To hear professional home inspectors tell it, Americans take better care of their automobiles than their homes. Consequently, every home buyer should plan to spend the $400 to $600 necessary to have the house they like best thoroughly examined by an independent third party.

But before you order an inspection, you should do some preliminary investigating of your own. That way, you can protect against picking the wrong house and allowing a better-maintained property to slip away.

Even rookie buyers can get a good idea of just how well a house has been kept. Even when the seller has given the place a fresh shave and a haircut — that is, painted the house and trimmed the lawn — or done whatever else is necessary to make the property presentable, there can still be telltale signs that the seller hasn't been as diligent as he or she could have been.

For example, a clean furnace filter can be taken as an indication the house has been well cared for. But who's to say the seller didn't just change that filter for the first time in years? If the filter hasn't been changed regularly, the furnace hasn't been working efficiently and it may not last for its expected life span.

So how do you know? You don't. But if you spy a pile of spare filters, it's a pretty good sign that the owner is on the ball. Someone in the process of selling isn't buying extra filters he or she won't use.

Another clue that the furnace is in good shape: Look for a service log showing that the machine has been serviced regularly, at least once a year.

Of course, home buyers shouldn't substitute this kind of rudimentary investigation for a complete and exhaustive inspection by a trained professional. Even if the furnace has been serviced consistently, it could be on its last legs, and only a pro will be able to determine that.

If you are really interested in a property, make an appointment with the owner to return without an agent in tow. Give yourself plenty of time to give the place a good once-over.

Don't be afraid to kick the tires. You have every right to open closets, flush toilets, run the dishwasher through a full cycle, turn on all the cooktop burners, check the refrigerator and open the windows. The owners shouldn't object, not if they really want to sell.

You don't want to put every house you tour under this kind of microscope. That would be counterproductive. But once you narrow your choices down to two or three, it's time to take a harder look. Then, after you make your final decision, it's time to call in the experts.

Here, in no particular order, are some other suggestions from professional inspectors to help you decide whether the properties you are considering are inspection-worthy:

• If the house has a basement, follow your nose. If there is a damp, musty smell, there's usually an issue. A dehumidifier is another tip-off to a wet basement. They aren't part of the decor.

Also, look for stains or rot where the stringers, or side pieces, on the basement steps touch the floor. If there is a water problem, the moisture will wick into the wood.

If there is nothing on the basement floor, that could be a sign of water issues. Inspectors love to see stacks of old magazines in the corner with spider webs. That means those items have been there a long time, and that there is no water problem.

• After water issues, improper electrical wiring is the second-most-common defect found by home inspectors. Although it is difficult for an amateur to determine whether the electrical system is adequate, there are clues.

If you see a lot of fuses lying around, especially burned-out ones, it's a dead giveaway that the wiring is probably undersized. Another sure-fire indication that the wiring is insufficient: a bunch of extension cords snaking around, hither and yon.

• Roofing problems are also fairly common, so look for shingles that are cupping at the corners. They may have to be replaced. If the roof appears to be sagging between the joists, the entire thing may have to be removed. And if there are already two layers of shingles, the cost to fix it could be at least 20% higher.

If the house has been well-maintained, the owner will know exactly how many layers are on the roof, the age of the top layer and whether new sheathing has been put down between the two layers.

• Some owners will try to hide water damage in their bathrooms by recaulking and grouting tiles. But you can beat them at their own game by tapping on the tile where it hits the tub or shower floor. The tile should sound, and feel, solid. If it sounds hollow, give it a nudge to see if there is any give to the wall. If there is, something's going on behind there that isn't good.

• Turn on the faucets on the bathroom sink and tub, and flush the toilet, all at the same time. If there is an appreciable drop in water flow, there could be a serious pressure problem, possibly caused by mineral buildup in old pipes.

• Maybe 1 in 20 houses examined by the pros qualifies as well-maintained. But if the seller keeps a maintenance log backed by files of receipts, warranties, instruction manuals and color swatches, it's probably a safe bet that the house has been a labor of love.

Neatness counts too. There should be access to all space, and nothing should be blocking the furnace or electrical panel.

lsichelman@aol.com

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