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

Home Inspector Delivers Report Too Late

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I recently purchased a home and hired a home inspector while there was still time to negotiate with the seller. But the inspector took four days to prepare the inspection report, and by that time the negotiation period under contract had expired. My choice at that point was to buy the property as-is or lose  my deposit. Since then, I have been told that the report should have been delivered within 24 hours. If that is so, shouldn’t the home inspector refund the money that I paid him?  Beverly

Dear Beverly:  In most states, there is no law declaring how soon a home inspection report should be delivered, but the standard of practice among home inspectors is to provide a report on the day of the inspection or the very next day. The reasons for prompt delivery should be obvious to every home inspector. Time is of the essence in a real estate transaction. Buyers have a limited time period for negotiation or for rescission of the contract. Home inspectors are aware of these constraints, unless they have been living in a vacuum, and should provide the kind of professional service that considers the needs of their clients and the importance of timeliness.

A four-day delay in processing an inspection report is inexcusable negligence and is reasonable grounds for requesting a refund of the inspection fee, especially since that delay prevented you from making beneficial use of the report. If the inspector has any sense of professional responsibility, he will not hesitate in providing that refund.

Problems of this kind are among several reasons why attending a home inspection is so important for homebuyers. When you accompany your inspector, you can discuss the findings, ask questions, and learn about the condition of the property before you receive the written report.

In some cases, there are circumstances that prevent a buyer from attending the inspection. A buyer may live too far away to attend or may be unable to get time off from work. When attendance is not possible, the inspection findings should be reviewed by phone later in the day. Then the buyer can proceed with negotiations before the written report is received.

Unfortunately, there are some home inspectors who prefer to work without buyers present and routinely send their reports without a verbal review. Inspectors of this type should find another line of work, and homebuyers should avoid such inspectors in every case. Home inspection is not just a technical process; it is a business in which the needs of customers are served.

A final issue in this situation is the role of your real estate agent, assuming that you had an agent. Part of a Realtor’s responsibility is to coordinate the various aspects of the transaction; to ensure that things take place in accordance with the purchase contract. If the contract sets a time limit on negotiating the findings in a home inspection report, then the agent should pressure the inspector to produce that report before the due date expires. If the inspector fails to meet his responsibility, the agent should submit a request to extend the negotiation period.

If your home inspector is not willing to issue a refund, your agent should exert some persuasion on your behalf. Hopefully, one or both of them will have the professional integrity to meet these responsibilities.

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.

Home Inspector Ignored Plumbing Leak

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We hired a home inspector before buying our home, but he dismissed a defect that has now become a problem. In the room below the master bathroom, there were water stains on the wall around a drain cleanout. We asked the inspector about it, and he said it wasn’t a problem. At the time, the stains were dry because the house had been vacant for months. But he didn’t even run water in the shower or sink and didn’t even mention the stains in his report. After we moved in and began taking showers, the wall surface became wet. The inspector now says that it was not his responsibility to figure out if the leaking would continue in the future. Besides this, the seller says that she never had a leak while she lived in the home. This seems unreasonable and unfair. What can we do?  John

Dear John: If the seller denies having known about the leak, she may or may not be telling the truth. There is probably no way to prove or disprove her position, so that issue may be a stalemate. The problem with the home inspector, however, is another story and involves three main issues:

1)  It is understandable that an inspector might fail to notice a leak or evidence of a past leak, but to dismiss an issue that is specifically pointed out by a buyer is inexcusable. If your inspector didn’t want to test for leaks, he should have recommended in his report “further evaluation by a licensed plumber.”

2)  Testing showers, tubs, and sinks with running water is normal operating procedure for a home inspector. The idea that a home inspection would not include a routine test of the plumbing fixtures is untenable. An inspector who won’t turn on faucets or test for leaks should find another line of work.

3)  Now that the leak has been affirmed, the inspector needs to be accountable for his failure to provide disclosure. All inspectors miss some defects, regardless of their levels of competency. But an inspector who will dismiss this kind of situation, without assuming some degree of responsibility, is not a true professional.

Hopefully, the repair is not an expensive one. Have it evaluated by a licensed plumber. Hopefully, it is a minor repair issue that will not involve great expense.

It would also be wise to hire another home inspector for a second evaluation of the property. Additional defects will most likely be discovered.

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.

Major or Minor, and all that rot

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We just hired a home inspector for the house that we may buy, and this raised a dispute with the sellers. The inspector found rotted framing below the porch and living room, but he did not list this as a major defect. The sellers say we cannot cancel the deal without losing our deposit because the purchase contract allows cancellation for major defects only. What should we do? Larah

Dear Larah: Home inspectors rarely specify whether a defect is major or minor because that kind of judgment is often subjective. A defect that is major to one buyer might be minor to someone else. In the case of wood rot, two variables directly affect that assessment: 1) the extent of the damage and; 2) the cost to repair.

If large portions of the porch and floor framing are damaged, then the condition cannot be described as minor. Besides this, dryrot is not a static condition. It is caused by fungus infection that spreads further into the wood members whenever moisture is present. If left unchecked, small amounts of rot can become very major. This means that replacement of rotted wood is an immediate necessity.

This leads, of course, to the question of expense. If the repair costs are major, then the rot cannot regarded as a minor defect. To resolve this debate, you should get three bids from licensed contractors for replacement of the affected framing. Hopefully, the repairs will not be too costly and you can proceed with the purchase of the home. Otherwise, you should be entitled to a refund of your deposit.