In the real estate world, there are many job titles that sound confusingly similar—and home inspectors and building inspectors are two of them. Are they the same thing? After all, a home is a type of building, right?
That’s true, but despite what you may assume, home inspectors are different from building inspectors.
Building inspectors (also known as construction inspectors or building officials) are employees of local governments, and it’s their primary job to sign off on construction projects and make sure everything is up to code. Home inspectors inspect homes for safety and repair issues, usually on behalf of home buyers.
Read on for a more in-depth look at both professionals, the scenarios in which you might interact with each, and how to find a home inspector if and when you need to hire one.
What’s the role of a building inspector?
Building inspectors, or building code inspectors, are typically employees of the local government. They inspect homes, commercial buildings, and other structures during and after construction to identify any local building code violations, such as:
- Window installation that doesn’t meet energy standards
- A messy or overloaded electrical panel
- Kitchen or bathroom remodels that were done without a permit
Building inspectors can create very real consequences for violations of municipal code that they find in a property. If something isn’t up to code, they have the power to issue a fine if the violation isn’t corrected.
And if the building in question is in extremely poor condition, the building inspector may even be able to condemn the property as uninhabitable.
A building inspector might be a generalist, or they may specialize in a certain area of construction (such as electrical systems or plumbing). They may also inspect facilities or structures to check for any environmental hazards such as asbestos, poor air quality, and water contamination.
For many building inspectors, it is also a part of their job to review building plans and issue permits. They may visit a construction or remodel site several times to monitor the progress and make sure all installations and construction methods are up to regulations.
When would a building inspector come to my house?
When you start a renovation or construction project, you’ll likely need to apply to your local municipality building department for a permit. A code enforcement officer will then process your application and sign off on your plans.
Once construction or renovation has begun, a building code inspector will visit the site to inspect and make sure everything is up to regulations. If the inspector sees something that’s in violation of a code, he or she can issue a citation or other orders to correct the illegal or hazardous conditions.
In other scenarios, building inspectors might be dispatched to answer a complaint or report made about suspected code violations. For instance, a neighbor might call in a complaint about someone doing a remodel on their home who obviously doesn’t have a permit.
In a rural area, the same code enforcement officer may be responsible for issuing permits, reviewing plans, handling zoning, and inspecting sites. In larger cities, the building department can separate out those duties among a larger staff.
What does a home inspector do?
While home inspectors may use knowledge of building code regulations in their work, their job is very different from a building inspector.
Home inspectors review a residential property’s condition and provide a professional report of any issues, safety concerns, or repair needs in the home. They often have a background in construction or one of the building trades and have extensive knowledge of home construction.
During a home inspection, the inspector will check the physical structure and major internal systems of the property, including:
- Walls, floors, and ceilings
- Foundation and basement
- Attic and roof
- Heating and cooling systems
- Electrical system
- Installed systems (garbage disposal, dishwasher, sump pump, etc.)
Some of the issues they find might be informed by the inspector’s knowledge of building code, but the inspector doesn’t cite building codes in their report or enforce building code regulations.
When does a home inspection take place?
Home inspectors are most commonly hired during the home-buying process, after the seller accepts a buyer’s offer on the property. Most often, the buyer will hire a home inspector to do a visual inspection of the home and thoroughly check all of the property’s systems and components.
In fact, it’s common practice for a real estate contract to include a home inspection contingency, which states that the buyer can back out of the sale or negotiate repairs based on the results of the inspection.
After an offer is accepted on the home, buyers typically have between 5 and 10 days to order an inspection. The inspector will conduct a thorough visual inspection of the property, usually with the buyer present. Then, he or she will provide a home inspection report listing any issues—often including photos and video of the trouble areas.
The buyer then decides whether to ask the seller to make any repairs. The buyer can accept the home as-is, or they and their agent can send repair requests to the seller. However, the seller isn’t legally obligated to make any repairs (unless this was already a part of the sales agreement).
Instead of asking for the seller to do the repairs themselves, the buyer can try to negotiate a price reduction or credit at closing—or they can always decide to walk away from the sale entirely.
Potential buyers are not the only people who order home inspections. Other common types of home inspectors include:
- Pre-listing inspections: These types of inspections are ordered by sellers before putting their homes on the market. The seller may want to find out the potential repair issues that could affect the end price, and decide whether to repair the problems before listing the property.
- Home maintenance inspections: These inspections are like regular health check-ups for the home. It’s recommended that homeowners order maintenance inspections annually (or at least every 3-5 years) to make sure everything in their home is in good working order.
How do you find a good home inspector?
Because there is no universal standard or certification requirement for home inspectors (many states require home inspectors to hold licenses, but some states do not), it can take a bit of research to find a home inspector with the right qualifications in your area.
If you’re in the market for a home inspector, you can always start by checking with friends or family for recommendations. International professional associations like the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI) or the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) also have member lists that you can consult to find a qualified inspector in your area.
HomeGauge also has a free Find an Inspector tool that lets you search by zip code or state, city, and/or county.
Once you’ve made a list of potential candidates, choose the best home inspector for your needs by asking for a sample report from a similar home. Review it for a good idea of how thorough the inspector is and their general communication style. You should also ask how much experience the inspector has, and what kinds of services are included in their quoted price.
Benefits of a home inspection
If you’re buying a home, it can be tempting to skip the $300-$600 you might pay for a quality home inspection—but it’s definitely in your best interests to hire a home inspector.
Even if the home looks like it’s in perfect shape, you never know what issues may present themselves after you move in. It’s always a good idea to find out about that leaky roof or faulty wiring before closing day.
Once you experience an emergency repair that costs thousands, shelling out a few hundred bucks for an inspection ahead of time will suddenly seem completely worth it.
And even if you don’t want to delay the closing date to wait for the seller to do repairs, knowing about the home’s condition is still a good idea. You can use your home inspection report to negotiate a discount on the home price in the amount that doing the repairs yourself would cost.
Takeaway: The difference between home inspectors and building inspectors
While home inspectors and building inspectors have very similar job titles, they perform different functions in the real estate world.
Building inspectors represent their local government. They visit residential and commercial properties to enforce local building codes and ordinances, and they can also review and sign off on building plans.
Home inspectors, on the other hand, perform visual inspections on residential properties to give their clients (usually home buyers, but occasionally sellers and homeowners generally) an idea of the condition of the home. They don’t enforce code; they simply give their clients a report of any defects and deficiencies they find. Then it’s up to the client to decide what to do with the results.