By Allison E. Beatty
Special to the Tribune
December 21, 2007
When it comes to new construction, however, the picture is much different. Some home buyers hire home inspectors because they want an objective person to evaluate the builder's work. Others never give it a thought, assuming that the builder will build the house to the right standards.
The tricky part is that builders don't have to allow home inspectors on their property. In fact, some don't allow them at all. Other builders take it in stride and are happy to share their construction methods with an outside observer.
"Maybe 15 percent of our buyers bring in a home inspector," said Don Zierer, director of field operations for Wiseman Hughes Homes, which is building homes in the south and southwest suburbs. "I have no problem with it as long as they stick to what they're supposed to be doing."
Zierer said he has had a few inspectors who starting critiquing areas that were not related to the structural integrity of the home.
"I had one home inspector who started talking about color selections and said that the countertop didn't match the floor and I said, 'But your buyer selected it.' "
Some home buyers also use the term "inspector" loosely. While home inspectors in Illinois are required to be licensed, some buyers will ask about bringing in a relative or friend "who used to work in construction."
Since that term can cover a wide range of knowledge -- including people who haven't seen a construction site in 30 years -- it can raise concerns with some builders. They might fear that a persnickety uncle will try to doom the buying process.
Typically, a licensed inspector is looking at the major stages of construction: Pouring the foundation, framing the walls, and installing all the mechanicals.
In resale housing, home inspectors typically make one visit to the house. In new construction, the inspector may want to make several visits to check key construction stages.
While this results in a thorough inspection, it also may add to the cost. A home inspection typically costs $250 to $500, but may be higher for multiple visits.
During an inspection, a home inspector is not allowed to do anything deemed invasive, such as opening walls to examine wiring or removing carpeting to inspect a subfloor. In resale housing this makes it difficult to detect some problems. In new construction, home inspectors try to avoid this scenario by visiting the home before the walls are enclosed.
"Once the interior walls are enclosed, all bets are off," said Don Nelson, president of Nelson & Son Building Inspections, Ltd. in Northbrook. "There is no way to see everything."
Nelson prefers to visit the house four or five times, starting when the foundation is being poured and backfilled. The last inspection often is before the drywall is installed.
"From that point forward it's pretty cosmetic," he said.
While Nelson checks the plumbing, electrical and heating and cooling systems throughout the visits, he also focuses on broader structural issues.
The series of supports that hold up the house is a key area to inspect. If a load bearing wall has a large door frame cut into it, for example, there should be adequate support in other areas to help carry the load.
If the support is not adequate, it will lead to settling and cracks in the walls or door casings. Such problems may not be evident for months or years, so it is important to build it correctly to offset future disappointments, Nelson said.
Another area to focus on is the floor system under a bathroom. Because the bathroom has a heavy tub and several places where the floor is cut out for plumbing, it is important that the room is properly supported.
Home inspectors also are brought into a house under construction if a buyer sees storm damage while the house is being built and wants an outside perspective. If a house has been hit by heavy rains before the roof is installed, a home inspector might check to ensure the builder dried out the house properly and inspected the exterior house wrap.
"What we look for as home inspectors are places where water can get in," said Frank Lesh, president of Home Sweet Home Inspection Co. in Indian Head Park. "If you just have the sheathing and decking on the roof without the shingles, we start in the attic and look for signs of water infiltration."
Ideally, a builder also should spot these types of problems. In cases where the builder doesn't -- or sees problems but doesn't fix them -- the inspector lends another set of eyes to the situation.
Allison E. Beatty is a Chicago-area freelance writer. If you have questions or information to share regarding new home buyers' product and design choices, write to Choices c/o Chicago Tribune, New Homes Section, 435 N. Michigan Ave., 4th Floor, Chicago, IL 60611. Or, e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org