Do you remember your first solo inspection? Do you remember that feeling of angst, that semi-helpless newbie feeling that we all experienced when we were just starting out? We hoped and prayed that we didn’t miss anything, that we used all of the appropriate terminology and that we described everything in our inspection report accurately.
Of course, over time, the angst and anxiety we felt gave way to the lessons of experience. With each repeated situation that we encountered in our inspections, we became more educated in our field and that made us more knowledgeable and savvy inspectors.
Familiar and Unfamiliar Territory
Much like the “city mouse” versus the “country mouse” in Aesop’s fable, we all feel more comfortable on our home turf. We enjoy working in the territory we have chosen and we become especially proficient at identifying the issues that come up most often within the type of residences or commercial buildings located there. But, just like the city mouse and country mouse, when we are taken out of our element, we might find it difficult to identify what we are seeing for, perhaps, the first time.
Experience is the inspector’s greatest ally. No matter how much book learning you have, nothing beats being out in the field and seeing things up front. These experiences are our teachers. We keep learning with each new and different inspection until we find ourselves developing a stable of experiential information from which we can draw. The “new” continues to be an education for us, forcing us to face that which we do not understand. This is why we must embrace the “new.” In doing so, we become more adept in our field.
Here are four steps you can take to help take control of the “new” that confronts you on the job.
1. Tune Your Inspection to the Area in Which You Are Working: If you’re used to doing inspections in suburban areas, but you find yourself booked to do an inspection in a downtown high-rise apartment, you will need to repack your mental tool bag before you get there. For example, don’t forget that you will have to inspect the general condition of the entire building or high-rise, as well as the apartment. Think about all the aspects of the “new” material that your inspection might require ahead of time.
2. Know Your County Code: Do not get complacent about observing code violations. I realize that inspectors are not the code police, but we do have a responsibility to report a missing smoke detector or the lack of a GFCI receptacle, as these are safety code violations and can be considered significant deficiencies within the code structure.
Most communities base their building code on the International Residential Code (IRC), but you will find that there can be quite a disparity between what is considered code-compliant in the City of Chicago, for example, and what is considered code-compliant in the counties surrounding the Metro Chicago area, in both Illinois and Indiana. Be sure to review the county codes that are applicable to the location of the inspection you’re preparing to do.
3. Scope Out the Neighborhood: Thomas Corbett, head of the Illinois Inspector Training Institute and one of my past teachers, gave his students some sage advice. He said that one should always arrive at the inspection early. You should employ this strategy not only to be punctual, but also to give you a chance to view the neighborhood or area where the inspection is taking place.
This strategy can apply to all of your inspections. For example, if the asphalt on the street where your inspection is located has numerous patches and you see sewer drains being worked on in the area, your early arrival and general survey of the area might tell you something you should know about the systems in the homes on the street.
In addition, I’m always suspicious when I notice lawns that appear to have been excavated recently. I always ask why this occurred. And, when I enter a home and notice that there are new parts on old systems, it tips me off to be hyper-aware of how these systems are running. The clues are out there—you just need to look!
4. Rely on Your Instincts, But Be Cautious When Making Assumptions or Using Terminology: If it looks like a weasel and smells like a weasel, it might actually be a mink. Be careful when you label things. You should not call something out unless you are sure of what you are describing. When in doubt, take a picture of the item or situation and then get support for your assessment from a trusted resource.
Also, nothing makes an inspector look more foolish than when he or she uses the wrong term to describe something. If you are inspecting an apartment and you call something in your report a “garbage chute” when it’s actually an “access hatch,” your client’s faith in you might be somewhat eroded. (And, by the way, it’s called a “receptacle,” not an “outlet.”)
Embrace (or at Least Cope) With the “New” in Your Inspections
Following these guidelines will help you accomplish a solid inspection in a new setting. How we cope with new experiences and situations is based on our perceptions of what we are experiencing. You create that perception. Whether you view it as a positive or negative experience depends entirely on you and the coping strategies you use in life.
Keep this in mind: Experiencing something new should always leave you feeling richer in knowledge than you were before you started.
Rudolf (Rudy) De Keersmaecker has worked in the field of high-rise engineering, inspection and real estate in the City of Chicago for the past 42 years. Semi-retired, he now operates a home inspection company in La Porte, IN. He is a Contracted FEMA Emergency Disaster inspector, as well as being a residential high-rise code safety instructor, teaching high-rise code compliance classes for Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) Local 1 training fund.