Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

Should a Contractor Do Your Home Inspection?

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:I am planning to buy a home but don’t know who the home inspectors are in my area. On the other hand, I have a good friend who is a licensed general contractor, and he has offered to do my home inspection for free. He is a very experienced builder with vast construction knowledge, and I would expect that he can do as thorough a job of inspecting a home as anyone in the inspection business. Is there any reason why I should not have him do my home inspection?  Seth

Dear Seth:  Hiring a general contractor to do a home inspection seems reasonable to anyone who does not know the scope and processes involved in home inspection, but a contractor inspection can be a costly mistake. A home inspection is not a walkthrough evaluation by someone who knows how to build a house. That is something that many homebuyers, especially first-time homebuyers, do not realize when they are faced with your choice. Home inspection involves skills, practices, and knowledge that are not essential to the process of construction, and this in no way minimizes the respectability of qualified contractors.

Most home inspectors start out as contractors who enter the home inspection profession and gradually learn to conduct thorough inspections. That learning process takes a few years and involves a very large number of home inspections. A basic apprenticeship in home inspection usually requires about 1000 inspections. Those who have done fewer than 1000 are likely to resent this opinion. Those who have done more than 1000 are sure to agree with it.

Home inspection is a process of investigation and discovery. Contracting is a process of mechanical skills and management. Although building knowledge is essential to the practice of home inspection, construction itself has little or no relation to the practice of forensic analysis. A home inspector is an investigator — a property detective – someone who observes and evaluates defects. The skills essential to a thorough home inspection are unique, are refined by years of practice, and are not essential to the process of building construction.

The focus of a home inspection is not merely the quality of construction, but the overall level of maintenance versus deterioration of the property, the operability and shortcomings of fixtures, compliance with numerous safety standards, the projected longevity of various materials and components, old versus new standards of construction, and much more.

Just as a traffic patrolman is not a crime detective; just as your family physician is not a medical pathologist; likewise, home inspectors are diagnostic specialists, distinct from professionals in the building trades.

What matters most when you choose a home inspector is to find someone who has done many inspections and has a reputation for thoroughness. If you need some referrals, call some of the real estate offices in your area and ask them who are the nit-pickiest inspectors. Those inspectors are the contractors you should consider before you buy a home.

Should Buyers Attend Their Home Inspection?

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  Our home inspection is scheduled for next week. This is the first time we’ve bought a home, and we’re not sure what to do and what not to do. Our agent says it’s not important for us to attend the inspection, that we should just wait for the report. But we’re uncomfortable with that advice. There are so many things we want to ask the inspector. What do you recommend?  Annamarie

Dear Annamarie: Your agent is not giving you good advice. The importance of attending your home inspection cannot be emphasized too strongly.

Too many homebuyers miss a great opportunity by being present at their home inspection.  Sometimes this is unavoidable, due to geographical distance.  But whenever possible, buyers are strongly urged to participate in the inspection process.  Being on site during the inspection, viewing specific conditions in person, consulting with the inspector, asking questions, and obtaining advice greatly magnify the benefits to you, the buyer.

A home inspection is a fact-finding mission in which the inspector is your hired advocate. You and the inspector should jointly engage in the discovery process.  Both of you are there for the same reason – to learn as much as possible about the condition of the property.

Prior to the inspection, most buyers make a purchase offer based upon a 15-minute walk-through or run-through.  At that point, they know very little about a very expensive commodity.  The home inspection provides buyers their only opportunity to slowly and methodically view and consider the object of their investment.  During the inspection, they have hours to voice questions and concerns as they evaluate their prospective purchase.  Buyers have even been known to discover defects the inspector might otherwise have missed.

Buyer attendance also enables the inspector to explain the meaning and importance of each condition noted in the inspection report.  When buyers are not present at the inspection, conditions noted in the report must be read and interpreted without explanation.  Lacking a verbal review of the findings, a buyer may over-react to minor disclosures, while failing to appreciate the importance of more serious ones.  The on-site review provided by your inspector may be the most informative aspect of the entire home inspection process.  When circumstances prevent buyers from attending the inspection, a telephone conference with the inspector is strongly advised.

Why Are Municipal Building Inspections Not Enough?

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: You often recommend hiring a home inspector when buying a brand new home. If a home has just been inspected and approved by the building department, what’s the point of hiring a private home inspector?  Jim

Dear Jim: The answer to your question is worth repeating. Here are the five essential differences between a municipal inspection by the local building department and a private inspection by a qualified home inspector:

1.  A building inspection is strictly for building code compliance, but it is possible for a home to be poorly built and still comply with code. Home inspections deal with all kinds of substandard conditions, including those that do not involve code, such as poorly fitted doors, poorly mitered trim, missing tile grout, missing shelves in cabinets, sloped floors, loose toilets and faucets, etc.

2.  A building inspection usually lasts about 15 to 30 minutes, while a home inspection lasts from 2 1/2 to 4 hours. This is because many more things are inspected and tested in the course of a home inspection.

3.  Building inspectors simply look at the completed construction. They do not test the operational condition of fixtures and appliances. Faucets are not turned on, drains are not tested for leaks, appliances are not operated, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are not tested, and so on.

4.  Gas and electrical services to a home are not turned on until the final inspection is completed and the home is signed off. The building inspector can approve the appearance of the wiring and gas piping, but nothing is tested as part of the final inspection because you cannot test fixtures without gas or electricity. Home inspectors arrive when utilities have been turned on. They plug testers into outlets to ensure grounding, correct polarity, and ground fault protection. They operate built-in fixtures and appliances such as dishwashers, garbage disposals, lights, ceiling fans, exhaust fans, electric ovens, garage door openers, and more. They also test the gas-burning fixtures such as forced air furnaces, water heaters, gas-log fireplaces, and cooking appliances.

5.  Building inspectors perform a walk-through inspection only. They do not crawl through subareas or attics, and they do not walk on roofs. Home inspectors do all of these things, enabling them to identify construction defects that routinely go unnoticed during a municipal inspection.

Veteran home inspectors know that all brand new homes have defects of various kinds, usually minor but sometimes major. Examples include broken roof tiles, missing roof flashing, attics without insulation, furnaces improperly installed in attics, congested drainpipes, drains that leak, non-tempered glass next to bathtubs and showers, inoperative GFCI outlets, ungrounded outlets, drain vents that terminate in attics, chimneys in contact with combustible materials in attics, loose safety rails, disconnected air ducts under the house, PVC discharge pipes on water heater relief valves, and this list could go on and on.

These are the reasons why people who buy brand new homes should hire an independent home inspector. A home inspection gives homebuyers the best opportunity to take advantage of the builder’s warranty. Bypassing an inspection leaves undisclosed defects to be discovered at a later date, after the builder’s warranty has expired.

New Home Inspector Feels His Oats

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: In one of your articles, you said, “The essential purpose of home inspection is to disclose property defects.” If that is true, why don’t home inspectors use the top tools of the trade, such as thermal cameras, borescopes, and moisture meters? In my opinion, most home inspectors are retired general contractors with a lock on Realtor referrals. I am a new home inspector, but I provide a far more thorough inspection than my competitors who don’t use specialized testing equipment. The problem, however, it getting real estate agents to refer me to their clients They all seem to use the same few home inspectors who have been here forever. Can you offer any help on this?  Mark

Dear Mark: When I said that the essential purpose of a home inspection is “to disclose property defects,” I did not mean that the purpose is to disclose every possible property defect. If home inspectors intended to disclose every possible defect, thermal cameras, borescopes, and moisture meters would definitely be needed, as you suggest. But even then, the inspections would not be complete. To provide disclosure of all possible defects, inspectors would need to take air samples for mold, to place test canisters for radon gas, and to sample various materials for possible asbestos fiber and lead content. But that’s not all. Home inspections would not be complete without a structural analysis of the foundations, which would require that the inspectors be licensed structural engineers or that they subcontract with a structural engineer on every inspection. Inspectors would also need to take core samples of property sites to ensure geological stability and to evaluate subsurface water drainage characteristics based upon soil composition. This, of course, would require credentials as a licensed geotechnical engineer. Homes would also need to be tested for electromagnetic fields, for soil contamination, and for off-gassing of synthetic compounds such as urea formaldehyde.

This list could be expanded almost indefinitely if the essential purpose of a home inspection was to disclose all possible property defects.  In truth, home inspections are preliminary visual inspections, not techically exhaustive evaluations. A home inspection is analogous to the routine annual phyical that you receive from your doctor. Family physicians don’t do EKGs or CATSCANs as part of an annual exam. Instead, they look for indications that such tests might be necessary.  If critical symptoms are observed, they refer you to specialists. In the same way, a competent home inspector is looking for conditions that might warrant further evaluation by specialists such as plumbers, electricians, geotechnical engineers, or registered environmental assessors.

It might surprise you to know how very thorough many home inspectors are in their forensic duties; how able competent home inspectors are to find significant defects without the use of sophisticated testing devices.

As for referrals by real estate agents, there are many reasons why agents recommend particular home inspectors. Some refer the inspectors they believe will provide the most thorough disclosure, while others refer inspectors who are not so thorough and are perceived as less likely to scare away their buyers. Either way, it takes persistent marketing to develop a base of agents who will routinely recommend you to their clients.

Broker Angry About Home Inspection Forms

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I am the broker of a large real estate company. In my area, most home inspectors use computerized reports, with photos of the defects they disclose. Very few still use the old fashioned, hand-written forms, and I seldom give my business to those backward dinosaurs. One of those technophobes is the most experienced home inspector in my area. He usually finds defects that are missed by other home inspectors. In fact, he even finds problems that are missed by the termite inspectors. But I can’t stand his lousy 1990 carbon copy reports. They’re hard to read and harder to email. So I never refer this Neanderthal to my clients. But when other agents refer him, his reports make me so mad I could pull out my hair. What is it that keeps these closed-minded idiots from getting with today’s high tech program?  Yuli

Dear Yuli: Sit down and cool off. Businesses today are in technological transition, including home inspection and real estate companies. Most home inspectors have made the change to electronic reporting, but a few remain stuck in their old ways. Some are part-time inspectors, without a major commitment to the business. Others are comfortable in their routines and have little interest in state-of-the-art innovations. And there are some professionals who recognize the need to modernize but have been too busy inspecting homes to invest in change.

Old style reports are not as user-friendly as the new electronic versions that include photographs of defects. On the other hand, not all computer reports are as easy to read as they ought to be.  In some reports, the defect disclosures are obscured by paragraphs of “boiler plate” verbiage. In others, the disclosures are so vague that the defects cannot be readily understood. But all of these issues are eclipsed by the essential purpose of home inspection: to disclose property defects.

You admit that the “Neanderthal”, “dinosaur”, “technophobe”, “idiot” who does not get your business is the most thorough home inspector available; that he finds problems that other home inspectors miss. This means that the “high tech” reports that your clients receive from other home inspectors do not provide complete disclosure of all significant defects. It means that you prefer those incomplete reports to the out-dated, carbon copy reports that contain more actual disclosures. The question, therefore, has shifted. Instead of old report forms vs. new electronic reports, the issue has become partial disclosure vs. full disclosure of property defects. In other words, form vs. substance.

If this is the choice, which do you suppose is more important to your home-buying clients? Would they prefer full disclosure or fancy disclosure? And what about your liability as a broker? How would you defend yourself if sued for incomplete disclosure? Would you tell the jury that you avoid thorough home inspectors who don’t print fancy reports? That would hardly invite a favorable verdict.

So here is the bottom line: Home inspectors who take their business seriously should find a comprehensive electronic report system to maintain viability in the marketplace. Meanwhile, Realtors should recommend the most thorough home inspectors available, regardless of the style of reports they generate. In either business, it’s all about representing the best interests of clients, while limiting liability.