Inspecting the physical condition of a house is an important part of the home-buying process and should be included in your purchase contract as a condition of closing the sale. One or more professional inspectors should look for defects or malfunctions in the building's structure, such as the roof, plumbing, or foundation, and detect pest infestations or dry rot and similar damage. Even if the seller provides you an inspection report, it's best not to rely on this alone -- the seller may have chosen an inspector who's not known for rooting out problems.
Ask for disclosures before you get an inspection. In some states, such as Missouri, sellers are required to disclose considerable information about the condition of the house itself and potential hazards to the property. But this is just the beginning -- not all sellers know about problems with the house or honestly disclose them. (Sometimes they've lived with a problem for so long that they literally forget it's there!)
Most buyers get professional inspections only after they're in contract to buy the property. The deal is commonly made contingent on the buyers' approving the results of one or more inspections. The buyer arranges and schedules the inspections.
Before paying for a professional inspection, you can conduct your own informal inspection. The best time to do this is before you make an offer, so that you can save yourself the trouble should you find serious problems.
Another, less commonly used possibility is to ask the seller to let you do a "preinspection" before submitting your offer. Why, given the cost of these inspections, would you do this? Because if you're in a situation where you're competing against other buyers (which can happen in any market, if a house is particularly desirable), this can help you set your offer apart. You'd most likely be able to submit an offer without an inspection contingency, thus reassuring the seller that your offer price is firm, not something you're likely to whittle away at after you're in contract, based on whatever a later inspection reveals. (On the other hand, you risk coming in with an offer price that's lower than others', having taken the house's problems -- which only you know about at that point -- into account.) Some sellers will refuse to allow preinspections in any case.
Hire a general contractor or home inspector to inspect all major house systems, from top to bottom, including the roof, plumbing, electrical and heating systems, foundation, and drainage. This will take two or three hours and cost you from $200 to $500, depending on the location, size, age, and type of home. Accompany the inspector during the examination, so that you can learn more about the maintenance and preservation of the house, ask questions, and get a real sense of which problems are serious and which are relatively minor.
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