June, 2018
Feature
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



Stories From a Retired Home Inspector: In Pursuit of...Money?

KEITH SWIFT

Money is a medium of exchange and if we follow the advice in the Pink Floyd song of the same name, we should grab it “with both hands and make a stash.” Like many inspectors, I spent years building my stash, which was reduced a couple of times by scoundrels who knew how to corrupt the legal system. (I first wrote about that topic in the Reporter in 2004 in the middle of my inspection career.) However, I soon learned that one of the ways to avoid frivolous litigation was defensive report writing, which meant not relying on pre-printed information but including statements of indisputable fact whenever possible. 

For instance, on the day I heard that an inspector had been sued for water damage by someone foolish enough to fill a second floor tub above the overflow and aware that, like most inspectors, I’d never tested a tub by filling it anywhere near the overflow, I added the following sentence into my report-writer: “We did not fill the tub to the overflow to confirm its function, which would be an irresponsible waste of water.” This sentence appeared with every tub evaluation. Would any client find this unreasonable? 

Of course, my roof evaluations were similar. For those, I made it clear that the inspection was “not a guarantee against leaks” by stating, among other things, “Only installers can sensibly guarantee that a roof won’t leak and they do.”

Anyway, these are just two examples and you get the point, so let’s return to the main subject of money. I didn’t covet money, but it was providing me and my family with many creature comforts and a growing savings account. At the same time, however, I was beginning to reconsider my attitude about inspections and the pursuit of money.

For a few years when I was full of energy, I was doing as many as three inspections a day. During this time, I bought a classic British sports car, dined in the fanciest restaurants, skied at the best resorts and basked on exotic beaches. But in moments of clarity, I began to suspect that perhaps greed was leading me into danger.

It’s just not possible to do three inspections a day. Well, it is, but it means looking for shortcuts and taking risks, as I’ll explain with pictures and stories, ending with a moral. 

Story 1
Look at these two pictures, but be aware that they illustrate only one example of what led me to reconsider what I was doing.

The fireplace (photo on the left) and the top of the chimney stack (photo on the right) are part of a new pre-fabricated chimney that was signed off on by a city building inspector, together with a new roof on a new house that had a Certificate of Occupancy and all the warranties that went with it. So, what could possibly be wrong? 

If you haven’t already noticed what’s wrong, take another look at the photo on the left. There’s a painted shroud on the chase cover, but there’s no flue. In fact, the flue terminates in the attic, a few inches below the roof sheathing. I haven’t included a picture of it because the picture of the chase cover tells the whole story. The first fire in this fireplace would likely be a house fire, and I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened if I’d been in a hurry and tried to save time. 

For instance, I might not have accessed the roof to view the chimney, knowing that both were brand new and had been signed off on by a city building inspector, and I could even have reported that a recent rain had made the roof slippery and unsafe to access. I also might have disclaimed entering the attic to examine the flue by citing industry standards, and reporting that insulation obscured the joists and made mobility hazardous. I didn’t; however, it did make me realize that doing a thorough inspection is essential and it takes time, a lot of time. 

Story 2
Two other chimney pictures illustrate a similar problem. As you can see, the first thing I saw was an expensive and elegant fireplace and surrounding (photo on the left), and the second thing I saw, after positioning my head and shoulders inside the fireplace, was enough exposed wood to add fuel to a fire (photo on the right).

There’s no way to explain or justify this situation and I have even more bizarre pictures than these, but such strange sights were not the only reason I began to change my ways, as I’ll explain with another story.

Story 3
I’d always regarded myself as a military type, by which I mean professional, respectful and polite, but not warm and friendly. Anyway, I was standing in a garage with my back to my client, who happened to be a young woman, and I was poised to take a picture of an electrical panel when I was startled by a piercing scream. I spun around and saw her staring in horror at a line of ants following a scent path. My first response was anger, which ended when I saw she was terrified and trembling and in the grip of a phobia that was beyond anything I’d witnessed before. Her fear subsided, but she was still trembling. With tears in her eyes, she pleaded with me to include the observation about the ants in my report. I agreed, but I would likely never have done so otherwise. 

Anyway, after reflecting on this unique experience, I began to ask all my clients privately about their concerns—to ask them about their allergies and respiratory ailments, and even about their past experiences in real estate—and what I learned was always enlightening. Most of the time, clients thanked me for my concern, which a few even defined as compassionate service, but regardless of how it was viewed, it was evolving. 

Reflections on Clients and Money
Of course, no two clients are the same and all deserve to be treated as individuals. Most of them had some effect on the way I prepared and documented my reports. I began to relax and take more time, and to actually enjoy the process. I became such a believer in the power of photo documentation that I even included pictures of things that were functioning and performing as they should, including such things as functioning pool and spa lights, and the arrangement of wiring in electrical panels and air ducts in attics, which would dispute any claims to the contrary. 

It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I’ll never know how many times one or more of the photos I took prevented a nuisance call or even a lawsuit. However, change is one of the most difficult things to achieve in life and few of us are blessed with a moment of enlightenment, like the Buddha. In fact, I’ve only ever experienced moments in which I saw glimmerings of truth and usually thanks to other people. 

Talking about truth and avoiding frivolous lawsuits, which have spread throughout the inspection industry like a disease and made a mockery of justice, I once complained to an executive of a national insurance company that contracts and industry standards had been rendered almost meaningless as legal defense. To my surprise, he agreed and confirmed that the vast majority of lawsuits are settled out of court for the simple reason that it’s cheaper for insurance companies to settle with scoundrels than to pay the exorbitant fees to defend the innocent. 

Of course, every attorney understands that insurance means deep pockets and fuels lawsuits. I’ve written a book about this that includes actual case numbers and some hard-to-believe truths. To be objective, I say “the vast majority of lawsuits” because some cases are not frivolous and deserve to be litigated, and others involve huge amounts of money and are rarely settled out of court. However, during the course of our conversation, which became more relaxed over drinks, the insurance executive added that inspection lawsuits are also “a numbers game” and “just a matter of time,” which was yet another indisputable truth. 

To add to this truth, I was reminded of the parting words of a retiring inspector, who insisted that the best business decision he ever made was to raise his fees and do fewer inspections, and that’s when I decided to do the same. He also said that there’s a place for everyone in the inspection business—the cheap ones, the expensive ones and those in between—which is undoubtedly true. The old cliché “you get what you pay for” also seems to be equally true.

I decided to systematically raise my fees until I was doing only one inspection a day without lowering my income. I was providing an exemplary narrative report with annotated pictures at a premium price, and I usually delivered the reports and pictures on the same day as the inspection. 

In truth, this shift lowered my anxiety, raised my spirits and made me even prouder to be an inspector. In addition, it enabled me to spend more time with my family and to pursue a variety of other interests. Regardless, I’m retired now and to borrow another cliché, I’m no longer in the race and have more time to sit around and ponder the real mysteries. So, if you have time on your hands and want to chat about the industry or share your stories with me, please feel free to reach out to me at 208-916-8263 or keithswift2@gmail.com. 

Keith Swift was born and raised in England, and after traveling through the Mideast and the Far East, he immigrated to the United States. He earned a doctorate in 1982 with a dissertation on the work of W.S. Merwin, who was appointed poet laureate in 2010. After teaching at California State University for a few years, Keith obtained a general contractor’s license, together with a certification in asbestos, and embarked on a career as a residential and commercial building inspector until retiring in 2016. He enjoys reading and writing and working with his hands, and sharing what he has learned with others.