Tom Woolley checks to make sure the wires that run to the service panel are the right size for the circuit breakers or fuses in use. (Sheila Whyte/CBC)

Anyone who's ever bought a house will tell you it's one of the most stressful things they've ever done, especially the first time around. Buyers usually get very little time to explore their prospective home before making the biggest financial commitment of their lives.

Some people have a grasp of what makes a house tick. But to others, a new house is a mystery and many Canadians turn to home inspectors to try to make sure the house is sound before closing a deal.  

The competence of home inspectors is an area of controversy. Anybody can call themselves a home inspector, except in British Columbia, which is the only province to regulate the profession. The Canadian Association of House and Property Inspectors (CAHPI), a national association that is trying to bring uniform standards to the profession, says it believes only half of the country's inspectors belong to CAHPI. The others have no recognized credentials.

As a result, buyers need ask some tough questions about an inspector's certifications and what he/she will inspect before hiring them.  

What to expect

Once you've decided who will do the job, the inspector will ask you to sign a contract that outlines their duties and the limitations of the inspection. Be sure to read the document carefully and ask questions. Professional inspectors generally follow their standards of practice, a guideline with a minimum, uniform standard for home inspectors to follow when giving their clients information about the various systems and components of the house. It would be a good idea to check that out early before you meet your inspector.

Once you sign with someone, what can you expect of a home inspection?  An education, especially for novice homeowners. 

"Young kids buying a house, they're so excited just with the notion of getting a house they wouldn't even know to ask questions," says Tom Woolley, former director of the Ontario Association of Home Inspectors, who now works as an inspector and trainer for the Toronto firm Carson Dunlop.

He says the home inspection is a good time to learn about a house, and he urges his clients go on the tour. The inspection can cost about $350 to $550 and should run between three and four hours in the daytime so the exterior can be seen.

Woolley says inexperienced buyers often fear the inspection will uncover defects such as major structural damage but he says that's rare. "Things that we most often encounter that cause people to pause are things that they didn't expect:  knob-and-tube wiring in older homes, old roof, old furnace, old air conditioner," he says. All very expensive items to replace.

To the untrained eye, a three-hour tour of a house can seem exhausting but inspectors stress that their inspection is not exhaustive.  

"We're looking for elephants, not mice," says Woolley. 

A good inspector should also be a good communicator. There's plenty to learn from the running commentary of experienced professionals and you're the one who's paying, so ask questions.

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