Home Inspection -- Get Along Without You

Should you defend against the do-it yourselfer?

Very briefly With the number of home inspections going up every year, and the price of an inspection also moving up, it was foreseeable that a “do-it-yourself” subculture would develop to suggest consumers could inspect their own homes and avoid ... well... you.

There are probably a couple of dozen books out now that take the average homebuyer through the home inspection process, explaining what to look for on the roof, where the problems might be in the basement, how to look at the hot water heater, how to check out the appliances, and so on. There also is an assortment of television shows—usually on the cable channels—that pride them selves on showing the average person how to fix this or that with out paying a professional. A lot of them offer videos.

At first blush, it might appear that these things are bad for your business. Clearly, the books and videos are trying to show consumers how to circumvent you. On the other hand, most home inspection professionals aren’t worried. In fact, some are even happy to see them. Here’s why:

1. Anything that raises consumer consciousness about the need to have a home inspection benefits the industry at large. Simply put: The more people who talk about home inspections, the more people are likely to get home inspections.

2. The reality is that the vast majority of people who buy books about home inspections will not get past the first few pages. Some people simply aren’t meant to do the physical work involved in an inspection and they’ll end up hiring someone. But they will keep the book as a reference after they’ve moved in.

3. Most people think they have—but really don’t have—the confidence to know for sure that they’ve done a good job. As soon as they are finished, they start second-guessing themselves, wondering if they forgot something, wondering if “that thing” they saw really was what they thought it was.

4. If it takes a professional, with years of experience and thousands of home inspections under his belt, two to three hours to inspect a home, how long would it take amateurs being guided by a book? A day? Two days? They end up rushing their own job. And don’t forget, if it’s the buyer doing the inspection—”by the book”—the seller is only giving him or her a limited time in which to get it accomplished. No seller is going to stand around all day waiting for the buyer to figure out what she or he’s doing.

5. Liability. When consumers hire a professional home inspector, they are able to shift liability onto that inspector. Alternatively, if they do it themselves and blow their own inspection, they have recourse against no one. And the courts are agreeing. More and more often, judges and juries are ruling that when consumers are given an opportunity to have a professional inspection—and turn it down—they often have no one to blame but themselves for problems that show up later. (There still may be recourse against a seller who has intentionally concealed a defect, but still, juries are more sympathetic when a homebuyer’s claim is backed up with a professional’s report.) When a professional home inspector misses something, the opportunity for compensation is much higher.

6. A homebuyer who reads up on how to identify problems in a house may be helping herself weed out homes in the search stage, but also may realize she isn’t competent enough to handle the Real Thing when it comes time to buy. Hopefully the book has made her smart enough to “know what she doesn’t know,” and find someone who does.

7. Hardware. As we cover in Section 5, to do a modestly good inspection with any kind of efficiency, it takes an awful lot of specialized tools. Not too many people have those sitting around the house.

8. The other side. How comfortable is any home-seller going to be allowing an unlicensed, unbonded amateur inside his house, poking and probing walls, switching things on and off, and pushing the thermostat way up (and forget ting to turn it back down)? If the do-it-yourself potential buyer damages something, who pays?

9. The do-it-yourselfer is not objective. The do-it-yourselfer is likely to look hard for what he knows about and what concerns him most, at the risk of overlooking other things that could even be more important.

10. For most people, doing your own home inspection simply doesn’t make sense. Why would someone spend $400,000 on a home but scrimp on a $400 inspection? Why run the risk of saving $300 on a home inspection but miss a $30,000 foundation problem, or even a $3,000 termite repair?

In fact, most of the do-it-yourself inspection books carry disclaimers that warn consumers not to get in over their heads, and to call a reputable professional if they need to.

So These Books Are No Good?

Here’s the irony. No, many of them are very good—so good, in fact, that you may want to consider buying them for your own library.

Many of the do-it-yourself books have actually been written by highly qualified home inspectors with the intent of helping the homebuyer build confidence in his or her purchase. Many pro vide excellent charts and checklists, photographs of potential problems, and ideas on how they should be handled.

In the right hands, like a professional or someone on their way to becoming a professional, many of these books are excellent references. In the wrong hands, like a homeowner trying to cut corners, they become the old cliché: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

So Should Consumers Do Their Own Inspections?

John Malley of Portland, Oregon, who founded the national franchise firm Criterium Engineers in the early 1980s, provides at least three reasons why consumers really should hire a professional.

“First of all, the average homebuyers or sellers simply don’t have the body of experience necessary to inspect either their own home or a home they want to buy. It’s simply too personal. In fact, forget whether or not they have the skills, and forget whether or not they have any of the right experience. The problem is they can’t be objective.”

He points out that by the time the inspection takes place, “they’re already hooked on the house. It’s virtually impossible for the average homeowner to be objective at that point in the process.”

Second, he says, “there is a difference between reading a book and then going off to do an inspection. The differences in home construction are dramatic from one part of the country to another, from one builder to another, and from one time period to another.

“You wouldn’t expect to see the same kind of construction used in a house 50 years old that you’d see in a house that’s 10 years old. The new construction isn’t necessarily better and the old construction isn’t necessarily worse. They’re just representative of different periods. Experienced inspectors understand those differences. A book could cover them, but it would have to be pretty big.”

Another issue is that when a problem is identified, the novice isn’t going to understand whether the problem is large or small.

And that could be important.

“You may see a horizontal crack running along the foundation. An experienced inspector is going to know whether the wall needs to be braced, or replaced,” Malley said. “A book isn’t going to give you that’

But one of the biggest reasons consumers need professionals is backup.

Imagine the layman going up against the professional con tractor The layman says, This needs to be fixed, and the con tractor comes back and says, ‘No it doesn’t.’ And the layman says, ‘Yes it does, it says so in the book.’ And the contractor who has been in business for years says, ‘The book is wrong.’

“Who is going to back up the consumer in that conflict? Who are you going to believe?”

The professional inspector, reminds Mooney, is there to make sure the consumer can go toe-to-toe in any kind of dispute like that. “When you get a professional inspection, you get representation,” he said.

Malley even goes so far as to suggest that real estate agents buying their own homes, construction workers buying their own homes, and even home inspectors buying their own homes should use professionals.

“A real estate agent may have sold hundreds of homes, and even be familiar with basic construction, but that’s not the same as being able to identify problems and know what to do about them. And people in the construction trades need to remember there are 14 different systems in a home. You may know about electrical or plumbing, but that doesn’t qualify you to inspect roofs and foundations. And just because you do it one way and the builder of this house did it another way doesn’t mean this builder did it wrong.”

And even other professional inspectors?

“I’ve personally done probably close to 20,000 inspections in my life, but I’d still hire an inspector to look at a property I was buying,” Malley said. “You can’t be objective when it’s your own home.”

Prev: Working with Buyers
Next: Liability and the Courts

Home •  • 

Top of page

Friday, 2009-02-13 3:36 PST