Finding a home inspector…

Note: this is a selection from one chapter of The Ultimate HomeBuyer’s Handbook, which I will be finishing shortly and selling on Amazon. I hope you find this useful. Feel free to email me with feedback or questions.

Choosing a qualified and diligent home inspector versus an inspector who rushes the inspection and doesn’t take the time to do a proper job can save you a few thousand dollars, or occasionally tens of thousands of dollars in repair costs (or lost value) over the period you own the home. The difference can also be getting an inspector who takes the time to give you a thorough education on the home and how you should maintain it, versus one who does just enough to rule out certain kinds of serious problems and gets in and out quickly so they can go to their next inspection. I’ve inspected numerous homes where the previous (usually low cost, ‘in and out’) inspector failed to find or properly evaluate conditions that would cost the owner thousands and sometimes tens of thousands to remedy or, in other cases, would greatly reduce the value of the property when selling.

So, when choosing a home inspector, what matters and what doesn’t.? Well, as most referrals to home inspector companies come from real estate agents, this needs a discussion up front. It’s complicated…as they like to say.

The fact is, traditionally, most home buyers find their home inspector based on a referral from their real estate agent. If you have a good buyer’s agent – which means one who is looking out for your interests and not just the interest of the ‘deal’ going through – this can actually work out. In many regions of the country – or at least my area of service – many buyer’s agents provide their clients with a qualified home inspector or a short list of qualified inspectors. Providing an inspector who does a substandard or poor job reflects badly on them – and, if the home inspector they recommend really screws up, then the agents will be defending themselves in court along with the inspector. So, as a disclosure: I get referrals from a number of buyer’s brokers who trust that I will do right by their clients. These agents know I take a lot of time and can be picky – and they are comfortable with that. I also work in Massachusetts, which has very rigorous State Standards, a fairly high end and somewhat speculative real estate market – and a lot of attorneys.

That said, even here in my area there are a few agents who would rather not spend 3 hours at the home inspection or have an overly critical inspection. And worse, practices vary widely across the country. I continue to hear ‘horror’ stories from inspectors in other states who are blacklisted by the real estate community because they take too long or are regarded as ‘too critical’.

The fact is: when the home inspector does a thorough job and finds a lot of problems and is diligent about warning the buyer about what these problems entail, the buyers will sometimes ‘walk’ on the deal, using their inspection contingency clause to get out of buying the home. So, while real estate agents have an enormous interest in the deal going forward – and remember, a lot of money is at stake – the home inspection can put a stake into the heart of the sale.

So, the potential problem with referrals from real estate agents – or just getting an assortment of brochures from their office – is that you have no way of knowing whether the agent has given you the name of inspectors who do a superior job or a company the agent likes because they never ‘kill the sale’ or take longer than an hour or two for the inspection. I won’t say don’t to reject inspectors recommended by your agent; strangely enough, I’ve found that most agents actually screen out the inspectors who don’t know what they are doing or shortchange their client – but at least check them out.

So what does matter when choosing a home inspector? What things should you look for?

First, I would get an idea of how long the inspector generally takes at an inspection. Not that you need four hours to inspect a small or medium home (unless in really, really bad shape), but depending on the nature of the housing stock where you are buying (and the size, age, and condition of the home), you really need two to three hours for most homes – and that does not include the time writing the report. In New England, with its old homes and sometimes complex systems, most single-family homes require 3 to 4 hours to inspect properly. Large homes, homes with multiple buildings, or estates can take 5 to 10 hours – or days. Condos require less time – but even these will often require two to three hours (garden style condominiums, however, may in some cases only require an hour – but your inspector had better spend a lot more time, just to be sure). Also, as noted, the amount of time spent on-site shouldn’t include the report writing time where the inspector is doing an on-site report. I’ve seen inspections that took 2+ hours, but most of it was the inspector writing a fancy looking (and minimally informative) report sitting at the kitchen table.

Also, your home inspector should provide you with an education on the home – and you can’t do this if the process is rushed. In one instance I was hired to do a second inspection – not because the first inspector did a bad job – but just because they didn’t slow down to explain anything to the buyer. The more time the inspector spends with you (up to a point) the more you will learn about the home.

My advice? If you get a one-hour inspection (on a single family home) or feel rushed, get another inspection done. You are about to make the largest investment you will probably ever make in your life. You want the inspection done right.

Second, I think experience helps but its not the end-all. I know of many ‘newer’ inspectors who are quite qualified and do an excellent job. There are more than a few experienced inspectors, on the other hand, who are on cruise control – or worse, do inspections to the somewhat minimal standards of the 1980’s. Getting a referral from a friend, relative, colleague, or attorney, by the way, is very often a good way to go.

Third, whenever possible, I would get someone who is a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). ASHI is the original and most reputable home inspection professional association. ASHI was at the forefront in establishing a Standard of Practice and a Code of Ethics for home inspectors and in requiring its members to obtain membership educational credits each year by attending seminars, taking relevant courses, and by other means upgrading their knowledge each year. To become an ASHI member requires extensive experience and passing a difficult national exam. Other associations exist, specifically InterNACHI (International Association of Certified Inspectors). NACHI has some wonderful educational tools for their members and offers a lot of resources – but to become a member the last time I looked required little more than paying your dues and passing an exam that my grandson could pass (and he’s only four). I know qualified NACHI inspectors – but I would still stick with an ASHI member whenever possible. (Go to ASHI.org and hit “Finding an Inspector” for a list of ASHI inspectors in your area. In New England, I recommend finding an inspector at ashinewengland.org.)

I used to feel that smaller companies were almost always a better bet than large companies. But much as I’d like to say this as a sole proprietor/single inspector operation, I’ve changed my opinion on this also. Single person operations may provide the best – but also the worst – inspections. Many of the multi-inspector companies bring more resources ‘to the table’ than a single person operation. In my region, however, there is one very large company employing dozens of inspectors who each do 10-15 inspections a week. While they have some very qualified inspectors, you never know who you may get or how much time they will spend doing the inspection. In order to do a high volume of inspections, some of the large multi-inspector companies will put time limits on how long the inspector can spend on site. So, when the home is complex or has a lot of ‘issues’- or if you need the inspector to spend enough time to get things right – or just spend time on maintenance concerns – you may not get this.

In much of the country, especially the south and southwest, the dominant trend is to have multi-inspector companies that aggressively market to real estate agents, putting candy in their offices and providing them with customized mugs and the like. We simply don’t do this in my region. I would like to say that these companies provide substandard inspections – but I don’t know that unless I can see them work (and the homes they inspect). There is no inherent conflict with having a very effective marketing program and providing a quality service – as long as they don’t limit what they do or say so they won’t antagonize the real estate agent. That said, a company that lives and dies based on referrals from real estate agents may have a tendency to forget who their client is: the buyer and not the real estate broker.

Sixth, this goes along with the previous advice – but avoid cheap prices. That said, the going rate for inspections tends to vary depending on the nature of the real estate market. Where the real estate prices are high, such as around metro Boston and metro New York, the inspection fees tend to be quite high. In many rural or less well-off areas, the cost for an inspection is much lower. I recently talked with inspectors from western Massachusetts where the average fee in their area is $350 to $400. Around Boston, you could pay double that (but the homes are bigger and more complex). The risk of low prices is that the inspection company has a business model whereby they do a lot of inspections to make up for their lower prices – and they may not take enough time to find all that they should. In my area expect to pay roughly $495 to $675 for single-family home inspections, with more for larger homes or additional buildings. Extra services, such as wood destroying insect inspections, radon testing, well water testing, etc. would raise this fee. Homes with multiple heating or cooling systems, crawlspaces, or a long distance from the inspector’s home office may also raise the fee. These fees are much higher than those in much of the country (excluding the New York metropolitan area and California).

Unfortunately, cheap inspections can be very expensive. As just a couple of examples (out of dozens I could cite):

I did an inspection on an upscale contemporary home a few years back. It was a nice home and well built, in many respects. But it had huge stone entryways that were butted to the house without benefit of flashing along the seam. Major structural damage occurred to the framing behind these entryways. Repairs would require the removal of the stonework and extensive carpentry repairs. A number of other serious problems were also present. When these were disclosed to the listing agent, she questioned me, stating ‘the seller had the home inspected just two years ago and none of this was found.’ Believe me, these conditions, were there to see. The repair costs I estimated, would run well over $40,000 then and $60,000 now.

In another home I inspected, the brick foundation was bowing inward and was in serious distress and potentially, at risk of failing. The roofs were covered with tar, the deck was cobbled together in an unsound manner, there was rot everywhere, the ‘newer’ and oversized garage had serious problems with the roof, siding, electrical, interior, drainage, etc. It turns out that none of this was revealed to the seller when they purchased the home just two years earlier. Their inspector was from a large, multi-inspector company. A construction expert brought in afterwards stated the unreported damages exceeded $60,000. In any case, I have to ask, just what did that inspector do, and how low were his standards that all of these conditions could be reported as “satisfactory”?

I used to find this stuff all of the time – but less so, now. In general, the quality of the inspections – at least in my area – is far higher than in the past. But I do see cases where the inspectors were in such a rush that they simply did not take the time to inform the clients about the need for critical maintenance and what they should expect. In many cases, prompt attention and maintenance could have helped the homeowner avoid thousands of dollars in repair costs.

About climbing roofs and entering crawlspaces…

Most home inspectors don’t climb roofs. I used to, and still will for lower-pitched and accessible roofs but you can normally see all but the lowest pitched roofs from the ground with binoculars or by using a camera. The steeper the pitch the more you can see it clearly from the ground– and the more unsafe it is to climb. Drones can work – but the actual percentage of roofs you need these on is very small.

On the other hand, if the home you are looking at has crawlspaces, make sure the inspector is physically able to enter these areas and is willing to do so. Most inspectors can, but some otherwise fine inspectors may have physical limitations that prohibit this. I recently heard of an inspection where the inspector couldn’t get into a crawlspace in an older home. This space ended up being termite riddled and a significant problem. Some crawlspaces, I should note, are not safely accessible and won’t be entered (those with insect or rodent feces on the floor, damp floors, asbestos lying on the ground, fiberglass insulation hanging down, less than 18 inches clearance to the floor). Concealed crawlspaces, where no means of ready access or viewing was found – may hide serious problems. Note: where feasible, request that the current homeowner/seller provide safe access all crawlspaces. This may require a return visit by the inspector.

Do you have to have an engineer do your home inspection?

Don’t assume you need an engineer to inspect a home… I know of several very good home inspectors who are also engineers. They are also honest enough to admit, however, that their engineering background was of little relevance when learning to become home inspectors. I also got into this business in the early 80’s after seeing a report by an engineer that was woefully inadequate. I have no problem with engineers listing they are P.E’s (professional engineers) on their advertising and anything to do with their business; I’d do the same if I were an engineer. But I do see P.E.’s and certain organizations of engineers as stating that only engineers should do home inspections. This is self-serving claptrap. The fact is, most of the engineering disciplines have no courses or offer particular expertise in the knowledge base critical to a home inspection. This knowledge base includes, as a partial list: identifying roof surface conditions, masonry problems, siding issues; identifying decay and damage on the structure; evaluating appliances, windows, doors, interior surfaces, heating systems, plumbing, electrical; a thorough knowledge of home maintenance, etc. In other words, home inspectors must have a broad-based knowledge across a wide range of disciplines. This knowledge is specific to identifying suspected problems with the home and its major components. This is not an engineering discipline. Engineers are invaluable for offering expertise in their specific discipline. Structural engineers, for instance, can be invaluable in evaluating and devising solutions to structural type problems. Civil engineers may be needed to devise solutions to severe drainage problems.

Note: this is just a selection from one chapter of The Ultimate HomeBuyer’s Handbook, which (hopefully) I will be finishing shortly and selling on Amazon. I hope you find this useful. Feel free to email me with feedback or questions.

Call 978-373-1390 to make an appointment with Evergreen Home Inspection today!