How to Become a Home Inspector: Tools of the Trade and Start-up Costs

OK, you think to yourself, how much money do I really need to invest to do this job? After all, you once watched your brother-in-law repair an electrical socket, so you’re pretty sure that with just a little extra training you could be a home inspector. (How tough can it be?)

Even better, around the house somewhere you think you’ve probably got all the tools you need. It’s just a matter of gathering them up, throwing them into a bag, and heading off to a property. (All right, maybe just a quick stop at the hardware store to pick up a few extra things.) But otherwise, you’re definitely good to go.

Right?

Well, as your old high school coach might have said, “If it was that easy, we’d get someone else to do it.”

For the modern home inspector, the tools of the trade go way beyond a ladder, a flashlight, and a couple of screwdrivers. (But make no mistake: you do need a ladder, a flashlight, and a couple of screwdrivers, for starters.) In fact, before you ever step into someone’s home, you could have anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars invested in the tools of your trade, which can be a pretty hefty sum considering that you’ve yet to collect a single fee.

As you go through your career, your inventory of tools is going to multiply. And if you end up specializing in a tangent discipline—environmental testing, lead-based paint testing, and so on— you could quickly see the variety and value of your “basic tools” soar into the tens of thousands of dollars.

So before you get any business cards printed up, it might be a good idea to take this list down to the local home improvement center to get a glimpse of what you’re getting yourself into.

Getting Started

Over the years we’ve talked to a number of home inspectors about the tools they use. Invariably, Rule 1 is always “Don’t go cheap.” You don’t have to get the top of the line, at least to start with, but cheap tools that break (or worse, cause damage to a property) do far more harm that good, and if we’re talking about measuring devices for things like water pressure or electrical cur rent, they can be inaccurate.

As is true with almost anything these days, and certainly for almost everything on the list below, prices can easily run from a comparative handful of dollars to several hundred, depending on the manufacturer, the quality, and how many things you want it to do. Electrical circuit testers can run from very cheap to very expensive. Gas sniffers also come in a wide range of prices.

So if you’re just starting out, think “quality,” think “middle price range,” think “maybe there’s a sale coming up.” And don’t forget, there are deals all over the Internet. Check them out.

Here is a short list of things you could find yourself in need of as you move into your career:

• Binoculars: Small (11-power) binoculars. You’re going to need these to look at roofs that you either can’t, or won’t, walk on. $30 or more.

• Digital camera: More and more, inspectors will take pictures of problems they see so that they can explain them more easily to their clients. Plus, said one inspector, “Sometimes I take pictures when I run into something and say, ‘Jeez, what is that thing?’ I can study it back in the office, or send it to another inspector for a second opinion.” Nothing under 8 megapixels. $200 to $300 (and coming down).

• Electrical circuit analyzer, arc fault, ground fault circuit testers, sensor pens: You’ll be plugging devices into wall outlets to check the current and for other problems. Sensor pens also are popular items. They glow as you approach a live wire. Electrical equipment: prices are in a wide range. Plan to spend a few hundred dollars.

• Flashlights: A couple of flashlights. Like ladders, a lot of inspectors like to carry both large and small versions. A large, 25,000-candlepower flashlight can throw a lot of light into an attic, crawlspace, or other unlighted area. You might want to consider one that is lightweight and rechargeable. Probably around 100$. There are going to be times, however, when you’re going to need less candlepower—when you’re looking under sinks, for instance—so you’re going to want something smaller. Again think reliability and probably recharge-ability. You should be able to find what you need in the $20 range.

• Gas leak detector and carbon monoxide tester: $180 to $300.

• Inspection mirror: An inspection mirror is a lot like a dental mirror (but much larger) and serves a similar purpose—to see what’s on the other side of something that you can’t get your head around to see directly. Figure $20.

• Ladder: One, maybe two, ladders. Most inspectors say they need a good quality extension ladder that can reach up to at least 22 feet. This is high enough to reach most roofs, and even climb up on a roof if you absolutely have to. Many inspectors also carry 6-foot stepladders for use inside the house to get a better look at ceiling lights, ceiling fans, and to inspect water spots and cracks. Don’t be chintzy when buying a ladder. It’s not unusual for inspectors to spend $450 to $500 on a large ladder (many prefer the “Little Giant” brand). Be sure to keep a couple of things in mind: The ladder needs to be heavy enough so that when you put it up against a building, it will stay there; a slight breeze won’t blow it down, which would leave you, well, up. But it also needs to be light enough so that you can move it with some ease, to say nothing of loading and unloading it from your vehicle several times a day. Also good to keep in mind is that fiberglass ladders tend to cause fewer scratches than metal ones, and the seller is going to appreciate that.

• Level: You’ll probably want both a short level (six inches or so) and a long one (up to a couple of feet). You’ll be checking whether floors and stairs are level, and the slope of pipes. (For demonstration purposes, some inspectors also are known to carry a marble that they can set in the middle of a floor and let it roll to show a buyer just how far off level the floor may be.) Usually not too expensive for small levels.

• Mallet: A plastic mallet. You’re going to find yourself tap ping on floors and ceramic tiles around bathtubs, showers, and in the kitchen, looking for anything that may be loose. You don’t need anything too exotic here, as long as it doesn’t leave a mark on what you’re tapping. Should be less than $10.

• Moisture meter: These are used to measure dampness where there shouldn’t be any—water coming in through ceilings, seeping into basements, and so on. Around $150.

• Paintbrush: A small paintbrush. This will probably be one of the cheapest tools in your arsenal and one that you actually may have around the house. You’re not going to be painting anything, of course. You’ll use the small paintbrush to brush away dust, dirt, paint chips, spider webs, and that sort of thing so that you can get a better look at wiring connections, pipes, inside furnaces, and so on.

• Pocket knife: Many inspectors carry something of the Swiss Army variety with a variety of tools built in. $30.

• Screwdrivers: Flathead and Phillips screwdrivers. Some inspectors like the so-called six-way screwdrivers that include various head styles for various jobs. Also pretty popular are multi-headed power screwdrivers that can be real time and energy savers when you’re unscrewing something like the front panel on an electrical box (64 treads per inch). Again, rechargeable screwdrivers come in a wide price range. Something in the area of $30 should do you.

• Shoes: Good solid work shoes. Wearing sneakers on a roof with any degree of slope is an invitation to disaster. Sneakers are the worst possible shoes to wear on any roof. Sturdy shoes (with an arch support) will save your life. Around $100 to $120. But don’t forget that after you are done walking around outside, you still have to walk around inside. If you don’t want to track dirt inside the house, which home sellers really don’t want you to do, you will either want to put on a different pair of shoes to inspect the interior or slip on some shoe coverings. About $20.

• Tape measure: You’re going to need a good quality tape measure, metal, rigid, probably in the 12-foot to 25-foot range, to measure everything from furnace clearance to inches of attic insulation Your clients are going to want to borrow it to make room and window measurements while they re there. An electronic measurer is a kind of neat “gee whiz” tool that can impress your clients. Tape measures usually aren’t very expensive.

• Thermometer: Thermometer to read water temperatures. $180.

• Toolbox: You’re going to need some easy way to carry your tools. A toolbox or carrying case of some kind will cost $20 or $30—more if you want it personalized with your name or company logo.

• Vehicle -- Something to carry everything else in: A company-owned vehicle dedicated almost exclusively to business is virtually a necessity nowadays. At any given time, you need to carry thousands of dollars worth of equipment to your jobs.

• Pickup trucks are the cliché, and are viewed with less favor than large SUVs. SUVs are enclosed and protected from weather and itinerants. But either one is better than trying to pile all your stuff into your Mustang convertible. Also, any vehicle may get you to the job site, but not all vehicles carry the same hint of prestige. Real estate agents have preferences for BMWs and Mercedes because they silently speak to the quality of the agent. Many home inspectors drive new, large SUVs for the same reason. Some inspectors are even known to drive Hummers because they feel that vehicle makes a certain statement about their status in the industry. And don’t forget, signs and lettering on the sides of vehicles could be an important marketing tool—and all of these things come at a price.

• Water pressure meter: For checking the water pressure in the house. About $30.

• Work clothes: More on this a few more paragraphs down, but for basics you may want some coveralls, safety gloves, inexpensive rubber dishwashing-type gloves, safety glasses. Not too expensive.

• And assorted unseens: Does your state require you to carry errors and omissions insurance, which as a higher-risk, first- year inspector, could cost you more than $3,500 per year? Does your state require you to have a license? Do you need to be bonded? Also, are you going to insure your tools and your business? Are you going to cover yourself with medical insurance?

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Monday, 2008-12-29 16:57 PST