March, 2013
The Word
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



Standards of Practice

BRUCE BARKER

Once again, The Word invites you to travel into the dark realm of subjects that are sometimes misunderstood by home inspectors. The Word hopes you will find this trip informative and maybe a little entertaining.

Our subject this month is Standards of Practice. The Word finds this subject interesting. If he didn't, agreeing to serve his fifth year as the Standards Committee chair would suggest he is crazier than some already believe he is. You should find the subject interesting because lack of an updated SoP could cost you money and perhaps even your business.

ASHI's mission

Have you read ASHI's Mission Statement? No? Don't feel bad. Mission statements are written during well-intended strategic planning sessions then often forgotten during the crush of other matters.

A big part of ASHI's mission is to set industry-leading standards of practice. ASHI has succeeded in this mission by setting industry-leading standards of practice for predrywall and swimming pool inspections. Unfortunately, ASHI's home inspection Standards of Practice (SoP) has fallen behind.

Using an obsolete SoP can be risky for you because it doesn't provide guidance on dealing with new technologies and new risks. In addition, as ASHI gains knowledge about how people interpret the SoP, updating it provides us with an opportunity to better express the concepts that are causing confusion.

An up-to-date ASHI SoP will benefit everyone. It's been six years since the last home inspection SoP update, so it's well past time for another. Members are invited to participate in the process, therefore, you may find the following information interesting and helpful. ,

A mutual understanding

Imagine inspections without an SoP. In one way they would be easier. You could just walk around, look at whatever you wanted, operate whatever you wanted, give the client a handwritten list of problems, collect your fee, and move on. Actually, that was how things were done in the time BS (Before SoP). The problem with this situation is that what you want and what your client wants are sometimes different. Misunderstandings are inevitable without an agreement about what the inspection does and does not include. Thus, the first and most important purpose of the ASHI SoP is to establish a mutual understanding about the scope of the inspection.

This mutual understanding isn't automatic. To establish an agreement, all parties must be aware of the terms and agree to them. You can do this with a handshake, but proving after the fact that an agreement was reached is extremely difficult. Written acceptance by the client of the applicable SoP is necessary and is required in some states.

You should have a statement in your inspection agreement and in your report that identifies all standards of practice that apply to the inspection. As an ASHI inspector, the ASHI SoP applies to every home inspection you perform, so you should always identify it. Your agreement should also specify the state-mandated standards of practice, if any, that apply.

In order to reach a mutual understanding, the client must know the contents of all applicable SoPs. Identifying them in your agreement and report is a good and necessary start. The problem is that clients rarely take the next step to find and read them. Encourage and make it easy for your clients to read them. Prominently display links to the applicable ones on your website. If you send your inspection agreement electronically or have clients sign it on your website, include links to all applicable ones in the email or on the agreement signature web page. If you get your agreement signed at the inspection, at least bring along a copy for clients to read during the inspection. Better yet, just give them a copy; they're not that expensive.

Great expectations

Another function of all Standards of Practice is to set realistic client expectations. That's why providing the client with an opportunity to read them before the inspection is so important. Many complaints against home inspectors do not come from technical mistakes, but from failure to satisfy client expectations. A client with realistic expectations is more likely to be a reasonable client.

You should not rely on clients reading the relevant SoP even if you give them every opportunity to do so. Setting realistic expectations should be a big part of your "driveway" or "kitchen table" speech.

Your shield

Problems may occur despite your best efforts. Specific, applicable standards of practice help protect you if problems occur. Without one, a client can define inspection scope to include just about anything. Standards of practice won't protect you against your mistakes, but it can help protect you by limiting inspection scope.
But what happens when a standards of practice is silent about something, say arc-fault circuit interrupters? Silence is like a hole in your shield. It lets the client define inspection scope about that component. Silence is one reason standards of practice need regular improvement.

When Standards collide

What happens if ASHI and state standards are different? Fortunately, most states use a derivative of the ASHI SoP, so the differences usually are minor. You should comply with all that apply to you, but if there are differences, always comply with your state standards of practice first, then with the ASHI SoP.

Why are the Standards so vague?

Some of the confusion and frustration about standards of practice flow from misunderstandings about how and why they are developed. Let's try to clear up some of these misunderstandings by addressing a common complaint about standards of practice in general: they are too vague.

Why are they so vague? Well, to start, the ASHI Standards of Practice serves an international audience of inspectors and clients. A detailed SoP that would serve widely diverse audiences would be more difficult for inspectors to use because inspectors would have to sort through reams of regional and other details to find what applies to them. If a detailed SoP would be difficult for inspectors to use, it would be even more difficult for clients to use and to understand. A detailed SoP could become as unreadable as building codes.

Standards of practice in general, and ASHI's in particular, aren't intended as an instruction manual about how to conduct an inspection. That is the purpose of inspector training and continuing education. Training and education can focus on a more targeted audience, so it is easier to develop. Also, fewer people are involved in developing training and education. This makes education and training far easier to develop since they are less subject to the inevitable differences of opinion that occur when many people are involved. As has been said: "A camel is a horse designed by a committee."

Finally, a detailed SoP is impractical to write and approve given ASHI's available resources and structure. The Standards Committee is all volunteer. The time required to maintain and update the current "vague" SoP is considerable. Writing, maintaining, and gaining approval of a detailed SoP would require paid staff. That's highly unlikely to occur, although The Word is open to considering offers.

What versus how

Some of the confusion and frustration about ASHI's Standards of Practice flows from misunderstandings about how to use it. Let's try to clear up some of these misunderstandings by addressing the difference between what and how.

The SoP tells you what to inspect. Sections three through twelve identify the systems and components that you must inspect, but they do so without any details. Why? Because any list of specific parts that comprise systems and components would be incomplete. We can't account for all possible types and configurations of systems and components that appear in the field. Even if we could create a complete list, it would be obsolete almost immediately when new or different systems and components become available.

The SoP gives you general guidance about how to inspect systems and components. The guidance must, again, be general because there are so many different configurations in the field that providing guidance about how to inspect each configuration is impractical and because any such guidance would quickly become obsolete. Guidance about how to inspect is a major reason why continuing education is so important.

SoP Section 2.2.A is your first guidepost about how to inspect. It tells you to inspect systems and components that are visually observable, readily accessible, and installed. The terms inspect, systems, components, readily accessible and installed are all defined in the glossary. Reading and understanding the definitions of defined terms is absolutely essential to understanding and using the SoP. Read the SoP glossary definitions if you haven't already or if you haven't done so in a while.44
 You may find that you've developed some bad habits.

Every term in Section 2.2.A is important. Visually observable tells you that only things that you can see are in scope. Inspect tells you to operate normal operating controls and open readily openable access panels. Normal operating controls and readily openable access panels are both defined terms in the glossary.
Section 2.2.B gives you specific guidance about what to report. We discussed reporting in detail in The Word column in the July 2012 Reporter so we won't discuss it here. Read that column again if you want more information about good reporting practices, an essential component in complying with the SoP.

Aside from the requirement that the report be in written form, the ASHI SoP doesn't tell you what report type or format to use and it doesn't tell you what delivery media to use. Checklist, narrative, or a combination of both is fine according to the SoP. Downloaded, emailed, snail-mailed, or hand-delivered reports are all fine according to the SoP. Even handwritten reports are fine, although The Word strongly recommends against this format. The day of handwritten reports has long past.

Just about every SoP section, especially Section 13, tells you what you don't have to do. In other words, it tells you what is out-of-scope of the inspection. You are not prohibited from performing any of the out-of-scope services or actions (or any other service or action). Section 2.3.A states that you may perform any service or action you wish (so long as you comply with ASHI's Code of Ethics, of course). In fact, you may wish to perform some of these excluded services to differentiate yourself from your competition and get more revenue. You should, of course, have the necessary qualifications and licenses to perform additional services or actions.

The bottom line

The Word hopes you now understand why the ASHI Standards of Practice is important to you and why it is written as it is. The SoP also is important to ASHI as indicated by its prominent place in ASHI's mission statement. ASHI should be the leader in standards of practice. Unfortunately, that's not the case at this time.
The Standards Committee is considering proposals to improve the home inspection SoP so that it may at least catch up with others. The committee needs your help and support in this endeavor. Change is often controversial and difficult, but change is necessary. Without change, our SoP will continue to lose relevance. This will diminish both ASHI and the profession at large.

We ask that you be open to change even if it means you may have to alter your inspections and your reports. In the end, everyone will benefit by bringing the ASHI SoP up to par with other standards of practice and, with your help, maybe even back to a leadership position.
Memo to whatever gods rule over improvements: The Word does not reside on Mt. Olympus (just at its base) and welcomes other viewpoints. Send your lightning bolts or emails to Bruce@DreamHomeConsultants.com. The thoughts contained herein are those of The Word. They are not ASHI standards or policies.

Bruce Barker operates Dream Home Consultants. He has been building and inspecting homes since 1987. He is the author of "Everybody's Building Code" and currently serves as chair of the ASHI Standards Committee. To read more of Barker's articles, go to www.dreamhomeconsultants.com.