ASHI members examine special considerations critical to success
Part 2 of a 2 part series. See January 2004 for part 1.
New construction inspections offer opportunities for increasing your revenue, broadening your business base and diversifying your experience. They also offer challenges: inspectors of new construction projects must be comfortable with local codes, seek out formal training and build strong relationships.
For many, the payoffs are worth the work. The ASHI Reporter spoke with members who perform new construction inspections to bring you information on special considerations of the market, including tips on preparation, reporting and relationships.
Choice: examining different markets
New construction inspections can be grouped in three major categories: phase inspections, end-of-construction inspections and warranty inspections. Some inspectors choose to focus on one type, while others perform all three, depending on the regional construction climate, their unique personality and their relationships with builders.
Chris Prickett, owner of Landmark Home Inspection, LLC in Anthem, Ariz., says that while he performs all kinds of inspections, about 60 percent of his business comes from warranty inspections; the development where he lives is building more than 10,000 homes in six years, providing a ready-made local customer base.
Other inspectors choose to work only with certain clients. Garet Denise, owner of Cornerstone Inspection in Denver, limits his clients to homeowners. In his market, “my perception is that the builders are not quite to the point that they recognize the value of a third party coming in,” he says.
Each type of inspection brings its own challenges and rewards:
At each phase inspection, work is examined to see if it meets a certain standard of care, says Mike Casey, ASHI past president and vice president of Inspection Training Associates, Manassas, Va. “Use your judgment,” he says. “Does it meet the intent of the code?” Most agree that during phase inspections, it’s important to focus on the phase at hand and not get sidetracked by other concerns.
When a home is completed, an end-of-construction inspection is performed to examine the overall quality of work. An inspector might consult building plans and will examine work for code compliance.
One-year warranty inspections are the most fun, says Peter Drenan, president of Building Inspections, Inc., in Charlottesville, Va. “The house has had a chance to settle,” he explains. “The homeowners have had a chance to see it change—they have one level of experience, and I have another level. It’s a partnership.” In addition to code concerns, the inspector will examine the performance of the structure.
Preparing for success
Preparation—for entering the marketplace, and for each individual inspection—is key, says Mark Cramer, owner of Mark Cramer Inspection Services, Inc., in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla. “You really have to know what you’re doing and what you’re talking about,” says Cramer. “Otherwise, you’re going to get chewed up and spit out.” He recommends networking to stay current on local issues. Before jumping into the new construction market, inspectors need to become familiar with building codes and their regional or local interpretations, and possibly become code-certified, says Casey. They also must be comfortable with the basics of home construction, either through experience or formal training. Other areas that require preparation include the following:
Successful new construction inspectors keep their paperwork well-organized and current, says Cramer. In his market, most builders require inspectors to provide documented proof of insurance before allowing them on a property. Many inspectors keep code information organized and handy for referral on-site. Clean, organized and accessible paperwork will convey a high level of professionalism to clients.
Appearance and attitude
Maintaining a professional personal appearance is one easy way to secure the confidence of clients, says Jamison Brown, president of Amerispec Home Inspection Services in Poquoson, Va. “You’re coming to a builder’s brand-new house,” he says, “so you have to be clean and professional looking.” Prickett says respect can make a great impression: “I practice common courtesies during pre-close inspections: wear booties, don’t put tools on countertops, be careful with ladders, put down drop cloths.” In short, “be respectful of the work.”
As with your personal appearance, so should your tools and equipment arrive at the site in a clean and professional manner. Whether it’s a measuring tape or an extendable ladder, your tools should be as up-to-date as possible and organized for easy use. Don’t assume the builder will have what you need—bring your own equipment.
Depending on the type of inspection, you may want to schedule drive-bys of a property, says Brown. In some cases, you can coordinate schedules with the builder to work around their busiest hours. Some inspectors manage their schedule by limiting their workload to a certain number of inspections each day. In any case, coordination will pay off.
Interpretation and amendment documents
When it comes to building codes, regional differences can be significant. Inspectors must stay up-to-date on codes, as well as local interpretations and amendments. Casey recommends starting with certification through the International Code Council (ICC), which offers classes on plumbing, mechanical and electrical concerns. Brown concurs: “When you’ve got credentials like that, the builder opens the door.”
Drenan says becoming code-certified in Virginia helped him earn respect among code officials, who invited him to be part of recent state code modifications. By participating in the process, he says, “that makes the builders more amenable to having conversations with you. That goes into building a reputation for yourself for being good, honest, fair and knowing what you’re talking about.”
States vary widely in how they apply national codes, and local interpretations can change mile by mile. “In Florida, we have a pretty uniform statewide building code, and municipalities can’t easily adopt local amendments,” says Cramer. But Brown says that in his area of Virginia, the situation is more complicated; for example, the 1973 electrical code wasn’t adopted until 1980. Depending on their location, inspectors need to understand which codes are enforceable or risk losing business, he says: “Municipalities have the option of enforcing some, all or none. If you pick up on it when it’s not recognized as important in your region, you’ve just disqualified yourself.”
Local building and safety departments typically offer print publications on local amendments and interpretations, and many documents are available online. Networking with local code officials is another way to stay current.
Inspectors across the country can expect to see some common defects, no matter where they work.
Some of the most dangerous defects are in framing, including excessive notching and boring, and not properly continuing load paths to the foundation. Another area for concern is electrical, where improper sub-panel wiring and unbalanced multi-wire circuits can create shock hazards.
More of a nuisance than a safety hazard is improper support or fastening of plumbing pipe, which can cause excessive noise, says Casey. In mechanical systems, improper air distribution balance, misplaced supply and return vents, and squashed ductwork can have varying impacts on the comfort of homeowners, depending on their tolerance level.
Denise says in his experience, water-related defects are most common, including improper installation of flashing, roofing, and siding, and poor grading around the house. Inspectors must pay close attention to the exterior, he says: “Most builders do a really good job finishing off the interior details, because that’s the part the homeowner sees day to day. Most homebuyers don’t know what to look at on the outside of the house, so some builders don’t exert as much effort there.”
When it comes to reporting new construction inspections, the approach varies among inspectors and types of inspections. For phase inspections, says Cramer, “there’s no standard to follow, so you have to make it up as you go along.” Standard forms for inspecting existing homes don’t offer the flexibility needed to report on new construction, so many inspectors simply use a narrative approach, much like writing a letter. Brown says his narrative reports typically contain an opening paragraph, bulleted issues, recommendations and a brief impression of overall quality. Some, like Casey and Drenan, develop their own forms for new construction inspections.
The content of the reports also varies: phase inspection reports typically address only the phase at the time of inspection; end-of-construction reports will address the entire house, but usually don’t contain copious information on systems obscured within walls. Warranty inspection reports often focus not just on surface issues, but on performance issues as well. The length and breadth of each report hinges on the type of inspection and the involvement of the inspector in the construction of the home.
Digital technology has revolutionized the reporting process. For end-of-construction inspections, Prickett often secures the buyer’s permission to supply the builder, with an e-mailed copy of his report, reinforcing a respectful relationship with the builder with minimal effort and no extra cost. Drenan uses a digital voice recorder and camera at inspections to capture information, later uploading notes and photos into a report template to submit to the client. With laptops, much of the reporting can be done on-site.
Relationships open more doors
ASHI members agree that strong relationships with members of the construction and real estate community can make or break an entrepreneur. In ASHI’s Home Inspection Business Operations Study – 2002 Edition, 96.6 percent of respondents said referrals were a “very important” promotional method.
When it comes to builders, most inspectors say a little flexibility and respect goes a long way. While some inspectors who work for homebuyers favor surprise site visits, many more feel it’s better to “go in as part of the team,” says Casey. “I don’t like to have an adversarial relationship with them.” Casey says an inspector can often turn skeptical builders into enthusiasts by showing how inspections function as additional quality control. In fact, he’s garnered quality control work from builders after doing just that.
But even the most skilled and diplomatic inspector is bound to run into resentful or uncooperative builders. Cramer says,“They tend to do things and say things that minimize what you do as an inspector. You have to have a very thick skin.”
When it comes to working with a homebuyer, it’s important to explain up front what each inspection will entail, says Drenan. His contracts explain in detail what he will and will not do, and in the case of phase inspections, he emphasizes that he will not re-inspect phases on which he has already reported. Being clear at the beginning of the process minimizes lost time and misunderstandings later. Prickett also suggests involving the homebuyer in the process from the start, which instills more confidence—and trust—in the process.
Whether you’re working with a builder or buyer, the bottom line is the same, says Brown: “You’re always looking at the house the same way, no matter who hires you.”