When buying a house, it's a good idea to make the contract contingent on a home inspection. The reason, as any homeowner knows, is that many, many things can go expensively wrong without any warning.

Because problems are so common in resale houses, real estate agents routinely write home inspection clauses into contracts for their clients.The inspection itself costs about $250 (higher in some parts of the country) and takes an average of 21/2 hours, according to HouseMaster, a national inspection company.

The inspector takes a close look at the central heating and cooling systems, plumbing, the interior electrical system, the roof, foundation, exterior walls and built-in appliances.

HouseMaster said a recent study it did using inspection reports from 1,000 houses last spring showed the most common defects were in heating and cooling systems and in water seepage in a house's lower level.

Typically, homeowners themselves are not even aware of such problems until some telltale sign presents itself - the heat stops on a cold day, the water heater bursts, the basement floods.

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Since most major home repairs are so costly, it pays to know what you face early on. If a problem is discovered before you buy the house, you have several options: Promptly withdraw your offer, ask the homeowner to repair the problem, or negotiate a reduced price for the house and have the repairs done later yourself.

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