What Lurks Outside Those Walls

Home inspections often don’t delve into landscaping issues—but should.

September 16, 2015

Mature trees towering over a yard may draw house hunters, but failing to inspect the health and location of those trees could prove a costly mistake. The same goes for inspecting a home's irrigation system, soil and grading, and decks and patios. Prudent home shoppers are looking beyond the aesthetics of a home’s exterior and doing careful preinspections of the landscape in order to stave off buyers’ remorse and better understand maintenance needs.

Relying solely on a home inspector's advice may not suffice for outdoor issues. "A lot of home inspectors don’t focus on the landscape, yet it can have a big adverse impact on a home," says Jeremy Johnson, president of CRI Home Inspections in Riverside, Calif. "Landscapes are a huge issue both financially for a home owner and structurally for the house." Johnson began offering a landscape inspection as part of his standard home inspection after seeing a need for a more inclusive look at a home's exterior. He’s discovered a number of problems that can lurk: oversaturation of soil; tree branches hanging over a home that can damage roofs and allow pests access; broken or misaligned sprinklers that can lead to dry rot or termites; inefficient rain gutters that cause drainage problems; and lawn slopes that drain toward the house rather than away, setting the scene for flooding issues.

Buyers should ask the home inspector what components of the landscape are included in the inspection and try to find a home inspector who is knowledgeable and who routinely includes an outdoor review in an inspection package. That may be the best approach for obtaining an unbiased overview of conditions outside the house. But in some cases, landscape specialists are needed for a more thorough investigation, such as irrigation companies to evaluate the sprinkler system; geological inspectors for slope, drainage, and soil concerns; and arborists for issues with trees and plants. The costs vary, but typical ranges are $75 to $120 for a termite or pest report; $150 to $350 for an arborist review; and $350 to $450 for a septic system inspection, according to Costhelper.com. Some specialists may offer a free analysis, hoping that buyers will step up to pay for recommended services. Consumers generally should be wary of "free" assessments. On the other hand, buyers may benefit from learning upfront that the removal of a single large tree could run upwards of $1,500.

"Smart buyers will have a landscape inspection done before they buy," says arborist Jim Houston, vice president of Midwest operations at Davey Tree Expert Co., a national tree service and landscape care company. "A true professional should give you a fair, unbiased assessment, even if it means you don’t need any extra services."

When to Call in the Experts

Here are some potential red flags that may call for a closer look.


Large trees, particularly ones near the home or utility lines, can be troublesome. New-home construction can also disrupt root systems without anyone realizing it. It can take seven to 10 years for some trees to show signs of decay.

Signs of trouble
Cracks within the tree, peeling bark, ground heaving up around the tree, fungi, and dead branches or limbs.

Pest infestation

Wood-loving termites thrive in warm, southern climates, but can be found chewing up the interiors of homes anywhere. One often-undetected intruder growing more problematic is the emerald ash borer, which eats away the insides of ash trees. Diagnosing pest problems is best left to arborists or pest inspection services.

Signs of trouble
Outside, rust-colored lawn, uprooted grass, or soft patches can be an indicator of pest damage; inside, sagging floors and walls, and ceilings that appear water-damaged can signal termite damage.

Irrigation system

A broken sprinkler head may cost just $20 to replace—but left unattended, it could cost thousands in exterior finish or mold damage and may attract termites to water-softened wood, CRI Home Inspections’ Jeremy Johnson says.

Signs of trouble
Oversaturated yard, fence staining, and fungus growth on irrigation valves (which could indicate a slow leak).


Investigate the slope of the home and whether drains are too high to function properly. A yard with a grade the same elevation as the home’s interior could pose a flooding hazard.

Signs of trouble
Cracks in concrete, pooped-up paving stones, puddles in the yard, eroded gullies, and soil slumps. Foundation cracks larger than 1/8-inch wide could also indicate poor drainage.


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