5 Confusing Parts of Your Home Inspection, Decoded by a Pro

published Jan 24, 2022
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There are what feels like a million different things happening at once when you go under contract to buy a home. Gathering documentation for the mortgage, signing paperwork, dropping off your earnest money check, scheduling an appraisal, finding an inspector, lining up movers, worrying about getting out of your existing lease — it all happens so fast. 

That’s likely one big reason why so many buyers feel overwhelmed and confused by the time the inspection rolls around — and even more bewildered when the inspector sends over their report summarizing the findings of the walkthrough.

“We see a lot of clients who get the ‘deer in the headlights’ look at some point during the inspection,” says Welmoed Sisson, a certified home inspector in Maryland. 

Especially if you’re buying your first home, deciphering a home inspection report can feel like trying to learn a new language. I checked in with real estate experts to better understand some often confusing terms and components of home inspection reports. Here’s what I learned.

End of Serviceable Life/Average Lifespan

Just because a roof isn’t leaking doesn’t mean it won’t need to be replaced soon. Every appliance, item, or system in a home has a serviceable life/average lifespan, Sisson says, and inspectors may flag those that a buyer should prepare to replace in the near future.

“One of the biggest examples of this is decks,” she says. “Most clients are shocked to hear that the average lifespan for a deck is only 12 to 15 years.”

If something isn’t working or functioning as intended, on the other hand, the inspector will use the word “defective” to describe it, Sisson says.

Code and Building Standards

Building codes are enforced by the city, county, or some other municipal entity (which inspectors often call the “authority having jurisdiction,” or AHJ, according to Sisson), and they don’t apply retroactively, Sisson says. This means that a home built in the 1960s isn’t required to meet present-day building codes, even if the rules intended to make homes safer. So while a home may technically be “up to code,” the inspector may point out a few things here and there that differ from today’s standards.

Home inspectors must be well-informed about local building codes, but they don’t typically cite them directly in their reports. Instead, they often refer to “building standards” or “accepted local building practices,” Sisson says.

Safety Hazards

Inspectors are trained to think in terms of the worst-case scenario, Sisson explains. This is why they may refer to “potential hazards” or “safety hazards,” language that can feel pretty alarming to a prospective buyer. At a recent inspection, for example, Sisson flagged a dryer vent connector that was too long and twisted, which could lead to a fire. It’s a relatively simple fix, but still had the buyer on edge.

“In their mind, calling it a fire hazard meant that it was on the brink of burning the house down,” she says. “I reassured them that the risk of imminent fire was low, but not zero. I wasn’t trying to scare them. Statistics show that dryer vent fires are, unfortunately, common and I would not be able to guarantee the current vent configuration was as safe as it could be. It’s all about minimizing risk.”

Who Pays?

Though not part of the report itself, the invoice or bill for the inspection can also be confusing. Specifically, many buyers don’t realize that they are responsible for paying for the inspection themselves.

Mortgage lenders typically don’t require home inspections, so it may be tempting to simply skip this step, especially in a very competitive market. But inspectors are highly trained professionals who act on the buyer’s behalf, sussing out any huge red flags or expensive fixes that may sway a buyer’s decisions to move forward with the purchase.

The inspection report is one more way for the buyer to get as much information as possible about the property before plunking down hundreds of thousands of dollars, just like attending an open house or reviewing comps from a real estate agent. 

“It is the buyers who pay, as they are the ones that should be informed if there is anything wrong with the property,” says Lori Abbey, a real estate agent based in Denver.

To Attend or Not to Attend

Buyers may not realize that they can — and should — attend the inspection themselves, according to Craig McCullough, a real estate agent in Washington, D.C. This is a big opportunity for buyers to learn the ins and outs of their future home, from the electrical panel to the water shutoff. After the inspection, buyers can also still call or email the inspector with any follow-up questions.

“You paid a professional to tell you about your future home,” he says. “Follow him or her, ask questions, look where they look. This is important because a report is just a summary, but seeing exactly what they saw helps you learn how your future home works and be prepared for the systems you’ll need to know about.”