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Ask McEnearney: What are home inspection deal breakers? And should they be?

This week’s Q&A column is written by Rebecca McCullough of McEnearney Associates Realtors®, the leading real estate firm in Alexandria. To learn more about this article and relevant Alexandria market news, contact Rebecca at 571-384-0941 or email [email protected]. You may also submit your questions to McEnearney Associates via email for response in future columns.

Question: What are home inspection deal breakers? And should they be?

Answer: Congratulations! You are under contract! Not only that, even in this seemingly sellers’ market you have negotiated a home inspection. Way to go!

Heading into the home inspection maybe you are concerned about some things. Or perhaps you feel sure the house is fantastic, in solid condition. Either way, you’re about to find out!

Three and half hours later, your shoulders are slumped, you’ve written a sizable check and the wind is out of your sails. You’ve potentially got one of the three unforeseen deal breakers: water, mold, or structural issues. The opportunity seems dead on arrival, with a “Notice to Void” soon to follow. But should it? Maybe not. Here’s why…

Firstly, the responsibility of the home inspector is to point out obvious and potential issues. Their biggest fear is they won’t find or point out a potential issue, and then the buyer comes after them for damages. So please know it is their job to point out the possibility that these items may be serious, and to recommend that the buyer hire an expert in a specific area to confirm. Think of the home inspector as your first line of defense (after a good Realtor, who hopefully can advise of some potential issues and their remediations), but it is likely if they find anything suspicious, they will recommend you hire a professional in the area you would like explore further.

But why would a buyer spend the money to investigate further when there’s an issue? Some people will simply void and walk away, but that is not always the best option for a serious buyer.

I have a different view than the immediate pivot. Now, I may have a strong stomach for this as I’ve owned a lot of houses, done my share of renovations, and have seen it all! But truly, most of the time there is a resolution, and it should resolve the problem to prevent any reoccurrence. A good service company will guarantee their work for many years to come.

Let’s explore the premise that you’ve found a house that you love, the inspection turned up a few issues and you want to explore resolution. Let’s dive more deeply into the three big challenging issues and some ways to mitigate them for now if you are a homeowner, and what to look for as a buyer.


This is the issue we come across the most often. I have yet to do a home inspection on a detached house where the inspector doesn’t warn about poor grading around the house. Water should always run away from the house. Flower beds, soil and mulch get beaten down and they must be replenished at least annually to ensure proper grading. Adding a bunch of porous mulch is not enough, you need to make sure the underlying soil is laid appropriately.

Next of course, are the gutters and down spouts. They need to set up to maximize water being pulled away from the house. Those are the basics that you’ll find in the majority of home inspections. If these are not set up properly, you may find damp walls. A home inspector uses a moisture reader to determine if there is a potential issue behind the wall. You may also be able to visible see effervescence in foundation blocks. This could be as easy a fix as a coat of Drylok paint on the foundation walls.

Sometimes the problem is more severe (and it very well can be here in NOVA!) We are at sea level and our ground water level is high. The majority of homes that we see do have sump pumps. These devices pump ground water away from the house. On a rainy day you will hear them working their magic.

If no sump pump exists, you may need to install a French drain around the lower level of the house. Depending on the size the of house this can be expensive — a few years ago we did this for a 1,400 sq. ft. basement and it was $8,000. If you’re a home buyer, you should most certainly have the seller pay for it. If water issues have been found, we assume the seller was not aware of it, but they are now, and will have to disclose them in the listing.


Don’t panic! Mold is often a temporary issue. Once the cause of the mold is remedied, and the home is remediated, no mold should reoccur.

There are many types of molds. If a home inspector tells you, you’ve got bad mold and it needs to be remediated, get a new inspector. It may just need to be cleaned not remediated. Only a certified mold company can advise that, and after they’ve done the appropriate air and swab tests. A good inspector will advise they are concerned and recommend having the mold further evaluated to determine if it’s toxic.

In 2022, four of my clients needed to do mold remediation (one seller and three buyers). Sellers don’t always realize how a roof leak seeped beyond where they thought, or the water heater leak that went unnoticed seeped into the walls.

The process is virtually the same for all: find the infected area, expose it, treat it, clean all the ducts, put it back together. Each of these clients had no idea there was a problem prior to inspection. Each of them paid for the remediation and the deal made it to settlement. The cost averaged around $6,000, plus the drywall and paint repair.


There’s an expression we use in NOVA, “tilting floors in Old Town show character.” But, in the surrounding areas, it’s a deal breaker. And yes, structural issues can get very expensive — but not in all cases! Again, it’s imperative for the home inspector to look for these issues, but a structural engineer is needed to evaluate and offer any course of remediation.

There is a good part of NOVA that sits on marine clay, which is not the most stable ground surface. It is very possible to see cracks along the foundation, but there are varying fixes. Depending on how much you love the house it may very well be worth it to pay and get it fixed. This area is still struggling with sufficient inventory to meet demand, and “perfect” homes are selling quickly. The homes that need a little love and repair can be a great investment!

In 2020, we bought a house that had water, mold, and structural issues after being vacant for two years. It’s along the water where the soil is weak. The sump pump had failed, and water had been sitting on and off in the basement. However, for this waterfront property we were willing to make the fixes. We determined it was $26,000 total for the three remediations, and I negotiated this as a discount on the sales price and bought the home. It is now three years later, and we are living dry and solid in our dream home that I could not imagine losing out on. It was worth it!

Rebecca McCullough has built a successful real estate business in Alexandria and Northern Virginia by providing excellent service to her clients. If you would like more information on selling or buying in today’s complex market, contact Rebecca today at 571-384-0941 or visit her website

If you would like a question answered in our weekly column or to set up an appointment with one of our Associates, please email: [email protected] or call 703-549-9292.

McEnearney Associates Realtors®, 109 S. Pitt Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. Equal Housing Opportunity. #WeAreAlexandria

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