Inspectors across the country know that specializing can be key to strengthening their business, whether it’s adding a new focus to their practice, switching to a focus that is more lucrative, or even bringing in a new partner with complimentary skills to broaden the potential client base. Recently, one ASHI Member with a reputation for specializing in historic homes decided to bring others like himself together, to share resources and learn how to achieve success through specializing. With just under 20 members in 14 states (all of whom are also ASHI Members), the Historic Building Inspectors Association (HBIA) offers inspectors of older homes a chance to network, share strategies and knowledge, and solidify themselves as specialists.
Bill Kibbel is director of HBIA and an inspector with Tri-County Inspection Co., Inc., in Bucks County, Pa. For many years, Kibbel has focused on older homes, publishing national articles on his work and speaking publicly about architectural history and preservation. When he started receiving calls and e-mails from people outside his service area looking for similarly qualified inspectors, he decided to put together a list of other inspectors for referral; that list evolved into the HBIA, an organization that offers an additional credential for inspectors of historic homes. Members have experience with historic preservation, includ-ing education or certification in preservation technology.
The group provides opportunities to network and share experience, which Kibbel believes makes for more satisfied clients in the long run. “A client purchasing a historic property really deserves someone who understands historic preservation standards, so when they make recommendations, they’re not changing the historic character of the home,” says Kibbel.
Inspectors share experience and respect for history
Most historic building inspectors get into the game because of early experience and a love of history. Kurt Mitenbuler, owner of Evanston, Ill.-based Kurt Mitenbuler and Associates, Inc., came by historic building inspection naturally: he grew up in a house built in 1857. “I didn’t choose to know about historic homes—I grew up working on them,” says Mitenbuler.
(Photo: A nice detail of the front of a home in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Note the decorative metal molding, the stamped metal gable end, and the incredible stone and brickwork around the window openings. Photo courtesy of Kurt Mitenbuler.)
Jon White, president of Homestead Inspections, LLC in Des Moines, Iowa, studied history in college and went on to manage a home finance and rehabilitation non-profit corporation that focused on a local historic district. He says he understands the preservation-oriented language, rationale and approach: “During the inspection of an historic structure, I try to communicate the advantages of being sensitive to the architectural character of the house,” explains White.
Experience—and patience—pay off for inspectors, who can expect the unexpected in historic inspections, says Bob Servais, owner of Bob Servais Inspection Services, Inc. in Mansfield, Mass. “It’s a rare inspection when I don’t see something for the first time. It may be the most expensive teacher, but there’s no substitute for experience.”
Specialization builds business
One of the key goals of organizing is to provide HBIA members with an additional credential, another tool for attracting clients. Kibbel says that by specializing in historic properties, he doesn’t experience dramatic slowdowns—he always has a steady base of work.
Solidifying a reputation as a specialist in older homes is important because historic properties have idiosyncrasies that vary widely from area to area, period to period. It takes someone with training, experience and dedication to perform adequate inspections on older properties, and many buyers want to work with an “expert.”
Servais says he decided to specialize in antique houses a few years ago; one of the oldest homes he has inspected was built in 1637 in Plymouth, Mass. He says building relationships with clients is key: “I bond with my clients very much,” says Servais. “They’re on a first-name basis with you, and they’re going to call you for advice.”
One man’s historic is another man’s contemporary
What each inspector considers a “historic” property can vary widely, depending on location. Servais often sees homes built in the 1700s, and says he has three main types of clients: those who buy antiques simply for shelter, those who want to go through a complete restoration, and the majority: those who fall somewhere in between. Common sense dictates that he and the clients aim, he says, “somewhere in between: to preserve, but not necessarily make their own cloth and forge their own nails.”
In comparison to Servais’s experience, in White’s area of Des Moines, historic properties are younger Victorians and craftsman-style homes. In another part of the Midwest, Mitenbuler says that because most of Chicago burned down in 1871, there aren’t many structures older than 130 years; most of the older
buildings he sees are between 80 and 100 years old, and located in the heart of the city. In contrast, near Philadelphia, Kibbel often sees homes as old as 350 years.
For inspectors looking to specialize in historic work, knowing their area’s architectural history is key, says Kibbel. “Get involved with local preservation projects, join the local historical society, volunteer at a historic site,” he counsels. “You can gain tremendous experience and make contacts through that involvement.” He also says education programs through universities or private organizations like the Association for Preservation Technologies are a must. Local libraries often offer the best information on an area’s architectural history.
Fostering continuity of conservation
Members of the HBIA see conservation as a worthy goal, and many inspectors have to balance the desire to revive an old home’s aesthetic with the reality of contemporary challenges. For instance, Kibbel describes a home with very small windows that don’t meet current emergency egress requirements. “In some historic properties you can’t alter the aesthetics because of historic district restrictions. Rather than condemning the home, focus instead on other areas of fire safety to prevent a fire,” he says. Creative solutions can help preserve many homes once thought too outdated to save. “We try to suggest repairs and improvements that do not alter the historic integrity,” he says.
White says he tries to carry the conservation idea forward even into homes built in the 1950s and 1960s. “When you find a special house from 1952, it’s architecturally significant. Keeping character intact is important to all houses, and it’s something I communicate to my clients,” he says. “A careless, mindless approach to remodeling can impact any house, no matter how old it is.”
“Are you going to tear this place apart, or are you going to cherish it?”
Older homes have a lot of stories to tell, and inspectors of historic homes are their storytellers, sharing a building’s history with clients and helping preserve it for future generations.
Mitenbuler says his love for preservation leads him to learn about his clients in much more detail before inspecting. “When someone is buying a historic property, I qualify them right out of the chute,” he says. “Who are you? Why are you buying this house? What sorts of things do you want to do with it? How well do you understand some of these very interesting architectural details?” He’s not judging them, he explains, but “just taking a lot of time to find out who they are and what they expect. A big part of my job is managing expectations.”
Working with prospective buyers, he tries to explain that, “when you own a historic home, it’s not a purchase—it’s a marriage. They require research. It’s holistic, everything is connected to everything else,” says Mitenbuler. He won’t necessarily try to talk someone out of buying an older property, but he will make it clear that they’re not getting into a “typical” situation. “I never tell people what to buy or not buy, but I go heavy into information mode,” he says. “If they just don’t get it and they want to tear stuff out, I just have to drive away and be sad. But I provide compelling arguments for conservation.” (Photo: A beautiful tile entryway in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Each of the approximately 2,000 tiles is individually cut and fit to form the pattern—nothing like the stuff you pull off the shelf at a big box store, says Mitenbuler. It was probably installed by someone who apprenticed in Europe at the age of 12, became proficient, and came to America to ply his trade, he says. Photo courtesy of Kurt Mitenbuler.)
Organizing creates networking opportunities and builds community
One of the biggest benefits offered by HBIA is the chance to network and build a true community, says Kibbel. “It’s a place to connect house buyers and owners with inspectors who have this experience,” he explains. “And inspectors can share resources with each other, talk about techniques and research methods.” Members take advantage of networking opportunities via the Internet, and sometimes meet in person: some of the members recently gathered for a two-day historic home inspections seminar offered by the Hudson Valley Chapter of ASHI.
Mitenbuler says he was drawn to the group because its members (who all report in a narrative style) are well-spoken, accomplished writers who can offer a diversity of unique experience. “Looking at historic buildings is such a strange little niche sort of information business,” says Mitenbuler. “Nobody can know everything. As far as inspecting old houses, you have to have somebody else to talk to, because they’re all weird. A hundred years ago, there were all kinds of framing, plumbing, heating, and electrical systems and components, all very different from today’s systems. No one can know everything, so networking is critical.” (Photo: A “bird’s eye door” is a door between the dining and living rooms of a fine mansion in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. The door (as well as the trim, casings and baseboard) was veneered with bird’s eye maple, a relatively rare maple wood. Notice the thickness and size of the door, which weighed about 300 pounds. Photos by Kurt Mitenbuler.)
Some, like Servais, simply enjoy a sense of camaraderie that comes from joining together: “We all speak a common language, and we all have the same goal: preservation and continuity.”
Learn More About Preservation
Historic Building Inspectors Association: www.inspecthistoric.org.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation leads the national preservation movement, offering many resources and opportunities to volunteer in your community: www.nationaltrust.org.
Purchase books published by the Trust: www.preservationbooks.org
The Old House Journal offers many resources for inspectors and others in the preservation industry: www.oldhousejournal.com.
In April 2005, The Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference (formerly The Restoration and Renovation Show) will offer opportunities to learn about restoring historic structures, adding sympathetic additions to older homes, and much more: www.traditionalbuildingshow.com.
Period Homes magazine provides resources for anyone working on restoration and renovation of older homes: www.period-home.com.
Traditional Building is a magazine and online resource for those working on non-residential historic projects: www.traditional-building.com.
Many inspectors recommend “A Field Guide to American Houses,” a comprehensive book covering dozens of building styles.
This Old House (both magazine and television show) offers a variety of resources and perspectives, including lots of how-to tips: www.thisoldhouse.com.
“The Preservation Directory” is an online listing of hundreds of organizations, structures, government agencies, museums, and historic real estate for sale: www.preservationdirectory.com.