Before people plunk down a small fortune on a new home, Reggie Marston recommends they give it a quick, eight-point visual exam.
He should know. Marston, president of the Northern Virginia chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors, has performed nearly 7,000 inspections. At seminars, the Springfield home inspector exhorts potential home buyers to play Sherlock Holmes for 30 minutes -- and possibly avoid expensive future repairs. A thorough professional inspection can come later. This check is for well before you consider a bid. Focus on these big-ticket issues:
· Roof and gutters . If the roof is pitched and allows a good ground-level view, scan the asphalt roofing shingles. Marston looks for missing, mismatched, curling or worn shingles. Rain gutters should be properly sloped toward downspouts and be free of leaves and other debris. Downspouts should be connected and pointed away from the home.
· Land grading. Upon arrival at a site, Germantown inspector Bob Murphy of Camelot Home Inspections Inc. first makes sure the house is "slightly elevated above its immediate surroundings." Rain should drain away from the house.
· Cracks and sags. All houses settle over time. Outside, buyers should check for cracks or patches along the foundation -- the concrete strip between the soil and the home's vinyl or brick façade. "Hairline cracks are okay and pretty common," Murphy said. "But if I see large or offset cracks -- one side of the concrete does not match up with other side, suggesting movement -- I'd get a little worried."
Inside, look for settlement or structural problems that reveal themselves as large wall cracks or floors that dip and rise. In the basement, look for visible wall patches, which may indicate past problems with water infiltration.
· Attic. If the attic has a ladder, grab a flashlight and scan the underside of the roof. "Look for any kind of leakage, such as dark stains around the vents and pipes that go through the roof," Marston said. Check for broken roof rafters and wooden trusses.
Heating/air conditioning and water pipes. Visually check the heating and cooling system and water heater for age and condition. If accessible, examine the air filter and furnace inspection records for proper maintenance. "Furnaces are usually good for around 20 years, air-conditioning units for 10 to 15," Marston said.
While in the basement, look for exposed plumbing. Copper pipes are good, Marston said. Older homes may have shiny galvanized pipes, which are prone to internal rusting and narrowing, resulting in weak water pressure. Lead pipes -- recognized by their dull metal appearance -- contaminate drinking water. Houses built from about 1975 to 1995 may have gray or tan plastic pipes made of polybutylene. "They have a history of degradation and suddenly springing leaks," he said.
· Bathrooms. Turn on faucets, look under sinks for leaks and make sure the bathtub drains properly. On the floor below the bathtub, check the ceiling drywall for water damage or obvious repairs.
· Electrical. Novices should not fiddle with electrical wiring, Marston said, but can check for obviously jury-rigged electrical work that may pose a fire hazard.
· General upkeep. Upkeep of mundane items can indicate a home's overall condition. Check outside wood trim for wood rot, shower stalls for mildew, and decks and driveways for proper sealing.