August, 2010
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

Navigating Around


One of the most frustrating, yet extremely important, aspects of being a home inspector is simply arriving at the designated property at the appointed time. When I first began inspecting homes, I had already lived in my municipal area for 15 years, and a local mapping company offshoot from the Army Map Service began producing superior book maps for Washington, D.C., and the surrounding counties. Thirty-seven years later that company has expanded to cover many cities up and down the East Coast.

I learned to use and trust those maps. They facilitated getting just about anywhere, provided you had the map for that particular county. I still carry a box of more than 20 book maps in my vehicle. Knowing all the major roads within a 30-mile diameter of my geographic locale certainly facilitates calculating the simplest and fastest route even before I open the books to find the exact location.

Recently, I read an article in the Washington Post (Outlook, Sunday, June 6, 2010) titled "In Google we trust, a bit too much" by Nicholas Carr, who is the author of a new book "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains." In the article, Mr. Carr noted that the cabdrivers of London are not allowed to use maps, but must memorize the streets of the city. Like home inspectors, they need to know where they are, what alternate routes are available, and how to navigate safe passage. It is thought that the part of the brain that accomplishes that feat of time and space relationships is the hippocampus. Brain scans of the London cabbies demonstrated that the hippocampus portions of their brains were, in fact, significantly larger and more interconnected than usual.

In the article, Mr. Carr criticizes navigation systems largely because their use means we will not exercise our brains. He also noted: "They don't know everything. As most of us have discovered, navigation systems can give bad advice as well as good," like sending a traveler through a residential area or into
rough neighborhoods simply because it appears to be the most direct route.

Finding the location of new construction probably is the most challenging for us. I always try to ask the client for the nearest established street and then turn-by-turn directions. Often the client is mistaken, so I have discovered that using Google sometimes helps with new developments. Another excellent Internet map site is Bing, which sometimes is even more accurate and up-to-date. Often, auto navigators are not up-to-date.

A few years ago, another inspector and I were doing a ride-along. We both left my place at the same time, traveling about 10 miles across town. I gave him the map coordinates, but he said he no longer needed maps. He was quite proud that he had received a navigator as a holiday gift. I was surprised that he arrived 15 minutes behind me. I already had unloaded my tools and had the ladder resting on the eave when he finally arrived. He asked what route I'd traveled. I showed him on the map. He seemed a little chagrined.

I finally bought a navigator from Garmin and the past couple of months have been a new experience. I still look up the street location in my map book so I have a quick idea where I am expected to be. I often Google the same address so that I need only a single sheet to reference as I drive and also set the site into the navigator as I head out to the job.

According to Mr. Carr, these programs "tend to recommend routes based on simple calculations of speed and distance," which can "have unintended and unpleasant consequences." Once I figure and follow my route and begin the trip, taking the way I know to be the fastest route, I notice the Garmin constantly 'recalculating' as I ignore its directions until I pull into the local neighborhood. It really is a pleasure to be a block away and hear 'Arriving at (street name and number) on the left.'

Knowing the local traffic conditions and the fastest means of getting around helps all of us get to the site of a home inspection on time. Mr. Carr may have good reasons for his disdain of all our directional devices, but we need to get to the inspection in a timely manner. Arriving late does not set a good expectation for a client, and no one wants to waste time traveling to and from inspections. The navigator has proven to be most worthwhile in the boondocks or in unfamiliar areas where maps are not always available or are confusing. If you haven't experienced them, they have improved sufficiently, so I recommend giving one a try.