Sorting through the hype
When it comes time to hire a home inspector, it can be difficult to differentiate among all the home inspection advertising, to determine who will provide the service that will best meet your needs. Everyone would agree that they would want to hire someone who does a thorough inspection and knows what they’re doing. But how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? Here we have provided an unbiased list of questions that you should ask of a home / building inspection company prior to hiring the person that you expect to provide critical information about the largest purchase you probably will ever make.
What is the fee?
Although this is often the first question we hear, the price should not have the most bearing on whom you hire. Inspection companies that market themselves with low prices usually do so because they are new in the business (read: inexperienced) and, being unable or unwilling to distinguish themselves with high quality service, they fall back on low prices. We are continually astounded by buyers who try to cut corners on this one critical aspect of the discovery process of the property they’re looking to buy. It is a mistake to hire a company simply because they have the lowest price — you will end up with the lowest quality service and you could end up really regretting it. When you are shopping for a comparable item, such as a DVD player, you can decide which model you want and then price shop for the lowest price. With home inspectors, it’s different. There is no comparable item. Prices will generally reflect experience level and the quality of service you will receive. It is the same with contractor — the lowest priced contractor is the one who knows how to cut the most corners. Ask these other questions to get a better idea of the service you will receive because inspectors all provide different levels of service and cannot be price-shopped.
How long have you been doing this work?
After licensing for home inspectors was made law in New York State in 2006, inspector schools sprung up and tripled the amount of home inspectors across the state by providing a course specifically tailored to meet home inspector licensing requirements, which right now are not very stringent. As a result, there are now far more “weekend warriors” out there than full-time, competent, experienced inspectors. As with any type of school, there is rudimentary training, but graduates are by no means qualified to go out and start giving you advice on the biggest purchase you probably will ever make. Inspectors can and must take training before entering the field, but all the training in the world is no substitute for experience. (Hint: Those who advertise their training may not have the experience you should be looking for.) The bottom line is…you want to make sure you get an inspector who has the experience to provide you the information you need.
What is your methodology?
Even though there is a home inspection Standard of Practice in New York State, it is very limited in scope. Therefore, someone providing service that minimally adheres to the State standard is not providing much. The better inspectors will exceed that standard (as well as any other standards, such as the ASHI one). Anyone you hire should be able to give you a detailed explanation of their inspection process, whether verbally or in writing.
Is a sample report available?
Many inspection companies provide a sample report on their web sites. If they don’t, you should ask for one. This is where you get to see the level of quality provided by a given house and building inspection service. Is the report clear and easy to understand? Are there photos? If so, are they large enough to see the pertinent details and clearly annotated? Does the report look like it explains issues in enough detail or will you continually have to call back to get clarification? Are there cost estimates? Perusing a sample report is a must!
Although many companies will have a sample report available for download at their web sites, other companies have not bothered to make sample reports available. A refusal to this request should be regarded with suspicion. I have seen many home inspection reports on other company web sites, and aside from obvious spelling mistakes and poor grammar, many of these reports are really hard to read — being jammed with redundant disclaimers and vague sentence fragments, leaving very little useful information. I saw one report where the text said that everything about the electric panel was OK, but the picture next to it showed an immediate fire hazard.
When do I receive the written report?
When purchasing a property, once you have an offer accepted, you have a limited amount of time to sign a sales contract. In many cases, the seller wants to move things along as quickly as possible. Since a property inspection plays a major role in helping you determine if and how to move forward, you need to have the written report as soon as possible after the site inspection. Most companies will provide it within a few days via mail or email. Ask this question to make sure you will be able move along in a timely manner. Beware of “checklist” reports that are given on-site, as they are generally an inferior product, that forces you to navigate large areas of irrelevant text and short handwritten sentence fragments.
Is a termite certificate included in the fee? (for financed purchases)
Most lenders will require a termite certificate in order to underwrite a house. A separate termite inspection from a pest control company can cost anywhere from $75 to $150. Many building inspection companies include them with their reports but some don’t. If you must choose between having the certificate provided by the house inspector or a pest control technician, remember: home inspectors do not sell treatments (and are therefore not motivated to “find” a problem).
Do you access the roof with a ladder?
Buildings with pitched roofs (and even some with flat roofs) do not have roof access from inside. From experience, I can say that the only way to fully evaluate the condition and quality of installation of the roofing material is to see it up close. The only way to see it up close is with a ladder. Most inspectors will not access a 2-story roof with a ladder, so this is an important question to ask. Even if the roof is new, it does not mean that it was installed correctly. Some inspectors use contraptions, such as camera poles and even drones. But there are details that even the best of these contraptions will miss. For example, no contraption can tell how many layers of roofing are present. For that, you have to physically lift the bottom course to check. This can determine whether roof replacement will be double the cost because of having to remove the old shingles prior to reroofing.
Do you open all electric panels?
Perhaps the most important thing an inspector can do when visiting a property is to remove covers from electric panels to check for unsafe wiring. There is no limit to what homeowners and amateur “electricians” can do with wiring to create potential fire hazards. Yet there are a few companies, including a prominent “engineering” firm that we know of, that do not provide this critical service. Every now and then I have opened an electrical panel to find overheated and melted wires – a fire waiting to happen.
What do you do to assess water entry or leakage?
Even a small amount of water leakage can cause big problems in building, if it is undiscovered for a long period of time. Concealed mold could grow and cause health problems for sensitive occupants. Other than looking for visible signs of leakage, such as water staining, water damage or visible mold growth, there is more that can be done to determine if a given house or building has water leakage problems.
Many, but not all, inspectors use moisture meters, which can determine if and how wet a water stain is. If a stain is wet, you have a genuine issue that you can bring to the table in a property purchase. Many sales contracts stipulate that a building will be delivered “leak-free”, and therefore any wet stain, whether it comes from inside or outside is, in most cases, an active leak.
A few inspectors use infrared (IR) cameras during inspections. While these devices are useful in identifying missing insulation and electrical overheating, they are also really great at locating areas where leakage occurs, but where no visible staining is present.
Every so often the infrared camera locates leaks around windows. This typically happens in buildings where new windows were recently installed. Such an installer clearly had no understanding of proper window installation, and therefore all of the windows he installed are suspect, whether they show signs of leakage or not. This cannot be fixed with caulking. The windows would need to be removed and correctly reinstalled or else they will always leak. The repair would involve removal, reflashing, and reinstallation of windows and could run upwards of $1000 per window. We find conditions like this over and over again in buildings…
Of course any inspector needs to be trained in using the IR camera, which does not see moisture, only temperature differences on surfaces, therefore the “stain” in the above photo would need to be tested with a moisture meter to determine if it is wet. To be fair, moisture meters and IR cameras can only be effective in identifying conditions when they exist. For example, many roof leaks do not leak every time it rains, perhaps only during a really heavy rainstorm that only occurs every few months. Therefore, water stains can dry over time and the moisture would not then show up under IR. So while we can’t expect usage of a moisture meter and IR to locate every possible and potential water leak, a good inspector will be able to learn a lot more using these tools, than someone who only does a visual inspection. This is a worthwhile conversation to have when looking to hire an inspector, because as we’ve learned through years of using an IR camera, houses and buildings leak more than you might think.