March, 2010
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

The Word: Wisdom?


Instead of beginning this month’s column with the usual invitation into the dark realm, I begin by discussing my sign-off paragraph. I sign off every The Word column by admitting that I reside at the base of Mt. Olympus. This acknowledges that, in spite of careful research and careful editing, I make mistakes, and I sometimes select words that fail to convey my intended meaning to all readers. This acknowledgment has implications when reading this column and when performing your inspections.

Whether it’s writing books, articles or inspection reports, I still find word selection and fact-checking to be a challenge. Word selection is the more difficult challenge. I am constantly intrigued by how people bring different perspectives to written words and come away with unintended interpretations. This is how the dark creatures make their living. Fact-checking is a little easier; however, one person’s facts can be another person’s opinions. It’s also true that facts can be accurate, but incomplete. Accurate, but incomplete, facts cause the most trouble because they appear right, but can be wrong.

A good example of an accurate, but incomplete, fact was in my discussion of the word “missing” in the January 2010 The Word column. The example statement was: “The flashing is missing.”

As I stated in that column, one entry in the authoritative dictionary defines missing as a verb. A few inches down from that definition in the dictionary is another definition of missing as an adjective. Thus, my facts were accurate, but because I did not read further down the page, they were incomplete. An incomplete fact can be just as inaccurate as a “fact” that is inaccurate at its core, and, in this case, the incomplete fact was inaccurate. Missing is one acceptable word in the example statement as was the suggested word absent. In their adjective form, the two words are synonyms. Thank you to readers who caught my mistake.

One advantage of living at the base of Mt. Olympus is that it offers the opportunity to gather a modicum of what some might consider wisdom, if you are paying attention. Permit me to offer a few examples, based on my error in the January column, of what one might consider wisdom.

I was taught in graduate business school that one should “stick to your knitting.”  In the business context, it’s a warning to companies to avoid businesses in which they have no particular expertise. In my column-writing context, it’s a warning to avoid writing about English grammar and other subjects in which I have no particular expertise. This rule has wisdom to impart in the home inspection context as well.

Being the home inspector can be an ego trip. With the outcome of the deal hanging on our words, it’s easy to overplay our hands as the experts on the scene. We should wisely avoid the temptation to comment, verbally and in writing, on subjects about which we have no particular expertise and on subjects about which we may have incomplete facts. We are generalists and we are not required to have in-depth expertise about all aspects of residential construction. Our inspections are limited and visual, and we are not required to have all of the facts. If an issue is beyond our expertise or our facts may be incomplete, we should so state, both verbally and in our report, and call for expert evaluation. It’s OK not to reside on Mt. Olympus.

After many years of doing something successfully, it’s easy to become complacent and to believe that you know more than you do. I’ve been writing my entire professional career and have been told that I’m pretty good at it. Experience, success and some positive reinforcement does not make me a grammarian. Similarly, experience and success in home inspecting does not make us engineers, building scientists and experts about everything in and around the home. It’s wise to perform an occasional ego check and to think about all of the things we don’t know. Ego checks are not easy, I know.

I may be one of the few people who had to repeat the Dale Carnegie Course. The course tries to teach how to win friends and influence people. I suspect that I’m not the only inspector who struggles with implementing the wise and time-tested rules taught in the course. The rule most appropriate in this context is:  “If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.”  Given the modern litigious environment, it’s probably wise to consult with your attorney and your insurance carrier before fully implementing this rule in a home inspection context. The concept, however, is wise.

At some point, we are going to make a mistake. It’s well known that in many cases, people want to have their feelings acknowledged and to have someone express a sincere interest in improving the situation. Other Dale Carnegie rules that apply in this context include: “Be a good listener,” “Show respect for the other person’s opinion,” “Begin in a friendly way” and “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.” Doctors with a good bedside manner are less likely to be sued. The same probably holds true for home

Memo to the Greek gods of wisdom who are fabled to live on Mt. Olympus and other authorities: The Word does not reside on Mt. Olympus (just at its base) and welcomes other viewpoints. Send your lightning bolts or e-mails to The thoughts contained herein are those of The Word. This column does not represent ASHI standards or policies.