What you need to know: Home inspections

With a home inspection, a home buyer can

With a home inspection, a home buyer can find out what owning the house will really mean. (Credit: iStock)

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If buying a home feels like falling for Prince (or Princess) Charming, the home inspection can feel like meeting the ugly stepsisters. You love the house, you can imagine living happily ever after there, but now it's time to deal with the moldy tiles and squeaky hinges -- the unpleasant in-laws that come with this fairy tale marriage.

"Most homeowners don't know what to look for," says home inspector Hank Jaworowski as he opens the circuit box and shines his flashlight on the wires on a recent tour of a Long Island property. Jaworowski co-owns Precision Home Inspection of America with brother Lee. The Long Island-based company services Nassau and Suffolk counties and New York City.

The Jaworowskis and other home inspectors offer the following advice on what potential problems to look for when purchasing a home.

PROBLEM AREAS

Decks

Deck rails should be spaced no more than 4 inches apart to prevent children from getting their heads stuck. The deck should be fastened to the structure of the house through leg bolts. "Nails will eventually give way," says Lee Jaworowski. Review the house's Certificates of Occupancy to be sure the deck is included. Some owners add a deck without thinking to get permission from the town first. "If it doesn't have a permit, you might not be able to buy the house," says Tommy Adamescu, owner of Farmingdale-based HomeSpector Inc. And if the deck isn't built according to code, "it can be a major safety hazard and could potentially collapse," he adds.

Skylights

"There are two types of skylights: those that leak, and those that will leak," says Hank Jaworowski. Skylights should have a step-flashing unit and an ice membrane to prevent moisture from entering. If you see fog on the skylight, it hasn't been properly installed with these features.

Engineered floors

Engineered flooring is a less expensive way to achieve the look of hardwood flooring, but it can become a problem if installed in the wrong area of the house, inspectors say. Engineered wood installed in a high-moisture area, such as the kitchen or bathroom, can buckle and make the floor uneven. Linoleum flooring and ceramic tiles are still the best bet for bathrooms and kitchens, Hank Jaworowski says.

Latticework

Garden latticework should be properly fastened and single-paneled with the spaces in the lattice design unobstructed; otherwise, "it becomes a sail," catching the wind rather than letting it blow through, says Lee Jaworowski.

Granite countertops

Granite countertops are beautiful and durable, but there are different qualities of granite and even man-made materials that look like granite. Ask what grade of granite the countertop is and if there is a warranty in case you later find a crack in it. Also, try lifting up the countertop to make sure it is secured.

Flat roofs

It's hard to avoid water damage with a flat roof, which is inherently "prone to leaks," says Adamescu. In the winter, when snow falls, it stays there. Hank Jaworowski notes that it is also "very susceptible to being gouged" by tree limbs.

Outlets

Outlets in moisture-prone areas such as kitchens, bathrooms, crawl spaces, unfinished basements, outdoors and in the garage should be installed with a GFCI, or a ground fault circuit interrupter, to protect against electrocution. "Very frequently we find that pools are not protected with ground fault devices," says Thomas D'Agostino Jr., president of Long Island Home Inspection Associates in Ronkonkoma. Use a GFCI outlet tester to check outlets in such areas.

Stucco

"Cement stucco is always an issue," says Hank Jaworowski. It is difficult to repair it yourself or find someone who can repair it for you. Water can easily get into cracks in stucco and separate part of it from the exterior wall, "like a fish scale," says Lee Jaworowski.

Central AC units

Rather than judging with your eyes, make sure air-conditioners are well insulated by feeling around the edges of the unit for air flow. The outdoor unit should be clean and level, with the insulation around the Freon line sealed.

Tiling

Check all tiling near water faucets and fixtures in the bathroom and kitchen to ensure it is sealed. "In nine out of 10 houses, it's not," says Hank Jaworowski.

Leaks

"Water is a homeowner's worst enemy," says Lee Jaworowski. Be mindful of the quality of the wall and ceiling surfaces. If you notice patches of discoloration or newer paint, there probably has been water damage. "These are indications of chronic water entry from poor roof drainage systems, poorly installed windows and poorly installed roofing," says D'Agostino.

WHAT TO DO

1. CHOOSE YOUR INSPECTOR

Choose an inspector with several years of experience. Make sure he or she is part of the American Society of Home Inspectors and is an ACI (or ASHI-certified inspector), says Tommy Adamescu of HomeSpector Inc. Also comparable: a certified master inspector or membership in the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. Some of these associations have searchable directories.

2. ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES

When you hire an inspector, attend the inspection and don't leave the inspector's side. The inspector will provide a running commentary of valuable insight on the place you may soon call yours.

3. BE THOROUGH

The inspector should turn on all appliances to make sure they work and all faucets to check for leaks. Run the shower for at least 10 minutes; if sediment builds up in the tub, the shower is rarely used. Give the house a full checkup. Two of the most expensive and important parts of the house -- the roof and the foundation -- are best viewed from the attic and the basement.

4. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

When you're done inspecting the inside of the house, inspect what's outside, too. Al Triolo of 1-800 Engineer, based in Commack, advises against homes near noisy main roads, high-tension electrical wires and sumps. There are more than 2,100 neighborhood sumps, or recharge basins, on Long Island to collect storm runoff. "Problems can occur if water remains in the sumps for several weeks," says Triolo, explaining that such conditions can turn a backyard into a mosquito playground.

5. STEER CLEAR

There is no doubt that older houses come with more charm, but they also can come with risk for serious illness. "Any house built in the 1920s, '30s or '40s that has steam heat will have asbestos," says Hank Jaworowski, unless the homeowner has invested in its removal. Asbestos harbors harmful carcinogens and, over time, could break off in tiny fibers that float in the air, enter your lungs and never leave. If a house has asbestos, you can either "encapsulate" it (cover pipes to prevent asbestos from flaking), or remove it, and either can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Though home inspectors by law cannot advise you against purchasing a house, he says if he had to pick a deal-breaker, "asbestos would be it."

SERVICES OFFERED BY MOST HOME INSPECTORS

Full inspection: $300-$1,500 (usually includes termite inspection)

4-Point Inspection (just looking at heat, electric, structure and roof): $200

Final walk-through inspection: $175-$250

Home energy inspection: $125

Radon inspection: $50-$75

Lead inspection: $25 per item tested

Wind certification: $225-$350

Air quality inspection: $175-$300

Termite inspection: $125-$225

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