John_newJohn Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, answers questions on getting a quality home inspection.

To submit a question to John, email editorial@safebee.com with "Ask John" in the subject line.

Dear John: I’m considering hiring a home inspection company that uses digital cameras to inspect chimneys and sewer pipes. Is this technology useful?

I firmly believe that the more information buyers have, the smarter decisions they’ll make. So yes, snaking a camera into the sewer pipes or into the chimney can get information that the inspector won’t be able to see with his naked eye. (Photo: UL)

An inspector can flush toilets and run water through the pipes to test how well they’re working, but what he can’t tell by this test is how the pipes will be five or ten years from now. That’s the type of information you might get with the camera. You can see if the pipes are cracked, restricted in some way, or if there are tree roots wrapping around the pipes, which can potentially cause problems down the road. It may not be a deal breaker, but it gives you information.

The same is true with the chimney: The camera can see loose mortar, broken bricks or cracks. If digital images were offered, I’d definitely take it, especially on an older home.

Dear John: How do I know if the home inspector did a thorough job?

The first thing to do is get a reputable home inspector. Often realtors recommend them, but there’s a bit of a conflict of interest because the realtor wants the deal to go smoothly. On the other hand, they do usually know who is best in town. Ideally, get a recommendation but double check it with online community resources, YELP, or an Angie’s List type of referral. And invest in someone with experience, not the least expensive inspector. It could save you a boatload of money in repairs down the road.

Next, go around with the inspector. It may seem boring and time consuming, but it allows you to see for yourself what the issues are, especially if there are problems that might become a bargaining tool. But expect a long day. An inspection for an average home should last about four hours. A two-hour inspection is a surface inspection, so if that’s how long your inspector took, you might want to get a second opinion.

Dear John: I’m buying a brand new home. Do I need to get it inspected?

A common mistake if you’re buying a new home or one that’s only a couple of years old is to skip the inspection, assuming everything is new and in tip top shape. Contractors are not infallible. The inspector should be looking to make sure everything is up to code and no short cuts or cost-cutting measures were taken, like a furnace that is not big enough for the home.

Dear John: I’m buying an old home. What issues in particular should I look out for?

For an older home, you want to be especially aware of electrical and plumbing issues. An inspector might want to look inside all of the outlet boxes, and look for any signs of leaks or past leaks. Keep your eye out for do-it-yourself repairs. These may not be up to code. The owner may have used inexpensive materials or may have done the job incorrectly.


Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist for the New York Times, national consumer magazines and websites.