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Courier-Post Staff

Buying a house can be a nerve-racking journey into the unknown. But a qualified home inspector might be able to help point the way.

He may be able to determine if an air conditioning unit needs cleaning, the electrical system needs upgrading, the roof is sturdy or other major problems exist.

Although a home inspection is not required by law in New Jersey, many real estate lawyers and agents insist their clients get one. "I always recommend a home inspection," says William J. Sragow, a real estate lawyer based in Cherry Hill. "The lay person does not have the expertise to recognize defects in a home's roof, structure or major systems like plumbing, heating, ventilation or electrical systems." A certified home inspector can provide a "snapshot of the condition of a home," says Rich Lukoff of M.B.C. Inspections in Cherry Hill.

Toni Diamond, a Realtor associate with Prudential, Fox and Roach Realtors in Mount Laurel, says about 95 percent of her clients choose a home inspection.

"It's a preventative measure for the buyer," says Diamond, who has been in the real estate business for 27 years.

Unlike hair dressers or doctors, the state does not regulate home inspectors. Until it implements a licensing program, buyers and sellers do not have much protection against unscrupulous home inspectors, so doing research is essential. Sragow recommends his clients look for a professional engineer or someone who has been in business for a while and has a reputation for integrity and thoroughness.

A buyer can file suit against a home inspector if his advice is incorrect, Sragow says, although it's rare.

"If an inspectors should have seen it then, yes, there is a legal recourse."

Glen Fisher of National Property Inspections in Haddon Township says every person buying a house - old or new - should get an inspection. Fisher and Lukoff are members of the American Society of Home Inspectors, a national organization that sets demanding standards for inspectors.

"A home inspector's report could point out something negotiable during the buyer-seller interaction stage," says Lukoff, an 11-year member of ASHI.

Diamond says she doesn't refer clients to a specific inspector but directs them to ASHI's www.ashi.com Web site. She suggests they call and question the home inspector to make sure they are comfortable with their choice.

When looking for an inspector, Fisher recommends asking friends or neighbors who are recent home buyers or requesting a reference from a lawyer. Check with the local Better Business Bureau to see how long an inspector has been in business, says Fisher, who suggests avoiding companies that change names often.

Although the Federal Housing Administration does not require home inspections, they strongly recommend the service to people receiving a mortgage from the agency. An FHA appraiser visits the property and presents a list of potential repairs to the seller and buyer, Sragow says.

After setting up an appointment, the potential buyer usually walks through the house with the inspector. Lukoff carries a checklist along with a flashlight and screwdriver to look for termite damage, leaky pipes and more. Lukoff recommends his clients read the entire report, which is issued a few days later, then create with their legal advisers and real estate agents a "hit list" of items to address before finalizing the deal. Lukoff says problems with estimated costs of more than $500 are major concerns.

Sragow, who thinks buyers and sellers don't completely understand the role of a home inspector, says the report should act as a discovery of defects in the house.

When an inspector finds problems with a house, the seller should not take it personally and "look at it less emotionally," Sragow says.

He says buyers should have "realistic expectations of a house."

For Gary and Rose Wilson of Jobstown, a home inspection literally saved them the roof over their heads.

Although Gary Wilson is a contractor specializing in plumbing, heating and air conditioning, he knew something was wrong with the roof of a house the couple is buying.

Wilson hired a home inspector who discovered a major problem with the shingles and the plywood under the roof. This became a negotiating issue, so the home owner put $10,000 in escrow for the roof.

"We spent $180 for the inspection and it was worth it for the peace of mind. We saved $10,000," Wilson says.

Wilson says he fixed some of the minor problems, such as a few electrical things, by himself. Wilson, his wife and his four children love living in the contemporary-styled house in Burlington County.

"I would recommend a home inspector for anyone buying a house," Wilson says. "You're foolish not to get one. It worked out really well for us."

Most inspectors charge a sliding-scale fee based on the size and complexity of the house. Prices range from $200 to $1,000. An inspection lasts between two and three hours.

"Certainly, older houses in general should have a home inspection, although with newer construction it's up to the comfort level of the buyer," Lukoff says.

"First, it's not a pass or fail thing with a home inspection. A house can pass, but it can't fail," Lukoff says. A house that is one person's "handyman's special" could be another's money pit.

Take home buyers Jesse and Beth Nelson, who purchased their Oaklyn home in 1998. A home inspector discovered a few "issues," such as termite damage, that could be negotiated. However, he missed at least one other major problem that turned into a costly project for the Nelsons.

"He told us the fireplace was in working order, but it had to be relined, which cost about $1,500," says Jesse Nelson.

Out of necessity, the couple has learned how to repair minor plumbing and electrical glitches in their cozy 80-year-old house.

"Every little project turned into something else," says Nelson.

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