How Far Does the Inspection Have to Go?


Are you going to be able to restrict your inspection to just the home, or will it go into the yard and down the street?

Hopefully by now you realize the importance of clearly communicating to your client just what a home inspection is—and isn’t.

And hopefully by now, you have convinced your client that you don’t have X-ray vision, that you don’t have the power to see into the future, and that you cannot possibly be an expert on every single system and aspect of the home.

Even if that’s what your client expects.

You remind them that first, and foremost, a home inspection is simply an objective visual examination of the readily accessible physical structure and systems of a home—from top to bottom (or roof to foundation).

You also tell your clients it’s not an appraisal to set market value, nor is it a municipal inspection to verify that the structure meets codes and local standards. And, unless you are an engineer, it’s not an engineering report.

But what does all this really mean in terms of how far you need to go to provide a competent, professional home inspection?

In a very real way, that depends on you.

• It depends on what state you’re operating in because that state may dictate the minimum scope of your inspection. Some do, some don’t. At this writing, several states don’t even license home inspectors, never mind telling them what they should do.

• It depends on what professional organization you belong to because in calling yourself a member of that group, you agree to follow their “standards of practice” detailing the minimum you have to do to call it an inspection. (These could be the same if your state has incorporated a national group’s standards as its own.)

• It depends on whether you belong to a franchise that also dictates the minimum level of services you must perform.

• And it depends on how far you believe you should go beyond any standards you are supposed to follow. Do you believe that what you might find beyond the minimum inspection area could affect what happens to the house? And do you remember telling your client that you go beyond the standards of practice?

Although some home inspectors believe that they are only required to take a look at the actual house or maybe an outbuilding or two, the standards of practice of the three largest home inspection groups also require an examination of drainage, grading, and vegetation if they are likely to “adversely affect” the structure.

Everything is tied in. When you see a doctor, he may hold your wrist, look in your eyes; he’s looking for telltale signs while he’s talking to you. You’ve got to look at the whole picture. When you drive up, you notice the grading, you look at the property.

In addition, a home inspector has to be cognizant of where a house sits in relation to other homes and its relative location on a street. For example, if the house is at the end of a street and at the bottom of a hill, the inspector might investigate how and if rainwater is diverted from the property.

The executive director of the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors agrees that inspectors ought to be aware of factors outside the four walls of a house that could affect that structure.

For instance, drainage. That might not only encompass the property line but also past the property line. If water is coming into the basement, the reason might be far from the home,” says the executive director.

But what about all of those other factors that people are concerned about these days? Things like asbestos, geological issues, indoor air quality, manufacturer recalls, and environmental hazards including hazardous waste?

They may be in the standards of practice, too, but listed under the things that inspectors are “not required” to include in their inspections.

So it will be up to you to decide how far you should go. Some of that will be determined by what your competitors are offering. And some of it will be affected by what clients want as the professionalism of the industry continues to grow.

One area that you should consider is keeping up-to-date on product recalls, and relaying that information as a courtesy to your clients. Being a member of a home inspector organization can help you do that because either the group, or fellow members, are likely to pass the information along. In addition, the Consumer Product Safety Commission ( has a service that allows you to sign up for free e-mail updates regarding product recalls.

The average loss from a kitchen fire is $40,000. This can come simply from having an old GE dishwasher that’s been recalled and people don’t know it. This is where it comes in handy to be part of an organization.

The insurance industry should require every house that sells to be inspected: there is a need for that information to be provided to the insurance industry to determine the insurability of the house.

Staying Out of Court

The reason for all of these questions, of course, is that every one is trying to stay out of court, and the question of “How much are buyers entitled to know in advance?” is being asked more and more frequently.

It’s easy enough for you, the inspector, to say, “Off-site environmental problems aren’t part of the inspection,” but that won’t necessarily keep you from being sued. (Although if you say it in a written, signed contract, that could help you enormously.)

You may think you are simply being asked to look around a property, but is it possible that someday you’ll be asked to look up as well? In St. Louis not long ago homeowners complained they should have been warned about airport noise because they weren’t aware a new runway would bring flights directly over head. Whose responsibility is it to know that?

In New Jersey just a few years ago a group of buyers of new homes ended up suing their developer and real estate agents because they failed to disclose there was a landfill dump within a half-mile of the development. Chemicals from the landfill eventually began leaching across the new home properties. The owners were outraged.

The developer and real estate agents said they shouldn’t have to disclose things that are outside the borders of the property. First, they argued, how could anyone really know what things exist outside the property tract and, second, they noted that at the time the homes were built the seepage wasn’t a problem.

The trial court disagreed, saying the property owners should have been told of the proximity of the landfill.

Are these the kind of things inspectors will have to know in the future? Possibly. More real estate agents are urging buyers to hire home inspectors. One of the reasons is that agents want to put inspectors on the hook for problems and take themselves off.

As real estate agents continue to strive to simply be agents of the transfer of the property you definitely can expect them to try to shuffle more disclosure issues onto inspectors.

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Friday, 2009-02-13 3:19 PST