Asking For It 

Answers to frequently asked questions.

Between writing this column and doing home inspections, I get a lot of questions -- questions about houses and house parts, questions about builders and contractors, questions about the home-inspection business. I don't mind. In fact, I rather enjoy it. I figure it's about time I wrote some of the answers down before I forget them. Here goes.

Who builds the best new houses?

Nobody. Except for a few high-end custom houses, they're all pretty much the same. In 15-plus years of inspecting houses, I've run across two or three excellent custom builders. Those guys build houses in the million-dollar range, and their crews do near-perfect work. The people who can afford those builders know who they are.

When it comes to houses in developments where there's a model home and houses with model names (the Worthmore, the Grandview, the Blissmaster), there's not a dime's worth of difference between them. In any given price range, the quality of the materials, the skill level of the laborers, and the management skills of the supervisors are dead even. There is no house "brand" that is clearly superior to its competitors.

Understand, I'm not saying new houses are generally bad. Truth is, they're generally fair. If you're shopping for a new house, don't expect perfection and don't worry about who built it. Just find a house you like in a neighborhood you like and make the best deal you can.

Is there any reason to get a new house inspected?

You betcha. We find defects at virtually all new houses. By defects, I don't mean cosmetic stuff like nicks in the paint. I mean dead-obvious violations of the building codes and outright disregard for manufacturers' specifications. At any given new house, there's likely to be something wrong with the roof, the siding, the flashing, and the fireplace. And that's just for starters. If you think the local codes inspectors are finding all the defects and making builders fix them before you move in, just put that out of your mind. It's not happening.

Should home inspectors be licensed?

Well, sure, if the politicians would do it right. But here's the problem: Home-inspector licensing laws aren't proposed by pro-consumer types who want to make sure home inspectors are qualified, competent, and honest. To the best of my knowledge, every home-inspector licensing law in this country was cooked up by lobbyists for builders and/or real estate salespeople. Most of the builders and real estate folks I know are high-quality folks looking to do right by their customers. But there are some builders and salesfolk who don't want anybody meddling in their deals. If they had their druthers, there would be either no home inspectors or an army of home inspectors who'd never find anything wrong with a house.

Ultimately, regulation tends to favor the highest bidder. When anything involving real estate sales comes up, the high bidders are going to be the building and real estate industries. If you trust their lobbyists to make sure you get a top-quality home inspection, you want home-inspector licensing. If you think maybe they have a little conflict of interest, you're better off leaving home inspectors unregulated.

What's all this fuss about mold growing in houses?

It's mostly marketing aimed at separating you from your money. Mold is everywhere -- in the air, on the bread, and maybe even on your pillow if you go to bed with your hair wet. Some molds make some people sick. When mold starts making people sick, those people need physicians, toxicologists, and maybe an industrial hygienist to figure out what's making them sick and tell them what to do about it.

Lately, though, carpet-cleaning companies, duct-cleaning contractors, and some of my brethren in the home-inspection business are peddling mold tests. For a few hundred bucks, they'll take some samples, send them off to a lab, and tell you what kind of mold you've got. That's a waste of money.

If you've got a healthy mold crop in your house, that means you have a water leak -- from the roof, from the plumbing, or somewhere. In virtually all cases, there's no reason to spend money finding out what kind of mold you've got. Spend your money getting rid of the leak, disposing of the moldy stuff, and installing new stuff where the moldy stuff used to be.

Is a "clear termite letter" proof that there's no termite problem at the house I'm about to buy?

Heck, no. As far as I know, every house sold in Tennessee has to have a "clear termite letter" before it's sold. Typically, the letter comes from the seller's bug man. We've gotten a little cynical about these letters, because we've looked at houses -- sometimes just hours after the bug man dropped off the letter -- and found structural beams that have been destroyed by termites. If you're buying a house, hire your own bug man to take a look at the house.

While we're on the subject of termites, don't fall for the old "no active infestation" ruse. No active infestation does not mean no problem. If you're about to buy a termite-eaten house, you don't care whether the bugs that ate the house are dead or alive. You just want the house fixed.

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