Hey, could you have a look at this condo I've been having?
October 27, 2006 9:48 AM   Subscribe

How necessary is a home inspection when buying a condo?

My wife and I are in the process of purchasing a condo. We know a couple of people who live in the condo development (which is about 20 years old) and their overall satisfaction with their condos was a big factor in our decision to purchase in this development.
Never having purchased any sort of house or condo before, my wife and I are a little unclear about the necessity of a home inspection. Our attorney essentially told us not to bother with an inspection beyond a radon inspection, because any structural issues would be the problem of the condo association (which is well-funded). The realtor (who also lives in the development) recommended a few home inspectors and said that it would probably be a good idea to do a full inspection if for no other reason than the inspector could show us how to work the furnace (which struck me as a little lame; $400-500 for furnace lessons?). Closing costs are going to be a bit higher than we'd anticipated, and so if it really is optional, well, we could stand to save the money. What other factors are there here? Why should or shouldn't we skip a full-on home inspection?
posted by willpie to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Your mortgage lender might require anyway, so check. Also, don't know how things go in New Jersey (I live in New York), but here the condo is not required to fix all structural problems--it depends on whether the problem is with a common element, a limited common element, or with something defined as owner responsibility. Beyond that, it's better to know before you buy because this is when you have the most leverage getting things fixed quickly. Just because the condo is reponsible doesn't mean it's always easy to get the work out of them. Finally, you're spending an immense amount of money on something: be sure.
posted by dame at 9:54 AM on October 27, 2006

Home inspections are another form of insurance. Just like using a real attorney is form of insurance over just accepting the default templatized real estate contracts. In my mind it seems silly to skimp $400 on a purchase that presumably costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of course a condo is different than a standalone house and there will be language in your contracts about which party is responsible for what. Like anything in life, I am sure there are disagreements about these things all the time. In my mind, understanding the boundaries of your responsibilities and having those things inspected would give me peace of mind.
posted by mmascolino at 9:58 AM on October 27, 2006

Peace of mind from situations like these?
posted by jaimev at 10:03 AM on October 27, 2006

Inspections are a very, very good thing. Generally speaking, the condo association is not responsible for anything between the studs, so that can include any plumping problems inside the condo, damage to the drywall, the furnace, etc.

Your attorney's advice seems a little odd, only because in our area inspections are not meant to look for structural integrity in a home (unless you specifically hire an engineer to look for that). Inspections are meant to find all the problems that may be little now, and may have the potential to be big problems in the future. At 20 years old, there are certainly things wearing out in a condo, and it is much better to know that going into the deal.

You can also ask around, some inspectors will give a lower rate on condo inspections (although I'm not suggesting you bargin hunt on this part of the deal). You may not want to hear this either, but if $400 more puts this deal close to unaffordable, you're probably buying out of your range. For better or worse, lenders have been very generous in 90 - 100% financing so they can get borrowers into the home. This may not be your situation at all, but be careful.

That $400 will look like nothing if there's a problem in the first month, that could have been caught by inspection, that requires $1000 or more in repairs. The inspection is there to protect you. It's insurance, which may seem optional, but you wouldn't live in the condo without insurance, would you?
posted by shinynewnick at 10:10 AM on October 27, 2006

Absolutely get an inspection. After 20 years any number of things could need repairing and the condo association may or may not be responsive enough to repair them to your satisfaction. Knowing about them going into the deal is important. A complete home inspection also covers things like electrical and plumbing fixtures, appliances, and heating/ac units that the associatino probably doesn't cover in the first place. Around here the cost of an inspection is pretty reasonable as a percentage of the price of a house.
posted by TedW at 10:11 AM on October 27, 2006

Generally speaking, the condo association is not responsible for anything between the studs, so that can include any plumping problems inside the condo, damage to the drywall, the furnace, etc

For future reference, this is not true if the condo is in an apartment building, NYC style.

posted by dame at 10:16 AM on October 27, 2006

In my mind it seems silly to skimp $400 on a purchase that presumably costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Yeah, I think so too. Even if the condo is in great nick a home inspector should be able to identify and provide you with a laundry list of the "little things" (radiator missing a valve, lousy wiring on this DIY fixture, this product that looks from across the room like ceramic tile is actually plastic) that will be handy to have.
posted by jamesonandwater at 10:50 AM on October 27, 2006

The home inspection isn't where you want to scrimp and save money. Twenty years is plenty of time for issues to come up with a home. I think I'd get an inspection on a new construction too. It's too big of a purchase, too big of an investment to not spend the extra $400. Follow the inspector around, listen to his recommendations and ask questions. You'll learn a hell of a lot about your future home. I found it very very interesting and useful.

If there is something structural that he finds, wouldn't you like to know about it now to have the Condo Association fix it now, instead of having something bad happen down the road? From someone who deals with a Condo/Homeowners Association, you'd be surprised just what is and isn't covered. Personally obtain and read your condo association documents, before you close.

I'm not sure why your lawyer gave you shitty advice, but hell, he sure did.
posted by jerseygirl at 10:57 AM on October 27, 2006

Also review the minutes of the owners association for structure related disputes in the past and for certain review the financial position of the place. Not knowing the facts is a big risk and having a good reserve fund to actually PAY for those items the association must pay for is a great cushion against $pecial assessments. Also review who insures what as well. You can avoid over insuring on your dime that way
posted by Freedomboy at 11:01 AM on October 27, 2006

Yes, yes, a hundred times yes, get a home inspection. So what if the condo board is responsible for any major structural issues? Once you buy, you're part of that condo association and you'll be paying for repairs through special assessments. Plus, if something is really wrong with the building, you will also have a hell of a time selling the place--as you'll be required to disclose that fact to any potential buyers.

I see you are in New Jersey. There is a poster that hangs out at That Home Site who specializes in the home inspection industry in New Jersey. Pop over there to read threads like this so you can get some ideas on how to find a reputable inspector.
posted by Sully6 at 11:18 AM on October 27, 2006

Oh, and do not, I repeat, DO NOT, use an inspector your real estate agent recommends. Find your own.
posted by Sully6 at 11:19 AM on October 27, 2006

Absolutely, yes, yes, yes, get a home inspection. Home inspections are not just about finding structural faults that the association may or may not be responsible for. They look at wiring, plumbing, appliances, heating, AC, water tank, lookign for evidence of mold, termites etc. If your condo has been badly re-wired at some point, and is not up to safety standards, or your water heater is 20 years old and looks like it needs replacing very soon, you want to know about these things before you close. How much would it suck to move in and then discover that you need to do $2000 of work on the condo? Instead, find out beforehand and negotiate $2000 of credit from the seller.
posted by Joh at 11:47 AM on October 27, 2006

What everybody said. Do it.
/former condo owner
posted by languagehat at 11:48 AM on October 27, 2006

Condo owner and association board member here.

Your attorney is wrong. I don't know why one would even say that unless they have no experience in condo sales (is this a warning sign?)

On top of radon, the inspector will/should look for water damage and mold (a big deal) and plumbing and electrical problems.

Yeah, the association's policy should cover structural damage due to problems on the outside, but you might be on the hook for damage to your furnishings and contents regardless. And if it turns out there are any problems on the Association's dime, you want them to find out about them now so they can fix them before you move in (repainting/recarpeting/reanythinging is a pain even if somebody else is paying for it.)

You want to know if the furnace, A/C and water heater are on their last legs so you can beat the seller up a little bit if you have to. You want to make sure there is adequate water pressure at the fixtures, adequate outflow at the drains and sufficient ventilation by the delivery and exhaust fans. Again, if any of this stuff needs work you may be able to something out of the seller. At least it'll help you budget for replacements.

You want to know if a previous occupant has been playing amateur electrician/plumber. Really if you have electrical or plumbing issues interior to your unit that could start a fire or flood eventually, you or your insurance will have to pay for damage to other units as well as your own. And if the damage is due to non-code work, your insurance will probably expect you to foot the whole bill yourself.

There are more reasons why an inspection is really cheap insurance but you get the idea. If saving a few hundred bucks is that big a deal you might consider whether this purchase is really in your budget as you need to be prepared to spend a bunch more in the first year even if the place is in "move-in" condition (I dropped $10k and the place was immaculate.)
posted by Opposite George at 12:24 PM on October 27, 2006

Even if the condo association is responsible for any problems an inspection might turn up, wouldn't you want to know whether or not you'll be spending the first month or two in your new home with repairmen tromping all over the place?
posted by ook at 12:45 PM on October 27, 2006

As Opposite George said upthread, "the inspector will/should look for water damage and mold (a big deal)."

Underline "big deal." Convert to bold, at 20 point type.

Water damage, wood rot and mold are like diabetes and heart disease. They're silent killers. You can't see them or hear them, but they do onerous damage.

The building inspector will have a disclaimer that says "this inspection only covers visible issues," so you have to be a detective here. Not all water damage will be apparent to the naked eye. If your inspector points out visible damage, start quizzing him. "Based on your professional opinion, how deep into the walls and/or floor does this extend?"

In most cases, water damage will be minimal , if that. But red flags doled out by the inspector should be investigated, possibly to the extent of having the owner remove a bit of drywall or tile. Again, we're talking about the rare case here. But it's good to be mentally prepared.
posted by Gordion Knott at 1:21 PM on October 27, 2006

Echoing what everyone else said, especially the part about finding your own inspector and NOT going with one recommended by your realtor. (If you are having trouble knowing who to trust in your area, give Tomacor in Chicago a call and ask them if they know of anyone near you. They are the most thorough and detail-oriented inspectors that I have ever used and they train other inspectors. Realtors fear these folks. Plus, the manual they give you with the inspection is easily worth the cost of the inspection itself. It's brilliant and you cannot purchase it separately.)

At least in Illinois, the condo board is responsible for fixing infrastructure or public space issues but the money for that comes from the condo OWNERS' assessment fees. They may have quite a bit of money in the reserves for major repairs. But they aren't going to drain that down for major repairs without replenishing it, either through a special assessment (my friends just paid $10K for a special assessment) or through raising the assessment fees. Which are not tax-deductible like mortgage interest would be. So it is always to your benefit to know the condition of the entire condo building before you make such a large purchase that isn't as easy to get out of as breaking a lease would be.
posted by jeanmari at 1:40 PM on October 27, 2006

There are a lot of different ways to look at the question, but no clear answers.

My first instinct is to say that it depends what kind of person you are. Friends of mine bought a condo and didn't even know how it was heated or where the heat came from. I looked around the place from my seat at their dining table and said "well, must be a furnace behind that access panel". I don't think they'd even taken notice of the panel yet.. If you are the kind of person who doesn't ask those questions, you really, really need an inspector :P

There is another way to look at it, though.. There is probably something wrong that will cost hundreds, there might be something wrong that will cost thousands, but there are virtually no problems that can cost tens of thousands. However, depending on the state of the housing market and details about the issues that are found, it may or may not be worth negotiating hard over issues worth hundreds or thousands, and issues worth tens of thousands are simply deal breakers. So, it is possible that the inspector helps you to run screaming from the truly terrible deal, but most of the time that situation is so obvious that you have noticed, or so obscure that the inspector misses it.

When my Mom got her current house, the home inspector made a routine recommendation that she buy furnace insurance, that recommendation ended up paying his fee. He also made some trivial recommendations, like lengthening a downspout, which the previous owners addressed - addressed in exactly the way anyone might, if they knew they were never going to see the house again. However, he couldn't even figure out that the toilet didn't flush properly. I think that is typical of what home inspectors do for you. They are inexpensive enough that you might as well go for it, but they don't really know anything more than a competent home owner does.

On the other hand, even people who know a little about how things go together in a home have a hard time seeing the details when they feel like they have found their new home. My Mom and I should have checked out the toilet more closely ourselves, obviously. An inspector does put another set of eyes on the problem. In addition, even if you are able to be critical and you are a competent home owner, there are practical issues with checking things yourself; the vendor probably won't let you do a "self inspection". Just watch the body language of the real estate agents when you start flipping every light switch, turning every tap, opening every cupboard and looking in every closet. Then, think about taking switch plates off to look at wiring, and climbing on the roof.

Finally, there is a huge advantage in having third parties involved when it comes to dealing with people. The inspector's perceived authority lends credibility when you are negotiating a point, so the other party will accept requests from the inspector they would never accept from you. Somebody questions you, just say "the inspector wants to see it" and "the inspector said it should be this way."
Really, that is a basic tenant of all negotiation: Always have a third party and/or partner. Good cop bad cop, and all that. When the other side starts to apply pressure you just invoke the other party - "I have to check with my wife" or "the home inspector said it is a problem". Trying to return an item to a store and the clerk is giving you a hard time? "Ya, you're right, but my girlfriend said it is no good, so it doesn't really matter what we think."

In the end, if you want to extract maximum value, you are probably going to have to break somebodies balls. If you higher an inspector, you will have to be all over him to make absolutely sure he does a good and thorough job. If you don't, you have to get on your hands and knees and go over the place with a fine tooth comb. Truly, for an investment worth hundreds of thousands, one would expect nothing less. In practice, however, I don't think very many people approach buying a home with that kind of attitude.. Just isn't how it's done..
posted by Chuckles at 5:03 PM on October 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Damn, could have written the second last paragraph a lot better.. Anyway, one more thing..

This is all very easy for me to say, I'm not a homeowner, and I probably won't be for a long, long time. :P
posted by Chuckles at 5:08 PM on October 27, 2006

DO IT DO IT DO IT!!!! I bought my first place three years ago after it was "renovated" by the owner of the building. Since then I have discovered that:

The stone floor in the kitchen and marble in the bathrooms had not been sealed to resist stains.

The fixtures in the guest bathroom were changed from their original positions, without cutting an access panel where the bathtub is now--the pipes were not installed properly and there have been leaks into the unit downstairs; I have not been able to use that bathroom since the water was turned off there on Labor Day last year (when I tried to get someone in to cut a panel, my former super was such a prick to him and his workman that he refused to do the work).

The HVAC was not installed properly and will not be able to be repaired if the motor breaks.

A wooden saddle was not put under the door leading to the service elevator, letting in dirt.

The owner of the building ripped out the original shelving in the closets, so I had to hire someone to put in new ones--she had been given a high rating in the Franklin Report, but I should have thrown her out of my place when she simpered that I ought not to have it during the initial consultation. I made the mistake of hiring her to remodel my kitchen, but the work has yet to be done.

The water pressure is horrible, but the former super claimed that there was nothing wrong; my neighbor on my floor has only recently been able to improve his.

Because of all of the work that needs to be done, I am going to have to pack up my things and move into short term housing until it is completed.

I looked at a townhouse last summer (that needed more extensive work than my condo) and had it inspected by Richard Perri at Professional Home Inspection Corp. (718-828-9116) It was pricey, but I cannot recommend him more highly--he is a friendly, genuine person who is willing to put things in lay terms.

This was going to be part of a shouting thread in metachat but these issues belong here.
posted by brujita at 9:48 PM on October 27, 2006

One more story about home inspectors. Folks who know me know that my spouse and I took on a hell of a 10 year house project where we currently live. It was fascinating to see a really thorough inspector comb through the place. He spent three hours on the inspection and one hour debriefing us. He took off switch plates and checked the wires. Turned everything on and off multiple times. Had a mirror and a flashlight and used the mirror to see into places behind the wall where it was difficult to see. He went over that house from stem to stern. It was the best $400 I ever spent. We were able to use the results of the report to negotiate thousands more off of the price of a house that was already dirt cheap (and needed to be because of the work renovating it would involve.)

Compare that to my condo inspector, a referral from my buyers agent. The inspection of all areas, including the public ones and the infrastructure, took 1 1/2 hours. After I moved in, I discovered that the wiring to the fuse box was a hack job, that there were some infrastructure problems with the building that were going to require a special assessment, that a kitchen appliance was installed incorrectly, and so on.

Good inspectors are a worthwhile investment. When I was purchasing a single family home built in 1914, the inspector even jabbed the painted exterior wood trim with a screwdriver to check for rot. He walked the roof to inspect the chimneys and shingles. He was absolutely fearless and it was awesome. We bought the house and knew very well what we were getting into.
posted by jeanmari at 8:40 PM on November 1, 2006

« Older Time to get glasses?   |   It's the great pumkin seed recipe, Charlie Brown Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.