THE BLOG
06/13/2014 02:44 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2014

Buying a House? A Hard Look at Home Inspections

You've found the home of your dreams. Your offer has been accepted. Now it's time to hire a home inspector. Where do you find one? Naturally, the first person you ask is your real estate agent, but is that really the best source?

Now, we are neither home inspectors nor real estate agents, but we see a lot of real estate deals. We are the ones that come in after an inspector finds a mold or moisture problem to diagnose and solve it.

One of the problems we consistently see is that the buyer is under the misconception that the home inspector is working exclusively for them. While it's true that the homebuyer is paying the freight, there are other interests that sometimes conflict and, worse, eclipse the best interest of the buyer.

The home inspection company gets the bulk of its business from the agent, on a repeat basis. Many, many, customers, and they don't have to do any marketing once that relationship is established. The real estate agent is the golden goose.

So, in reality, the home inspector has two customers, only one of which is paying for their services. You could argue that the home inspector actually has one client and one customer. Who does one look out for more, a repeat client or a one-time customer?

True, the home inspector has an obligation to the home purchaser to uncover any obvious defects, but the second unspoken obligation is to the agent who is referring business to them week after week, month after month. The fact is that the Agent is potentially an inch away from earning a big commission check at the end of this process, and really just has one requirement of the home inspector: "Don't blow the deal!"

At 1-800-GOT-MOLD?, we see three very common building defects all the time, all of which can "blow the deal," and all of which, not surprisingly, are often "missed" during traditional home inspections. Now, I'm not saying that every home inspector is a puppet and that every agent is looking to put someone into a house, even if it has problems, just to earn a commission and make their kid's tuition payment, but we all know that money does funny things to people and human nature is something we can't ignore. So what is one to do?

If you're a homebuyer, ask yourself these three questions.

1. Does the home have a crawlspace?

Crawlspaces are so problematic that my friends within the building science community refer to them as a building defect because they are so naturally prone to mold growth unless they are re-engineered to perform correctly. In other words, at my company, 1-800-GOT-MOLD?, we have never seen a single crawlspace in the last 12 years that was originally built in such a way that mold is not an inevitable reality, given enough time. It's such a common problem in our business that I wrote an article on the subject. If the home you're buying has a crawlspace you might want to read it.

2. Does the house have a finished basement?

Finished basements are another very common problem in our area. In addition to the obvious issues that come from poor drainage, leaks, and floods, basements get very humid during the summer months in the Northeast. There's also the issue of carpet on a basement slab, which is all too common, and which often creates an environment conducive to mold growth, dust mites and other uninvited guests. Carpet in basements is bad, and it's not just my opinion. Even the CDC says so.

I wrote an article discussing the dynamics of finished basements entitled, Don't Finish Your Basement...Until You Read This, which you can find here. Unfortunately, many of our customers find themselves reading this article after ripping out their first finished basement, and are finishing it for the second time. If you're interested in finishing your basement or buying a house with one that already is, it may be worth your time to check it out.

3. Is there a ventilation/mold problem in the attic?

When attics are not vented properly, and warm moist air rises through the building, as it naturally does, it gets trapped in the attic, and during the winter, condensation develops on the underside of the roof, causing rusty nails and, eventually, mold growth. Left long enough the plywood rots out and you'll need a new roof. This is not fun. We see this mostly in houses built between 1950 and 1990, but it sometimes happens in more modern construction too, due to over-insulating, which blocks some of the vents.

Attic exhaust fans don't help this because they operate off a thermostat or humidistat and the settings are designed to work in the summer, not in the winter.

It's also common for bathroom exhaust vents to terminate in the attic, causing problems, and home inspectors miss that all the time, from what we've seen. It's things as simple as that which can mushroom into an expensive problem.

As you might imagine by now, since we see mold in attics so often, I put together a piece on that too, which you can find here.

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So how does a consumer navigate these murky waters?

In summary, we recommend seeking out a qualified home inspector from a source other than your agent to eliminate the conflict right off the bat. Your agent may not like that, but they aren't paying the mortgage, are they? Check out the obvious places: Angie's List, Yelp. It doesn't matter, just don't blindly jump for the agent's favorite inspector.

In fact, we've been seeing a shift lately. We're now getting a larger number of calls from potential home buyers who want us to come in first, before the traditional inspection, to make sure there isn't a major issue that a home inspector might miss, like a hidden mold problem, something that requires specialized training and equipment.

Finally, if you do discover a significant issue, it can be valuable to engage an independent professional mold assessment company/environmental consultant with specialized knowledge in this subject matter, that has no financial interest in the repairs or remediation, to avert yet another conflict of interest. That consultant would provide an initial assessment, diagnosis and remediation plan as well as perform the necessary inspections and testing at the end to assure that the project was completed, before the final funds are released to the contractor(s). The problem of remediation contractors also performing inspections and testing on the same project is a major problem in the industry, in my opinion and many others'. As a result, that practice is now illegal in some states, like Texas. I also wrote an article on that, which you can find here.

Regardless, mold and moisture problems can be a homeowner's worse nightmare, so in this case, the old adage holds true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In short, know what you're getting into before you get into it, and sometimes it's that extra set of eyes from an unbiased party that makes all the difference.

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Jason Earle is the founder and CEO of Mycelium Holdings LLC, the parent company of 1-800-GOT-MOLD? and MycoLab USA.

1-800-GOT-MOLD? is an environmental consulting firm based in New Jersey that specializes in mold testing, mold inspections, mold remediation consulting, environmental home assessments and building science evaluations in NJ, NYC and eastern PA.