While buyers should tag along with the inspector and ask questions about cracks, water stains and odd smells, Loden cautioned that there are always "latent defects that inspectors cannot see."
Buyers should inspect basements, attics and mechanical rooms to see how well maintained they are and ask about conditions specific to certain areas—radon in the Midwest, sewers in California and active clay soils in Dallas, which can cause problems for foundations.
When looking to buy a home in an area with such soil issues, home inspectors urge buyers to call on specialists who perform foundation inspections, which run from $350 to $500 but can head off costly repairs down the road.
"In a case where the home inspector recommends a foundation inspection, 85 percent of the homes are likely to need foundation stabilization," said Adam Green, president and principal engineer at Crosstown Engineering. "The foundation of the home is the most important structural component, bearing the weight of the entire structure. If it fails or is unstable, it will cause all kinds of damage. Costs [to fix foundation problems] can be high and ongoing if the cause isn't identified and remediated."
Also, don't be afraid to "follow your nose," Kirsten Becker said. Mold, gas leaks and long-term dry rot can often be detected by their smell, she said.