Search for Hidden Problems
Now, more than ever, buyer beware. Most sellers just aren't motivated to do expensive repairs in this market, so problems sometimes get painted over or hidden, and it's up to you to find them.
Work with a Home Inspector
Your best bet is to hire a certified home inspector. If you get a recommendation from your realtor, check references; you want an independent and unbiased opinion.
Your inspector should look at the house thoroughly with you and give you a written assessment of the house's condition from top to bottom, including windows, doors, trim, siding, roof and chimneys. The report should include an assessment of the building's structure and mention any signs of settling or instability. It should cover the siting of the house on the lot and tell you if there are any drainage issues you should be worried about. And it should give you an idea of the age and safety of all the mechanical systems in the house and whether anything is unsafe or needs to be replaced.
Negotiate with Power
The inspector's report gives you leverage to negotiate a lower home price, have repairs made before closing or back out if you don't want to deal with serious problems.
The Cost of Inspection
Depending on where you live, whom you hire and how long the inspection takes, the report will cost you anywhere from $200 to $700, but it can save you thousands. It's definitely money well spent.