When I was buying my first house, everything seemed too good to be true—at least at the start of the process. I found a home within a couple of weeks, the price was fabulously low, it was in a cute lake community with a style I loved, and funding came through quickly and easily. I even received a first-time home buyer’s bonus for tax time. Plus, I didn’t need much of a down payment.
But it turned out too good to be true. My smooth path to homeownership suddenly became rocky when the inspection report came back with a big fat failure on it. I immediately panicked. What did it mean? Was I still able to buy the house? And if I did, was it going to fall apart?
After a few calls with my real estate agent (who, at that point, had become more of a home-buying therapist), I learned that a bad inspection isn’t that rare. In fact, my new home wasn’t in as bad of shape as I initially feared. We were able to make some repairs and, after a second inspection, the house was appraised and the sale was able to go through.
During the process, though, I learned a lot more than I ever expected about home inspections. Whether you’re a first-time or repeat home buyer, here’s my advice for getting the house you want after a shaky home inspection.
Though my home inspection appeared to be a failure, homes aren’t actually graded on a pass/fail system.
“There is no such thing as a failed inspection,” said Karen Kostiw, an agent with Warburg Realty in New York. “The inspection just points out small and potentially larger issues that you may not be aware of.”
Sure, some houses can sail through the process and others may fare poorly, but it’s not a “You can never buy this” situation if there are problems with the property.
For me, my mortgage hinged on a solid inspection—so the initial results meant I wouldn’t get the loan unless things were fixed. That being said, if I had enough cash on hand or wanted to try a different mortgage lender, I could have continued with the purchase even with a negative inspection report.
So if the house you’re set on buying ends up having issues, don’t panic. You still have options.
It’s important to remember every home inspection report will come back with something, according to Kate Ziegler, a real estate agent with Arborview Realty in Boston. My inspection report had noted about 40 fixes. But a lot of times, the problems aren’t as bad as you think.
Keep in mind that the inspector’s job is to call out any trouble spot. Also, all issues noted in the report aren’t equal: Some problems flagged by an inspector can wait.
“The inspector will find defects—sometimes many defects—but that does not mean buyers are not purchasing a good home,” Kostiw says. “The small leak might mean a bolt needs to be tightened, or the dishwasher is not working because the waterline was switched off by accident. These are easy fixes. However, when buyers see a laundry list of items, it can seem as if the home is falling down. This is most often not the case.”
Ziegler and Kostiw agree that though most repairs are easy fixes, some items should give you pause if you see them on your report.
Structural problems, antique electrical systems, old windows, unexplained water damage, evidence of termites or wood rot, a bad roof, asbestos, mold, radon, and lead paint are all red flags that can show up during a home inspection. If fixing these problems is impossible or way beyond the means your budget, you may want to reconsider your purchase.
“Whether or not inspection items warrant backing out entirely depends quite a bit on any individual buyer’s experience and bandwidth, as well as personal risk tolerances and financial situation,” Ziegler says. “It’s true that houses don’t stay in good repair on their own. They require maintenance and care, just like your houseplants and your sourdough starter!”
Unless a repair is something truly minor like caulking a bathroom tub or putting a cabinet door back on its hinges, don’t try to fix anything on your own. You could make things worse or even injure yourself. Hire licensed contractors that you’ve vetted to handle any problems. And try not to leave it all up to the seller—they’re not going to be living in the home. You will be.
“Motivations in this case are not aligned,” Ziegler says. “The seller wants to spend as little as possible to meet their contractual obligations, but [a] buyer should be more concerned with the quality of the repair.”
At first I worried I would have to pay to fix everything that was wrong with my house. But it’s important to know you can work the cost of repairs—and how long it should take to make them—into the sale.
Say you can’t afford to fix the busted water heater but the seller can. You can raise the offer price by that cost, or you can trade off: The seller fixes one thing, and you fix another. In my case, I only had to add a banister to one stairwell. The sellers were particularly motivated to unload the home so they handled everything else.
Hopefully by the end of this process, every issue will be fixed and you’ll be ready to purchase your home. And you’ll be able to move in with a clear head, knowing everything is really as good as it seems.