Once again, The Word invites you to travel into the dark realm of subjects that are sometimes misunderstood by home inspectors. The Word hopes you will find this trip informative and maybe a little entertaining.
Our subject this month is time. The Word finds this subject interesting because, while time itself may be effectively infinite, time is a finite resource for home inspectors. To effectively serve our clients, our communities, our families and ourselves, it is important that we manage this finite resource in the most effective way possible.
The Word has been participating in, and trying not to be too much of a hindrance to, the fascinating project of revising the content outline for the National Home Inspector Examination (NHIE). This content outline determines the topics of questions that will appear on the NHIE (see the report presented by the Examination Board of Professional Home Inspectors [EBPHI] on Page 24).
Because passing the NHIE is a prerequisite for a license in many states and for full membership in ASHI, schools tend to use this outline to teach prospective home inspectors and new inspectors use it to prepare for the exam. This outline is, therefore, a very important document. A lot of time, effort and money is invested to try to get it right. The entire home inspection profession, and the public at large, owes a big thank you to those who participate in this project. More about this at the end of this article.
You may be wondering what the NHIE content outline has to do with time. Well, there’s a limited amount of time available to teach prospective home inspectors. New inspector classes are usually between 80 and 120 hours. This isn’t nearly enough time to train a home inspector. New inspectors have a limited amount of time to study for the NHIE. All inspectors have a limited amount of time to perform an inspection and to write a report. It’s important—one might even say essential—to focus our limited time on topics that will best serve our clients and the public at large.
What Is the Objective of a Home Inspection?
A home inspection is a project. To successfully complete a project given limited resources (time being one limited resource), one must have a clear understanding of the project’s objective. It is said that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there and you may waste a lot of time getting somewhere that you don’t want to go.
There are many ways to answer this home inspection objective question. A brief history lesson may provide part of the answer. The original objective of a home inspection, before ASHI and the ASHI Standard of Practice (ASHI SoP), appears to have been to warn the client about buying the proverbial money pit. Early home inspections involved an “inspector,” often a contractor, who would walk around the house with the “client” and point out major defects such as structural and roof-covering defects. The “report,” if any, would be handwritten notes on a piece of paper. The original ASHI SoP defined the systems and components included in a home inspection, expanded the scope of reportable conditions to include unsafe and near the end of service life, and required a formal written report. The basic objective, however, remained the same: to find and report money pit–level defects. This is a reasonable objective, especially given the inspection fee.
The home inspection profession has evolved since the original ASHI SoP; some say it has evolved beyond the current ASHI SoP. The ASHI SoP has evolved, too, adding new systems and components such as kitchen appliances to the inspection scope. The basic objective, however, remains the same. In The Word’s opinion, this basic objective of finding and reporting money pit–level defects remains both relevant and appropriate today.
ASHI SoP Section 2.1 states the objective of a home inspection.
Home inspections performed using this Standard are intended to provide the client with information about the condition of inspected systems and components at the time of the home inspection.
ASHI SoP Section 2.2.B defines how to achieve this objective. This definition also remains relevant and appropriate today.
The inspector shall provide the client with a written report, using a format and medium selected by the inspector, that states:
1. those systems and components inspected that, in the professional judgment of the inspector, are not functioning properly, significantly deficient, unsafe, or are near the end of their service lives,
2. recommendations to correct, or monitor for future correction, the deficiencies reported in 2.2.B.1, or items needing further evaluation (Per Exclusion 13.2.A.5 the inspector is NOT required to determine methods, materials, or costs of corrections.),
3. reasoning or explanation as to the nature of the deficiencies reported in 2.2.B.1, that are not self-evident,
4. those systems and components designated for inspection in this Standard that were present at the time of the home inspection but were not inspected and the reason(s) they were not inspected.
Let’s summarize the key points of these ASHI SoP sections to get a better understanding of how we can most effectively allocate limited time. The objective is to provide information to the client. The information is about the condition of a limited number of systems and components specified in the ASHI SoP. The limited number of conditions we are required to report is stated in 2.2.B.1. These are the following: not functioning properly, significantly deficient, unsafe and near the end of service life. We may elect to report about additional systems and components, as well as report about other conditions, but (and this is important) if we do a good job inspecting the house, writing the report and complying fully with the ASHI SoP, we have served our client well.
Many states have a state standard of practice (SoP) that is enforceable by state law. If you practice in one of these states, you must comply with the state SoP. If you don’t live in one of these states, then you must comply with the ASHI SoP.
This preceding discussion takes a project-oriented, and somewhat legalistic, view of the home inspection objective. The business-oriented objective is equally important: a satisfied client. Satisfied clients refer new clients, and they don’t sue and complain to regulators. Unfortunately, it is possible to achieve the home inspection project objective and still have a dissatisfied client. To achieve both objectives, it is necessary to focus limited time resources on activities that can increase the odds of achieving both objectives.
What Makes Clients Dissatisfied?
Clients, and people in general, may become dissatisfied when their expectations are not met. Expectations come in three basic flavors. Some expectations are inherent in the client. You can’t do much about these expectations. Some expectations are borne of misunderstandings about the scope and limitations of a home inspection. Investing time to manage client expectations is a wise use of your limited time resource. Some expectations are based on you fulfilling your responsibility to perform a home inspection according to the ASHI SoP. Investing time fulfilling your responsibility, including the inspection and the report, will go a long way toward reducing client dissatisfaction.
Some people have unrealistic expectations and no amount of reasoning or communication will have any effect. There are also a small number of ethically challenged people who will be dissatisfied no matter what you do. Sometimes you can weed out these people and not accept the inspection. For example, if the first or second question is about errors and omissions insurance, it might be best to send these people on their way. Sometimes, you can call their bluff if they complain, but this may require paying an attorney. Sometimes, you just have to write a check and consider it a cost of doing business. Nothing more needs to be said about these people.
Most clients have never heard of, much less read, a home inspection SoP. Misunderstandings are, therefore, inevitable. It is your responsibility to educate your clients to help them understand what you do and what you can’t do. Start this process on your website. Continue it in your inspection agreement by at least citing the SoP that you will follow or, better yet, by providing a copy of the SoP with your agreement. Invest some of your limited time at the start of the inspection by explaining important inspection limitations such as the visual limitation, and by asking the client about questions or concerns about the inspection process and about the house. This is sometimes called the driveway talk or the kitchen table talk. Every inspector should have a script for this talk and use it.
Fulfilling Your Inspection Responsibilities
A client may be justifiably dissatisfied when you don’t deliver what you promise (that is, an SoP-compliant inspection). Fulfilling your responsibility requires completing two tasks. You must identify conditions in inspected components that are not functioning properly, significantly deficient, unsafe or near the end of their services lives. Equally important, you must communicate your findings, in writing, in a manner that the client can understand and can use to make decisions.
Finding reportable conditions in all inspected systems and components is your responsibility, but given limited time, where should you focus your efforts? Errors and omissions claims statistics compiled by Robert Pearson of Allen Insurance suggest that well over half of all claims involve the structural systems, roof coverings and water intrusion. This makes sense because these are most likely to involve money pit–level dollars to repair. Claims involving the rest of the systems and components are mostly in the single digits.
Reporting your findings in a manner that your client can understand and use is also your responsibility. You can find every defect in the house, but if you don’t invest time reporting this information so that the client can use it, all of your inspection time does little good and your client may be justifiably dissatisfied.
The formula for reporting defects is the same regardless of the defect and is stated in ASHI SoP 2.2.B.2 and 2.2.B.3. Simply stated, you should always:
(1) Describe what you saw,
(2) Explain the implication if the defect is not addressed,
(3) Recommend what action the client should take to address the defect (correct, further evaluation, monitor).
A Good Home Inspection?
ASHI SoP Section 2.1 states that the ASHI SoP is the minimum standard for performing a home inspection. The word minimum has a negative connotation, especially in the home inspection profession where exceeding expectations is valued. Many inspectors, therefore, misunderstand the word minimum in Section 2.1. The Word hereby clarifies this misunderstanding. The ASHI SoP is the minimum standard for performing a good home inspection.
Many of us go beyond the ASHI SoP, or our state SoP, and perform a better inspection. But how much of an improvement is this better inspection compared with a good SoP-compliant inspection? This is an interesting question and is worthy of evaluation.
A Better Home Inspection?
What services, procedures, tools, systems and components might be included in a better home inspection? There are as many answers as there are home inspectors. The following are but a few possibilities.
Most of us stick our three-light tester in every receptacle we can get to and we operate every accessible window, although only one per room is required by the ASHI SoP. Are these procedures a big part of a better inspection? Not really. Complaints about electrical issues account for only three percent of claims and complaints about windows don’t even rate their own category.
Some of us use combustible gas detectors. Are these a big part of a better inspection? Not really. The Word can still smell a small gas leak and The Word’s nose doesn’t work as well as it once did. Most people can smell a gas leak that is large enough to be dangerous.
What about infrared cameras? They can help detect hidden moisture intrusion, and absent or improperly installed insulation, under the right conditions and with a trained operator interpreting the images. The right conditions and a trained operator are not always available at the time of the inspection, so this might not be a good candidate for inclusion in a better inspection.
Drones? See infrared cameras—only under the right conditions and with a trained (and licensed) operator.
Given that the basic objective of a home inspection is to find and report money pit–level defects, providing these and other services, procedures, tools, systems and components seems to be mostly tinkering around the margins. Yes, they make the home inspection better. Yes, they provide value. Do they make a significant improvement to a good ASHI SoP–compliant inspection? The Word thinks not.
Give Clients a Choice
Airlines and other industries have adopted a model of charging a base fee for the base service and charging additional fees for additional services. Perhaps this is the model for the home inspection profession going forward.
Every inspector should be trained and tested so that he or she is qualified to provide a good, SoP-compliant home inspection for clients who need, and only want to pay for, this service. Some inspectors will elect to provide additional services beyond the SoP. In many cases, these services require additional training and experience. Some inspectors may elect to differentiate themselves by providing these additional services as part of the home inspection at no additional charge (see Southwest Airlines). Some inspectors may charge extra for these services. Which beyond-SoP services to offer and at what price is a business decision for each home inspector, and a purchase decision for each client.
The Bottom Line
The Word was a student at Indiana University during some of coach Bobby Knight’s most successful years. Coach Knight didn’t have superstar players. His success was based, to a large extent, on using discipline and a relentless focus on the fundamentals to get the most out of each player.
The Word believes that this model applies to the home inspection profession, too, absent Coach Knight’s excesses. Each inspector, from the “freshman” right out of inspector school to the most senior inspector, should invest his or her limited time to perform each inspection with a disciplined focus on the fundamentals, as stated in the ASHI SoP. What an inspector does beyond the fundamentals is a matter of negotiation between the inspector and the client.
Memo to Cronus (god of time): The Word does not reside on Mt. Olympus (just at its base) and welcomes other viewpoints. Send your lightning bolts or emails to Bruce@DreamHomeConsultants.com. The thoughts contained herein are those of The Word; they are not ASHI’s standards or policies.