Home inspectors can help flag potential problems.
Thirty-plus years ago, when Bill Embry started out as a Realtor, home inspections were unheard of.
"At best, you might get your dad or uncle or contractor friend to come out and look at something," says Embry, current president of the Peoria (Ill.) Area Association of Realtors.
Today, having a professional scrutinize your home from the roof and rafters to the crannies in your crawl space - before you sign on the dotted line - is a no-brainer. But picking a good house detective isn't always so easy.
Even though states license home inspectors, the quality of the scrutiny varies.
For instance, while Illinois only requires a high school diploma or GED and 60 hours of education, Cameron Anderson of A&A Integrity Home Inspection in Tremont has a bachelor's degree in architecture, which offers him invaluable insight, he says.
Anderson says he takes his time going through a house from top to bottom.
Conversely, "there are some inspectors in the area - I won't name names - who advertise how fast they are," Anderson says. "With 400 or so items in a house to check, and sometimes re-check, I don't see how you can do it in an hour or hour-and-a-half. My average is three hours, and I've had some much longer than that.
"They are paying for you to take a very close look. I open every window, check every outlet."
Dan Lucas, owner of D. Lucas Home Inspection in Peoria, says it only takes him about an hour and a half, but that's because he brings a team of people with him. He performs the home inspection and is certified to test for mold, but he also often brings a termite inspector and certified heating and air conditioning technician.
He advises homeowners to question the inspector's experience.
"Absolutely, experience is everything," says Lucas, who typically does more than 1,000 home inspections a year though this year business has been slower with the depressed housing market. "You have some guys who have been licensed for years and have never done a home inspection. More and more people are getting into (the business) because of the economy."
Realtors typically will recommend a home inspector. Embry says he "generally recommends at least three names to my clients for them to interview. As Realtors, we're trying to do the best job possible for our clients, and we can't be all things to all people. We're not home inspectors."
Shayla Flemming, a senior housing counselor with METEC, a housing counseling resource center, notes that they emphasize the importance of home inspections in their first-time home buyer classes.
"We go through the entire home-buying process, and that's definitely an important part," said Flemming, noting that she rarely meets people who want to skip a home inspection.
Both Anderson and Lucas say the majority of homes fall into a middle ground - not perfect, not ramshackle beyond repair. But, it's the grotesque ones they like to dish about.
"I did a house in the past year, and there was mold on every surface - on the walls, the floors, even on the metal burners of the stove," recalls Anderson, who also found three of the four basement walls caving inward six to eight inches.
Worse, sewage was coming up through the sump pump from the septic tank into the basement.
"It was very, very bad," Anderson says. But also very obvious.
At the same time, he also recalls finding dangerous, hidden problems - like the time he found "a live (wire) splice within inches of where (a boy) was storing his hockey equipment." Or, the time he found a nut without a bolt holding it in place on one of the main supports for a deck. That, was on a new home.
Still, "I have yet to walk out of a house where I thought the only option was a bulldozer. Everything can be fixed."
Jennifer Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.