Home Inspection --Working with Buyers

Patience is the queen of all virtues—and nowhere is that truer than in the home inspection business.

In a perfect world, you would be able to thoroughly preplan your home inspection and carry it out with military precision. You would be efficient. You would be undistracted by anyone or anything. You would be able to study the various components of a home, and then step back and take in the whole Zen experience of the house without outside interference.

Well, that’s not going to happen, so forget it.

The truth is, you often are going to have the homebuyer in tow; sometimes a disgruntled seller will be hovering over your shoulder; occasionally the buyer’s real estate agent will be hanging around and, who knows, maybe even the listing agent.

You can always try to ignore everyone else and concentrate just on the house. Or you can accept the reality that dealing with other people is part of the job, and trying to accommodate them is the path of least resistance. Yes, of course, your pleasant demeanor could mean repeat business and referrals (and maybe fewer lawsuits). But more importantly, the whole process is going to go better if you’re tactful and friendly to everyone who encroaches on your airspace.

(As a practical matter, veteran real estate agents don’t really want to be at the inspection and consider it a hand-holding exercise that wastes their time. If listing agents show up at all, you can expect them to remember they have to make an important phone call and they’ll catch up to you later. The buyer’s agent will probably offer to go help the listing agent dial his or her cell phone. The home-seller will probably give up a few minutes later, convinced you’re an incompetent charlatan whose sole purpose is to drive down a fair, honest, and thoroughly justified price. Oh well.)

Even so, you may need to keep repeating to yourself that you’re a professional, and you have no vested interest in how the deal ultimately turns out. A callous way of looking at it is that you get paid one way or the other. A somewhat gentler way is to simply acknowledge that it takes a lot of components to make a house—and one of the most important is the human component.

Your Bedside Manner

For you, the home inspection process begins during the phone call when you’re hired. You are collecting a number of pieces of data from the client: location of the home, when the inspection has to be done, possibly the age of the home, number of rooms, and square footage. You’re going to want a callback number for the client (and a couple of alternatives), a fax number, and maybe an e-mail address.

Buyers also are going to want to know certain things from you. Your price, of course. Hopefully, they’ll be asking for your credentials and referrals, how long you have been in business, and whether you have any designations. These are all good questions that demonstrate that the buyers have done a little research into the importance of the home inspection and take it seriously.

Even if the buyers don’t ask those questions, as we’ve mentioned before, you should find some way to work them into the conversation.

But you and the client also are going to want to exchange views on a number of other things.

You’ll almost certainly be asked how long the inspection will take—and you’ll have to explain that all you can give is a ballpark figure. The client will probably want to know when your report will be ready—and you’ll explain your company procedures.

In some soft (but assertive) way, you will want to stress the appointment time. You may want to say things like, “If you’re delayed, will there be someone there to let me into the house?” Or, “If you’re running behind, should I go ahead and start inspecting the outside without you?”

Time is money

You will want to know whether the client will be joining you on the home inspection or sending a representative (his real estate agent, her father-in-law). One of the things you can count on is that if a homebuyer joins you — especially a first-time homebuyer — the length of the inspection will probably increase to accommodate questions. But make no mistake: You do want the buyer to come along. In the end it is easier for questions to be asked and answered on the spot, rather than through a series of phone calls after your report has been sent over.

But also keep in mind that there is a difference between having buyers “observe” the inspection and “participate” in the inspection. If buyers insist on participating, consider recommending that they bring their own moderately powered flash light and a small notebook and pen to make their own notes. Needless to say, suggest they wear clothes they can get dirty in.

Under no circumstances should they bring screwdrivers or pliers. Emphasize, politely, that they won’t be touching anything.

In that phone conversation, you might also ask if the clients have any special concerns about the house or “Is there anything especially important to you that you might have seen at the house that you’d like me to be sure to check out?” You’ll be surprised at the number of times they do have questions, such as mentioning a crack behind a dresser or a ceiling that appears to have been freshly painted.

IT IS CRITICALLY IMPORTANT in this first phone call that you explain the parameters of the inspection. You need to explain what your work will cover, and what it won’t. You need to explain what state law, your organization, or local custom obligate you to do, and what you cannot and will not do. You need to be as precise as possible in discussing what you will do for the fee that you’ll earn. You also need to discuss what additional fees may be involved if they would like you to provide additional services (such as radon testing, etc.).

You need to advise them that everything you have discussed will be reduced to writing in a contract that eventually will have both parties’ signatures at the bottom. (It is incredibly important for both of you that your contract be written and signed. If some thing goes wrong in the deal, you—or they—will want to be able to go back to your original agreement to see how the issue is addressed. And, in a worst-case scenario, your written contract could become your most important evidence in a lawsuit.)

On Location

When you get to the site of the inspection, you are going to want to repeat much of the conversation you had on the phone. You are going to need to remind them again of what you will and won’t do, what your fee covers, and what the procedures are for requesting more tests. Now is the time to get their signatures on the contract.

Much of this, of course, is just practical, common sense advice. But you’d be surprised at the number of misunderstandings that can arise, and the number of lawsuits that can be generated by the words: “I didn’t know that he (or she) didn’t inspect.”

Also, once you are on location (and you can carve this in stone), you may believe your job is just to report on the condition of the property—and every state law and home inspector organization in the land will back you up on that 100 percent—but the homebuyer (especially the first-time homebuyer) will have a different agenda. In addition to wanting you to find everything that’s “wrong” with the house, he or she also is hoping you will explain how the house actually works.

The buyers will want you to be their guide to home construction and even do-it-yourself projects. You are probably going to end up pointing out every water shutoff valve in the house, and maybe showing where to kill the electricity in an emergency. If you’re lucky, the circuit-breaker box will be neatly (and accurately) labeled. If not, you may end up spending some extra time there, trying to figure it out and explaining, “This switch turns off the power to the kitchen. That switch kills the power to the children’s bedrooms.”

What you are specifically being paid for is to assess the condition of the house. But what the homebuyer is paying for is that you’ll also be able to answer questions like these:

• “Why is this pipe here?” and “Why is it hot?”

• “Should that wire be hanging down?” and “Where does it go?”

• “I want to turn these two rooms into one master bedroom. Can I take out this wall?”

• “Do you think I can do this (repair, modification, installation, etc.) myself, or should I call a professional?”

• And invariably, “How much do you think it would cost to do that?”

It’s important to remember that your inspection is the first time the homebuyer has actually had a chance to thoroughly go through the inner workings of the house he’s already promised to buy. Contractually, how helpful you want to be is up to you. In reality, you are going to find yourself trying to be as helpful as possible.

On other hand, tread softly. Some of the most innocuous questions can move you into gray areas of ethics. For example:

• “Well, can you fix it?”

• “Do you know somebody who can replace that thing?”

In the course of the inspection, it is important to remember who you are—but it’s also important to remember who you’re not. You are a critical observer, not a critic.

It is not up to you to comment on how the house is decorated, or laugh with the buyer when he or she points out the seller’s choice of paint color. While clutter could certainly hamper your ability to move around in tight spaces, it is not up to you to declare the current owner a pack rat or a lousy housekeeper.

In some cases, silence is not only golden, it also is professional. However, if you identify the current owner’s do-it-yourself project and find it lacking, you do need to express that concern, again as professionally as possible. It may be enough to say that the job appears amateurish or that the owner did not use standard construction practices. Obviously, if a wiring job is so bad that it is unsafe, you need to note that both to the buyer and the seller (or at least the seller’s listing agent).

Also, be careful about using words like “not up to code” unless you’re sure you know what the code is. Don’t try to sound like an expert in something you’re not.

It is not up to you to declare “This guy shouldn’t have tried to do this himself” or “This guy didn’t know what he was doing.”

It is your job only to cite the problem with whatever degree of seriousness it may entail. The point is: Judge the house, not the people.

That’s also true of your own client. If a woman announces she intends to rewire the kitchen herself, it’s not up you to suggest she shouldn’t do it. It may be appropriate, however, for you to recommend to any buyer that it might be a better idea to have a licensed professional do that kind of work.

Care and Feeding of Clients

Finally, if the homebuyer elects to follow you around the house throughout the inspection, remember that you take on a little bit of responsibility for that buyer’s safety, as well as the home’s safety.

Needless to say, you should discourage the buyer from crawling up on the roof with you. You may also want to be leery of even bringing a buyer into the attic with you. Buyers have been known to fall through ceilings. (Imagine the seller’s surprise, to say nothing of the insurance hassle.)

Obviously, it’s better to point out problems in electrical boxes from afar.

And the Report

In the end, of course, everything you’ve seen in the house is reduced to black ink on white paper and handed to the client. Keep in mind that no matter what casual conversations you’ve had with the buyer during the course of the inspection or what kind of informal judgments you’ve made along the way, what really counts is what you put on paper.

When it comes to reopening negotiations on a purchase price, it’s one thing for the buyer to claim, “Well, during the inspection the inspector said . . .“ and another to say, “Here is what the inspector wrote down in his report.”

According to real estate agents, this is where many home inspectors go astray, says Bill French of Wm. French Realty in St. Louis, “I want the inspector to give my client his best independent judgment of the home’s condition.

“But what I don’t want is for him to verbalize to the buyer, ‘Well, the roof is shot and needs to be replaced,’ but then write in his report, ‘The roof is nearing the end of its serviceable life.’

“If the roof is shot, that’s a legitimate negotiating point with the seller to get it replaced. But if the roof is going through its cycle of normal wear and tear, then that may not be a negotiating point.”

Alternatively, you also want to be careful about being extreme and/or making dramatic statements in showing off your abilities in front of a client. If the furnace isn’t firing correctly, say so. But don’t say the house could explode at any second. There is nothing more important than accuracy and balance.

Says home inspector Alison Jones of Jupiter, Florida,

With most real estate agents, it is the home inspector’s demeanor that causes the problem. You don’t want to scare people. We are not alarmists. We tell people very matter-of-factly or impress upon them how many things are good.”

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Friday, 2009-02-13 3:30 PST