April, 2008
Feature
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



See it, Understand it, Explain it … Even When it’s Electronically Reported

STUART ZWANG, P.E., C.R.P., ASHI CERTIFIED INSPECTOR

As a principal of a company that performs home inspections for the relocation industry, hundreds of home inspection reports cross my desk each year.

Today, most are computer-generated, easy to read and to understand. ASHI recognized this trend, and at the 2008 InspectionWorld in New Orleans, the ‘Software Shoot-out’ session was devoted to computerized report-writing systems. Overall, the trend toward computerization is positive, but — and you know there’s always a but — I’ve noticed far too many inspectors using an electronic report format as a crutch instead of a tool.

Fortunately, we do receive reports from knowledgeable, conscientious inspectors who know how to see it, understand it and explain it. To do the job right, we need concise, insightful reports. We must see beyond the obvious and understand what caused the condition we’re reporting. Here’s an example of what can happen when an inspector moves through the sections of his computerized report, entering what he sees, but not understanding what it means.

Understand it: The cracked tile

An inspector noted that there was a cracked tile at the entrance to a shower stall. Normally, cracked tiles are a small cosmetic issue. The inspector sent a photo confirming the cracked tile on the floor — end of discussion. He’s done his job, right?

Or, should the inspector have gone through the following thought process?

Q1.Where does some of the water from the shower go?
A1. On the floor at the entrance to the shower.

Q2. What happens when water sits on a tile floor?
A2. It goes through the grout onto the plywood sub-floor.

Q3. What happens when a plywood sub-floor gets continuously wetted?
A3. It rots.

Q4. What should you be concerned about in this situation?
A4. That the sub-floor is soft and rotted.

Q5. Was the sub-floor damaged?
A5 .Yes.

In fact, it cost more than $2,500 to repair what was reported as a “cracked tile.”

Did the inspector do his job? Well, not really. Although he noted or described a symptom (cracked tile), his report was superficial in that he failed to understand the underlying reasons that caused the symptom. In fact, he failed to understand it was a symptom, and failed to accurately identify or report the underlying problem, which was that the bathroom floor was damaged.

Explain it: The patched, damaged roof

With reporting software, it has never been easier for an inspector to include page after page of generic, superfluous information in a report, while relying on standard conclusions to monitor, repair or obtain further evaluation. Here’s an example of why we look for specific, descriptive explanations in the reports done for our relocation company.

An inspector in Georgia noted that a roof had been patched; there were damaged shingles, and water damage in the home. That was it. His conclusion: “Recommend review by roofing contractor.”  

It was obvious that this was the original roof on the 17-year-old house. The photos included with the report confirmed the condition of the roof — severely deteriorated.

What do you think a roofing contractor would say or recommend? Of course, the roofer said it was defective and needed to be replaced.

When the inspector reported damaged shingles, patching, etc., he was correct. His recommendation to have the roof evaluated by a licensed contractor was also defensible. 

The problem is, in this instance, we believe the home inspector had an obligation to tell us, in simple language, that the roof was in poor condition, and that it would have to be replaced as soon as possible. The inspector either failed to understand or failed to explain what he saw. What’s more, he failed to take responsibility for his inspection. Telling us to have someone else inspect the roof wasted everyone’s time and really was an abrogation of his responsibility. But indeed, the computer-generated report (complete with photographs) looked official and professional.

Quantity vs. Quality

Another concern is that it seems as if electronic reporting has encouraged some inspectors to settle for quantity over quality.

Many of the reports we receive are overloaded with disclaimers, marginally useful diagrams, generalizations and ‘frou-frou.’ One report wasted an entire page explaining air conditioning efficiency ratings — information of no value to the client. This makes a report difficult to read and diverts the reader/purchaser from the actual inspection.

We find it ironic that because of all these long-winded reports, the public is now asking for a summary sheet. Of course, the summary sheet eliminates all the fluff and probably is, in and of itself, a meaningful, stand-alone report.

Keep it Simple

Most inspection reports are written for prospective buyers who do not have the expertise or the time to sort through pages of fluff and technical jargon. They are looking for explanations, but have limited time to read and understand the inspection report. Obviously, it’s easy to add pages to a computer-generated report, but whom does it help? If not the homebuyer, is fluff being added to appease real estate agents? Do they like to see pages of positive comments about all the systems and components that are functioning properly? Is there material in the software or report that might be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to put the home in a more positive light? If so, could this raise ethical or legal concerns?

Avoid the pitfalls of computer-generated reports

The following suggestions might be helpful to inspectors who would like to improve their reports by avoiding the dumbing down influence computer software can have.

1. Critically read your own computer report.

Does it provide the information that you would want if you were purchasing the house in which you currently live? If not, fix it.

2. Work at developing insights into a property.
Question what you see. Is it a symptom (an indication of a condition) or a condition? Understand the difference. This is what inspecting is all about.

3. Ask yourself, “What story is this house telling me?

Was it well-maintained or abused?
Will I have trouble keeping up this house, or not?
What should I expect in this house?

4. Get to the heart of the matter.  
For example: If the house needs a new roof, spell it out: “The roof is severely deteriorated and the new homeowner should expect to replace it.”  

5. Inspect your own home without a computer-generated
report; then with a computer-generated report. Ask yourself which is more informative and more valuable without regard to its appearance and disclaimers.

6. Write in a clear, descriptive manner. Use terms the
average person can understand. Avoid technical terms.

7. Take responsibility for your inspection.  

If the item is not working, say it is not working, and repair/replacement is required. If it is working, then you might want to simply say it is ‘working within expected parameters.’

Avoid saying that some other party should inspect or evaluate a component. You are there to inspect and evaluate it.

8. Provide useful technical information.
Even though the ASHI Standards of Practice does not require it, your client may appreciate knowing the brand, model and serial number of the mechanical equipment. This is important because the capacity and manufacturing date is embedded in that data. Even if you do not know how to read it, it is important for archival purposes and, if necessary, the manufacturer can be contacted for this information or assistance. The same goes for the sizing, spacing and span of floor joists.

Instead of saying: “Install proper whatever,” try to provide a useful explanation of what is proper.

“Missing proper handrails” might become “Missing safety handrails at stairs.”

“Needs proper relief riser on the water heater” is incomplete. It might mean the PVC pipe connected to the temperature and relief valve should have been metal, or that the drain line for the water heater’s temperature and relief valve is not (or should be) piped to a safe location (a short distance above the floor) as required by local ordinance, plumbing standards or manufacturer’s instructions.

Providing explanations can be inconven-ient. Seldom does a pre-programmed explanation fit every situation. While an increasing number of home inspectors are able to provide large, beautiful, glossy reports, fewer and fewer of these reports seem to provide insightful, intelligent, useful material.

Computer-generated reports must be used intelligently. Like any poorly written report, they can frustrate the reader and reflect poorly on the inspector. This, in turn, may degrade the value and usefulness of your inspection.

Computerized reports are not the end products. When used wisely, they can be a wonderful tool that is a means to an end — a great inspection within a
professional-looking report.