Finding a Home Inspector

Getting Under a Floor

We at Runkle Consulting don’t do home inspections, but we very often follow up after home inspectors to check out things that they have found and have noted to the home buyer.  It may be cracks in the foundations, deflection of floors, or anything that looks suspicious that an engineer’s opinion is needed.  As such, we’ve gotten quite familiar with home inspectors, and I think I can provide some guidance in choosing the right one.

One problem with home inspectors is in many jurisdictions there is no licensing requirement.  If you see an advertisement for a home inspector here in Georgia and it says “Licensed/Insured” that only means the inspector has a business license.  That says nothing about his or her qualifications.  The Insurance may be just General Liability and Workman’s Comp, which is a good thing if he falls through a ceiling while doing an inspection, but doesn’t cover you for Errors and Omissions.  The second problem is there is no clear pathway to becoming a home inspector. Many I know have been practicing engineers, others were home builders.  However, more than a few that I’ve known had no background related to anything remotely related to residential construction.  They just decided one day “I think I’ll become a home inspector”, got a business license, and there you are.

In my business, I mentally categorize the bad home inspectors into three categories:

1. The Blind Mice: These inspectors are totally dependent on referrals from real estate agents, and don’t want to derail that gravy train.  They will find minor items, but never the big stuff.  They don’t want to make the real estate agent mad.  So, your real estate agent refers you to a home inspector, you get charged about $400 or so, and the inspector comes out, finds some inconsequential stuff, and you buy the house.  Later you find the foundation is settling and you are out $10,000 or so in repairs.

2. The Idiots:  I’ll give an example of one in particular.  I got hired by a builder to evaluate a bunch of stuff a home inspector wrote up about a house he built.  One of the items was that the nails in the deck were countersunk into the treated lumber, “breaking the protection”.  The stupidity of this is astounding.  Pressure treated lumber is treated in a pressure vessel that forces the preservative through the depth of the lumber.  Sample cores are taken from the batch to assure the treatment has gotten all  the way through the lumber.  Of course if it is so important to protect the surface, what did the inspector think about the cut ends?

OK, that was bad.  The same inspector pointed out the ground floor was built out of level.  It wasn’t.  There was a load bearing wall setting on the floor that was not supported by anything underneath.  If he had gone in the crawl space, he would have seen this.  The reason the floor was out of level was it was deflecting (bending from the weight above).  It needed foundations and a beam installed below it.  The house was twisting completely out of shape and the inspector didn’t catch this.

I wrote my response to the report, and pointed out the major issue in the basement.  The builder never paid me of course, which is why I generally don’t work for builders anymore to answer home inspector’s reports (there is only one I work for to do this now).

The Deal Breaker:  The deal breaker may be a form of #2 above.  He or she finds minor items wrong and blows them out of proportions.  They will scare you to death.  I’ve seen reports that pretty much accused everyone in the chain from the real estate agent, the bank, the builder, the engineer, and anyone else remotely involved to be in collusion to cheat you, the poor buyer.  My favorite one was where the inspector insisted that brick had been removed and replaced in the veneer of the house by the bank after its foreclosure.  Seriously, banks never do that kind of repair, they replace carpets and repaint and that’s it.  Replacing brick veneer with exact same color and type of brick in small sections is pretty difficult to do if it can be done at all. Certainly no bank I’ve ever seen in possession of a house would spend that type of money.

The deal with the Deal Breaker is you go along to multiple houses, the deal gets broken on each one, and you pay this fellow yet another fee to break the next deal.  This inspector is not a great deal either.

OK, so should you get a home inspector given what I said above?  The short and only answer is yes.  A good home inspector will be able to tell you if there are problems or potential problems with your roof, the heating system, the AC system, the electrical system, and the structure.  A home inspector has to have good attention to detail and have a working knowledge of all the areas of construction of a house.  If I was buying a house tomorrow, I would hire a home inspector and I’ve been in residential construction for 18 years now, I’ve been in the construction business for 40 years, and I’ve been an engineer for 36 years.  There is a lot of general stuff a good home inspector knows that most of us just don’t know.

How do you pick a good home inspector?  Well, your real estate agent can refer you to one, but I recommend going against that way.  You don’t want an inspector that even has it in the back of his or her head that your real estate agent (who will get a commission from you if you buy the house) has passed on this work to him or her. I recommend using the Internet.

First off, you want an inspector that is qualified, and carries proper insurance.  A good place to start is with the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) This society has a qualification system for its members, and provides continuing education to them also.  Here in Georgia there is also the Georgia Association of Home Inspectors (GAHI), which I have a high opinion of.  Getting the name of the inspector is only the first step.

Next, check out the inspector’s website. If there is no website, go to the next inspector.  What kind of qualifications does the inspector have?  Other than the qualification from the association, there should be certifications from the International Code Council (ICC).  You want Residential Combination Inspector certification.  That certification means the inspector has passed a series of exams in the Building Codes  in framing, electical, plumbing, and mechanical (heating and air conditioning).  It can give you a level of confidence that he or she knows their job.  Also, check out their bio.  Do they have a relevant background? Were they in construction or design?  Or did they just hate their job one day and decide home inspection would be great (if you got this far, they probably do have a good background).

Now, there are those that feel you should get a licensed engineer (Professional Engineer or PE) or licensed architect (Registered Architect or RA) to do the inspection.  While I am a PE, and I have seen some very good home inspectors that were PE’s, I don’t feel it is necessarily a requirement.  I believe a person with a solid background can do an inspection as good or better than a PE or RA.

Finally, you need to check references.  Fortunately, you don’t have to get the inspector to give you a list of names and phone numbers to call and hope you get truthful answers like you would have had to do a few years ago. You can now check the reviews online, like from Kudzu. Of course reviews can be misleading.  Often less ethical people will “salt the claim” buy having bogus reviews posted about them.  Also, you can get the occasional crazy and angry dissatisfied customer posting a negative review.  The fake reviews are pretty easy to spot, they will all be written in the same language.  Often the language in fake reviews lacks specificity, but is very flowery.  The crazy angry customer is pretty easy to spot too, and usually there will be a rebuttal to a negative review if the inspector is any good.

Now, you found your inspector.  What should you expect?

1.  The inspector cannot possibly find everything, and an inspection is not a warranty on the house you buy. While the home inspector may carry Errors and Omissions insurance, if something is missed forget about suing.  Typically the contract you sign only allows for a refund of your inspection fee.  Also, taking someone to court costs about $50,000 to $100,000 which is a lot of money to spend on an item that costs $10,000 to repair.  True, the jury may award you attorney’s fees and punitive damages, but I would rather go to Vegas and hit the slots.  That way you at least get free drinks while you blow your money.

2.  The inspector is bound by ethics to point out everything that he or she finds wrong.  You have to decide whether you can live with it.  For example, I went to a foreclosure years ago.  The home inspector was worried about the slope on the rear of the house. I examined it and agreed.  I told the buyer that it could cost about $40,000 to fix. The buyer said “OK, I’m still buying the house.”  The house was being sold by the bank at such a steep discount that $40,000 to repair the rear slope wasn’t a big deal.  That’s the most extreme example I could think of, but it points out that some things that the inspector finds can be lived with.

3. The inspector should not be designing repairs. I’ve followed up after a couple that did this, and their designs were just plain bad.  Leave the repair design to the contractor, and architect, or an engineer.

4.  Codes are not retroactive.  I followed up behind an inspector once that pointed out all the code violations from the 2009 Residential Code on a house built in the 1970’s. First, the 2009 Code was not in effect in Georgia, the 2006 Code was.  Second, the Code doesn’t require you to retrofit existing structures.  Doing this confuses the issue, the inspector needs to look for signs of failure, or items at the end of their service life.

5.  In my opinion there are a number of areas that need extreme attention:

– The Decks.  Decks fail catastrophically (in other words, complete failure with no warning).  As a deck gets older, it gets weaker. They have about a 20 year service life, and are often not safely erected.

– The Roof.  Home inspectors often carry binoculars so they can examine a roof up close.  A poor roof has to be replaced, because water leakage can cause major structural damage.  Replacement can cost you a lot of money, which you don’t want to be hit with when you get in the house.

– Foundations.  Look at this post – do NOT allow this to happen to you.  Please click that link, it will scare you. Foundation repair can be exceedingly expensive.

– Mechanical: Does the house you are looking at have a 15 year old air conditioner or furnace?  Guess what?  You will be buying a new one soon.

– Electrical:  Look out for “jack leg” (substandard) electrical work.  Homeowners will often engage in really bad DIY projects, and electrical is not one to do bad.  Some homeowners will hire “handymen” to come around and do work, and in my experience what they do is often just as bad or work.  The worst thing about bad electrical repairs is they can make your house burn down, or electrocute you.  In other words, kill you, which is not what you want.

How long should a home inspection last?  Depends on the size of the house.  A large house can take all day.  It takes me one hour to look at one item on a house.  If you call me to look at a settling foundation, I will be at your house for at least that long. A home inspector has to look at everything, so I would say at least 4 hours.

How much should your inspection cost?  Depends again on the house. Don’t go cheap.  Around here in Atlanta, I would say around $400 to $600 for a standard size house.  Larger houses (5000 + Square Feet) could cost $1000 or more.  An “expensive” home inspection could save you thousands in repairs later, so don’t practice false economy.

I hope this helps,