This post is excerpted from my longer post on the complete step-by-step process of navigating a purchase transaction. Please refer to it for more details as to what will be going on while the home is being inspected.
One of the things you should be doing during attorney review is reaching out to home inspectors. If you do not know one, I will recommend several licensed inspectors to you. New Jersey law requires that home inspectors be licensed, so if you will be using someone you know, be sure that the company is licensed to do home inspections in New Jersey. You will want to have the home inspected as soon as possible after attorney review is completed in order to give yourself time to react to what the inspector will find before closing. Virtually all inspectors work seven days a week, so you should “pencil in” an appointment with one for a time that is convenient for you after attorney review is concluded. I will stay in touch with your inspector after you choose one, so don’t be concerned about rescheduling an appointment if the attorney review is not completed in time.
After attorney review is concluded, you will confirm the appointment with your home inspector. The home inspection is a very important process of purchasing a home, and it often causes the most stress between buyers and sellers. I will be at the home inspection, and you should absolutely plan on being there as well. The purpose of your presence at the inspection is twofold—you will see for yourself everything the inspector points out as needing correction, and you will learn much about your future home from a professional.
A complete home inspection covers three elements, although not all three are required for every home. The first is the structural inspection of the home itself to make sure that all systems function properly and there are no major structural or safety issues. The second is a wood-destroying insect inspection to make sure that there are no signs of damage from termites or carpenter ants. The third is a radon test to make sure that the level of radon in the home is below a certain threshold.
Radon is a radioactive, invisible and odorless gas that is naturally produced by the decay of certain elements in the earth. Because it is natural, there is no way to map where it may or may not appear. Radon is present throughout New Jersey, but a home with a high presence of radon may stand right next to one where the levels are normal. That’s why every home should be tested for radon gas. You can search for the effects of radon on the Internet and speak with your home inspector about it as well.
A wood destroying insect inspection is not necessary if you are purchasing a condo on the third floor of a building, for example. Similarly, if you are buying a second or third floor condo, a radon test is not required. There is a myth that a radon test is not required if the home does not have a basement, but that is false: radon seeps through the ground into the lowest level of a home, and it can collect in the first floor of a building as easily as in a basement.
The inspector will arrive with a whole array of special tools and a ladder if one is needed. He will typically start the inspection outside, walking around the home and noting his observations. Please stay with the inspector and watch what he is doing. He will explain everything about the home to you, and you can ask him questions about how things work and how important are the faults he uncovers. The inspector works for you—don’t be afraid to speak with him.
One thing that I always tell every buyer before an inspection is this: You are not buying a new car, you are buying a used car. If the engine leaks and the fan belt is loose, the seller can be expected to replace the gaskets and tighten the belt. If the interior upholstery is stained and the carpet in the trunk is torn, the seller is not obligated to clean the interior and replace the carpet. If you want a car with a clean interior and perfect carpet, please buy a new car. Same with a home—you are inspecting it for structural damage, not for cosmetic defects. The sellers do not have to paint walls or clean carpets before you move in.
After the home inspection, the inspector will forward the results to your attorney, to you and usually to me as well, generally within a day or so. The list of noted discrepancies may be pleasantly short, or it may be longer. At this point you will have to decide which items noted by the inspector you wish to have addressed by the sellers.
This is by far the trickiest and least mapped part of the entire purchase transaction. There are no rules as to what you have to present to the sellers, and no rules as to what the sellers must do with the list you present to them. This is why it is imperative that you discuss this part of the transaction with your attorney during the attorney review. Once you get to this point, your options may be limited.
I urge you to discuss the inspector’s findings with me first, then with your attorney. Although I am neither an attorney nor an inspector and cannot tell you what to do about specific findings, I will certainly advise you about the nuances of a real estate transaction and how best to work with sellers after an inspection. Let’s say that the inspector finds six things wrong. One or two of them may be relatively minor—a missing sink stopper or a loose light fixture that needs new screws. Other items may be more substantial. I may advise you to consider what you ask the sellers to repair. Sometimes sellers get so upset about what they consider “nitpicky” requests that they refuse to address bigger issues.
Which brings up the all-important question: What do the sellers have to repair? The answer is not set in stone and is not always addressed fully in the contract. I’ve seen situations where the sellers addressed every item on a long list, and at the other extreme I’ve had two transactions where the sellers refused to address even a single item. This is when you will need your attorney’s advice on how to proceed. The choice is ultimately yours, as each buyer’s decision may be different in any situation.
If the sellers agree to address an issue, they may do so in one of two ways. They may repair the fault themselves or have a professional make a necessary repair, or they may offer you money in lieu of fixing the problem. An example would be broken window seals. Rather than take the time and effort to hire and wait for a contractor to make the repairs, the sellers may get an estimate for the repairs and offer to give you the money at closing. This is very common and often the most expedient way to move a transaction along.
I mentioned radon earlier, the invisible and odorless gas. How will the inspector test for that and how can a high level of radon be remediated? Before he leaves the home, the inspector will leave an open test canister somewhere in the lowest level of the home. Within three to five days he will return to pick it up and send the canister to a testing lab. The test results are usually available within a week, and will be forwarded to you, your attorney and to me.
Radon is measured in picocuries per liter, pCi/L for short. If the test registers a level of 4 pCi/L or higher, the sellers must remediate the gas at their expense. This is a fairly straightforward solution—a company specializing in remediation will install PVC piping if needed and a fan to continuously draw air out of the home. Once in place, such a system will keep the home free of elevated levels of radon indefinitely.