I’ve been a self-employed entrepreneur for more than 35 years, but recently, at age 63, I set aside my third career business of home inspection, which I pursued for more than 20 years after owning a printing business and driving a truck. Upholding a reputation of good service to clients made all of my business ventures successful. For anyone thinking of making a career change, my advice is to identify a needed service, outline the best way to meet that need and provide the best service possible to your clients.
I consider myself a “do it all guy,” and to save money, I’ve always fixed, repaired and built systems in my own home and businesses. My home inspection career was an ongoing education, whether in the classroom or in the field. Collecting knowledge, and then using it to help protect people and property is very rewarding.
Home inspection is a great career. That said, there are good, bad and ugly sides of being a home inspector. For me, being my own boss, making good money, taking charge of my time and responsibilities were among the “good” parts of being a home inspector. All of that (aside from the “making good money” part) also applied to the “bad” parts of being a home inspector. The “ugly”? Well, that’s easy. For me, it was responding to complaints, followed by late-night report writing, scheduling time off and interrupting family time for scheduling, questions or automated marketing calls. The bigger the business, the more you face the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of being a home inspector. But it is good to remember that all of this can be true for just about any business venture.
When I chose home inspection as a new career, I thought I already knew everything I needed to know. I was wrong. I live in Nevada, and my state requires formal education and training for a home inspection license. At first I scoffed at the idea, thinking I didn’t need formal training, but I gave in and chose a school where I could get the knowledge and training to satisfy my state requirements. At that time, only a few states required training, education and certification. I went to California’s Inspection Training and Associates (ITA) to advance my career. My training at ITA included learning from experienced teachers in the home inspection industry, some of whom were or became leaders in ASHI.
It is my opinion that all states should require specialized training and education. Ongoing continuing education should also be required. I am proud to report that the quality of my initial education, the quality of ITA and ASHI-sponsored educational conferences, and having the ASHI Reporter as a monthly resource were among the reasons for my successful career.
Home inspection instructors often say, “It is not if you get sued, it’s when.” This warning is to caution you to be prepared because even if you are the best inspector and are right all the time, a lawsuit will likely happen to you. I don’t want to jinx it, but to date, I have never been sued. I had one case early in my career that required me to call my insurance agent and pay the deductible to the insurance company; however, after several telephone calls and a month passed, my deductible was returned. In short, a homeowner was not happy with his home. I had addressed his primary concerns in my inspection report; however, he complained that I didn’t express the degree of damage or deterioration enough to stop him from buying the home and thus, he wanted me to be held responsible. We discovered that he failed to follow my recommendations to get further evaluations. The real estate agent was satisfied with me because I addressed the problem immediately and resolved it without involving the agent or the real estate office. I continued to work with that agent for many years.
To give you a sense of my perspective, I would like to share a few of my “secrets to success” in home inspection.
Have a legal expert inspect your inspection agreement and be sure your clients sign it.
Your state may have special requirements for inspection agreements. Ask an attorney to review your inspection agreement to determine whether you can be defended on it. Once the attorney is satisfied with your agreement, submit it to your insurance company for approval. It is my opinion that some insurance companies have their own bottom-line considerations and they may not consider defending you to be in their best interest. As a result, you may need to pursue other legal guidance. Review your inspection agreement every two years because laws and requirements change.
Get it signed. For a long time, I had buyers sign the inspection agreement on site—bad idea. Most of my clients never read it, and they did not have adequate time to review, accept or reject the terms. Once I learned this, I began sending the inspection agreement to my clients when the job was scheduled. I never issued a report or accepted payment without having the inspection agreement signed and returned.
I learned long ago to get buyers involved as soon as possible, so I would leave a blank inspection agreement electronically with the agent. When a client wanted my service, the agent gave them the inspection agreement to read, sign, date and return to me. If providing a handwritten signature was not possible, I asked them to send me a picture of the signed document. Either way, I knew that the inspection agreement was presented to the client with enough time for them to review it before the inspection.
Let the client know who you are working for and what you will (and will not) do.
When I met a new client, I stated that I worked only for them—not for the agent who might have recommended me, the seller, the broker or the bank. I promised to do the best inspection possible, within the limited scope allowed by the ASHI Standard of Practice (SoP) and the state of Nevada. My inspection agreement included a link to the SoP. Remember, the client may not know all the restrictions or limitations set by your jurisdiction.
I explained the scope of my inspection and discussed three important questions (see Secret 13). After that, I explained what I was not looking for or would not be commenting on in the report (for example, paint or flooring color and conditions, visible cosmetic damage unless it could affect the operation or safety of the home and occupants, design, location or layout of the home).
The agents I worked with appreciated these comments because prospective homebuyers can be very nervous at this point in the transaction and hearing these statements may inspire their confidence. It is also important to express your appreciation of your client’s trust in you.
Never think you know everything about home inspection.
Advancements in technology, materials and methods change and evolve. It can be challenging to stay updated with everything so that you are familiar with inspection items that are new, modified or yet to be determined to be questionable, failing or deteriorating. Exercise an open mind and be disciplined to seek knowledge, do research, read resources like the ASHI Reporter and pursue continuing education credits.
Listen to your clients. Try not to interrupt or correct any of their stories or commentary. Showing interest creates a good rapport, which makes clients (and agents) happy. In turn, good rapport can mean more work for you through referrals. If the client has a complaint after the inspection, it is more likely that you will be able to reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion without litigation or disappointing the agent if the client already has a positive relationship with you.
Listen to the seller or tenants if they are present at the inspection—they can be a great source of information, giving you hints of what to look for. Don’t be afraid to ask, “Is there anything not working or not doing the job it was designed to do?” For me, the information I collected by asking this question led me to discover concerns that required acknowledgment in the report.
At the same time, although listening is good, do not get dragged into time-wasting conversation. You are a professional—get to work!
Don’t try to sound like an expert.
Sounding like an expert can easily backfire. For one thing, you might discover that the person you are talking to is an actual expert in that area. And once your credibility is in question in one area, then your credibility in all others areas will be called into question as well. Home inspectors are generalists, not experts. I explained that distinction in my pre-inspection speech if the buyers were present. Even if I was an expert in a given field, I kept that to myself and projected an unbiased, knowledgeable outlook in all areas to everyone present.
In almost every class I taught or during ride-alongs I had with new inspectors, students told me about their own expert experience. It can be tough for a new home inspector to avoid or suppress their desire to spew their expertise to the client, but the reason it’s important to avoid this is because, once you start, you elevate yourself from a generalist to expert in all areas in the eyes of the client and the agent, and that can come back to bite you.
Do not guess.
If you don’t know the answer to a client’s question, the name or purpose of a device you spotted or how a specific system works, tell the client or agent that you will find out and get back to them with the answer. If possible and when necessary, take pictures to help you get the answers you need. When you find out, provide them with the information. They will be impressed, and you will have learned something as well.
When I took new inspectors on ride-alongs, I quizzed them about what they knew. The results were surprising. I would point at a vent, drain line, condenser or any of hundreds of other items, and ask the student to state what it is, what it does and to tell me if it was installed correctly. It was shocking to me how many new home inspectors did not know and would state “that was not taught to me in school.” Your self-discipline to be successful includes doing your own research and education.
From the first contact with an agent or client and through all contacts beyond that, be professional. Home inspectors rely on third parties for a majority of their business. Most of my inspections came from referrals or recommendations from real estate agents and past clients. I’m sure that my references indicated that I would be competent and professional when doing my job. Today’s business climate offers many platforms for people to post their opinion about the quality of your service. Be a professional.
Early in my career, I learned that when I was not consistent, I paid a price. Either I forgot to inspect something, I missed something or I left something on (or off). Nothing is worse than getting back to the office to write a report and question, did I inspect that? Or, did I turn off the oven, or the faucet in the tub or shower? Once I set up a logical, methodical path for my inspection process, I followed that path at every inspection, and a lot of my worry and negative calls stopped.
Don’t get distracted.
Don’t let clients, agents, sellers, tenants or pets distract you from taking your logical, methodical path through the inspection process. I had sellers or tenants nearly distract me from catching something that was reportable. I would like to think that it was not on purpose, but who knows. If you get distracted, you may get an uncomfortable call and possibly lose future business.
Take lots of pictures.
Get a camera that can take hundreds of pictures per job. Having the date and time stamp component is an added benefit. I found that the Fuji-Film Z-30 was great with an added SD card. Cheap, rechargeable, easily downloadable, it could easily slide in and out of my pocket, and I could take several thousand photos with it. I always kept a backup camera in my truck for emergencies.
To me, pictures were a work product. I took a lot of pictures. I didn’t tell the client about all the pictures I took because they would ask for copies of all of them. I owned the pictures and used some in my reports to better explain notable concerns. I also took pictures of good items (not placed in the report), as well as the notable concerns reported. For example, in every home, I took pictures of all the ceilings. In case in the future there is a leak, I could prove that it was not visible or evident at the time of the inspection. Below all sinks or water fixtures where accessible, I took pictures of the plumbing, shut-offs, interior back wall and the base of the cabinet. I also took pictures in the attic showing access, framing, insulation, HVAC equipment, ductwork and ventilation (if possible).
If the home was occupied or if some areas of the home were so heavily occupied that I could not see anything (for example, in closets, garage, bedrooms), I documented that with photos, too. I included recommendations to do a careful walk-through of the home to review all areas mentioned (not visually accessible), or to have the areas inspected once the home is vacant and before the close of escrow.
I will keep all the photos forever, for my protection. Numerous times, I received calls from clients with complaints about concerns noted after they moved in, wondering why I didn’t call something to their attention. With the report and pictures in my hand, I could review their concerns with them. Likely, the pictures revealed that there were no visible signs of problems at the time of the inspection, or the buyers failed to read and follow my recommendations in the report. When I asked what occurred when they followed my report recommendations, they usually had nothing to say and that was typically the end of that. In more than a few cases, the newer major kitchen and laundry appliances had been replaced with older units after the inspection and before the close of escrow. In those cases, I was a hero because I had pictures of the appliances that were present before and the buyers got all new appliances.
If anyone—buyers, sellers, agents, tenants—was present, I often tried to include them in a photo, just for my information in case it was helpful or important in the future. I took care, however, not to take pictures of personal items—personal furnishings, specifically. I only took pictures related to the inspection process.
One last thing, because I took so many photos, I often discovered or remembered something while reviewing my photos that I initially had forgotten to write down or take note of before I finished my report. I repeat: Take lots of photos!
Complete the report, set it aside, then read it again before sending.
Don’t put off completing the report until tomorrow; get it done today. I learned to write my report on the same day of the inspection, then I’d set it aside overnight and read it again the following morning before sending it and starting the new day’s inspections. When doing an inspection, for the most part, you are in a pre-set due diligence time frame that is important to the agent and buyers. Also, the more time that goes by, the easier it is to confuse one inspection’s notable concerns with another, which could be disastrous.
Don’t recommend repair or evaluation personnel.
Making recommendations for contractors can come back to bite you. A recommendation can put you and your reputation on the line. If the person you recommended doesn’t show up, does a poor job or charges an unrealistic fee, you will hear about it. Remember: As a home inspector, you are non-biased. As repair personnel, they are very biased. They want to get that repair bill higher. You will likely be pulled into the middle if repairs or workmanship goes wrong. When asked for recommendations for repair personnel, I told my clients that I used to have an address book full of competent repair people, but one by one, I had to mark them off due to poor quality work or being unprofessional. That was usually a good, satisfying comment that kept me out of trouble. Then I reminded my clients to use only qualified, licensed contractors for their protection.
Ask yourself four questions.
As I pointed out earlier, I had a brush with legal problems with a client, not because I failed to point something out, but because, in the client’s opinion, I did not place a high enough level of importance on the concern. It is very simple—remember that what you may not consider to be important may be of grave importance to someone else. Again, home inspectors should follow acceptable standards of practice. I recommend the ASHI SoP, as well as your own state’s SoP.
Many years ago, I added some of my own personal standards for calling something out and placing a level of importance on it. The state of Nevada had a minimal set of standards, but ASHI’s SoP exceeded that. I came up with a few questions to help me determine what to call out and when to place a high level of importance on a concern. I mentally applied the following questions on every item I reviewed in an inspection:
- Is the item, system or component doing the job it was designed to do?
- Do I see any visible evidence of damage, potential failure or improper installation?
- It is safe?
The last question I internally asked myself helped me to decide the level of importance:
- Can this get me sued?
When in doubt, these questions worked well for me when I tried to decide whether or not to report something and to determine its level of importance. After all, I didn’t want to be labeled a “deal killer.”
Long ago, I adopted a rule that, when inspecting an occupied home, I could do it on my own, but if any buyers were going to be present at the time of the inspection, then either the buyer’s or the seller’s agent or the owners of the property (with the occupant’s approval) also must attend. I made it clear that I did not want responsibility for any damage, theft or disruption that could be caused by unaccompanied people in an occupied home. Generally, sellers won’t accuse the buyers because they are buying the home; however, they might accuse the inspector if they believe their items were stolen, damaged or missing. For example, after I inspected a bathroom, if the buyers went in there looking around and left a faucet on, I’d be the person the sellers would blame.
Assume you are being watched.
Cameras are everywhere. People can watch what happens inside their home from their cell phone—and they do. You do not want to be the “star” on the evening news, on YouTube or in front of a jurisdictional licensing review board. Conduct your inspection as a professional and always assume you are being watched.
Twenty percent of the real estate agents I worked with made up 80 percent of my business. After I returned from time off, my steady agents would tell me about the other inspectors they used while I was unavailable. Some were good, some not so good. Over the years, agents learned a lot from me about the inspection process, and the systems and components that make up a home. Some agents I worked with for most of my career could easily do this job with a bit of formal training. After announcing my retirement from home inspection, most agents I worked with were disappointed, but wished me well. What’s next for me? Maybe I’ll open my own inspection school!
John Prodromides owned and operated All Pro Inspections and JPRO Inspections for more than 19 years. He is now teaching new inspectors in Nevada and providing continuing education for a variety of education facilities. Opening soon: JPRO Academy for Home Inspectors, and Home-Owner training and education.