As a home seller, nothing requires you to hire a home inspector before listing and marketing the property. In fact, any serious home buyer will probably make his or her offer contingent on having the property professionally inspected by an inspector that the buyer chooses and pays for, and then on the buyer approving the results found in the inspector's written report.
But that leaves you open to a common problem: The buyer's inspection could turn up a variety of hidden defects or problems that turn the negotiating tables in the buyer's favor.
One step you can take to make sure your house is in the best possible condition—and that a buyer can't take advantage of you later, when problems are discovered during the post-offer inspection—is to hire a professional inspector before you sell your house.
Also realize that in some states, it's customary for the seller to at least hire a termite or pest inspector in advance of the sale, and to make that report available to buyers. (A pest inspection is not as comprehensive as the general home inspection described in this article.)
When a seller hires a professional inspector, the idea is that this pro will work for you, to help identify hidden problems so that you can either make repairs or reduce the price of your home accordingly. The most qualified people to do a general home inspection are contractors or other professionals with specific knowledge in all aspects of home construction, including plumbing, electrical wiring, structural matters (such as pertaining to the foundation), and much more.
To find a good inspector, ask friends as well as your real estate agent for recommendations, examine each inspector's sample reports, and make sure the inspector is licensed (if that's required in your state) and is a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors or ASHI. Also see Getting a Home Inspection for advice on choosing a home inspector.
Expect to pay several hundred dollars; the price will depend on the size, location, age, and type of your home and the level of detail you want to see in the report.
A professional inspector will identify problems with your home, such as leaks in the roof, possible water damage, remodeling efforts that don't meet current building codes, and improperly grounded outlets.
With this information, the home inspector will prepare a written report (unless you've arranged for a less expensive oral report), and might make repair recommendations. If the report gives your house a relatively clean bill of heath, you can hand copies of the report to buyers, to show them what great shape the place is in. They might still want their own inspection, but this will help enhance their confidence in going through with the purchase.
Apart from the general inspection, various specialized types of inspections are available, the most notable being for pests (such as termites, carpenter ants, and dry rot). You can also hire inspectors who deal with specific issues, like the condition of your home's soil grading or a swimming pool. Unless you suspect a problem that a buyer will want to negotiate over, however, you're probably okay just hiring a general inspector and perhaps a pest inspector, and letting the buyer decide what other specialists to bring in.
Once you have the inspector's report, you have two basic choices: Make the repairs or lower the sale price.
Making certain repairs before you put your house on the market makes sense when the repairs are relatively small and inexpensive. (See Expenses to Expect When Selling Your Home for a rundown of the common ones.)
If the problems are more significant, such as a leaking roof, you might also want to make the repairs, because this means you will have fewer problems to disclose to the buyer.
The law in most states requires formal disclosure of known problems, but if you've remedied the problems, you've shortened the list considerably. (Of course, if you don't fix the problem, you still have to disclose, as discussed below and in Required Disclosures When Selling U.S. Real Estate.)
There are cases when doing a repair before putting a house on the market won't make sense. Major repairs, in particular, like fixing a crack in the foundation, can be expensive, disrupt your life, and might not help your bottom line (that is, you won't get $30,000 more for your house because you spent $30,000 repairing the foundation).
In such cases, you might be better off having a contractor take a look and estimate the cost of repair, then lowering the sale price accordingly.
You can then tell prospective buyers that the repair issues exist and were accounted for in the sale price. If a buyer says to you, "I'll pay $10,000 less because there are pieces of defective siding," you can comfortably respond, "I knew about the siding when I researched the price. It's factored into the market value of the property. It should cost about $2,500 to replace those few pieces, and I listed the house at $3,000 below market value to compensate for that and for any inconvenience to the buyer."
In most states, sellers have a duty to disclose known defects to prospective buyers. If you fix the problems identified in an inspector's report, there's nothing to disclose (unless the form asks for the history of certain issues).
But if you don't repair, you're now under a legal duty to let the buyer know about the problems. This can be frustrating if the inspector finds something seriously wrong that you had no inkling of. Remember, however, that the buyer is likely to have a separate inspection done anyway, in which case the same repair issues are likely to be revealed. At that point, you'd be at a psychological disadvantage.
At best, the house would appear to be worth less than the price tag you put on it. At worst, you'd look like you'd been hiding something. Also, many state disclosure laws assess strict penalties against sellers who fail to disclose know defects.
Even if you conceal a defect from the buyer and the buyer's inspection doesn't discover it, the buyer could discover it after the sale has closed. At that point, not only will penalties kick in, but the buyer could be angry enough to sue you.
For more information on all aspects of marketing and selling your home, see Selling Your House: Nolo's Essential Guide.