Inspecting historic properties

William Kibbel III, The Home Inspector

inspecting a ceiling
An inspector measuring for moisture at a stain. Photo: William Kibbel

Having a new or existing home inspected before purchase is almost standard practice intoday's real estate market. Aside from revealing costly defects, a pre-purchaseinspection helps educate buyers on a home's features and systems.

Buyers of older properties have many more concerns than if they werepurchasing a structure with newer components. An additional challenge is findingan inspector with the experience needed to understand the original structure andto offer insight into the changes that have occurred to the home over time.

Here are the top concerns voiced by potential purchasers of older homes:

  • Remaining service life of major systems. (e.g., old wiring, pipes, roofing materials)
  • Presence of building materials no longer in use due to health concerns.
  • Undersized electric service for today's needs.
  • High heating costs from inefficient heating systems and uninsulated spaces.
  • Damage to the structure from alterations, age, weather or insects.

Step 1: Finding a certified inspector

The first step to finding a qualified inspector is to look for a certifiedmember of the American Society of HomeInspectors. Members of ASHI are independent professional home inspectors who have met rigoroustechnical and experience requirements. To become an ASHI member,an inspector must pass two written technical exams, have performed a minimum of250 professional fee-paid home inspections, and maintained his or her candidatestatus for no less than six months.

ASHI members are required to follow the society's "Code ofEthics," and to obtain continuing education credits in order to keepcurrent with the latest in building technology, materials, and professionalskills.

A word of caution: People advertising that they "performinspections to ASHI standards" are not necessarily certifiedmembers. Be sure to check for their ASHI certified member number. Local chaptersof ASHI should have a list available of qualified inspectors in your area.

Step 2: Inspect your inspector

Once you've found some certified ASHI inspectors who work in yourgeographical area, you need to interviewcandidates for the job of inspecting your house. Experience in restoring historic properties oractive involvement with an historic site or district can be an indication of aninspector's concern and respect for old buildings.

At a minimum, you should:

  • Interview each inspector for their experience with old buildings.
  • Ask for a partial list of old properties inspected.
  • Ask for references from homeowners or real estate agents who are familiar with the inspector's work.
  • Ask for a sample of a report prepared for aprevious buyer of an old building.
  • Consider insurance coverage. Many states do not require that home inspectors be insured, but home buyers may be more comfortable hiring a firm that carries general liability and errors and omissions insurance.

Step 3: Set the terms of the inspection

The inspection report should not just be a checklist, but a narrative report detailingthe condition of each component and recommendations for repair or improvement ofany defects.

Part of the inspection should include an on-site evaluation of the propertyby you and the inspector. This will allow you to see deficienciesfirst-hand, to get recommendations for improvements and to ask about the systems of the home. Future maintenance needs and life expectancies of major systemsshould also be included.

An experienced and caring inspector should also be able to point out thepositive features of an historic house. The inspector's job is not to talk youout of buying an historic property, but to provide you with the facts you needto make an informed purchase.

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