With half a million bucks on the line, it was no time to skimp on inspections, so we went with a recommendation from elizabear, of Tri-Value Consultants. I'll pass on the recommendation -- the phone number is (781) 334-3830, and they were worth every cent.
They're a fascinating pair. It's a father/son firm, and a rather improbable-looking pair. Joe, the dad, is what msmemory and I call "A Guy" -- old-stock Lynnfield 50-something, a bit taciturn but clearly knows his stuff. Michael, the son, is what happens when a to-the-bone geek grows up in a construction household, as shaggy as any fan but with a different professional focus than most. As far as I can tell, Michael embraced his father's craft because it gives him the excuse to learn absolutely everything about the construction business, and talk about all of it. They earned my respect in the first two minutes, when they shook our hands and gave us a copy of their book on the subject. (They overprinted, so they give a copy away with each inspection.) Indeed, the *very* first thing they did was to ask us what concerns we had -- msmemory listed the three things we had noticed, and they basically said, "Yep, that's three of the four major problems on the exterior".
They do things quite methodically: the two of them go around a section (the outside, the basement, the garage) alone for a while, then Joe ushers the clients in to talk to Michael while he scopes out the next part. And oh, man, can Michael talk. He walks you around the space, talking a mile a minute about every detail, and he has a remarkable eye for detail. I learned more about construction in those two hours than previously in my whole life. Michael scarcely even pauses for breath, save to ask whether you have questions every couple of minutes.
Of course, they particularly focus on the problems, and unfortunately they found lots to talk about. The biggest was the one we had missed. Michael raised his finger, explaining that this is *not* a scientific probe and therefore he shouldn't be able to do this -- and stuck it through the trim around the garage. This trim now consisted solely of paint, without much wood behind it. Making it worse, he pointed out that if the termites had eaten the trim out six feet up, that meant that they had certainly eaten much of everything *below* that, and probably much of what was above. That pretty much killed the deal right there, but there was lots more.
He pointed out the little holes in the upper woodwork -- signs we had missed of woodpeckers, meaning that there were ants digging around in the roof wood. (Later, he showed us the telltale sawdust in the basement, where the ants had neatly deposited the wood they had eaten through.) The erosion of the chimney that msmemory had noticed was more serious than I had given it credit for: he showed the signs that stuff was leeching through the brick. We had *not* noticed the power line from the street, that was being practically torn out by the tree that had grown onto it.
They proved that they could compliment things: the electrical system was solid, and Michael was clearly impressed by whoever had installed it. And to be fair, we didn't have them go through the interior, which I *suspect* would have fared better -- since it was clear that the deal was dead, we agreed to have them just do the exterior and structural inspection, and knock a bit off their fee.
I was feeling slightly guilty about having to spike the deal until we got around to the crack in the garage foundation that I had noticed a week ago. This pretty large crack (a good half-inch wide) had been hastily filled in with concrete, recently enough that the concrete was still wet. That qualified as intentional decepton, and clumsily enough done that I couldn't even respect it as an intelligent decision on their part. Michael explained that this crack wasn't really surprising -- the house appeared to have been built on fill, and a crack of that sort was fairly common. But it was still a significant concern: in such an overwhelmingly damp location, this crack would require careful monitoring and maintenance over the years.
Overall, it boiled down to two main elements. First, the house was built in 1988. I had initially thought this a positive: it's relatively new construction. But Michael pointed out that that was at the height of the last housing bubble, and many houses were constructed fast and cheap. This house was apparently pretty typical of the time: nice design and layout, but relatively slapdash construction. And many primary systems (heating, cooling, etc) at that time were fairly poorly made, so all of them were at or past the end of their recommended lifespans. And second, while the interior of the house was spotless, the exterior and the bones of the house had been neglected -- and that close to water, neglect was pretty damaging. (Michael wasn't even willing to open the windows to check them -- the sills were rotted enough that he thought there was a chance they might fall out.)
I'm somewhat surprised by our reactions. We're both a little disappointed: I still think that we're unlikely to find another house that suits us better in terms of interior design, and it's going to take a lot of work to find another we like as much. But there is a palpable sense of having dodged a bullet, a mistake that we would have regretted for decades. It cost five hundred bucks, but saved us a thousand times as much.
So these guys are definitely getting our business again as this project continues. We're not under any illusions that we're going to find a house they completely approve of, but if we can choose one that they can't find *terrifying* problems in, it's probably pretty good...