If you're still in love after your own investigation, it's time to get a professional opinion on the condition of the mechanical systems and the structure as a whole. I know that sounds incredibly obvious, but in some of the United States' hotter housing markets, I've seen way too many people get swept up in the craziness and agree to buy right on the spot. With average purchase prices ranging from about $180,000 in the Midwest to $310,000 in the West, according to the National Association of Realtors, can you really afford to buy and then find yourself facing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of repairs because you didn't bother to look past the fresh coat of paint and the shiny new fridge?
Any formal offer should include a clause stipulating that, while you do intend to go forward, the deal is contingent on the property's undergoing a professional inspection. A qualified inspector typically needs less than three hours (plus $400 or so) to reduce the chance that your home will turn into a financial nightmare. If major problems are unearthed, you can then decide to walk away—or to negotiate a lower price to compensate for the cost of upgrades and repairs.
Your agent will be quick to recommend a few inspectors, but be sure to check out their credentials. You can also ask friends for suggestions or consult the website of the American Society of Home Inspectors (www.ashi.org), which lists fully qualified professionals who have conducted more than 250 inspections, participated in 20 hours of continuing education annually, and passed two written exams. Once you contact someone, ask to see a list of standards or a sample report, so you get a sense of the level of detail to expect; you want to know exactly what is and isn't covered.
When inspection day comes, plan to tag along. Your inspector will work through a detailed checklist, noting how the foundation and roof are holding up, assessing the condition of the plumbing system, and searching for signs of flooding and/or water damage. Find out whether the electrical system is safe and whether the boiler is big enough to handle your brood of five. Given the rising costs of heating and cooling, ask the inspector to point out any areas where you could improve energy efficiency by upgrading older appliances, adding insulation, or replacing worn-out weatherproofing around the doors and windows. A good inspector should show you both the good and the bad—and offer suggestions for keeping the house in tip-top shape.
Virtually no inspector, however, can answer every question. You may find that you need to hire additional specialists. In earthquake-prone areas, for example, it makes sense to bring in a structural engineer. If the house is in a place known for termites or other critters that could be munching wood to death, hire a pest-control expert. If the property is planted with mature trees, it makes sense to hire an arborist because a diseased tree can be hard for non-experts to detect, especially in the winter. And if there's a pool, get a maintenance company to check out the filtration, heating, and other systems.