Choosing the right home inspector can be crucial. It could keep you from buying a home with major problems that could be costly to fix.

But the independent nonprofit rating company Consumers’ Checkbook found that home inspectors may not find every major problem with the homes they inspect. Last year, it performed an undercover investigation.

They asked 12 different licensed, certified home inspectors to inspect a three-bedroom home. What the inspectors didn’t know was that the home had 28 known problems, including a badly damaged roof.

Unfortunately, the inspectors didn’t perform very well. Only three performed an up-close roof inspection. Only five inspected the window air conditioners. Only half opened and closed all of the windows. As a group, the inspectors only found half of the known issues.

Understand the process and ask questions

To separate the great inspectors from the bad, you need to know what you’re buying.

A good inspection should take two to three hours and cost several hundred to a thousand dollars, depending on the scope of the inspection, the inspector’s experience, and the location and size of the home. Engineers and architects can charge much more than other home inspectors, but their level of expertise may not be necessary.

Look at the websites of the major home inspection trade associations, such as the:

  • American Society of Home Inspectors
  • International Association of Certified Home Inspectors
  • National Academy of Building Inspection Engineers

This can educate you about what a good inspector will do and not do. They also provide sample inspection reports so you can ensure everything actually gets inspected.

Don’t rely on your real estate agent for a recommendation. The inspector might go easy on the property to avoid affecting the sale.

Instead, check rating services such as the Better Business Bureau, Consumers’ Checkbook or Angie’s List for highly rated inspectors in your metro area.

Once you have an inspector in mind, verify their state license and any certifications they claim to have. On the web, search the company’s name and terms like “complaints” and “reviews.”

Finally, find out what to expect in terms of a report. Ideally, you should be allowed to accompany the inspector on the inspection. And, find out what the inspector’s liability is should they miss something big. Will they pay for the cost of the missed item, or will they only refund the cost of the inspection?

Timing of the inspection

Buyers shouldn’t have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for a home inspection unless there is a signed purchase agreement with the seller. The agreement should have a contingency clause saying that the deal can be rescinded based on the results of the home inspection.