House Rules: Know your home inspector

Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 12:00am

If you’re about to buy a house, you’ll probably be hiring a home inspector to look at the place. But before you do that, you need to know a little something about how the home inspection business works.

After you’ve chosen your real estate salesperson, and you’ve found the house you want, the next thing you do is hire a home inspector. Believe me when I tell you, this is where you want to be very careful. Most likely, your salesperson will have a list of home inspectors she “uses,” and she’ll be glad to choose your home inspector for you. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you’re lucky, she might just recommend the smartest, most diligent home inspector in town – the home inspector who has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things housey, never misses a defect and never fudges the truth to help the sale along. Heck, she might even recommend the home inspector she’d hire if she were buying a house for herself.

Or, she might recommend the most desperate home inspector in town, the guy who’s best suited for lubricating carnival rides, the guy who’ll have his water and electricity cut off and his truck repossessed if he doesn’t help get this house sold.

No matter how you look at it, there’s a conflict of interest at this stage of the homebuying process. The home inspector knows very well that the fewer problems he reports, the closer the salesperson is to getting paid, and the more likely it is that the salesperson will “use” him again in the future.

If you’re going to let somebody choose a home inspector for you, make it a person to whom you’d happily hand a briefcase containing a half-million dollars of your cash in it – somebody you’d trust to walk onto a jet headed for a tropical island paradise that has no extradition treaty with the U.S.

I know, I know. That’s a harsh and cynical point of view. Truth be told, I’ve never known of a prospective homebuyer getting cheated out of a half-million dollars. But I do know one buyer who got cheated out of about three hundred thousand, because his salesperson recommended the dumbest and most dishonest home inspector available.

It’s easy to find a home inspector. You can’t throw a rock without hitting one. Google “home inspectors nashville tennessee.” Or, go to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance website at http://licsrch.state.tn.us/default.aspx

There, you’ll see that there are at least 848 home inspectors listed – some active, some pending. That’s too many home inspectors – three or four times too many. That much competition is likely to drive fees to the bottom, creating a lot of underfunded – and maybe even desperate – home inspection businesses.

The Department of Commerce and Insurance requires continuing education for home inspectors. That’s good, right? Well, not really. It’s just a little better than nothing. Last year, I took several online courses to satisfy my continuing-education requirements. Here’s what I learned: the state of home-inspector education is shamefully bad, stuck somewhere around the middle-school level. Don’t expect the continuing education requirements to produce home-inspection scholars.

So, what’s a smart homebuyer to do? Here’s what smartypants lawyer – and construction defect specialist – Jean Harrison says: “Before you hire a home inspector, ask him what percentage of his business comes from word-of-mouth, and what percentage comes from salespeople. The higher the percentage of word-of-mouth referrals, the greater the likelihood that the inspector will perceive himself as working for the homebuyer, rather than the salesperson.” She adds, “I would also ask the inspector directly: ‘Do you consider me, or the salesperson, to be your client?’”

Once your inspection is complete, your inspector will give you a written report. Problem is, he may or may not have written your report. In recent years, home inspectors and home inspection companies have turned to computer-generated reports. These days, many home inspectors just click on generic boilerplate that came with their report-writing software, then hand – or send – the report to their customer. The person who wrote the boilerplate never saw the house that’s been inspected.

I say choose your own home inspector, a local inspector who’s been in business, in your town, for at least 10 years. During that time, he should have done at least two thousand inspections. You want a home inspector who writes his own reports, uses few if any boilerplate or disclaimers, and is much more loved by his customers than the salesfolk who refer him.

Jowers has been writing about renovating old houses, and other things, since 1981. His column appears every Thursday in The City Paper. Contact him at wjowers@nashvillecitypaper.com

1 Comment on this post:

By: EddieA on 7/26/09 at 3:55

I wish you had written this article several weeks ago. I hired a home inspector for a buyer's home pre-purchase inspection. I was present for some, but not all of the inspection. The person seemed very nice. We discussed the condition of the roof and the addition of a den - real fireplace. When I recived the report, it was very detailed. There were photographs of the sump pump and various sections of the home. There was a photograph of the door locks - recommend you change them. There was a photograph of a child's swing set in the back yard - we don't inspect swing sets because they are a not a part of the house. There was a photograph of a seperate storage building - we don't inspect external storage buildings because they are not a part of the house. I understand that and these items were not required to be inspected to remove a condition of the purchase.

In reading the report, I noticed there was something missing. The inspection was done July 6, 2009. However, there was nothing in the inspection report on the heating system that is gas. I contacted the inspector and he stated - "We don't inspect heating systems because it is summer".

This clealry violated the State rules of conduct related to what is to be inspected and exclusions . I checked the rules and summer is not listed as an exclusion for not inspecting a heating system. There was nothing in the contract to exclude the heating system - that is a part of the house. There was nothing in the report that the heating system was not inspected and why. This was never mentioned before the inspection, during the inspection or after the inspection. The inspector came to the residence with the clear intention not to inspect the heating system.

If I had known this, I would not have hired him.

His response to the issue was to amned the original home inspection report to state that he didn't inspect the heating-gas system because of ambiant temperature - it was 77 degrees July 6, 2009. My solution was different - complete the job I contracted you to do.

One week later, the inspection was completed. What prompted this action was I was in the process of filing suit for breach of contract. I did not threaten to file suit, I had already completed the paper work.