Inspectors Use Multiple Languages, Approaches to Build Business With Immigrant Clients
Opportunities Abound for Those Who Work With Non-English Speakers
A homeownership study by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute recently found that as many as 1.5 million Latinos will buy homes by the end of the decade, and that proactive work by the real estate industry could boost that number by another 700,000 households. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in August that four states and the District of Columbia are now considered “majority-minority,” with minority populations more than 50 percent; five more states are close behind, with minority populations more than 40 percent.
In the coming years, there will be millions of home purchase transactions involving buyers who don’t speak English or for whom English is a second language. For inspectors willing to go the extra mile, that means unlimited opportunities to expand business.
Booming Latino Market Leads the Way
“From a global perspective, the Latino market is soon to be the mainstream market for new buyers of homes,” says Chester Ruiz, founder and chairman of National Latino Housing and Community Development. He cites the 2004 Tomás Rivera Policy Institute study, “El Sueño de su Casa: The Homeownership Potential of Mexican-Heritage Families,” supported by the Freddie Mac Corporation and Bank of America.
If home inspectors—as part of the wider homebuying industry—can engage the Latino community through removing some of the obstacles, the fear of the process of home purchasing will lessen, he explains. When it comes to breaking down the barriers to home ownership, “language becomes the bridge. Nothing is more fearful to a Latino homebuyer than having a (home inspection) not report in their primary language,” says Ruiz. He advocates for the common availability of Spanish-language inspection documents: “We have enough technical expertise to land people on the moon, so we have to be able to translate a report into another
Hundreds of thousands of people become naturalized U.S. citizens every year. Spanish speakers are a major percentage, but there are many other communities to consider. According to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration, in 2004 the leading country of birth for naturalized citizens was Mexico, with 12 percent. But 41 percent of naturalized citizens came from Asia, including 7.1 percent from India, 5.9 percent from the Philippines, and 5.1 percent each from Vietnam and China.
Reaching diverse communities
Developing a client base of non-English speakers is a little different from working with clients born in the U.S. In some cases, immigrant homebuyers are not tied into technology—so online marketing approaches won’t work. Luis Alcaraz, owner of InspectuCasa, serves the Minneapolis metro area; about 70 percent of his clients speak Spanish (he is fluent), and he has a glowing clientele of immigrants from Africa and Saudi Arabia, most of whom are not online.
“The majority of people I deal with don’t have access to the Internet,” says Alcaraz. He doesn’t have a Web site, and is accustomed to taking cash or checks—not many credit cards. “Most of these people are under the radar,” he says.
Alcaraz says that three-quarters of his business comes from real estate agent referrals, which he develops by doing presentations and networking. To reach the Spanish-speaking community directly, he regularly appears on local “Radio Rey” to talk about homebuying, and teaches Spanish-language classes in the community. (Almost every inspector the ASHI Reporter interviewed relies on referrals, through real estate agents or previous clients, for the majority of their business.)
Stephen J. Mark, partner of Professional Home Inspectors of Georgia, also relies on real estate agents, not only to refer clients, but to assist in translation. If you find a real estate agent who speaks English as a second language, he explains, odds are good that the agent understands the value of an inspector who makes an effort to communicate, and will take extra steps to connect the client and inspector in a way that works well. Mark reiterates that establishing trust with his clients is one of the key ingredients for referrals from immigrants.
Mark has a diverse clientele, including a significant Spanish-speaking population. He speaks fluent German and little Spanish, but is the first American-born member of a German family and knows the challenges of communication—and the value that many immigrants place on trust. “They say attitude is everything,” he says. “When you’re doing your job, clients see when you’re really working for them versus just being out there to make a dollar. For customers who don’t have Internet or computer access, we have the capability to print our exclusive report on site.”
For many communities, word of mouth is the most effective marketing tool. But there is a flip side: for example, in many parts of the country, the Latino community largely relies on an informal network to refer service providers—or to blackball them. A dissatisfied customer quickly can minimize an inspector’s opportunities by spreading the word about bad service.
Challenges for immigrants
Alcaraz says sometimes real estate agents in his community “go to any length to avoid inspections. Sometimes clients don’t know their rights, don’t know they have a contingency on inspection, and they buy problems,” he explains. He cautions that inspectors need to be prepared to work with clients whose real estate agents may not be straightforward about their rights—agents who are not happy to see an inspector who could jeopardize the sale by pointing out problems.
Another issue many families face involves financing. Hector Fernandez, owner of Fact Finder Home Inspections in Howard Beach, N.Y., says “some of my buyers are scraping the barrel to get the down payment together, so they don’t have that much money coming out of the closing to do a lot of repairs.” The fact that many of these homebuyers are sending money back to families in their home countries further complicates the financial situation.
It’s crucial, then, to help them understand the short- and long-term ramifications of findings: “I tell them what the immediate defects are, and I try to predict what the repairs are going to be like in the next five years, so they have an idea of what they have to save for.”
Cultural differences and priorities
When it comes to the Latino population, say some inspectors, priorities are focused on trust—something inspectors can build quickly if they make it crystal clear they are working for their client, not the seller or the real estate agent.
Bob Hsueh, a native of Taiwan and owner of Royal Home Inspection Consultants in Queens, N.Y., says many of his Asian clients are focused more than anything else on price. When he started the business 25 years ago, he was the only Asian home inspector in his market; today, there are six or seven Chinese-born engineers competing with Hsueh, working without ASHI accreditation and charging less.
Hsueh says he relies on referrals to keep his business strong, and frequently must explain that he charges more because he has extensive experience and updated training, and takes more time to complete a thorough inspection.
Joey Caballero, owner of 5th Avenue Building Inspections in Boynton Beach, Fla., says he sometimes encounters the same mentality. “People come in, and to survive, their mentality is always looking for the cheapest price.” As a Cuban immigrant himself (his family moved to the New Jersey area in the 1960s), he understands the challenges of starting over in the U.S.
Russian immigrants and clients with European backgrounds also bring their own unique perspective, says Dimitri Ledkovsky, owner of Dimitri Home & Building Inspection Service in Chapel Hill, N.C. (He speaks Russian, French, and Persian.) “I start my inspection telling them that the service life of a wood-framed structure in America is 50 to 100 years. That sets them back immediately,” says Ledkovsky, “because their understanding of construction fits into a different perspective of time. My cousin in France, for example, lives in a village where the average age of structures is 500 years. What we have here in the U.S. is often viewed by Europeans as temporary dwellings.”
“‘What happens after 100 years?’ they ask, and I tell them, ‘you can keep fixing it at great expense, or tear it down and rebuild.’” This concept puts a client on edge, but also, says Ledkovsky, “helps to pave the way for explaining the significance of wood rot and the “temporary” nature of products like hardboard siding and polybutylene
At the inspection
During the actual inspection, even when both parties speak the same language, communication challenges can arise because of differing regional homebuilding methods. Hsueh says some terms need extra explanation for Asian clients. “Boilers and heating systems are completely new to lots of homebuyers from Asia,” he explains. “Lots of times, they don’t even know what the thermostat is, or a trap or a vent pipe.” The result is that his inspections are even more educational, something he says his clients appreciate.
Ledkovsky says the bottom line is, if you are planning to work with clients from other countries, inspections will be much more detailed, well beyond ASHI Standards of Practice, and will take longer. A standard inspection takes about three hours; communicating in another language and satisfying cross-cultural needs can often take another two hours. “Be prepared to do an inspection to a higher standard. You’re going to be asked questions you’ve never been asked before,” he says, “and don’t get frustrated when you realize that the pace of the inspection is being dictated by the client.”
Contracts, reports and other documents
There is a lot of debate over whether to offer contracts and other documents in foreign languages. Alcaraz provides Spanish-language contracts: “It’s important for clients to know what they’re signing,” he says.
Hsueh, on the other hand, provides his contracts in English. “It becomes a legal document, so that should be in English.” His report also is in English, but like many other inspectors serving non-English speakers, he provides an extensive oral explanation during the inspection.
When it comes to reporting, inspectors are split on technique: some, like Fernandez, offer reports in English, but provide extensive verbal reporting in the client’s language during the inspection. Others, like Mark, may spend an hour or more on the phone, after submitting a written report (in English), relaying detailed explanations in English through a client’s family member or friend.
Mark, who provides entirely computerized inspection reports, also emphasizes the importance of using many photos and of typing narrative reports instead of scribbling notes or using checkboxes: “If somebody’s already having a language issue, the last thing you want is to read somebody’s bad handwriting.”
Caballero says he uses the translation option in Microsoft Word to provide inspection reports to clients in Spanish. This is especially useful when working with buyers based in South America, who can’t be there in person for the inspection.
Arlene Puentes, owner of October Home Inspections in the Hudson Valley area of N.Y., says she sometimes struggles to find Spanish translations for technical words. “I spent an hour last night trying to find the word for the clamp that connects the grounding wire to the grounding rod, and finally found it in an online supply store from Spain,” she offers as one example.
“I also carefully explain the use of a component to a Spanish-speaking client, just as I do for English-speaking clients. However, I want to know the technical word to use so that is why I’m compiling a list of the translated words for each component.” Some inspectors instead choose to explain the use of the component to the client, but Puentes is gathering a running list of the many translations for words. The end use: she has developed an adaptation of Palm-Tech Home Inspection Software that allows her to create a Spanish-language report during the inspection and print out copies in both English and Spanish for the client. (Puentes plans to market her translation.)
“The translation is a courtesy,” she says. “If there’s ever a difference of opinion between what the Spanish means and what the English means, then the English is the prevailing information.”
Building business, building community
At the end of the day, most inspectors derive a good deal of personal satisfaction from helping people make such an important purchase. And in today’s evolving marketplace, that satisfaction stands side by side with substantial financial opportunity.
“The thing I love about this profession is that I get to educate people,” says Alcaraz. “I want to make money, make a profit, but I also want to help people. Being an educator, a communicator and seeing happy faces as they go through the house—that makes me feel good.”
Tricky Translations - A Professional Offers Advice
The translation of documents from one language to another is considered by some to be an art form. With hundreds of languages in use across the globe—and within them, many hundreds more dialects—few translations are simple accomplishments.
As the Spanish-speaking population in North America continues to grow, there is an enormous need for translation of documents from English to Spanish. Infamous anecdotes of botched translations make excellent cautionary tales, including the one about the airline who tried to advertise leather seats but instead invited passengers to fly in the nude—or Chevrolet’s curious naming in the late 1960s of its new car, the Nova, which in Spanish essentially means “no go.”
ASHI recently hired a translation expert, Utah State University Assistant Professor Lucy Delgadillo, Ph.D., to ensure the best translation of its Standards of Practice. The ASHI Reporter spoke with Delgadillo (who was born in Costa Rica and has lived in the U.S. for approximately 15 years) about the requirements for a good translation and the particular challenges of working with housing-related documents.
You say regadores, I say aspersores
Delgadillo says that perhaps the biggest challenge to performing a satisfactory translation is caused by differences among the many dialects of Spanish. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to the language. For example, in her search for a word for sprinkler, she found two distinctly different terms: regadores and aspersores.
In another case, she had to hunt for a term for fire screen: “In Latin America, it’s a pretty warm climate so you don’t have fireplaces unless it’s a luxury item,” she explains. She had trouble finding a consistently used word. Finally, “I went to the Internet, and found a Web site from Spain, where they use fireplaces because it’s cold in winter,” she explains. The term: rejilla salvachispas.
Another common term that is variously translated is down payment. “In Costa Rica, my home country, a down payment on a house is called prima,” says Delgadillo. “In Mexico, a down payment is called enganche. So, the neutral word that I use for down payment is pago inicial, the equivalent of saying ‘initial payment.’ It is understood by Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans,” she explains—the goal being to find a word that will be most widely understood and used.
Delgadillo says that even if someone is reading a bad translation—or one that is written in a specific regional dialect—a dictionary can clear things up. Most of them, she says, are approved by the Real Academia Española (or Royal Spanish Academy), an organization that regulates the Spanish language.
Getting a second opinion
Another way to ensure that a translation will be understood by the widest audience is to have colleagues from different regions review it, adds Delgadillo. She recommends having someone from Central America, South America and Mexico read the document. In her own translation work, she often has three people reviewing documents: her husband, who is Mexican; a colleague from the Dominican Republic who works in construction; and a real estate professional originally from Chile.
Regarding the use of software in translation, she says, “Sometimes literal translations do not have the cultural context that they require.” If nothing else, she says, give the document to someone from Mexico to review, because in the U.S., most Spanish speakers come from Mexico. Or, contact any local university to find a reviewer, staff or an international student whose first language is Spanish. “It doesn’t matter if it was made with software, as long as there is a human reading and improving the document, it will probably be OK,” says Delgadillo.
If you are considering hiring a translator or would like to learn more about translating documents from English to Spanish, contact Delgadillo at email@example.com or 435-797-7204.