The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Building Inspector
Dear Barry: We are buying a brand-new home and were not planning to have a home inspection because the house was just approved by the county building department. Then we read your recent article about inspecting new homes, so we hired a home inspector and got some big surprises. He found two plumbing problems in the crawlspace under the house, three ungrounded outlets in the living room, and a safety violation concerning the furnace in the attic. What I want to know is, how could these defects have been overlooked when the county did their final inspection? Jason
Dear Jason: Whenever I begin to inspect a brand-new home, I wonder if this will be the first one where I find no faulty conditions of any kind. So far, no cigar.
So the question is, how do so many defects escape discovery by municipal inspectors? In most cases, incompetency is not the problem. In your situation, involving undiscovered defects in the crawlspace and attic, as well as three ungrounded outlets, the problem does not necessarily involve ineptitude on the part of the county inspector. More likely, it is due to endemic shortcomings with the municipal building inspection process.
Some municipalities may be exceptions to this, but in general, building inspectors do not crawl under houses or through attics. They are not even equipped with ladders or with crawl suits. This means that faulty conditions in those areas of a house are never subject to the final inspection. As a result, any problems with plumbing, wiring, heating, framing, insulation, etc. in those places are never seen during the final inspection and remain as-is when the construction is signed off by the inspector. That is why further inspection by a qualified home inspector is always a good investment.
As for the ungrounded outlets, here is why those were not discovered by the municipal inspector. The power company does not turn on the electrical service to the property until the final inspection has been officially approved. Therefore, the power is off during the final inspection. Without power, there is no way to determine whether outlets are grounded, whether they have correct polarity, or whether any of the electrical fixtures are actually operative.
Home inspections, on the other hand, take place after the utilities are turned on, and unlike municipal inspectors, home inspectors test the functional condition of fixtures and use test devices to determine whether outlets are properly wired.
The main differences between municipal inspections and home inspections are these: Municipal inspections are for code compliance only, and they are limited locations that are accessible by pedestrian means only. Home inspections involve not only compliance with building standards but with quality of workmanship and with functional and safety-related conditions that are outside the scope of the building code. What’s more, home inspectors go where most municipal inspectors are unlikely to go in an entire career: to places that entail crawling in the dirt or through narrow cavernous recesses.
Municipal inspections should be regarded as a preliminary final inspection. Home inspections, when done by a qualified inspector, should be regarded as a “final” final inspection.
The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: As an expert witness in construction defect lawsuits, I see many cases involving home inspectors who fail to disclose defects or who minimize the findings in their reports. In most cases, these inspectors are members of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) or similar associations. One inspector confided that too many problems in his report might “kill” a sale and the agent would no longer recommend him to buyers. Another inspector said he was expected to “work with the agents;” not to raise red flags or be too “nit-picky.” This is disturbing because home inspector referrals come mainly from agents. It also indicates that inspector organizations are not policing the industry very well. Perhaps ASHI or their insurance carriers could maintain a database of court rulings against inspectors and agents. The industry needs to do its job before the government steps in. Ray
Dear Ben: Your position as an expert witness exposes you to the worst examples of home inspectors and real estate agents. Without doubt, there are ethical disparities and conflicts of interest among some agents and home inspectors, and it is these unprincipled relationships that engender so many of the courtroom dramas in which you testify. But fortunately, there is a brighter side to the world of real estate and home inspection; one whose characters rarely stand in the shadow of a judge’s bench. So let’s examine the darker and lighter sides of disclosure practices, beginning with those professionals who recommend home inspectors to their clients.
Basically, there are two kinds of real estate agents: Advocates and Hucksters. Advocates are the honorable standard bearers of an often unfairly maligned profession. Advocates are those who truly represent the very best interests of their clients; who actively promote the defect disclosure process, and who recommend only the most qualified home inspectors. Advocates would rather kill a sale and find a better property for their client than to have the client be unhappy after the sale. Advocates know that doing the right thing attracts future business.
Unfortunately, there are also the huckster agents, those who keep attorneys busily employed, who denigrate the hard-earned reputations of the honorable advocates, and who boycott the most qualified home inspectors. Hucksters represent their own financial avarice at the expense of their clients. They compromise the disclosure process by seeking those inspectors who are less likely to provide full defect disclosure. They recommend inspectors who are less experienced, less capable, or who are willing to exchange principal for increased business. A huckster would rather close the sale than jeopardize the immediate flow of commission checks. To a huckster, top-notch home inspectors are known as “Deal Killers.”
Among home inspectors there are also two basic varieties: experienced practitioners and developing practitioners. But even within these divisions, we find the same ethical contrasts that define agents: either a total commitment to the client’s interests or a general disregard for same. Adversely affecting this situation is the reliance of most home inspectors upon agent referrals for the majority of their business. Agents understand this, and some have learned to exert subtle pressure. Nothing overt; just a simple hint such as, “We just want to know that everything is structurally sound, so please don’t be nit-picky.” Another favorite is, “This deal is important; so we need a really good report.” Inspectors who do not accede to these coded messages, who are fully committed to the buyers’ interests, needn’t expect future referrals from those agents. The choice then is well defined: either become a “street walker” for unscrupulous agents, or rely strictly upon the referrals of advocates.
As to the consumer advocacy of ASHI and similar organizations, professional integrity among member inspectors can be influenced and encouraged, but it cannot be forced. Honesty can only derive from a willingness to be honest. A database of inspectors and agents who have been successfully sued could be published, but would this truly be a reliable determinant? We live in the age of frivolous lawsuits, a surreal business world in which McDonalds must serve tepid coffee, lest we victims burn our litigious laps. If the seller of a home fails to disclose a defect that was unknown to the agent and concealed from the home inspector, the attorneys still name the agent and the inspector as defendants in the suit. And sometimes the juries rule against them, regardless of innocence of guilt.
In an imperfect world, “buyer beware” remains the essential caveat for those who purchase a home. The best way a buyer can beware is to find an “Advocate” for an agent and a home inspector with a reputation for thorough, accurate, unbiased inspections.