Charles Bellefontaine found out the hard way the value of a good home inspection. In 1991, Bellefontaine and his wife, Loretta, signed a contract to buy a three-bedroom, one-bath Georgian-style house in Elmhurst, Illinois. A framing carpenter, he figured he had enough experience to size up the property for potential shortcomings. So to save money, Bellefontaine skipped hiring an inspector and handled the task himself. He declared the house fit, and the couple completed the purchase.

Within a year, Bellefontaine found out how wrong he was: A leaky bathtub on the second floor damaged the kitchen ceiling below, an improperly sized circuit breaker posed a fire hazard, and the roof needed to be replaced. Buying the home had stretched the couple's finances so perilously that they had to borrow money from Loretta's mother to pay for the repairs.

"We hadn't been married that long, and you can imagine how that incident went over with the family," Bellefontaine says. "I may have known something about construction, but I did not know how to thoroughly inspect the property." Loretta puts it more succinctly: "He was a know-it-all, and we paid for it."

Fortunately, most people don't attempt their own home inspections. But even hiring a professional doesn't guarantee that a newly purchased house isn't harboring unpleasant surprises. By and large, home inspectors are poorly regulated, and the level of performance varies widely. Only 14 states require licenses, according to the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), a trade group based in Des Plaines, Illinois. Among those that do, few follow the lead of New Jersey, where inspectors must pass a lengthy written test, perform as many as 400 inspections, and in some cases complete a training program at a state-approved school before being accredited. More common is the situation in Georgia and Tennessee, where home inspectors can be certified without evidence of any prior experience. Many states have no certification requirements at all.

Here's a list of steps you can take to ensure that you get the most from a home inspection.

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