Buying a home is a big deal, and most people are pretty clear about the need to have it inspected. Many issues can lurk in the dark corners, and unless the home buyer is also a contractor with a well-developed list of sub-contractors, paying a trained professional to take an unbiased and dispassionate look at the home and then report on the findings in a manner that can be understood is a wise move.
So how to pick the right home inspector? This question is a prime focus for the portion of the class I teach most months for new home buyers, run by Skip Thompson of Guild Mortgage along with Dave Kamenz of Windermere Real Estate. I have the pleasure of spending a half hour with the attendees, talking about what a home inspection is (and isn’t!), and how to choose an inspector.
The first approach I recommend is to talk with your real estate broker. Most brokers have a well developed list of their top 3 or 4 choices for inspectors and that can certainly be a starting point. One important caveat… while the vast majority of real estate brokers I have the good fortune to work with are ethical people with the needs of the client top of mind, you cannot forget that the broker gets paid only if and when the house sells, and the inspection is one of the last few potential impediments to that happening. Just as some home inspectors get the reputation of being ‘deal killers’, some real estate brokers get the reputation of wanting inspectors who don’t take much time, don’t look too in depth, and aren’t likely to do or say anything that might ‘scare’ the client (that’s you!). I have literally had a broker take me aside at the beginning of the inspection – before the client was there – and say “Let me tell you how this is gonna go.” He then said that if I found anything I was to share it with him and that he would decide whether to share it with the clients. Let’s just say he wasn’t thrilled when my response was “Let me tell you how this is actually going to go”… and I then made clear that I would share everything I found with my client and that he was welcome to listen. I have also had a local real estate company tell me that unless I could do my inspections in an hour and a half they couldn’t use me. They already have one inspector who does that for them and they are happy with that. I encouraged them to continue working with others… an inspection simply cannot be completed in that much time.
So… start with the list you get from your broker and then do some due diligence of your own. Every home inspector – if they are following the law – is licensed, so that won’t make anyone stand out. If you want to check you can go to the Department of Licensing web site – https://fortress.wa.gov/dol/bpdlicensequery/ – and check the status of their license.
Don’t forget to check with your friends. You may know someone who purchased a home recently… reach out and ask about their experience.
I always recommend you work with a home inspector who is also licensed as a Structural Pest Inspector. That is a separate license issued by the Department of Agriculture that allows licensees to find and report on the presence of wood rot fungus, subterranean termites, dampwood termites, carpenter ants, moisture ants, and Anobiid beetles… and the conditions that can lead to any of these. Many home inspectors carry both licenses, but there are also many that do not. If you have someone crawling underneath your potential new home doing an inspection, it makes no sense to me to hire someone who is not trained to identify the signs of problems that could be significant.
Inspectors are in the business of communication. We certainly spend a lot of time gathering data, but the important part of the inspection is helping the client understand what we have found, along with its relative significance. Inspectors work with some issues that are quite technical and you want to work with someone who will describe the issues in a manner that makes them understandable to a lay person without dumbing them down. So… I suggest you spend some time on inspector’s web sites. Every inspector worth working with has a web site, and most of those web sites have sample reports. Spend time looking at those reports. There is no standardized reporting structure… inspectors use a wide variety of reporting software with wildly different approaches to the organization of information. Some reports use a lot of photos with captions in the applicable sections, and some present all photos at the end. Some reports take a more ‘systems’ approach and others take a more ‘rooms’ approach. And frankly, some inspectors are good writers and some are not. Everyone takes in information differently and a report that works for you might confuse others, and vice versa. Find a report that you find imparts information to you in a manner you find understandable, and that inspector might be a good pick for you.
If an inspector you are considering advertises the use of specialized tools – Infrared cameras for example – find out if they are licensed to use them. Infrared cameras can, in the right circumstances, provide important information. In the hands of someone untrained, infrared cameras can confuse and deceive. Level One certification in Infrared Thermography typically takes a week in class and costs a few thousand dollars, but I know of one inspector in town who uses an infrared camera with no training at all.
All home inspectors are required to get continuing education credits. There are two primary approaches for this… in person seminars and on-line training. In my experience, the quality of training received at in-person seminars is vastly superior to anything received on-line. The opportunity to argue a point with a national expert in a room full of inspectors is invaluable (I like to say that if you put 100 inspectors in a room you are guaranteed to get at least 110 opinions!). Just sitting with a table of other inspectors talking informally over lunch is beneficial. On-line training is certainly easier and probably less expensive, but those are not defining characteristics of someone who takes their trade seriously. So ask the inspectors you are talking with how they get their continuing education. They won’t expect the answer and you might learn a lot.
Finally, I would encourage you to consider the associations the inspectors you are considering belong to. I would argue that belonging to a national organization is a sign of someone who is serious, and while there are at least two organizations out there, we have chosen to belong to ASHI (American Society of Home Inspectors). They are the organization likely to be contacted if a member of Congress or The New York Times or National Public Radio has a question about home inspection. The highest level of membership in ASHI is to be an ASHI Certified Inspector, and the last time I checked there were 10 of us within a 25-mile radius of Olympia and still only 13 if you bump the radius out to 50 miles (Thurston County has about 75 licensed inspectors.) If you want to make your decision easy, go to https://www.homeinspector.org/ and use their Find An Inspector tool. Plug in a zip code anywhere in the country and pick an ASHI certified inspector.
I still recommend you make certain they have a Structural Pest Inspection license, are trained in any specialized tools they use, and that their reports speak to you… but the ASHI search function is a great way to start.