Many home inspectors and young realtors do not give enough thought to the question of home inspector report quality. Everyone is concerned about the skill and quality of the home inspector, but what about his final report. An inspectors writing style and report size are critical in determining the reports effectiveness as a communication tool. It is critical that a home inspector clearly and logically expresses himself in a succinct, grammatically correct manner. When the inspection event is over, all that remains is the inspection report. While you can always call the inspector for clarification, it is preferable that an inspection report stands on its own.
It is important to understand going in that a home inspection is only part of the process of determining the condition and cost of buying a home. Very few home inspectors will tell you everything that you need to know, such as the cost of repairs. Most home inspectors are not allowed to be repair contractors and will not quote the work someone else is going to do. Additionally, license acts and standards specify that home inspectors cannot dig into a problem enough to fully determine the extent and cost of repairs.
To fully understand the cost of purchasing a home, a client must complete three separate tasks. Agents and inspectors can help with each, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the buyer to complete his “due diligence”. The tasks are as follows:
- Conduct an inspection.
- Determine which of the findings rises to the level of a repair requirement.
- Consult repair contractors for rough pricing.
Please see the article on determining which home inspection findings need repair.
How much information is needed?
One of the continual debates among inspectors, defense attorneys and other interested parties is not just what a home inspector should write, but how much to write. The question is more than just how much information does this client need about any one issue noted. A home inspector must also, unfortunately, consider some level of liability protection (aka CYA) in his writing style.
In general most parties to the writing debate agree that there are three levels of comment on an issue:
- What’s wrong? Simply describe the issue. Some inspectors believe that it is their role to simply list the issues found during an inspection. No inspector can know enough about the buyer to know what each piece of information means to any buyer. Also an inspector cannot determine the breadth of repairs needed based on his visual inspection. The buyer of the inspection service must do further research on his own. The risk in this writing style is that a buyer will make a certain number of assumptions. When those prove both wrong and expensive the buyer may blame the inspector. E.G. “The half bath toilet is loose and can be shifted on the waste pipe.”
- What’s wrong and what does it mean to a client? Most inspectors not only note issues, but explain, in basic terms, what it means to the buyer. Most avoid in-depth explanations and stick to the most prevalent impact. This technique still stays away from specifying repairs. A risk of this technique is that if the inspector underestimates the gravity of a repair, the seller may come back at him. E.G. “The half bath toilet is loose and can be shifted on the waste pipe. This can allow a leak at the floor or subfloor which can
lead to both cosmetic and structural damage.” The example is based on the 80% answer, but what if the buyer moves in, pulls the toilet and finds black mold? Clients must understand that they still need to consult repair contractors to confirm what repairs will be included and how much it will cost.
- What’s wrong, what it means and what needs to be fixed? Under this technique the inspector provides all of the information needed by the buyer except cost. The risk is that he/she could be even more wrong than in the example above. E.g. “The half bath toilet is loose and can be shifted on the waste pipe. This can allow a leak at the floor or subfloor, which can lead to both cosmetic and structural damage. Remove the toilet, check the floor decking, wax ring and mounting bolts, repair as needed and remount.”
A good inspector will use all three techniques, depending on need and importance. After all, a buyer will probably need more information about a foundation failure indication than a simple broken window. Good inspectors will judge their audience and adjust accordingly. Do not be surprised if an inspector asks what you do, what your home ownership experience is and if you are handy. He or she is trying to obtain enough information to adjust to your level.
What about too much information?
It is also important that inspectors try to stay away from excessive standard (boilerplate) information. Most realtors have seen 20 and 60 page reports on the same house or homes substantially similar. No “user friendly” home inspection report should have a 19 page
introduction that explains the environmental and soils conditions that are prevalent in the region. This is classic boilerplate CYA. Normal report introductions are 2-4 pages long and cover basic scope, limitations, licensing, procedural, identification information, inspection environment and attendees. If a report contains large volumes of what is standard for all homes, than it can be posted on the inspectors website and referenced in the report introduction. Boilerplate can bog down a report and make it hard to find the important information.
Before you select an inspector, try to view a sample report. Many professionals have a sample for download on their website. Evaluate clarity, completeness and look for straightforward language. Photos should also be integrated throughout the report to illustrate findings. Here is a good sample report from the Houston TX market: TIP Sample Report 0709
All home inspection service buyers should take the time to educate themselves, check references and check previous reports. As is often said, this will be one of (if not the) largest and most important investments in your life. You need and deserve the best advice available.