There has been much discussion in the Reporter and online about home inspector licensing. ASHI has provided some useful tools for local chapters facing new licenses, including the Position Statement and Legislative Guidebook that are available online. Many states now have some form of licensing in place, most have some form of law under consideration, and there are still some that have no serious threats on the horizon. But with licensing in place in so many states, we need to start looking at how to protect our interests as home inspectors and ASHI members, because as soon as there is a licensing law, there will be special interests that try to carve out pieces of it for their own cause. These interests can be as diverse as already-licensed architects, engineers, appraisers, REALTORS®, code officials and others, as well as semi-related tradespeople who want to perform home inspections in some manner. Another interested group comprises home inspectors who are left out because they don’t or can’t qualify for licensing. Home inspectors need to respond to this threat by maintaining an active legislative presence.
Stop and start – New Jersey licensing history
Like many states, New Jersey legislators occasionally made attempts to license inspectors, but the members of the Garden State chapter managed to fend off those attempts through gentle education and persuasion. That all changed in 1997 with a single event that made licensing a priority for someone who had the power to implement it. The secretary for the chair of the regulated professions committee had a bad home inspection. To be precise, it was a bad termite inspection that was performed by her home inspector. The house turned out to have substantial damage, and the unlicensed and uninsured home inspector took no responsibility. The secretary’s boss decided that it was about time to license home inspectors. Before any one in the Garden State chapter knew the bill was in play, it had sailed through his committee and was headed to the floor. The chapter mounted a hasty, but surprisingly effective, campaign to improve the bill instead of defeating it, because it quickly became clear to us that licensing was inevitable this time around.
The law was signed in 1998, and is not yet fully in effect because the licensing committee has been working since then to write and implement the rules. Here are the proposed requirements to become licensed as a home inspector in N.J.:
• Grandfather applicants must have been in business for at least three years and have performed at least 300 home inspections.
• Each applicant must also have passed the ASHI exam. (Later, the NHIE also was accepted by the committee.)
• If an applicant doesn’t qualify for grandfathering, he must take a 300-hour classroom-based course, perform 50 training inspections, and pass the NHIE. After that, he must work for a licensed inspector as an Associate Home Inspector for at least a year and perform at least 250 inspections. At that point, he can become a fully licensed Home Inspector.
Of course, the law also regulates the practice of home inspection by creating standards of practice, business practices, ethical conduct, etc.
Without debating the merits of our particular law, it is safe to say that it is one of the most restrictive in the nation. The details of the final law were negotiated with the legislative sponsors, local ASHI chapters, and some other interest groups. Together, we arrived at these requirements as the most appropriate for our state’s situation. Our position was that if there was going to be licensing, it should be meaningful, and it should guarantee that licensed inspectors were qualified to perform their duties.
Chronology of attempted changes
Fast-forward to spring 2002. The law has been in place since 1998, but the committee has just released the regulations that spell out the chapter and verse of what we all will have to do to become licensed, and what we’ll have to do to stay that way. We hear from our lobbyist that the sponsor of the original bill is proposing an amendment. The amendment potentially reduces the training requirement to a short course and 10 inspections, with no requirement for one year of experience and 250 fee-paid inspections. It waters down the licensing committee by adding non-inspector members; it changes grandfathering to admit many more inspectors; it creates the possibility for the committee to use an exam other than the NHIE; and it allows certain code inspectors automatic grandfathering into the indefinite future.
The Garden State chapter was joined by other ASHI chapters whose members work in New Jersey to oppose the amendment in the belief that public interest would not be served by these changes. We arranged a meeting with the sponsor and thought it was a productive meeting. We expressed our concerns, we listened to his reasons for the changes, and we reached agreements on what features could be kept or modified slightly to make them acceptable. In all, it seemed things were working as they should. Hearing nothing for the rest of the summer, we followed the advice of our lobbyist to sit and wait. His theory was that if the bill isn’t moving, don’t push it.
In parallel with that bill, another bill was floated in the Senate. This one only addressed grandfathering, and we worked with its sponsor to arrive at a bill that we could support. That bill passed out of the Senate in December. Also in December, we heard from the Assembly bill’s sponsor that he was moving on his original amendment, and that he couldn’t care less about our objections. It
was time to gear up for battle.
Again on the advice of our lobbyist, we played nice, contacting the Assembly committee members and quietly contacting some of the more powerful members of the Assembly. We learned the bill was going to a committee vote one week before it happened. It passed the committee unanimously, then went to a House vote the following week where it passed easily. We never had a chance. Even more disturbing, in this process it was quietly combined with the Senate bill we had previously supported, and went back to the Senate under that title. So now we were trying to educate people on why we supported it before and were fighting it now. We fired our lobbyist.
Our new lobbyist recommended mounting a multi-pronged campaign to defeat the combined bill in the Senate. The chapter provided its members and other interested parties with tools for contacting their senators. They received the names of their senators, faxes to forward, messages encouraging them to arrange face to face meetings, and they were kept updated about the issues via e-mail. In short, we made a lot of noise in the senators’ home districts.
We went public by contacting all of the major newspapers in New Jersey, meeting with their editorial boards, and writing op-ed pieces that received good placement. There was some good press, and some bad press. The opposition was running a PR campaign as well.
ASHI national supported our position by writing a letter that was forwarded to every senator, staffer, and news outlet we could find. At the same time, our lobbyist was working the Senate. He arranged meetings between our leadership and powerful senators. More importantly, we had some long meetings with their staffers, and with the senate researchers – the guys who write the bills and the background behind them. These young staffers hold a surprising amount of power.
The state licensing committee took our side. It passed a resolution to oppose the bill, and this allowed the governor’s office to weigh in directly and through the office of the attorney general. While we knew that the governor would never veto such an insignificant bill, the senators generally do try to keep the governor happy.
The fight lasted until the day of the Senate vote in March, and the outcome was far from determined. Minutes before the vote was scheduled, we reached an agreement.
The Senate made its own amendments and passed a bill that looked much like the one they passed back in December. But we hadn’t won yet. The Assembly sponsor of the original bill was upset about the Senate changes, and he still held considerable power in the Assembly. But now many of the groups supporting his changes were forced to support us, because of a lucky alignment of the state’s budget schedule, the deadline for the licensing to go into effect, and the end of the legislative session. The bill passed the Assembly and was signed into law in May.
We won. All it cost us was about $20,000 and hundreds of hours of volunteer time. Plus, we made some lifelong enemies in the Legislature, and that’s never good public relations.
While we were distracted by that struggle, the Well Water Quality Testing Act was signed into law. It requires all private well systems to be tested each time that a house is sold. For our members who do this testing, it looked like a godsend.
Unfortunately, nobody read the fine print. The law was worded in a way that prevents home inspectors from doing the testing – only the labs can do it. Also, since this is now a mandated test, sellers are paying for it. The testing is done before the home inspector gets the phone call for an inspection. Some of our chapter members lost 20 percent of their business with the stroke of a pen.
Right now, there are bills pending to make radon testing mandatory for all home sales, to change home inspector license grandfathering yet again, and there’s a really fascinating mold bill pending. That bill creates a “mold victim’s compensation fund.” The idea is to compensate all of the people being put out or permanently “injured” by mold. The bill will prohibit home inspectors from testing for mold, and it will provide money for the victim’s compensation fund via a tax on home inspectors, and only home inspectors. That’s nice, huh? Home inspectors are certainly happy to step up and underwrite the millions of dollars in claims that will start flowing in.
So what have we learned from the past year?
Never rest. Once licensing is in place, you need to maintain vigilance, and to actively engage your representatives. The name recognition you build will help enormously when a new bill comes out of left field.
Get good representation. We paid our first lobbyist for five years before we realized that he was giving us bad advice. Our new lobbyist is double the price, but well worth it. We could not have organized a campaign like the one we did without professional help, and we would have lost the fight if our campaign had been even slightly less effective. Lobbying is expensive. The members of our chapter currently are reworking our entire chapter funding and activities around the cost of this representation, but we are convinced that it is necessary.
Don’t wait for the fight to come to you. If we had been out there rubbing elbows with our representatives for the five years that the license was stalled in committee, we would have had some stable relationships to use when the going got tough. As it was, we had to open lines of communication from scratch. That’s the hard way. It’s expensive and very bruising.
Take part in local politics, both on the chapter level and on each member’s personal level. Again, that name recognition carries surprising weight. Get to know your representatives personally. Go to fundraisers, receptions, whatever. It takes time, but it pays back in the long run.
Watch peripheral developments as closely as the ones that come straight at you. Professional help is important here. Few of us make all of our money doing home inspections, and those related fields are also subject to legislation that affects us. One benefit of our loud battle is that we now have their attention and they know who we are. We bought ourselves a seat at the table, and we are now capitalizing on that seat to weigh in on related bills. This gives us significant influence to help our members.
Home inspector licensing is here to stay. It certainly is in New Jersey, and it will happen everywhere eventually. It makes sense to organize and to delay licensing as long as possible, and to be prepared to positively affect it when it does happen. It is then even more important to maintain your energy once the licensing is in place.