November, 2007
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

Melvin H. Chalfen Remembered


Melvin H. Chalfen, 89, of Newton, Mass., died September 12, 2007. He was ASHI member #79 and a founding member of the New England Chapter. Because he was widely respected as a home inspector, educator, mentor and friend, the chapter created an award in 2000 to recognize his contributions. Each year, a member of the chapter takes great pride in being the current recipient of the Mel Chalfen Award. 

His career was characterized by his insatiable appetite for education to improve the services he offered homebuyers and his unwavering dedication to the ASHI Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics. Everyone performing professional home inspections today owes Mel Chalfen a debt of gratitude. He was truly one of the pioneers of the profession.

He is survived by his wife Judith, sons Robert, Daniel (Sally) and Andrew (Audra Wolfe) and grandson Theodore. Remembrances may be made to the New Art Center, 61 Washington Park, Newton, MA 02460 or The National Yiddish Book Center. Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building, 1021 West St., Amherst, MA 01002.

A Tribute of Remembrances’ of Mel Chalfen by past presidents and friends

Mel was a home inspector, lecturer, author since 1957. He was a founding member of the New England Chapter, and he shared his experience, knowledge, and philosophy with other ASHI members from the beginning. Mel received the ASHI National Member of the Year and the Frank Long awards. His belief in excellence in our field and his dedication to educating himself and his colleagues led to the creation of the Mel Chalfen award given biannually to a worthy member of the New England Chapter. Mel was the first recipient of that award in 2000.

From Walter Perry, ASHI-NE chapter executive director and Mike Atwell, interim president:

We have all come to learn recently of the passing of Mel Chalfen on September 12th at the age of 89. I recall an article that appeared in the May 16, 2002 issue of the International Real Estate Digest that really captured Mel's persona. I have reprinted it below.

Spend just a few minutes with Melvin Chalfen and you will realize why he was chosen to be honored with a special tribute on May 25th by the New England regional division of the American Society of Home Inspection (ASHI). At the age of 82, he has accomplished more than a lifetime of goals. He has received plaques acknowledging his efforts and dedication from ASHI, condominium, and arbitration groups and they hang neatly on his state-of-the-art office walls. But the plaque he has placed closest to his desk simply states: DAD, Building Consultant Extraordinaire.

'Extraordinaire' is just one accolade someone would use to describe Mel. As a long-standing member of the national ASHI group and a founding father of ASHI- New England, he devoted his life to teaching consumers about their homes and training inspectors to be advocates for home buyers. He helped shape an industry critical to the process of home buying and watched the business flourish as demand for home inspections grew among home buyers, real estate investors and real industry practitioners.

His long and distinguished career includes being the first Director of Education for ASHI New England, Inc., a Past President, and he has served on the National Education, Ethics and Standards Committees. He lectured for 15 years at Adult Education classes in the Boston area, teaching hundreds of consumers what to expect in the home, what to look for in the way of problems and how to hire a good inspector. And he taught a legion of home inspectors how to be advocates to protect home buyers and provide information to help them decide whether or not to buy a particular property.

During my interview with Mel, he told me that his web site was due to go 'live' any minute. Lo and behold, just after our discussion, he had his secretary, Nora, check the Internet again and there it was: It is no surprise that Mel Chalfen, pioneer and visionary, publishes his web site at age 82. Still learning, still teaching, still going!

Mel reflects back to the early days of ASHI in the seventies and tells how he missed the very first meeting in Rutgers, New Jersey but that he attended the subsequent meetings. He still has his notes from some of the first few meetings and is proud of his early membership number in the national organization. His career as a home inspector actually began in the late 1950s when friends would ask Melvin questions about their homes, building new homes and to look over existing homes they were considering for purchase.

The ASHI- New England early meetings were of a social nature and 15-20 people would meet to talk about the then-new home inspection business. Mel knew that it would be more productive and beneficial to have speakers come in to provide specialized information and he arranged for lecturers to talk about plumbing, and painting and electrical topics. Thus began the tradition of having educational sessions to enhance the home inspectors' skills and the initial impetus for the rigorous training and testing that exists today.

College degrees in forestry and civil engineering helped Melvin understand issues pertaining to structure and strength and his work as a construction manager and building homes gave him insight in what to look for in the quality of construction. His eagerness to help out and his business acumen told him that there was a need for this kind of service for home buyers long before it was a commonly accepted idea. He is the owner of Melvin H. Chalfen, Inc. and Associates and founder and president of the P.R.O.B.E. Network (Professional Organization of Building Examiners) and is affiliated with some of the top ranking inspectors in the region.

Getting the information organized and writing up reports was one of the most difficult aspects in the days of early development, according to Melvin. He bought his first computer in 1978 and his secretary spent three months learning how to use a word processing program to create lengthy and detailed reports for home buyers. The initial reports were restricted to an "acceptable/not acceptable" ranking and have been refined over time to a much more sophisticated and useful format.

Mel believes that home inspectors are hired to observe the condition of installed systems and components of a property and to render a written report of the observations. He feels that Property Surveys are "systematic reviews of the construction process -- a series of orderly visual examinations of the readily accessible portions of the building and all of the related installed systems on the interior and exterior."

Mel tells of his work over the years an expert witness and points to a home video given to him by some home buyers who, obviously, didn't get a good home inspection. The hand printed label reads "THE HOUSE FROM HELL". The home they bought was so bad that they had it torn down. He said it had "major, major problems". It had huge cracks in the foundation, the stairs were falling apart, the floors were sloping downhill, and the windowsills were sloping. There was an inspection and an inspection report but it doesn't even mention the word 'foundation'.

Mel is a strong advocate for solid training and rigorous testing of individuals who want to work as home inspectors. He has been active in states' legislative efforts to pass new licensing and testing requirements and he recently served on the ASHI Standards of Practice Committee as they made revisions for year 2000.

Professional home inspections are now an everyday occurrence but it wasn't always that way. Interest in the property inspection process has paralleled the growth of the consumer protection movement in the last two decades. Most home buyers admit to feeling inadequate about their ability to make an accurate assessment of the condition of the home and welcome the chance to have a professional inspector perform a thorough check for them or, in the case of new construction, a punch list for the builder to make sure everything gets done before they move in.

He marvels at the changes over time. In the early days the real estate brokers called him the "deal killer" and would block the entrance to the home if they saw him coming. He mentions that he was asked to do the home inspections for one prominent broker's family and friends but apparently not recommended to buyers who were looking at the company's listings. He felt that it said something about the caliber of service he provided. He has always had strong feelings about the issue of conflict of interest in the industry and was outspoken about it. He feels that good home inspectors know that their clients are the buyers, not the REALTORS. That may be why his business was built on word of mouth among home buyers. Satisfied clients tend to share their experiences with others.

Melvin teaches home buyers that approximately 1/3 of their income goes for taxes and 1/3 for the mortgage and, if they don't carefully inspect the property, they can expect to spend 1/3 on house repairs. It is no wonder that consumers today have embraced the home inspection industry and rely on their training and expertise to protect them in the biggest investment of their lives.

From Ken Kruger:

It started well before ASHI started. We met In the 1960s when Mel walked into my office as a sales rep for a prefabricated, reinforced-concrete, structural slab that was the brainchild of the talented Sepp Firnkas. Sepp, for those who may not know, was the structural engineer of the wonderful Eastern Airlines terminal at Logan -- both also unfortunately no longer with us. Mel was enthusiastic about this clever prefab, which however, never caught on. I next discovered Mel, in the late 60s or early 70s as the general contractor for that contemporary house on Brattle Street, Cambridge, a few doors west of the Longfellow House. Just beautifully built and still looks great. If I recall correctly, I subsequently asked Mel if he wanted to bid a certain project of mine. He didn't, as he was passing out of the contractor phase, but offered the name of his super on that Brattle Street house. Mel became the donor of a number of fine names in my subcontractor database.

Forward to 1978, in the early days of ASHI-NE. We were such as small group of active members, that each of us necessarily was deeply involved in the committee work necessary to grow the Chapter and the profession. Mel and I found ourselves a politically aligned minority in the ongoing campaign for professionalism -- to be independent of real-estate brokers that clients are not customers and that compensation is the byproduct and not the end product.

In the campaign for professionalism, Mel took on the national scene in the 1980s, becoming chairperson of the national standards committee, where I joined him. One year, under his leadership, a record 72 amendments to the standards were passed.
ASHI-NE was lucky.

From Tony Galeota:

Mel was a quintessential parochial professional home inspector.  Mel's duty was to his clients. He had a job to do and was going to do it in a most professional manner in accordance with the Home Inspectors Standards.
I knew him well and participated with him over many years in many meetings and seminars. His professionalism should be emulated by all home inspectors.

From Don Lovering:

Mel was a very bright guy who helped educate us all. I am sorry to hear of his passing. When I had more brown than gray hair, I became one of Mel's associates. I was stepping into a higher level of inspecting. His tutelage was short before he sent me out on my own and for the next four and half years we worked together. One of the "old time inspectors," he would reinforce what the job was, how it must be done and would back your judgment to the ends of the earth. Mel had an analytical mind, sharp as a tack, always willing to help you out with resources, information, or help analyze a problem with you in order to achieve success. He broadened my horizons as to the profession of home inspection. I remember the great thrill he had when his paintings were put out for viewing at the art gallery. That I received an invitation to view them was his way of expressing friendship and pride. The smile when he played the piano. Mel was a husband, father, grandfather, mentor and my friend. I shall miss him; there are damned few like him around anymore.

From Bob Mulloy:

Here is a brief story describing my first encounter with Mel 25 years ago, one that I will never forget and one that is now a fond memory.  During a field trip for new home inspectors, Mel had me stand across the street from the home we were to inspect and asked, “Tell me what you see?”  I said “that wooden gutter is decayed and should be replaced.”  Mel responded, “I disagree with you!” You just made the same mistake that all new home inspectors make; you mixed your observation with your opinion and recommendation.  Your observation should be pure and separate from your opinion.  A home inspector should always paint an unbiased picture of his or her observation with words, free of opinion.  Now try again and tell me only what you see!”  Full of myself, I thought I knew it all until I met Mel and slammed against a brick wall with the rude awakening of my shortcomings.  Mel scolded me and I was offended at first.  But he enlightened me and then taught me in a way that elicited respect “for the master” and instant friendship!  Mel had a unique style, a charisma of warmth, a passion for the profession and he simply cared about his friends and the status of ASHI.  I knew instantly that I had met a true professional home inspector and that I had a long way to go if I ever hoped to attain his stature. 

With Mel’s guidance I had taken the first step towards becoming a professional home inspector.  Every year I learned that Mel really was willing to share his knowledge and experience for the training of others and our friendship grew.  Mel Chalfen was my inspiration, my teacher and my very good friend.  I will miss him and his happy smile.

Mel’s ASHI number was #79.  What does that tell you?  Mel was instrumental in the creation of ASHI and the ASHI-NE Chapter.  Our local Chapter was his “second family,” and he helped us all to grow.  Mel held many Chapter positions and was Chairman of the Education Committee for 14 or more years.  My memory is of Mel always introducing speakers or leading continuing education seminars himself.  Back in the 70’s Mel was earning inspection fees that double or triple those of most inspectors today.  Mel’s clients respected his ethics and gladly paid for his professionalism.

After Mel retired, I would often visit him when working nearby.  He cherished a visit from a friend and asked about ASHI and his family.  Mel was passionate and very opinionated but I listened to his lectures about the pros and cons of ASHI and the need for peer review to substantiate certification.  Each visit revealed the debilitating effect of Parkinson’s but Mel’s mind remained clear at all times.  Frail as he was, he wore a happy smile that I shall miss.  He shared his friendship with me and opened his heart to all who knocked on his door or telephoned for advice.

Back in 2004, I was the proud recipient of The Mel Chalfen Award. The verbiage the plaque is very descriptive of Mel's life and contributions to ASHI.  It reads: "In grateful appreciation, for outstanding commitments of time and energy to this Chapter and the home inspection industry over an extended period, a consistent record of ethical behavior in carrying out a professional home inspection practice, and a demonstrated record or willingness to share inspection experience and assistance in training others."

ASHI has lost a true leader, but heaven has gained a newcomer who will raise the Standards of Practice.

From Jim Morrison:

While I was growing up, my Dad spoke often of Mel; his tireless dedication to our profession; and his endless promotion of professionalism and education within it. By the time I actually met him in 1991, I was a bit intimidated, but almost immediately disarmed by him. Mel was genuinely delighted to meet a young guy starting his professional career as a home inspector and energized by the idea of helping me along. Whenever I spoke with Mel at a monthly meeting, he’d always end the conversation by telling me that I could call him for anything. Long after he retired and stopped coming to meetings, he was still answering my questions and giving me advice. He was a giant of a man and a shining example of a real “giver”. You could always count on Mel to parse out the “right” course of action and once set down the path, he would not be moved. I’ve often said that anyone performing home inspections today anywhere in the world owes a debt to Mel. He is one of the few people who impacted our field so profoundly, that it truly would not be the same without his involvement. We in New England are particularly lucky to have known him so well and for so long. There is a very good reason why the highest recognition we can award someone is called the “Mel Chalfen Award”.

People use the phrase “one of a kind” quite loosely, but Mel truly was unique. Here’s a link to the most recent story I’ve read about him. It has a good photo of Mel.  To honor Mel, I’d suggest every HI in the world double his knowledge base, perfect his ethics, and spread the gospel.  I was proud to honor him in life and would be just as proud to honor his memory.

From Glen Oetinger:

I hadn't been in the home inspection business to long before Arnie Green introduced me to Mel at a chapter meeting.  Arnie told me that Mel was looking for an inspector to work for him and asked if I was interested.

I had heard so much about Mel, I jumped at the chance. Being new to the business it seemed like the break that I needed. I was on cloud nine. All the sudden though, I felt like I was in home inspection boot camp.  As everyone knows, Mel was a stickler for detail, both in his writing and observation skills, and he had high expectations for the people working with him.
I spent countless hours –make that days – preparing reports for Mel's critique. And they were critiqued- sent back and forth until they finally made his approval. After all that, I was lucky if I was making ten dollars an hour, and you have to remember Mel's fees were the envy of everyone in the business.

But I soon realized I wasn't being paid to do inspections, but being paid for obtaining the best education an inspector could get. Not a bad deal.  Anyone who's worked with or around Mel knows that they are a better inspector from knowing him. He raised the bar to a level that few will ever meet. I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to work along side of him.

Besides his work in the inspection business, Mel amazed me with his many talents - his piano playing, paintings, and knowledge of so many different subjects. Mel and Judy always welcomed me into their home. I enjoyed talking with him, and always left with more knowledge than when I walked in. He lived a full and amazing life. I've lost not only a mentor, but a good friend.

From Jeff May:

Mel’s devotion to his profession and colleagues was extraordinary. He was always willing to share his knowledge and lend a helping hand. His dedication touched everyone in the Chapter and his contributions will continue to enrich the lives of those who enter the profession but never knew him. Mel was an inspiration to all of us, but I will also always miss the childish sparkle in his eyes when he smiled.
Jeff May

From Arnie Green:

“Mel, you’ve ruined my life.”  I would occasionally remind him, in jest. 
For the two years before I met Mel, I had been doing home inspections and writing an 11 page check list report.  After I started working for Mel, my own report ballooned to 30 pages, with photos.  And, that was before digital cameras.

But before I did any inspections for him, I got re-trained.  I “rode” with him for two weeks, during which time Mel taught me how to see “things”.  He taught me how to use a scientific approach in inspecting and report writing:  “Observe, Analyze, Recommend, and then record your findings in an objective and meaningful way” he would remind me.  I came away with new skills, a new direction and a dedication to excellence. 

And that was Mel.  A man who viewed this profession as an intellectual exercise.  He was extremely bright and dedicated in maintaining only the highest standards for our profession.  He didn’t waffle…he told it as it was.  When he saw a defect or a code violation, he called it out.  Because of this he was known by the Brokers as a “deal killer”.  The favorite line circulating among Brokers was, “When you see Mel Chalfen coming to do the inspection, give back the deposit check.”

But Home Inspection was only a part of Mel’s life.  He was very involved in the visual and performing arts.  Both he and Judy attended many performances of the Newton Symphony Orchestra and the New Rep Theatre.  He was an accomplished multi-media artist and his paintings had been displayed in numerous exhibitions.  He played the piano, magnificently and had many classical music pieces in his repertoire.

And, he was my friend.