Health Evaluations When You’re Buying a Home

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 21, 2010

Putting an offer on a new home is exciting. There’s so much promise, and so many plans to make. But before you dream too big you need to do some basic research on the safety of your coveted cottage.

Is your prospective new home safe, inside and out? To be sure you’ll need a home inspection. But how do you find a qualified home inspector? And which dangers -- like radon, mold, improper wiring, carbon monoxide -- should you have tested? WebMD talked to the experts, from home inspectors to real estate pros, and got their tips on making sure the dwelling of your dreams is safe for you and your family -- before you buy.

Home Inspections: Get these Before You Buy

Bill Richardson, the president of the American Society for Home Inspectors, has a clear recollection of the most disastrous home he ever inspected.

A woman pregnant with her first baby had called to say she was concerned about the electrical wiring in an addition on the home she’d just purchased, and asked him to inspect it. When Richardson arrived, he found that the wiring, which had been done by a nonelectrical contractor, was done entirely wrong. There were hidden splices and several spots that had sparked, which would have started a fire had there been any insulation in the walls. The woman then hired a contractor to deal with the problem, only to discover the entire addition was framed incorrectly and had to be torn down.

Ultimately, it cost more than $30,000.

“This points out why you need to get a home inspection before you complete a home purchase and have the conclusion contingent on the inspection,” Richardson says. “It allows you to make an informed decision.”

Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors, agrees. “We recommend buyers of any home -- old or new -- get a professional home inspection from an independent source, such as a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors.” This way, if problems to turn up, they can become points of negotiation.

Home Safety Tip: Choosing a Home Inspector

To maximize your home safety, don’t put your faith in a home inspector just because you found their listing in the Yellow Pages. Surprising as it may seem, not every state regulates the home inspection industry, though more than 30 states do. For information about your state, you can visit the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) or the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI) web pages, which maintain information about licensing requirements by state.

Regardless of where you live, how should you select a home inspector?

“Most people go through their real estate agents, but they aren’t always the best source of information as far as finding a reputable home inspector,” says David Kolesari, president of the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI).

Although it’s fine to consider your Realtor’s recommendation, Kolesari recommends making sure that any home inspector you choose is involved in a national organization, such as NAHI. Membership in these organizations often requires more continuing education and more stringent certification standards than state licensing agencies. If you aren’t working with a Realtor, you might consider using the tools on the ASHI and NAHI Web sites to find a professional home inspector near you. Or, ask friends or family in your area who have recently purchased a home about their home inspection experience.

Once you have a recommendation for a certified home inspector, it’s time to gather a bit more information. Experts recommend interviewing your potential home inspector before making a final decision. Some questions you might ask include:

  • On average, how many homes do you inspect each year?
  • May I see a sample report?
  • May I contact past clients to discuss their experiences with your work?
  • Are you insured?
  • How long will the home inspection take?
  • How much will the home inspection cost?

What Does a Standard Home Inspection Include?

Professional inspectors are careful to point out that their job is not to “pass” or “fail” a home, but rather to make potential buyers aware of certain issues that may not be obvious. Some buyers may find certain problems unacceptable, and other individuals may decide to purchase a home in need of major repairs or renovations and make the necessary improvements.

A standard inspection usually covers:

  • Structure
  • Plumbing
  • Drainage
  • Heating
  • Cooling
  • Electricity

Often, identification of blockages or other problems with heating, cooling or ventilation will point out possible sources of dangerous carbon monoxide. The ASHI and NAHI both have detailed descriptions of what a home inspection will include on their web sites.

Beyond The Standard Home Inspection -- Mold, Radon, Allergens, and More

But wait, you’re thinking. What about lead? Radon? Mold? Pests? Allergens?

By national law, all homes built before 1978 must be tested for lead-based paint. And many licensed home inspectors will do additional tests, such as for mold or lead, upon request, though they usually charge an extra fee for this service.

Also, if there are certain issues you’re particularly worried about, such as mold if you have a child with severe asthma or allergies, Richardson recommends discussing this with your home inspector during a preinspection meeting.

Additionally, just because home inspectors aren’t there to look for mold or pests doesn’t mean they won’t keep an eye out for these, and other, potential issues.

“A home inspection per state and national standards is not looking for pests, mold, or environmental issues,” Kolesari tells WebMD. “But just because it’s not part of a standard doesn’t mean a home inspector isn’t going to look for these items. If an inspector feels there’s a mold issue, they may recommend a mold guy. If there seems to be a huge lead issue, they may recommend a lead expert. If they find a lot of evidence of mice, they may recommend a pest person. Home inspectors are like general practitioners -- they look over the house, and, if they feel something should be evaluated further, they’re going to let you know.”

When it comes to radon, an odorless, colorless, cancer-causing gas, here’s what you need to know.

“Mandatory property condition disclosure is required in 45 states and D.C., exceptions are Alabama, Kansas, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming,” Moloney tells WebMD. “Radon disclosure typically is included, especially in areas where it is known to be present in elevated amounts.”

Regardless of where your new home is located, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office recommend having your home tested for radon.

If the home you are purchasing has already been radon-tested, be sure to verify the results of the radon test, who conducted the test, where in the structure the testing was done and whether there have been any changes to the structure of the heating, ventilation or cooling systems since the radon test was conducted. These alterations may change the amounts of radon in a home and necessitate a new test.

If the home you’re purchasing needs a new test or has never been tested for radon, check with your state radon office for information about testing and where to find a qualified professional.

While it may all seem overwhelming, there are a variety of resources you can consult to help you make decisions about which health evaluations your home needs to make it safe for your and your family.

“Realtors help clients with all aspects of the transaction process, including resources necessary to assess health concerns,” Moloney says. “In addition, there are online resources that can advise consumers of any nearby environmental concerns.”

Other sites that might be helpful include the National Center for Healthy Housing web site and the U.S. EPA web site.