Real estate inspection.

The three little words can cause palpitations in even the sturdiest souls.

For potential homebuyers, a real estate inspection means the house they have recently fallen in love with and are in the process of purchasing could be revealed to harbor conditions — expensive conditions. For home sellers, an inspection might mean finding problem areas that result in a price reduction or a laundry list of items to be negotiated or repaired before a closing can take place.

“It’s always ‘the dreaded’ home inspection,” says Larry Willette, an inspector for 20 years and founder of Home Quality Headquarters Inc., a general home inspection company based in Tolland.

But for both buyers and sellers, it doesn’t have to be.

“There’s a large misconception out there that home inspectors are here to kill a deal or ruin a sale, but that’s not what we’re about,” says Rick Hall, field manager for U.S. Inspect, a national home inspection com-pany with agents throughout the state. “Our job is to help a sale go through so everyone understands what they’re getting. The buyer is our client so obviously we’re there to help them, but we’re not the enemy.”

Another misunderstanding is that a home inspection offers a sort of warranty on the house; it does not.

Good inspectors make a concerted effort to work with all parties involved in an inspection. “It’s a very tough time for both the seller and the buyer,” Hall says. “The more you embrace everyone in this transac-tion, the easier it will go.”

It helps if both the buyer and the seller know what to expect.

‘Home 101’ For Buyers

For the buyer, a home inspection is designed to, “let people know what they’re getting into,” says Bill Stanley, a second-generation inspector and the owner of Stanco Inc. in Cheshire. “It’s their basic Home 101 course.”

A complete home inspection is a detailed analysis of the condition of a house and each of its operating systems. The list includes structural elements — foundation, walls, support beams, chimney, roof — and sys-tems including heat, plumbing, electrical and air-conditioning.

“The point of the inspection is to help the buyer make an informed decision and determine whether there are any major conditions they weren’t aware of,” says Willette. “They also learn about the different systems in their house, and they learn what to expect based on the age and condition of things.” But there are some limitations. “It is a visual inspection,” says Stanley. “We’re not technicians. We can’t go inside the boiler or tear it apart.”

Nor is a home inspection the same as a code inspection. “We’re evaluating based on what was required when that house was built 100 years ago, unless upgrades were done,” Hall says. “We tell [buyers] it’s probably a good idea to put a railing on the stairs, but was it required when the home was built? Probably not.”

Standards for a Connecticut home inspection are set out by the Department of Consumer Protection, but most inspectors go above and beyond. “What you’re required to do is pretty thin,” Stanley says.

“We throw in a lot of education,” says Hall. “How systems function, how a hot water boiler functions, the difference between a hot water heater and a furnace.” Good inspectors also give buyers an idea of the life expectancy on the systems in the house — “components like heating, hot water heaters, roof shingles — and how much life they have left on them,” he says.

An average home inspection should last about three hours. “If you’re getting less than two hours, in my opinion, you’re not getting your money’s worth,” Hall says. Prices start around $350, average $500, and sometimes range higher, depending on the size and age of the home.

Inspectors almost always encourage clients to follow them during the inspection process, learning as they go. “Follow the inspector,” Stanley says. “Ask questions.”

But not all buyers make use of the opportunity.

“Some lose interest,” says Willette. “They wander off. They haven’t been in the house much since they bid on it, and they might be taking the opportunity to measure rooms or plan paint colors, but if I find some-thing and you’re somewhere else, I’ll come and get you. Whatever I find, you’re going to know about it, and if it’s significant, I’m going to show you.”

“Significant” findings can vary from inspection to inspection. “Every inspection report will be different,” Willette says. But most qualified home inspectors hopefully will discover the same major things, Stanley says. “Significant” are items that pertain to safety and major capital expense. Willette labels “significant” anything that will cost more than $500 to fix or upgrade along with any posing major capital expenses down the line.

Buyers should not expect their reports to cover more superficial conditions, the types that can be fixed with a can of paint. “We’re not there to deal with cosmetic issues,” Stanley says. “If there’s a scratch in the countertop or a ding in the paint, from my perspective, that’s not going to change whether or not you buy the house.”

Inspectors bring an array of equipment to the job. Flashlights, screwdrivers, moisture meters, voltage gauges and radon testing gear are all standard. Newer to the field and not part of every inspector’s arsenal are ultrasound devices for determining weak areas in an oil tank, and thermal imaging equipment to detect heat loss. These tests involve costly apparatus and extra fees.

The presentation of inspection reports — and the timeframe in which they are delivered — varies considerably. Buyers should ask in advance about what they’re getting to be certain it meets their needs and any desired closing deadline. The most basic reports are handwritten checklists issued at the time of the inspec-tion. Other inspectors complete a checklist — “the kind with boxes for good, fair, poor,” Stanley says. Stanley, Willette and inspectors at U.S. Inspect all produce narrative or commentary reports.

Gayle Deneen, area marketing representative for U.S. Inspect, says, “It stands to reason that a com-mentary format — a running dialogue as to the condition of the home — is not ambiguous to the buyer when ‘good,’ ‘fair,’ ‘poor’ can leave a lot of questions.” U.S. Inspect can also offer laptop-generated reports, on site if necessary in time-crunch situations.

Getting Ready

For homeowners, who tend to be a proud breed, an inspection produces different anxieties — starting with the discomfort of allowing strangers into the house to poke around and, potentially, find faults. To allay concerns, some inspectors recommend a pre-listing inspection — having the house fully inspected to identify and possibly fix any existing problems before putting the house on the market. “If you’re a person who doesn’t like surprises, why not do it ahead of time?” asks Stanley.

“If you do find things … it’s much cheaper to fix something when it’s under your own terms,” Willette says. “When you’ve got your back against the wall and everyone’s panicking, it tends to cost more.”

But Willette and others caution that a pre-inspection can produce problems. If the homeowner decides not to address any problems found, he or she is legally obliged to disclose them.

There are other things homeowners can do to help an inspection go smoothly.

“Make things easy for the inspector,” Stanley says. “Don’t have 40,000 things piled in front of the elec-trical panel. If you have a full closet leading to the attic, empty it out, or I have to.”

He also suggests having “the heating and air conditioning systems serviced, and be able to show the paid receipts,” he says. “It tells the buyer you’re keeping up with things. If the buyer finds you haven’t had the systems serviced, they might not be as confident. They might wonder what else hasn’t been taken care of. Take care of it so I don’t have to find it.”