing with lead pipes and lead in household water.

    Heating and Air Conditioning

    The inspector will check for satisfactory distribution of heat and conditioned air. At least one source of heat per room (i.e. vent, radiator, etc.) is required; the heat source must be permanent to the room, and if it is forced air passing through an attic or crawlspace, the pipes should be insulated. S/he will also check that heat and air conditioning distribution piping or ductwork is in good condition (not clogged, no holes, etc.).

    A 15-to-20-year-old furnace may need to be replaced due to its age. Flickering flames, a series of flames in the furnace or rust problems indicate that it's time for a new furnace. This might also be a sign of a damaged heat exchanger, which is unsafe. S/he will also check for leaky boilers, which are normally a sign that replacement of the unit is warranted.

    Proper heat distribution is important. To get an idea if the boiler or furnace can provide sufficient heat, it should be 50-100 BTU per square feet of space. The size is found usually inside the front panel of the equipment. If the system has less than 40 BTUs per square foot, you will have a heating problem in the winter.

    If the building has an abandoned oil tank - above or below ground - it might need to be removed. Vapors from the tank are flammable.

    The central air conditioning system should be tested after a 24-hour period during which the weather has been at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This will ensure that it is cooling properly. Unfortunately, if you are reviewing a property in the winter, the inspector probably won't be able to adequately check the A/C. Make sure you check the unit when summer arrives. Ice build-up in the unit is typically an indication that the unit needs refrigerant, and that you must service the system.

    Plumbing

    The inspector will check to see what type of pipes are in the property, and make sure that all faucets get water and that drains work properly. Water pressure should also be checked. One way to evaluate the water pressure and drainage system is to turn on all faucets and flush the toilets; this way you can see if the water trickles out, the drains are backed-up or the toilet bowl has a hard time flushing.

    Pipes made of lead or galvanized steel may need to be replaced. Your inspector should check the water for excessive levels of lead and other contaminants. For more information about clean water issues in interior spaces, visit theU.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Website, as well as the resource section of the Alliance for Healthy Homes.

    The inspector will look at the tiles and caulking around the shower and tub to if see they are firm, or if they have been or need to be repaired. S/he will also check for moisture problems in the walls and floors near any water sources on the property, near the plumbing and near windows, and ask about any past leak and mold problems.

    While the inspector will normally use a moisture meter for this, signs of staining are also a reliable indicator that moisture problems exist. Touching stains to see if they are still wet is also helpful. If you see stains on the floor, wall or ceiling, inquire about them immediately

    Basement and Foundation

    Look for signs of water stains or other damage, and ask If the basement has had a history of flooding. Water seepage and dampness indicates problems with the foundation, and might lead to mold. The basement floor should have a drain; check to make sure it works.

    Mold can cause allergic reactions, rashes and other serious health effects if not properly eliminated. For more information about mold issues in interior spaces, visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Website, and the resource section of the Alliance for Healthy Homes' Website.

    Check the basement crawl space to assess the condition of the foundation walls and the structure's framing. If the inspector finds problems, an engineering analysis will be required; these can cost between $500-$1,000 for residential spaces, and up to $5,000-10,000 or more for a commercial property, depending on the property's size. You are responsible for covering this fee.

    An engineering analysis is usually required if foundation cracks, fire or termite damage, or another specific issue requires closer examination. It might take 1-2 weeks to receive the results. If you need an engineering analysis, hire a structural engineer designated by the State of Illinois as a Professional Engineer or P.E. See Chapter 4: Professional Services for more information about structural engineers.

    Kitchen

    For residential spaces, the inspector will check how old the appliances are, and make sure they function properly; most appliances have a 12-year life expectancy. S/he'll look under sinks and around dishwashers and refrigerators for flooring issues caused by water seepage. In addition, s/he'll check for leaky pipes and dampness, and for adequate electrical outlets above countertops to accommodate smaller kitchen appliances.

    If you wish to convert a commercial space to live/work use, have the inspector identify any potential problems with the area where you will install the kitchen.

    All outlets by wet areas must be GFCI-protected. GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, and is a safety device designed to protect you from harmful or deadly electrical charges.

    Interior

    Pay attention to the condition of the property's interior. Crooked walls and floors might indicate recent settling, while clouded, double-pane windows might call for replacement.

    Regarding residential spaces, ask your inspector to check the type and condition of the flooring beneath any carpeting. In properties with accessible, floored attics, the inspector will look for roof leakage. Inquire about the type and level of insulation, as well as utility bills. Ask about the use of asbestos and urea formaldehyde foam insulation, which can be hazardous to your health, as well as lead paint on the walls and windows. Make sure your inspector checks for all of these substances in the space.

    If children will live or work on the premises on a regular basis, find out if the property features any lead paint; lead can cause lead poisoning. Properties built before 1978 typically have lead paint, so be certain that your inspector looks both for lead paint and lead pipes. Discuss this with the inspector before the inspection. Ask the owner if s/he knows if the property has lead paint, or if it has been removed.

    Take special precautions when remodeling spaces that have lead paint and asbestos insulation. These substances are typically not a problem when contained properly, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends leaving them alone if they are in this condition. If, however, the lead paint begins to peel, the asbestos insulation becomes frayed and deteriorated, or you plan a major renovation, you will need to hire experienced professionals who work with and handle these substances safely and properly.

    For more information about lead-related illnesses, visit the Washington State Department of Public Health Website, as well as the U.S. Environment Protection Agency's (EPA) Website. In addition, the Alliance for Healthy Homes' Website has extensive information and resources on both lead and asbestos, as well as other space-related health issues.

    Ventilation is important. In residential spaces, improper ventilation in the attic can lead to roof deterioration. Commercial spaces might have specialized ventilation systems that need to be checked by a ventilation expert. For more information on ventilation issues for commercial spaces, review Chapter 22: Safe and Healthy Spaces.

    As with the exterior of the property, ensure that the interior is checked for signs of insect damage and infestation, and rodent problems.

    Inspection Results

    After you have examined the space and received your inspection report, you might decide:

    • To withdraw your offer, as there are too many problems;
    • To keep the space, and either have the seller agree to fix the problems or lower your offer to fix the property yourself;
    • You still have questions and concerns, and have your inspector or other professional further investigate the space.

    If you choose to pursue the property, read Chapter 15: Property Taxes. If you need to renovate: visit Chapter 13: Important Information from the City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development

    Chapter 20: Rehabbing Your Space and Chapter 22: Safe and Healthy Spaces may assist you.
    If you plan to keep looking, read Chapter 14: Seattle's Neighborhoods to get ideas on where to go in the City.

    TIP: Obtain an inspection report from the inspector. The report should indicate that all areas of the property have been checked, and outline in detail the condition of each area of the property and its mechanical systems. A good report will provide an estimate for repairs.

    Resources

    Association of Construction Inspectors
    Professional organization of inspectors that specialize in construction.

    National Association of Certified Home Inspectors (NACHI)
    A national searchable database of certified home inspectors and a photo gallery of various sections of the house that need to be reviewed during the inspection.

    The American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI)
    Offers information about the inspection to homebuyers and a database of area inspectors associated with ASHI.



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