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Is it a fixer-upper or a money pit? Home inspector Bob Dunlop has seen his share of both.

While most first-time home buyers wouldn't think twice about how a chimney can affect the structural integrity of a house, the president of Carson Dunlop can tell at a glance when problems lie ahead.

"On more than one occasion, I have inspected a home where the chimney was touching the chimney of the home next door. Immediately this tells me there are structural problems. There was one in particular that had settled badly, but curiously the floors were very level. When I removed a heating register to peek below the floor, I discovered another floor about six inches below that was not so level," Mr. Dunlop says.

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"Structural problems like this can be very costly to correct. Without the inspection, the potential buyers wouldn't have known there were structural issues until it was too late. A home inspection can help you avoid this type of surprise down the road."

For about $500, a home inspection tells buyers what they're getting into, identifying what repairs need to be made and at what cost. It helps prevent costly surprises that could reduce the value of a home, one of the biggest investments most people make.

A home inspection analyzes the structure and major systems: the roof, exterior, electrical, heating, cooling and plumbing. Mr. Dunlop offers some tips about what home buyers should be on the lookout for:

The roof. A roof in good condition will help prevent water damage to your home's contents, finishes and structure. The inspector will look at the age of the roof, if there is any deterioration and any improper installation of downspouts, gutters, vents, and chimneys.

Plumbing. An outdated plumbing system can lead to potential hazards and costly water damage if it isn't maintained or updated. A home inspector will provide information on the type of pipes used, where the shut-off valve is and if there are any leaks or unusual sounds that could indicate a problem area.

Heating. An older heating system, such as an oil furnace, could leak and cause damage to your home and the surrounding area if not maintained properly. The home inspector reviews the efficiency and the age of the heating system to flag any potential issues.

Foundation. Cracks or dampness in the foundation could indicate larger issues that are costly to repair. The inspector also reviews the grading of the land around the home to ensure water from rainfall or melting snow is flowing properly away from the home.

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Back-up valve/sump pump. A functioning sump pump will drive water from the lowest part of the basement to avoid flooding and water damage. The inspector will check that there is a sump pump, if one is required, and test it to ensure it is working and installed properly.

Windows. Windows that aren't properly sealed could lead to water damage, pest problems and increased heating and air conditioning bills due to drafts. The inspector will check the windows from both the inside and outside to identify any potential issues.

Exterior. An overall review of the exterior structure of the home will identify problem areas that could lead to water damage, mould or even structural problems for the home. All of these can lead to costly repairs or damage.

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