April, 2007
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

The Dreaded Phone Call


Sooner or later, as home inspectors, we all will get the dreaded phone call. The sheer number of inspections we perform will, sooner rather than later, hasten this day. We strive to deliver The ASHI Experience to all of our clients. The educational opportunities, our peer review process and the brotherhood we share within our chapters and our society places us on the cutting edge of our profession. Tablet PCs, Blackberrys™, PDAs, gadgets and brighter/lighter flashlights bring information to our fingertips even in the field. Nevertheless, we who “speak house” are the human factor in the inspection process and it will only be a matter of time before we screw up.

The dreaded phone call from a client

As for me, it took about nine years and a little over 2,000 inspections before the day of reckoning came. My dreaded phone call came from a client who happens to be a real estate professional, as is her daughter. This is important to note because many of us market to and receive referrals from real estate professionals.

The voice mail went something like this,

“Tony, this is Sandra Smith with Professional Realty. You inspected our house about three or four months ago. We  were getting the furnace ready for the winter, the heating contractor is here, and he said the heat exchange is cracked and the furnace will need to be replaced. Could you give us a call ASAP, please?”

These dreaded phone calls will always shake us. The human side of us has just been exposed.

Mentor will advise

Before I returned her phone call, I called my mentor and explained to him what was happening. He asked me the brand of the furnace, its model and serial number, and also if there was any indication that it had been serviced by a qualified heating contractor in the past 12 months. I told him that the Lennox brand furnace was about 10 years old, there was no indication that it had been serviced by a qualified heating contractor in the past 12 months, and my inspection report indicated that the furnace was in good condition to perform the task it was intended for.

He replied that the good news was this particular brand of Lennox furnace had a lifetime warranty on the heat exchanger, so it only would cost me the labor rate to put it in. I was beginning to feel good already. Incidentally, the heating contractor found the crack by doing a water test, something we, as home inspectors, don’t normally do.

Contact the contractor

He suggested I contact the heating contractor, not to debate his findings but to ask if I could see the cracked heat exchanger after it was removed and before it was sent to Lennox. He also advised me to ask the contractor if he had a preferred labor rate, how soon he could install the new heat exchanger and what the final cost would be.

I did as my mentor suggested. The heating contractor agreed to hold the old heat exchanger in his shop for a week before sending it in to Lennox so I could inspect it. I was given a couple of dates for installing the new heat exchanger, and, the best news of all: I was given a preferred labor rate of $350.

Good news for clients

Armed with this information, I called the client, acknowledged receipt of her voice mail and asked when was a good time for me to come over and discuss the furnace.

At my mentor’s advise, I did not take my report with me, nor did I ask to go to the basement to take another look at the furnace. I followed my plan of action. When I arrived at the home, I apologized for any inconvenience I may have caused them. I explained that the heat exchanger in the furnace was under a lifetime warranty and gave a couple of dates that were open on the contractor’s schedule. We agreed on a date and time. I also explained to them that I was given a preferred labor rate of $350 to install the new heat exchanger and that I would like to spilt it with them. They would be invoiced for $175. They were tickled and mentioned that they did not expect me to pay for any of it, but that they would accept my offer.

Asked for feedback

A week later, the clients had their new heat exchanger installed for $175. I wasn’t present; however, at my mentor’s advice, I followed up with an evaluation form attached to a self-addressed, stamped envelope asking questions on how their complaint was handled and if they were happy? The evaluation was positive and I continue to receive referrals from both mother and daughter. The daughter went so far as to send a card thanking me for the way in which I handled the complaint.

Thanked contractor

After the new heat exchanger was installed, I stopped in at the heating contractor’s shop, viewed the cracked heat exchanger, paid him my $175 and thanked him for the preferred labor rate. He said, “No, Tony, thank you! Over the years, you’ve sent us thousands of dollars in referrals and asked for nothing in return. We are glad to return the favor.”

What did I learn?

I later called my mentor and thanked him for his advice and informed him that everything went well. He asked me what lessons, if any, had I learned? I told him that from now on I would not look at heat exchangers and would
disclaim them in my report. He further advised me that the next time I inspect a furnace, no matter how old it is, if there is not a clear indication that the unit has been serviced within 12 months prior to the inspection, I need to strongly recommend the unit be serviced prior to close of escrow.

For $175, I learned some valuable lessons; most important of all the value of a mentor in dealing with the dreaded phone call.

This article was previously published in the Great Lakes Chapter newsletter, “The Laker.”