Home Inspection -- How Dangerous Is This Job?

Imagine what you’d look like standing naked on someone roof. Is the home inspection business dangerous?” you ask. In the spirit of the infamous slogan, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” we can unequivocally answer, “No. The home inspection business isn’t dangerous—just the people who are in it.”

In the course of our research we talked to a wide number of very experienced home inspectors who will assure you this is not a dangerous profession. Yet every one of them seems to have a harrowing story of a narrow escape. But all those stories seem to start with the words, “I knew I shouldn’t have put the ladder there...“ or “I knew I was standing in water when . . .“ or “I always shine the flashlight in the crawlspace first, but this one time.

As you’ve already read, and will continue to read, the home inspection business is a visual business. You are not obligated to crawl on a roof if you can see it from the top of the ladder, or even better, through binoculars from the ground.

You are not obligated to stick a screwdriver into a crack in the foundation; if you don’t know what that dark thing in the crawl space is, you are not obligated to poke it with your flashlight; and if you see a bee in the attic and think you hear other bees in the attic, you might want to assume it’s a nest.

Most of all, you have not been hired to do heroic deeds for a few hundred dollars. You don’t have to read the rest of this section if you’ll just remember these words: “If it looks life-threatening, don’t do it.”

A Few True Stories

The first rule of home inspecting is that it is easier to get on a roof than it is to get off. This story comes from an inspector who knows that firsthand.

According to him, it had rained all morning, but the sun came out in the afternoon and it was going to be a nice day. As this particular inspector made his inspection of the outside of the house, he was aware the grass was wet but didn’t think too much about it. Finally, he retrieved his ladder from the truck and put it up against the back of the house—not paying much attention to where he placed it. He went up without a problem, feeling the ladder sink in just a bit as he ascended.

It wasn’t until he was finished surveying the roof that he realized he had a problem.

When he crossed his leg over to put his foot on the top rung, he could feel the ladder slide out from the bottom. He pulled the ladder up a bit from the top and tried to replace it firmly on the ground, but when he crossed over again, again he could feel it slide.

Once again he pulled up the ladder from the top and this time repositioned it a few feet to the left, then a few feet to the right. Each time he tried to get on it he could feel it give way from the bottom.

“I felt as stupid as I could possibly feel,” he confessed. The homebuyer hadn’t accompanied him on the inspection, and the listing agent had left some time before. The seller wasn’t at home.

“I knew I could go ahead and get on the ladder, but if it slid out from under me, I was going to go crashing down, and since I was at the back of the house, I wasn’t even sure anyone would notice me.”

Homes in the area were relatively far apart, but the inspector nevertheless shouted “HELP!” a few times, to no avail. He crawled over to the front of the roof and attempted to wave down cars as they went by. The drivers either didn’t see him or just waved back.

“The only thing I could think to do was take off all my clothes and stand there on the roof waving. I figured someone eventually would notice a naked crazy man standing on a roof and call the police.”

Fortunately, just before he started stripping, the homeowner came home.

The inspector was rescued with body and dignity intact. Another inspector willingly concedes, “For the most part, home inspecting is not a dangerous business, even though there probably is some risk in every inspection. Usually if there is an injury, it is because of carelessness or sheer stupidity by the inspector.”

While saying he had never actually been hurt in an inspection, he knew of peers who had—mostly broken bones from falling off roofs or the occasional electrical shock. (Ladders and power lines do not mix. The rule is: Look twice, climb once.)

This veteran did have a few ladder stories, however.

“I put the ladder flat on a lower roof without tying it down. While I was standing on it, the ladder slipped. It fell to the ground and I ended up hanging off a gutter. Fortunately there was a construction worker there who helped me get off the roof. There was a lot of damage to the gutter.”

Another time during an inspection in a low-income part of an urban area, there was another ladder problem.

“It was a flat roof, but the ladder shifted while I was climbing up. The tenant in the building was there and I asked him to reset the ladder. But he couldn’t speak English and we were having a hard time communicating. Pretty soon I hear a scraping. I hear him moving the ladder. I yell at him to stop and he drops it against the electrical service wire to the house. Not a good situation.

“I’m motioning him to stay away from the ladder. Don’t touch the ladder. In the meantime, I’m wondering how I’m going to get off the roof.

“He runs around the side of the house. In the garage there is another ladder and he brings it around. But it’s about five feet too short and almost vertical to the ground. He wants me to hang off the edge and lower myself down until my feet touch the ladder. I figure I’m more likely to fall to my death.”

In the end: “He called the fire department and they took me off with a hook and ladder truck. The lesson I learned was to always tie off the ladder.”

Crawlspaces also are a favorite spot of home inspectors and other critters.

“I have a 25,000-candlepower flashlight,” said another inspector. “Before I ever go into a crawlspace, I take that thing and shine it around in there. That thing throws a lot of light and you want that for crawlspaces and attics because you never know what you’re going to find.”

A lapse in that routine, however, brought a scary experience.

“I don’t know why, but this one time I pushed my head and shoulders in about halfway before I turned on the light. I was face to face with a big old possum and he was just smiling at me and showing his teeth. I just smiled right back and backed out of there as fast as I could.”

Crawlspaces also, of course, are favorite habitats of bees, bats, rodents of all variety, and the occasional rattlesnake. They can be even more uncomfortable, however, when accompanied by standing water and dangling wires. “With everything else you’re doing trying to move your body, you accidentally touch something and that’s it, you get shocked,” an inspector said. “Hopefully, you live to tell about it.”

One trainer who teaches new people coming into the industry says he emphasizes, “You’re not being paid enough to put your life in danger, so don’t do it. If whoever has hired you asks you to do something you’re not comfortable with, say so. Walk away if you have to.”

The trainer also said inspectors need to be especially careful when a homebuyer is in tow.

“They put their hands where they shouldn’t and they get shocked or burned,” he said. “I know of buyers who followed their inspector into the attic. One buyer stepped down but missed the framing and fell through. You do need to protect your buyers.”

And most of all, he said, “When you’re doing an ,inspection, make sure you know who else is in the house. You do not want young kids following you around. You don’t want young kids play ing Junior Home Inspector and plugging things into electrical panels.”

Sometimes What You Don’t See Can Be Problematic Too

Another curious thing you’ll find is that when you are in the house, everybody else is going to assume you’re in charge.

That means if you open a door and the dog runs out, the owner is going to assume you’re responsible. (Before you arrive at the property, you need to make sure pets are either tied up or off the premises before you enter.)

Also, you need to be careful to knock on closed doors. You don’t want to walk in on the owner while he or she is otherwise involved. And while we’re talking about careless owners, make sure you advise homeowners to pick up any valuables they might have laying around. The last thing you need is for a homeowner to report a missing bracelet after you’ve left.

Yes, these things happen.

So needless to say, not all dangers are associated with the structure of the home. Trainers also warn that if you arrive at a home inspection and for some reason are worried about the neighborhood or the security of your tools and yourself, then you need to be honest with your client. If you have a partner or an apprentice, it’s wise to have them hover while you do your work. Otherwise, leave.

Again, balance what you can make from an inspection with what you can lose.

Prev: How Far Does the Inspection Have to Go?
Next: Working with Buyers

Home •  • 

Top of page

Friday, 2009-02-13 3:24 PST