Roanoke Times
                 Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: SUNDAY, May 29, 1994                   TAG: 9405300103
SECTION: HOMES                    PAGE: D-5   EDITION: METRO 
DATELINE:                                 LENGTH: Long


The last time Dean Bakke bought a house, he bought major problems: a brand-new furnace turning to rust and an attic with a scant inch of insulation.

So this time around in the house-purchasing process, Bakke, with fiance Tina Tolkinen, is buying peace of mind.

Like thousands of other buyers across the nation, this couple has hired a professional home inspector to survey the house they'd like to buy.

"It's more buyer protection than anything. A real-estate agent can only find out so much about a property," explained their agent, Don Williams of Realty World Berryman Corp., White Bear Lake, Minn. Williams advised his clients to sign a purchase agreement contingent on a professional inspection of the two-bedroom, four-level home of their dreams in East Bethel, Minn.

That way, Williams explains, if problems are found, the buyer can negotiate fair settlement of the problem before purchase. Or, if the problems are serious, back away gracefully. Hiring a house inspector is a practice real-estate specialists suggest regularly.

That's why on a recent sunny Friday Bakke and Tolkinen followed on the heels of Eric Sjostrom from AmeriSpec, a Roseville, Minn., home-inspection service. Sjostrom visually surveyed the 1992-built house inside and out, climbing across the peak to inspect the roof, poking at window sills to check for fit as well as for water damage, digging gravel away from the foundation to check drainage, inspecting downspout systems and even appliances. He measured levels of insulation inside and the safety of the automatic garage-door closer outside, surveying, in all, about 400 items.

"We do a visual inspection of the accessible areas of the home," partner Jay Sjostrom explained. The resulting report is an analysis of the building's structure and plumbing, heating and electrical systems.

But there's a downside to this burgeoning service business. The value of such reports vary according to who's doing them, explains Chuck Blixt, president of Inspecta-Homes of America, a St. Paul, Minn., firm that's been providing the house-inspection service for 13 years. Knowledge, experience and training are the keys.

"Sometimes, people get a builder or an uncle to go look at a house. Typically these people have expertise in one area, but not necessarily in all areas," Blixt said. And anybody who wants to call himself or herself a home inspector can. "We see the neophytes flooding the marketplace, marketing themselves as experts."

That's why authorities in residential real estate offer these suggestions to avoid problems with the house-inspection process:

Cautiously choose an inspector. Ask about training and background. "Just because a person has been a carpenter, electrician or plumber or carpet-layer doesn't mean they can be a home inspector," said Blixt.

Some experts advise tracking down companies that employ inspectors who are certified by or going through training offered by the American Society of Home Inspectors, based in Arlington, Ill. Inspectors at both AmeriSpec and Inspecta-Homes qualify.

ASHI was founded in 1977 to establish ethical standards and training requirements for members. Requirements include written tests and on-the-job training. An ASHI spokeswoman reports there are 1,360 certified ASHI members in the United States and Canada, but another 3,500 persons are in training.

There are other organizations that have less stringent requirements. "People send in their money and they send back a membership card," Blixt said, but there is no training required.

Call the Better Business Bureau to check the firm's financial condition and any customer complaints.

Know what you're getting for your money. Inspections should include visual inspections covering exterior, structure, garage, plumbing, heating, cooling, electrical, interior, insulation and ventilation. Variable extras include radon testing, a pest-infestation survey or inspection of septic system or wells. Not included are the "cosmetic" features of the home such as the condition of the carpeting or wall coverings.

Determine fees upfront. Inspections cost from $200 to as much as $400, depending on the size of the home and which inspection services are requested. When comparing prices, make sure you're comparing identical services.

Get referrals. Ask friends, relatives, neighbors or your real-estate agent for names of inspection companies with which they've worked satisfactorily. Ask the company for a list of satisfied customers, then follow up by asking them if they would use the company again.

Remember the inspector is a "generalist, much like a general practitioner," Blixt advised. He or she may suggest that a specialist, say an electrician or heating contractor, be called in to do a more thorough inspection if a problem is detected.

But Bakke and Tolkinen didn't need to call in the inspection cavalry. Eric Sjostrom pronounced the home they're buying well-built, though he did advise them to investigate why a downspout is buried under the lawn in the front yard, to ask the sellers to repair an unsafe automated garage door and to negotiate with the sellers on regrading of soil at the rear foundation of the house. The soil slopes toward rather than away from the house and, therefore, could cause drainage problems.

But, overall, Sjostrom said, "It's a real nice house, very well kept up and well-built."

Not all buyers hear such good news, however. Blixt, who has done "thousands" of home inspections, said he once inspected a house that had an addition built using old automobile batteries as part of the foundation.

Had the couple looking at the house bought it, they could have ended up paying out large amounts of money to correct a serious pollution problem. The house inspector's report meant that problem remained in someone else's lap.

 by CNB