What to look for when buying a House

Armed with a house hunter's checklist,
you can ensure your dream house
won't turn into an expensive nightmare


Ottawa Homes - Spring 1987


Ottawa Homes MagazineLet's face it, when it comes to buying a home, few of us are qualified to make the best decision. sure, we may be quick to spot the necessary cosmetic repairs - a coat of paint, a new tile here or there - but what about the less obvious repairs that can quickly send you into a financial crisis. Who's to say that termites and carpenter ants aren't quietly gnawing away at the floor joists or roof rafters? Or that the harmless-looking crack in the foundation won't eventually set you back a few thousand dollars, or more.

The best time to discover what problems may be plaguing a house is before you buy it. That way you know exactly what you're getting (or not getting), and how much it will cost to bring your new house up to snuff. Since the owner, eager to make a sale, and the agent, equally as eager to collect the commission, are probably not the best source of unbiased information, you might want to engage the services of an "independent" home inspector. For a fee of about $300, a home inspector will assess the house from the basement to the rafters, and present you with a detailed report. If you have any qualms about the structural condition of the house you're about to buy, simply make your Offer to Purchase conditional upon a home inspection performed by an inspector of your choice.

Some years ago, Paul Wilson, a well-known Ottawa contractor, decided to get into the home inspection business. "I've seen so many people get burned buying homes," explains Wilson, the owner of Home Inspectors. "With the trend towards buying older homes in the downtown core, people are buying homes with fundamental problems that are extremely expensive to correct." But Wilson advises that it's not just older homes that should be inspected. "I've seen new homes where the corner wall of a house has been three inches higher in the rear than the front," recalls Wilson. "I recently inspected a house where the foundation had not only been poured in freezing temperatures, but it was not heated adequately for the concrete to dry properly. Needless to say, there were two-inch cracks in the foundation walls."

Wilson takes a methodical approach to a home inspection; every detail of the house provides him with clues as to the true condition of the structure. What follows is a brief, but by no means complete, summary of the highlights on Home Inspectors checklist.


"I've seen so many people get burned buying homes," explains Wilson,
the owner of Home Inspectors.


The inspection starts on the outside of the home. A sagging roof could indicate a major structural problem, something beyond the normal settling of the house. The chimney, depending on how it is constructed, may pose a fire threat. As for the building itself, Wilson checks for any wood rot or squirrels nesting in the soffits. If the house has aluminum siding, he ensures that it has been properly caulked and that sufficient space has been allowed for heat expansion. If brick has been used in the construction of the house, Wilson checks to see that it is still in good condition. He labels sandblasting a "cardinal sin". "Sandblasted brick becomes porous and deteriorates, so I prefer to see brickwork cleaned with a chemical wash." A check around the perimeter of the foundation will reveal any cracks, which can either expose a fundamental problem or be minor in nature.

Next Wilson checks the "lay of the land". Hopefully, there's natural drainage; during a January thaw who needs all that snow melting into their basement? He inspects all doors and windows, paying particular attention to their energy efficiency. A simple but important piece of advice - if you're buying an older home, make sure there are storms and screens for all the windows. Wilson examines all fences, driveways, porches, sidewalks and garages. "They're all good indicators as to how well the property has been maintained over the years", he states.

Wilson then moves to the inside of the home, starting at the bottom and working his way up. He prefers a poured concrete foundation since "it's less apt to be subject to moisture problems than a block or stone foundation." He checks for any evidence of dampness on the basement floor and inspects the perimeter of the basement for accumulated ground water. If he finds any moisture, he locates the source and recommends possible solutions. He also checks whether or not the beams, posts and floor joists need reinforcing, to prevent the floors from sagging.

Next comes the mechanical check - the heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing systems. First Wilson checks to ensure that the furnace is in working order, and that the ventilation is adequate. "This is particularly important for forced air furnaces which can produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide if not given enough fresh air for combustion, "he stresses. To determine whether the furnace is adequate for the size of the house, Wilson performs a heat distribution test. Many older homes, especially those with additions, do not have proper heating. Nor have the plenums and duct work of an older home been professionally cleaned regularly. "Duct work is a major source of house dust and heat loss," cautions Wilson.


"I've seen new homes where the corner wall of a house
has been three inches higher in the rear than the front," recalls Wilson.


When it comes to the plumbing, Wilson checks for leaks and condensation in the water lines. When he encounters galvanized plumbing, he recommends that the prospective buyer replace it with copper. "It's like arteries that are clogged up," he explains. "The water no longer gets through the pipes."

The electrical panel is next on the list. Wilson looks for worn supply lines, overloaded circuits, crumbling insulation on wiring, sparking outlets, dimming lights - all potentially nasty problems. He reminds potential home buyers that a 60-amp panel is not sufficient for today's lifestyle. "When you have dishwashers, food processors, microwaves and air conditioners going full steam, you'll need at least 100-amp service."

From the basement, Wilson moves upstairs. His major concerns are the kitchen and bathrooms - potentially the most expensive areas to repair or renovate. In the kitchen, he looks for telltale signs of moisture, which can cause severe problems if it penetrates walls that have no vapour barrier. The majority of older homes that Wilson inspects have rotting counters caused by water seepage. In the bathroom, Wilson inspects the soap dish in the bathtub area. If it's at all loose, it's usually symptomatic of a deeper problem. The walls may be rotted away behind the pretty ceramic tile. Rust marks in sink indicate a problem with the water system. Sweating or smelly toilets are both causes for concern. If the exhaust for the bathroom ventilation system goes up through the attic, that's another danger signal. According to Wilson, wet insulation and, ultimately, wood rot are the guaranteed results.

In other rooms of the house, Wilson examines the condition of the floors. What exactly is under that orange shag wall-to-wall broadloom? Are the hardwood floors tight? A springing or sagging feeling in a floor can indicate severe structural problems. Have ceramic floors been properly laid over adequate sub-flooring? Do doors bind? Here, the reason could be as simple as warpage or as serious as a structural fault. Windows are examined for wood rot along the sills, and graded as to their level of energy efficiency.

Next comes that place where very few of s dare to tread - the attic. Here Wilson first checks for moisture damage, the result of inadequate air circulation. If the insulation has been upgraded, has it been done properly? "In the past years, the were a lot of fly-by-night operators who really didn't know the proper way to install insulation," says Wilson. As well, soffit and gable vents shouldn't be blocked or obstructed by insulation, and the insulation should not be wet.



This information is provided as a service to our web site visitors.  While we attempt to ensure that all information is accurate and a fair depiction of real circumstances, it is to be used solely for information purposes. Home Inspectors® may not be held responsible for the accuracy of any of the above information. Re- production of any of this information is strictly prohibited without written permission of Home Inspectors®. 


Legal Notices

© 2003 - 2013 - Home Inspectors® All rights reserved.
Reproduction without permission is unauthorized.