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Home Inspection in the Spot Light
Newspaper and Media Articles on Home Inspection

Finding right home inspector may save buyers and sellers a lot of headaches

By Jack Brandais
The San Diego Union Tribune
March 16, 2003

On a routine inspection of a San Diego home, Mitch Sudy was finishing up work as he did many times – on his hands and knees, looking for problems in the crawl space under the house.

Then he met up with some unexpected residents.

"You're crawling along, and all of a sudden you go around a corner and see two red eyes looking at you," said Sudy, a former home inspector who now runs a training center in Oceanside for those wanting to get into the growing field.

Mitch Sudy (left), manager of the Kaplan Professional Schools School in Oceanside, goes over electrical connections with Wayne Smith of El Cajon (center) and Clay Powers of La Jolla. Roni Galgano / Union-Tribune

"Surprise ... there are raccoons living in the crawl space," he said. "It was a fine house and things were going normally, and all of a sudden you run into a family of raccoons."

Sudy slowly backed out of the tight quarters, dryly noting on his inspection report the unexpected residents and that he was unable to complete the crawl-space examination because of the "obstruction."

Not typical, according to Sudy, but just another reason for buyers to have a home inspected by a professional before signing on that dotted line.

With little regulation, the home inspection business in California has been the target for calls to set standards on training, or certification.

It's clear that buyers can benefit from an inspection of a prospective new home before a purchase, but the process still can be confusing and full of problems that can wreck a deal.

And not only buyers are hiring inspectors. A growing number of home sellers are ordering inspections before putting their houses on the market in order to avoid last-minute surprises.

At its best, a home inspection can alert a buyer or seller to potential structural, electrical or plumbing problems.

They also can learn where the gas shutoff and circuit breakers are located, the life expectancy of key systems such as the roof and furnace, and the difference between a serious crack and something that's just cosmetic.

An inspection report also may be what is needed for buyers to get the seller to fix a serious problem before the sale or to reduce the price to cover the cost of a repair.

But at its worst, an incomplete or poor inspection can leave a home buyer with a false sense of security from what is seen as a clean bill of health. Also, consumers can be left sorting through confusing statements such as "not up to code" or handed an inspection report that notes numerous problems that are strictly cosmetic.

With about 1,500 home inspectors in California, the industry remains one that attracts mostly self-employed businessmen who are guided by limited state regulation. Training standards are set by professional organizations, and not the state. A contractors' license is not required to become an inspector.

Under the regulations, contained in the state's Business and Professions Code, inspectors and their companies are not allowed to fix problems they discover and they are barred from inspecting a home they've worked on in the previous year.

In case of a dispute, customers who retain an inspector are given up to four years to file any legal action regarding their inspection.

According to state figures, buyers of more than 82 percent of resale homes request a home inspection. And in some cases, mortgage lenders require borrowers to have inspections performed.

"This is really another situation where you have to do your homework," said state Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont), who is sponsoring a bill to increase regulation of the industry in California.

"There are hundreds of 'certified' home inspectors listed in the phone book, but really, in California, there is no certification," she said.

For example, Figueroa cites a Sacramento-area inspector who had his dog "certified" by paying a fee to an Internet-based company.

"His golden retriever became a certified inspector for $200," she said. "For $200 more, he received a certificate saying the dog was a certified construction inspector."

Although inspectors in 19 states, including Arizona and Nevada, are required to be licensed, Figueroa said her legislation does not seek a similar standard in California.

Under Figueroa's bill, inspectors who advertise themselves as certified would have to meet a minimum education and experience requirement, carry liability insurance and show proof of who has certified them.

Inspectors would also have to take an an exam administered by a professional association. The two private groups mentioned by Figueroa are the California Real Estate Inspection Association (CREIA) and American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), both established in 1976.

Hearings are scheduled March 24 on Figueroa's bill before the state Senate's Business and Professions committee.

San Diego inspector Dennis Parra II, a member of CREIA's Bylaws Committee and the organization's former secretary, says that although some in the real estate industry favor licensing, there aren't enough home inspectors to support through fees a statewide licensing program.

Licensing fees per inspector would have to exceed $2,000 a year, he said. Parra maintained that self-regulation through professional organizations is the best way to assure that inspectors are competent and ethical.

"Testing would bring the level of professionalism up and the ongoing educational requirements would make sure that we keep up on any new codes," he said.

When there's a dispute, litigation between home buyers and inspectors can end up before Douglas Glass, a local mediator who specializes in construction issues. A one-time general counsel to the California Real Estate Inspection Association, Glass said conflicts can range from problems missed by the inspector to issues based on new homeowners' unreasonable expectations.

"A home inspection is merely a snapshot of the condition of the house that day," said Glass. "It's not to determine if the purchase price is right," or that the inspector endorses the deal.

A properly conducted home inspection should include an examination of the structural components – frame, roof, foundation – as well as plumbing, heating, air conditioning and other basic systems.

State law requires the seller and real estate agent to disclose any known defects, but they may not be aware of hidden problems, especially on older homes.

Sudy, who now manages the Oceanside campus of Kaplan Professional Schools, a school for home inspectors with locations nationwide, has run into a variety of "surprises" over the years, including electric extension cords spliced into household wiring and structural supports removed by previous owners. He said the owners of the home with the raccoon family had "heard some scratching," but otherwise had no idea the four-legged tenants had taken up residence.

Finding the best set of eyes to investigate a house requires some homework. Figueroa, Glass and Sudy recommend starting with Web sites operated by CREIA (www.creia.com) and ASHI (www.ashi.com).

The extensive sites include tips for consumers, inspector standards and practices and lists of members. To become members, inspectors pass a test, meet continuing education requirements, and follow the standards of practice and code of ethics.

Many buyers receive lists of home inspectors from their real estate agent or loan officer. In these cases, buyers are advised to ask what connection, such as referral fees, there may be between the inspector and the agent or mortgage firm.

Most inspections take at least three hours for an average-sized house. Costs begin at $250 to $350, depending on the home's size.

Kevin O'Malley, president of Kaplan Professional Schools, advises his students to educate the buyer on the home's emergency systems, such how to shut off the electricity, water and gas, and how to service smoke detectors. "This is a valuable service if it is done right," said O'Malley.

The inspectors can also advise the buyer on what type of ongoing maintenance is needed.

Complete access to the house is critical, as an inspector can't inspect what he can't see, said Glass.

"If the seller refuses to make an area accessible," he said, "as a buyer, I would have great concern."

Once the inspection is complete, the inspector will submit a report to the buyer, outlining what he saw.

"Safety issues are always in the forefront," said Sudy.

This can include recommending installation of ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) outlets in bathrooms (for shock protection) and narrowing balustrades on balconies and stairways (to protect children).

These items are now required by building codes, but weren't mandated when older homes were constructed. For older construction, the codes are "grandfathered," so an unaltered home built in 1967 would legally be considered in compliance today.

Code changes over the years reflect improvements in safety and technology. An inspector's recommendation that GFCI protection be installed on outlets near sinks is a low-cost safety upgrade.

Similarly, an older home might have balcony balustrades spaced far enough apart for a child to slide through, which was allowed under the code at the time of construction. Newer codes have narrowed the width, but there's no requirement that older railings be upgraded.

A home inspector should have such a safety hazard on his or her report, then leave it up to the buyer to decide if it's an acceptable risk, said Sudy.

On a new home, the inspector can check for quality control items and help buyers get the most out of their warranty.

Finally, the buyer should thoroughly review and understand the report, as well as compare it with the disclosures made by the seller.

"If there are discrepancies between the disclosure and the inspector's report, that's a red flag," said Glass. He recently mediated a case where the inspector had said the home was connected to the local sewer, while the disclosure stated the home was on a septic system.

"It's important that you check to see who's right and who's wrong," he said. After buying the home, keep the inspection in your files, in case any problems crop up later.

"The services offered by the home inspector are really underpriced," Glass believes. "It's a way the buyer can gain some comfort in knowing the condition of the property."

Inspection how-tos - Tips on hiring an inspector

  • Check with at least three inspectors before making your decision.
  • Inquire if the inspector is a member of either the California Real Estate Inspection Association or the American Society of Home Inspectors.
  • Ask prospective inspectors how they were trained, how long they have performed inspections and how many inspections they have completed.
  • Request a sample home-inspection report.
  • Request and check references.
  • Ascertain an inspector's knowledge of your community and if she or he is familiar with homes similar to yours in the neighborhood.
  • Determine how much time your inspection will take and if the inspector has allotted time to discuss the report with you when it is completed.
  • Don't assume that a background in construction trades, engineering or other building fields substitutes for training as a home inspector.

On the day of the inspection:

  • Be there when the inspection is performed.
  • Accompany the inspector during the inspection as much as possible.
  • Make sure the inspector has access to the entire home.
  • Ask questions during the inspection.

After receiving the report:

  • Make sure you understand what is written in the report.
  • Compare the inspection report to the seller's and real estate agent's disclosure statements.
  • Differentiate whether problems listed are material defects or cosmetic issues.
  • Ask questions of the inspector.
  • If an inspector offers to repair any problems that are discovered, it is a violation of state law.

SOURCE: California Real Estate Inspection Association, American Society of Home Inspectors, interviews.

Jack Brandais is a San Diego-based freelance writer. E-mail him at [email protected].

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


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