Construction Secrets: The Problem with Home Inspections

Home inspections aren’t worth the paper their written on. Post over, you can go pet your cat now. Well not really, nothing’s really that simple. I’ve had it happen to me, friends and family have had it happen to them and well you might have even had it happen to you. You get a home inspection, you pay for it, your bank requires it and then boom there are all sorts of things that ‘should’ have come up on the inspection but didn’t. Why is that such a universal experience and then why do we even do them? You’re probably thinking because they’re non-invasive right? Well it’s not that simple. Although it is a big part of it. Check out “Holmes Inspection” on youtube. Who’s fault is it? Why do we REALLY do home inspections? Is there an alternative? For pictures on this one I struggled okay so take it easy!

What is a home inspection: the reality

It’s sold to you as a protection for you right so that you know what you’re buying. It’s supposed to be a third party opinion of the property, which I think it generally is. It’s also something your agent is pushing when you might be starting to get super nervous. If you’re financing the house, who isn’t? It’s something your lender will insist on. Most people view a home inspection as a process that will uncover hidden problems. But it’s not is it? Your inspector will take some time maybe even a lot and poke through everything they can and present you with a report in an incredibly timely fashion. But home inspections can not be and are not invasive. Which means that if something isn’t in plain sight then it can’t be in the report. So things like new roofs and re-decking show up a lot but structural things, plumbing and electrical generally do not. I think everyone knows that roofs and decks need to be done eventually and they’re not all that expensive and pretty fun projects to actually do. Open circuits in walls, poor drainage and sags due to structural issues are not fun and not cheap! Here’s the thing I don’t think there are any bad actors in the process but I still think it’s a bad process.

Who’s fault is it?

A home inspection is a step in the legal process of buying a house. So people along the way are bound by that process, mostly the inspector. I think this limits the usefulness of the inspection overall. Let’s look at everyone’s role in the process then. In a hot market, like really hot, you may forego an inspection or not be able to bargain based on the results. Of course you can always walk away but if you find yourself in this situation and nervous you might not be as sunk as you think. It turns out they might not be that helpful anyway. Plus you still have an option so read on!

This problem didn’t show up until the kitchen ceiling started leaking. This was definitely done wrong and a ticking time bomb. But unless the inspector stepped right there and it was currently wet no one could expect him to know. Plus there are some other causes for concern here but they aren’t technically wrong.

The inspector

This poor guy or gal? Really their hands are tied even if they have the knowledge they might not be able to share. In lots of jurisdictions anyone at all can decide to start a business as a home inspector with literally no training. Other places getting a certification just requires a weekend course. Look into what is required to be a home inspector in your area and ask yours about their relevant experience. It never hurts. It’s not a terrible to do all this interviewing an inspector early in the process of looking at houses so you have time. Lots of them are doing it as a second career after a long life as a contractor which is great but… 

Me working under a building in Peggy’s Cove in the winter.

A home inspector’s hands are tied in two ways. First they can’t do anything invasive which means no damage. They can’t poke, prod or even remove a piece of trim and dap it back up to see what’s hidden. But I think you get that already. Now on to the real issue. The reason so many people are left saying “why didn’t the inspector catch that?” I think that unless they can PROVE that something is an issue they can’t put it in the report. So they might say to themselves “that looks sketchy” or “something looks covered up there” but they can’t tell you about their suspicions. They can and some do use all sorts of cool technology but it can be fooled. Maybe ask about what sorts of gadgets they use. But … leaky siding can’t be found with a moisture meter when everything is frozen. Insufficient insulation? Sell it when the outside temperature is about 20 c and the infrared can’t find it. Unless they can take a picture and prove it they can’t tell you about it.

The agent

So you’ve put in an offer and it’s been accepted, yeah you! Now you have a week to meet ALL your conditions including your inspection. Things start going fast and the world can seem like it’s spinning. Hot tip, I asked for an extra three days to meet my conditions because it was just me and the easter holiday was in that week. The agent might sense that they are possibly about to lose the sale because of it. Enter the home inspection the agent may very well oversell the inspection to reassure you. They’ll tell you things inspections have caught, that your guy is really good and that you can still back out… Here’s the thing I want to put this delicately, real estate agents can be ummm interesting characters to say the least. But why wouldn’t they be if they don’t sell they don’t eat. I would get a recommendation for an inspector from a friend over my agent. They have skin in the game after all. One disturbing trend I’ve noticed around here in our always healthy but not super hot market it that some homes are listed as pre-inspected. I’d be careful about that! It really does take away the third party status of the inspector and there are so many ways to add levels of deception to the process. At the very least I would insist on my own inspection.

The bank

So I am not a flat-earther, birther or illuminati believer. Actually I just had to google common conspiracy theories for that last sentence but I might have one of my own… Why do banks insist on home inspections then? If you want to do it without one, even if you plan on gutting the place you have to get a home inspection or no loan for you? I think it’s to limit the bank’s liability in some way most likely with the appraisal they might do. Since I had more than 20% down the bank could do something they called an ‘at desk appraisal’. Basically they plug the address and price into a computer and pop – yes that condo is worth what you want to buy it for? What? You’re joking right? Should it come out that there is water damage, mould, termites and a recent as of yet uncleaned murder scene in the property the bank can say, “Well… not our problem, you hired the inspector and he really should have caught that!” That is what I think the bank’s role in a home inspection is. Case in point if you want a home improvement loan you need two in person appraisals one before and one after!

This looks weird to an inspector. We built a sturdy frame for an outside the house bay window. It’s designed to cut the wind and the rain on the lower deck so it can be enjoyed in all weather. Even though it’s in a windy spot it’s good, we planned for that.

The buyer/seller

Let’s start with you because that’s the only person you can control in this process. When I view a property (for the first time) with a decent amount of knowledge that I might want to live in, I don’t see the issues, I see where the couch will go. Just like everyone else. I even think honey falls into that trap a bit. Where we do well and you can too is to go view it fall in love, then go away and have that HOLY $HIT that’s a lot of money moment. Then… go back and you’re ready to see the problems. Also bring a particular person with you but I’m going to make you read to the end for that!

The seller can do some shady stuff to hide issues from an inspector and there’s nothing you can do about it. They can bin and paint a moldy wall which will hold for a few weeks at least. They can shim a floor or ceiling to hide a sag or side over a truly rotten wall. They can list at a specific time of year to hide issues. The list is endless and there’s not much you can do about it. Maybe, just maybe bake a couple of pies, and go chat with the neighbors one evening. If they won’t tell you about the house, give them a pie and ask them who the nosey neighbor is. It can’t hurt right?

Even if we would never ever do a roof this way, especially one this high, it meets minimum code. So an inspector has to say it’s fine. And yes it did leak.

Is there an alternative

In a word no but there is a work around. When you visit a home you’re by yourself except for the agent right? Well you don’t have to be! Take an experienced and trusted contractor with you the second time. They have the ability to clue you in on the sketchy meter where the home inspector doesn’t. Tell them that you are there to try to find reasons not to buy the house and you want to hear everything. Make that really clear. It’s not as good but you could ask them to tag along to the home inspection and do their thing at the same time. Here’s the thing at that point you can’t go back in time and take back the offer and what they say isn’t an official part of the process. If your contractor finds something and the inspector does not you could still be compelled to buy. You can usually back away if anything is found at this point so you could blow a heaved patio stone way out of proportion but … If the owner agrees to fix all the issues on the report, you once again may be compelled to buy it. Not a lawyer but I understand that case law tends to not make people buy houses they don’t want anymore in the end, but you may end up giving your down payment to lawyers if you do back out.

So what if you don’t have a trusted contractor? Well, ask a friend or family member to make an introduction. If that isn’t an option start cold calling people. Do so on a particularly charming day because this isn’t something your average contractor does. Repeating all the good things you’ve heard about them is a good place to start. They are busy people so you might not find one that has the time for more than a phone call. Offer to pay them very, very well for their time, there and back too. We’d probably do it for a person a customer recommended and maybe for a cold call too. It’s the right thing to do, an easy buck and there is a chance you’ll call us later if you need to. If we’re swamped though maybe not. Failing that what about an employee of a construction company? But the more experience the better.

Not my most cheery post but I think it’s something you deserve to know if you’re spending cash that can be measured in fractions of millions. As you can tell the problem is often a lot more complicated than the quality of the inspector. What’s your biggest home inspection horror story?

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