Make sure that your home inspector is working for you

Every profession has standards that have evolved over time – and its share of “professionals” who are willing to ignore them. In the case of home inspection, a growing and relatively new field, the benchmarks for credentials and ethics still are evolving. Unfortunately, home inspectors aren’t regulated the way attorneys or doctors are (there’s no residency for a home inspector, no bar to study for).

But inspections have become as much a part of buying a home as appraisals, and the consequences of hiring a less than scrupulous inspector can be as long-lasting and costly as the fallout from an incompetent attorney or negligent contractor.

What’s a home buyer to do?

When interviewing home inspectors, there are some simple tenets to keep in mind that can increase the chances you’ll hire a good one.

First and foremost, get someone with experience. Home inspection is all about knowing what trouble looks like and being able to explain a problem that may be technical in plain English. Most buyers looking at pricey property today are well educated but not when it comes to home repair. Get a home inspector who speaks in easily digestible sound bites.

Don’t be afraid to ask for the home inspector’s history and exactly what experience he has in inspection and building. Without five or 10 years in the business, a home inspector may not recognize the oil separator used on old oil tanks or understand the impact of Chlordane termite treatment versus the “bait station” approach used now. Identifying the hazards associated with old equipment and old problems takes an experienced eye.

By the same token, if inspectors aren’t up to date on the latest technologies and construction methods, they may not know everything to look for while inspecting a new home in progress. Are they aware of the latest methods of avoiding sound transfer between condos or potential problems when materials such as Dryvit aren’t used correctly in a new townhouse?

After inexperience, the biggest problem with home inspectors is conflict of interest. This dilemma has been well documented in both local and national media. Although you hire and pay your home inspector, his loyalties may lie somewhere else, most commonly in the offices of real estate agents.

Some home inspectors get a steady stream of referrals from real estate brokers. If there’s a serious or potentially serious problem with a home, they may be reluctant to fully explain or even mention it for fear of wrecking a deal. No deal means no commission for a broker and no more referrals for the inspector.

One customer told me that she interviewed inspectors by baiting them. She would tell the candidates, “I’ve heard your name discussed in professional circles. Which professional real estate agents refer you?” When inspector began listing agents, she would hang up.

A brief read of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) code of ethics points out the need to avoid inspectors “who do not act in good faith toward each client.” It’s also a good idea to ask inspectors, “Do you routinely discuss this report with the sellers’ agents or attorney?” Remember, your inspector should be working for you and keeping information that might affect a transaction confidential.

Conflict of interest may be a problem even if your inspector doesn’t know the real estate agent in question. Many home inspectors will see a new agent as a potential source of referrals and pursue him or her. This could cloud the inspector’s vision during an inspection. Some buyers suggest hiring the guy the agents don’t like.

The ASHI code of ethics prohibits members from accepting or offering commissions or allowances, directly or indirectly, from outside parties in connection with inspections. You can increase your chances of getting someone ethical by using an ASHI inspector, who has taken qualifying tests and pledged to follow the ASHI code of ethics (a list of ASHI members in your area is available by calling 1-800-743-2744, ASHI’s fax-on-demand line).

But even an ethical, qualified home inspector can make an honest mistake, which is why it’s also a good idea to hire someone with an insurance policy.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc. a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work.

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