I read a lot of home inspection reports, of which more than 300 a year are mine. I’ve found that it is important to carefully proofread and edit the reports. To assist with this, I have good software with spell check, grammar check and lots of predefined comments. Once a report has been edited for grammar, I make sure it includes information for my client. A little editing helps to create weight and emphasis, to fine–tune the information and to develop the work that has been done into a meaningful report.
I also read quite a few home inspection reports by other inspectors—usually these are sent to me by real estate agents who can’t figure out what the reports mean. Although many are well-written and organized, I am amazed at how poorly organized others are. Many reports I read are totally lacking in advice; they never take the data they collect and analyze the findings, interpreting that into information their client can readily understand and use.
The Value of Good Information
It is possible to fulfill the industry standard for writing a home inspection report by packing the report with data, but not much information. Data are the facts or details from which information is derived; however, individual pieces of data are rarely useful alone. For example, what you learn from an appliance ID plate is data.
Working to benefit the clients by reporting usable information is far better. Information comes from data, after the data are processed, interpreted, organized, structured and presented in a way that is useful. When a home inspector interprets from a water heater ID plate that it was manufactured in 1996, so it is about 22 years old, and reports that “the water heater appears to be about 22 years old, which is at or near the end of its expected dependable life and replacement should be anticipated soon,” the data point “22 years,” which may be a vague number to the client, becomes information that is predictive and useful.
Taken as individual points, data can be raw and unorganized. Data can seem random and useless until the data points are converted into information. This requires processing. In the world of computer databases, this processing is accomplished by software, which is often complex and full of “either/or” equations that weigh data against known limits or values (for example, the age of and the expected life of a water heater).
In the home inspection business, this processing is done by the human mind and is based on experience, education and third-party resources. To help me convert data into information, I keep the following two references handy while I am working:
- Life Expectancy of Components of Buildings (available from the National Association of Home Builders)
- HUD Residential Rehabilitation Inspection Guide (available at www.huduser.gov/portal/publications/rehabinspect.pdf)
By referring to these guides, I can see that tank water heaters are listed with an average life of 15+ years and tankless water heaters have an average life of 20+ years. In this process, we use the data (a manufacturing date of 1996) to express what the homeowner or client wants to know: When will the installed appliance cause significant inconvenience, cost significant money or both?
This is a good time for a reminder that the ASHI Standard of Practice (available at https://www.homeinspector.org/Standards-of-Practice) lists as a “shall” (a duty required as listed within the standard) to report in writing “those systems and components inspected that…are near the end of their service lives” (ASHI SoP, 2014, 2.2, B.1).
I think we could make a pretty sound argument that we meet the requirement by providing data (a date of manufacture) along with information (guidance about product failure and expense). How an individual home inspector crafts his or her information is a professional decision that directly affects how valuable his or her service is to the client and others using the report.
Data Versus Information
It is simple to report data because it leaves all the interpretation to others. It is a more rigorous process to report information. To report information beyond the data, we must have good data (the raw product of the inspection). For information to be high–quality, it must be accurate, complete, consistent and timely. This is only possible if the inspection yields data that are accurate and complete, and if the report is well–written and focused on the needs of the client.
It is not difficult to understand that less experienced, less competent inspectors tend to rely on “data-packed” software and report formats. Not all home inspections have the same value, and many experienced and highly competent inspectors go well beyond the data to publish a report that is informative, predictive and useful. The more highly prized reports contain informative narrative (not boilerplate) data for reference, as well as information presented in a meaningful summary that prioritizes not the data, but the information. That information is specific and predictive, useful and uniquely relevant to the individual client. The report is written to help the client evaluate the condition issues of the property they are buying.
To quote Bruce Barker, in an article titled “The Word: Deficient Reporting,” published in the July 2012 issue of the ASHI Reporter (http://www.ashireporter.org/HomeInspection/Articles/The-Word-Deficient-Reporting/2357): “A professional report won’t save an unprofessional inspection, but an unprofessional report will diminish and potentially kill an otherwise professional inspection.”
Accurate and Complete
Is it reasonable to use the terms accurate and complete when discussing a home inspection? The knee–jerk answer is no, because we rely on “representative sampling” and limit our scope to “readily accessible” systems and components, and because we apply a long list of “exceptions” from the ASHI Standard of Practice (SoP) to the “required elements” of inspecting and reporting. But the correct answer is yes, precisely because we have a well-designed, carefully crafted, constantly updated and thoroughly tested SoP. The better answer is that we can achieve accuracy and completeness in our profession for fundamental reasons. We are not referring to “accurate and complete” as a global perimeter, but instead we are limiting “accurate and complete” to the perspective of a home inspection by a well-defined and accepted SoP.
Achieving Accuracy and Completeness: The Path Through the ASHI Standard of Practice
We have truly kicked the ball all over the court here, starting with the idea that good information comes from good data, which come from an accurate and complete inspection. Now, we arrive all the way back to Home Inspection 101, and we reaffirm that the way to be accurate and complete is to know the SoP, perform our inspections to the Standard, write our report to the Standard, and conform all of our communication with the stakeholders (our clients, their real estate agents and anyone else who needs to respond to the report) to the ASHI SoP and the ASHI Code of Ethics.
Consistent with our requirements of ongoing continuing education, all of us should periodically review the basics of the SoP and Code of Ethics. Here is a list of things I think home inspectors should know without hesitation or further review:
- The SoP is a minimum standard for home inspections.
- Home inspections performed using the SoP are intended to provide information.
- There are nine divisions or categories of work identified in the SoP and most have the following:
- a specific list of “SHALL” items—duties the inspector must perform within the SoP;
- within the “SHALL” items, specific requirements to inspect as opposed to describe;
- a specific list of “NOT INTENDED TO LIMIT” items—not required but not prohibited; and
- a specific list of “NOT REQUIRED” items.
- The General Limitations and Exclusions (Section 13) globally alters many of the other requirements throughout the SoP.
- The Glossary of Italicized Terms (Section 14) should be used consistently and exactly as defined in all communication.
- The Code of Ethics should be followed.
For ASHI, the SoP is about eight densely packed pages of rules that constitutes the minimum standard for conducting home inspections. There are also other associations’ standards and various state laws. No practicing home inspector should lack knowledge of all the applicable standards, or lack confidence in their ability to discuss and comply with them.
Another essential, but often neglected, element of a report that is required for achieving accuracy and completeness is what we leave out. ASHI SoP 2.2.B.4 requires written explanation as to systems or components designated for inspection in the SoP that were present but not inspected, and why they were not inspected. I try to go a step further and mention some reasons that omission might be important to the client’s understanding of the property if I don’t think that logic would be self-evident to an average buyer.
Personal Versus Professional
What we have been discussing is a professional process to make our inspections, communication and report (the finished product) as valuable as possible. It also wraps all our professional activity into a SoP that will help us defend our reports, enhance our reputations and limit our liability. This is distinctly different from our personal behavior, beliefs and opinions. Although many of the most successful professionals are driven by personal commitment and motivation, they achieve success by a rigorous pursuit of their profession’s SoP, Code of Ethics and vigilant honing of their craft.
Our Work Versus Our Selves
If you think about the best home inspectors you know and differentiate them from the average or poor inspectors you may also know, it is amazing how much of the difference is in the work they do and not about the person they are.
The following is a quote I can’t accurately source, but I think it is worth including: Try to take your work more seriously, and yourself less seriously. The more seriously you take your work, the easier it will become to take yourself less seriously; the constant reminders of your ignorance should never cease to amaze you.
The Building Blocks of an Excellent Home Inspection
We start exactly where most of us would expect—with an accurate and complete inspection. We then take the data from the inspection and transform, process and structure the data into valuable information. We package that into a user-friendly home inspection report that uses the information to prioritize and summarize the condition of items of the home as they relate to our client—typically, the homebuyer. We inspect, perform and communicate totally and without exception within the SoP and Code of Ethics.
I’ll borrow once again from Bruce Barker, this time from an article titled “The Word: Time”, published in the January 2018 issue of the ASHI Reporter (http://www.ashireporter.org/HomeInspection/Articles/The-Word-Time/15176), in which he paraphrased this concept succinctly:
- Describe what you saw,
- Explain the implication if the defect is not addressed,
- Recommend what action the client should take to address the defect (correct, further evaluation, monitor).
Having been a professional home inspector for 30 years and an active ASHI member for 24 years, I am not surprised that the complications, challenges and competing pressures we encounter every day really all boil down to the basics.
Get the basics and build from there. Use what ASHI has provided us. We owe a great debt to the pioneers of the home inspection profession who forged ASHI from an idea back in 1976. We continue to owe great respect and appreciation for those members who serve in volunteer roles across the nation and beyond, including our state chapters, to make our association and our careers relevant and vital.
The Formula in Review
Perform a fundamentally sound inspection to gather the data, transform that data into useful information that is focused on your client’s needs and stay within the parameters of our professional guidelines. With those things accomplished, each of us can produce an informative, predictive and useful product: a report that is “accurate and complete.” In this way, we communicate at a high level and create value.