If you’re thinking about buying a new house, there are some things you need to know. Ironically, the first thing you need to know is that many of the people you’ll encounter during the house-shopping and house-buying process won’t tell you everything that you need to know.
For instance, your builder, or his representative, will say wonderful things about the builder’s one-year warranty. But he probably won’t tell you that regardless of the warranty, you have four years to recover damages—or, put more simply, collect money—for problems caused by the builder’s negligence or bad workmanship.
And most likely nobody will tell you that builders’ typical one-year warranties follow the guidelines of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), and that the NAHB guidelines are very builder-friendly, and not at all homeowner-friendly. For example, the NAHB guidelines will allow any number of 3-foot-wide puddles of water in your crawl space, each of them 3/4” deep. And the NAHB guidelines allow gaps in your wood floors—gaps wide enough to hold a stick or two of chewing gum, or maybe a couple dimes or quarters. It gets worse: if your house gets a big crack in it, most builders’ warranties require only that the builder fill the crack with sealant—just about any kind of sealant. The builder doesn’t have to find or fix the underlying problem that caused the crack. If you have more than one crack, the same rules apply—the builder has to fix the cracks just once, just about any way he wants to—and then you’re on your own.
As you shop for a new house, keep this in mind: you may think that the local building-code inspectors are working hard for you, making sure your new house is just right. You may take your builder’s assurance that the house “passed code” to mean that your house is free of defects. Most likely, nobody will tell you that codes inspectors’ observation time is limited to just a few minutes, and that “passing code” just means that the local codes guys rubber-stamped the house. It doesn’t mean that the house is right or anywhere close to right.
Your real estate agent may just be the most experienced, dead-honest agent in town, and may have only your best interest in mind. But there’s a good chance he or she won’t know much about house parts or how they go together. So your agent probably will recommend that you hire a home inspector who’s on her personal “good home inspector” list. She’ll tell you that the home inspector she recommends is not just good, but excellent. She won’t tell you that a real estate agent’s assessment of home-inspector talent goes something like this: a home inspector who never costs me a commission is really, really good. A home inspector who costs me even one measly commission is really, really bad. Of course, not all real estate agents think this way—just the great majority of them, and probably the one who’s representing you.
A home inspector’s assessment of a real estate agent goes something like this: he or she sends me business because I’m thorough, thoughtful, professional, objective and honest. It’s not because of all those times I washed the green slime out of the nasty whirlpool tubs and wrote in my report that the tubs were “functional.” It’s not because I told her buyers that the heat-and-air equipment “appeared adequate,” even though it was 25 years old and rusty. It’s not because I’m her willing thrall, her huckleberry and, if need be, her car washer and babysitter.
Just to add my personal (and professional) opinion, based on 20 or so years of home-inspection work: find a real estate agent who is independently wealthy. You don’t want one who has to make her next sale to keep the lights on at her own house. You want one who will be financially secure until her death, even if she never sells another house. If you’re lucky enough to find such a real estate agent, she might just refer you to a home inspector who will tell you the whole truth.
If you’re choosing a home inspector to check out a new house, you want one who knows the local building codes, and knows them well. You want a home inspector who knows which parts of the building code local builders ignore every day. Any decent local home inspector should be able to instantly list at least three code violations that show up on every new house in Middle Tennessee.
When you interview home inspectors, they’ll probably tell you that they work according to established standards. They won’t tell you that those standards are very low. Most home inspectors will tell you that they “don’t do code inspections.” Well that’s true, because only government employees are authorized to do code inspections. Even so, you shouldn’t settle for a home inspector who doesn’t back up his findings with solid sources, such as building codes and manufacturers’ specifications.
Simply put, hire a home inspector with a library, and the brains to use it. Ask for a sample new-construction report. If it doesn’t include citations from reliable sources (codes and specifications), find a better home inspector.