Going to the dogs

A few weeks ago, in my column about household mold, I confessed that my humble home inspection profession was fairly well infested with shysters, backsliding reprobates, and ne'er-do-wells. Well, as it turns out, the inspection business has got some dogs too. Understand, I'm not calling these people dogs. I'm telling you that the home inspection business has some real-enough, sneaker-shredding, chicken-chasing dogs.

As best I can tell, the first dog entered the profession quite a while back, when New York home inspector Dan Friedman got his dog certified through the mail. Friedman's idea was to show just how easy it was to get certified by a home-inspector diploma mill. Friedman's prank inspired my California buddy, Larry Hoytt, to sign his dog up. So Hoytt got his Irish setter, Daisy I. Setter, certified by the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI). It cost him 50 bucks and the price of a stamp. Hoytt says Daisy accompanied him on many inspections, and she was not the worst home inspector he ever saw. Unlike some, she at least got out of the truck and sniffed around a little bit.

In fairness, I must admit that those two dogs were certified a long time ago. I think NAHI has wised up, and they probably wouldn't certify a dog these days. Even so, I suspect that there will always be some organization who'll take in a dog. A little over a year ago, Californian Dennis Lorette got his girl dog, L. Eleanor Lorette, certified by the Housing Inspection Foundation (HIF), an outfit based in Minnesota.

I've got a copy of Eleanor's certificate right here on my desk. It says that she's a Registered Home Inspector, and it's signed by the director of HIF. Apparently, all Eleanor needed to make the cut was 50 inspections (about five weeks' full-time experience) and $185. For a motivated dog with a little disposable income, that's doable.

In its higher forms, home inspection work requires a headful of general building-science knowledge, good investigation skills, and the ability to explain things simply in a written report. That's not what the majority of home inspectors do. I think my inspecting brethren would agree that most of our peers stick to the basic requirements-looking at the house, then filling out a checklist-style report.

A good dog could handle the looking part. Dogs can climb ladders and walk around in attics without breaking through the ceiling. Unlike human home inspectors, dogs just can't wait to get into a nasty crawl space. And when it comes to finding termites, dogs outperform humans every time.

It's the reporting part that keeps dogs from really breaking into this business big-time. As a rule, dogs make sorry reporters. But that could be changing, thanks to modern technology. Japan's third-largest toy maker, Takara Co. Ltd., has developed the Bow-lingual dog-to-human translator. It works like this: The dog wears a collar with a microphone, and you carry a receiver, which displays text messages. When the dog barks, the pager displays one of 200 phrases to tell you what the dog's saying. Phrases include "Yeah, baby!," "I've had enough!," "You're ticking me off!," "This is fun!" and "I'm bored."

Well, don't you know, that fits right in with the home inspection business. There are lots of home-inspection software packages that include canned phrases to describe just about every situation. When a computer-toting inspector sees something noteworthy, he just clicks on a menu, selects the appropriate phrase and it pops right into his report. Surely, Takara could come up with a home inspection module for the Bow-lingual. Armed with 200 home-inspector catchphrases such as "Plumber to repair leak," "Engineer to review," and "Consult qualified specialist," dogs could be doing basic home inspections soon.

As a longtime dog enthusiast and a proponent of high-quality home inspections, I feel a duty to share my experience with any dogs who might be thinking about going into the business:

Don't get in a hurry. Take it one paw at a time. Do your first inspection on your own house, then practice on the houses of friends. That'll keep you focused on roofing, siding, and flooring. Once you've got that mastered, see if you can hook up with some spoiled-rotten rich dogs who have houses with electricity, heating, and cooling. In your travels, crawl up under some porches and decks, and learn what rot and termite damage look like. Use your ears. Sometimes it's easier to hear leaks than it is to see them. When you find a puddle in a crawl space, don't lap it up. That's evidence.

Once you're ready to go into the field, do your best to make a good first impression. Don't roll in anything dead, and don't eat anything stinky on your way to the job. When you get to the job, don't jump on the customers. Wipe your feet good before you go in the house. Most of all, never take a crap on the lawn. That's a career killer.