It is different now. After nearly two decades as a home inspector, I am different and my inspections are different.
Now a stud is still a stud, lights and outlets still need wires, and plumbing systems are as dependent on gravity as they were in the days of the Roman Empire, so what could possibly have changed, especially given that many of the homes that I inspect today were built prior to my initial home inspection training?
My prior experience to being a home inspector was as a construction worker, first a laborer and then a carpenter. I still remember the specific instructions from my first contractor boss on my very first day on the job, “You can run when you are carrying studs. If you trip and fall, it won’t hurt the studs.” 15 years later, I was the guy yelling the same instructions to the kid whose job it was to carry the studs for me.
But even at the pinnacle of my trade I was as far away from being a “professional” as a hammer is from a PhD. My clothes were only clean until I got out of my truck in the morning. Haircuts and shaves were on an as-needed basis. The only times I can recall venturing into an “office” were to get something stitched up by the doctor.
Needless to say, my first year or two as a home inspector were generally terrifying. I had no difficulty relating to houses, and even during home inspections I perform today, almost twenty years later, I still subconsciously envision the tradesmen “hanging” concrete forms, “standing up” framed walls, “gang-cutting” rafters and “rolling” trusses. I remember the dust, the smells, the mud and the heat. But a real estate office and its occupants might as well have been foreign people in a foreign country, a place I did not even know the language.
When I began my upward personal trek toward employment independence, via home inspection, there were two training centers available to me that were specifically devoted to the profession. One of those training centers used the text and educational materials from the other, so it was safe to say that we were all learning basically the same thing, which was, and would still be if not for the Starbucks style spread of home inspector training centers, a good thing.
Mixed with all the instructions about building materials, proper clearances, egress and moisture barriers were quite a few not-so-subtle tips about dealing with real estate agents. Some of them, it was said, would label you a “deal killer” for doing a good job. Combine this with the constant reminder that you could be liable for tens of thousands of dollars if you missed something, and the home inspection profession looked like a mine field.
I felt completely out of place the first couple of years in the business. Wearing shoes instead of boots, clean pants instead of yesterday’s jeans, and button-down long sleeves instead of T-shirts, all felt like a disguise. The old pickup truck that had ferried me and my tools across many unpaved driveways had to go. Eating lunch at someplace other than my truck’s tailgate was just confusing.
Unfortunately, in the beginning, the most obvious means to encourage agents to refer me was to be cheap, and as clever as I tried to develop tactics to be cheap but not look cheap, cheap was cheap, and in the end, cheap attracts cheap. My first referrals were often from the dregs of the real estate profession. I was challenged routinely by agents who were only interested in quick and unimpeded transactions, “professionals” who couldn’t tell a water pipe from a drain pipe and who challenged me on anything from water heaters to roofs to foundations.
That being said, it was good having my mettle tested early by real estate agents who needed my presence, liability insurance included, but not necessarily my full knowledge and expertise.
Today, after thousands of home inspections, I am completely content in my real estate surroundings; “in the zone” you might say. The chief beneficiaries of my long-earned comfort are my clients.
It wasn’t an epiphany. It was the same long process by which I graduated from being the guy running with the studs to the guy shouting demands for more studs. While a roof is still a roof, good, bad or otherwise, the professional test of my skills as a home inspector was always with the people, the home buyers, home sellers and real estate agents I was communicating with every weekday.
It is an entirely different skill set, one that cannot be learned in any of the building codes. The human element of a home inspection can be, and often is, the most challenging part of a home inspection.
This means that I am a study of two things simultaneously at every inspection. I need a comprehensive understanding of the house that I am inspecting, and the people I am inspecting it for.
Understanding people is really just a simple exercise in watching and listening. Who are my clients at any specific home inspection and what are their needs? The assumption of the inexperienced home inspector is that his clients’ needs are no more or no less than the facts he would present in his home inspection report.
My experience has taught me that learning my clients’ priorities, and making those priorities my priorities, is the recipe for the security they need to make the subsequent decisions about buying the property.
People assess risks differently. The old water heater may be worth the risk for the first-time homebuyer, but the experienced homebuyer may feel he has replaced enough water heaters in his lifetime and wants no part of what he believes will be a hassle. The elderly couple might not need me to be overly detailed in my explanation as to why the house needs a new roof, but at the same time not realize that, for them, the trip hazard in the driveway could have far worse consequences.
The compliment I repeatedly received at the beginning of my home inspection career was that I was “thorough”. My clients and their agents appreciated my systematic inspection and my robotic-like answers to their questions.
Now, my clients simply say, “thank you”. And when they say it, I know that it is more than just a gesture for the data I provided them. It is in appreciation for caring about them.
The home inspection reports I write today are as comprehensive and concise as they ever have been, probably a little more. But it is in the interactions I have with my clients and their agents where my experience makes the difference.
Experience does make a difference. A newer home inspector, if he has an appropriate background, can provide a very thorough home inspection. For many homebuyers that is sufficient. But I believe that an experienced inspector can fill the gap between knowledge and comfort. You want to know everything that can be known about a property you are looking to buy, and you want the comfort to know that the next step you take after the home inspection is the right step.
By Chris Temple
Temple Building Inspection
San Luis Obispo & Santa Barbara, CA