Dirty Little Secrets

If you're about to buy a house, you'll probably be hiring a home inspector to look at the place. Before you do that, there's something you need to know about the home inspection business: It's not all on the up and up.

Seeing as how I'm in the home inspection business, it pains me to say such a thing. But heck, you future homeowners need to know this stuff, and I figure I'm just the man to explain it to you.

Here's the skinny: If you're a home inspector, you have to get your customers from somewhere. For the last 25 years or so, the preferred method has been to go to real estate sales offices, and convince the folks who sell houses that you're the guy they ought to call whenever one of their clients needs a home inspection.

Understand, there's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of marketing. A home inspector can go to a real estate office, and market himself as the hardest-working man in the inspection business, a man who'll bust his hump hunting down defects and potential problems, and making sure the homebuyers understand them. Realtors who are serious about disclosing defects will prefer this approach.

On the other hand, a home inspector can market himself as a salesperson's "partner," a man who'll work hard to be "objective" and "fair to the house." He will promise to be a "non-alarmist." In the home inspection business, those are a few of the marketing buzzwords that constitute a wink and a nod, a veiled way of saying that an inspector will protect the deal, and make sure all the folks who are counting on getting checks on closing day won't be disappointed. Realtors who put closing deals ahead of disclosure will prefer this approach.

As an example of how the latter approach works, let me direct your attention to Herner vs. HouseMaster, et al., which was tried in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division. There's a court report on the case here: http://lawlibrary.rutgers.edu/courts/appellate/a6252-99.opn.html

Just so you'll know: HouseMaster is one of the big home inspection franchises. You can read all about them at www.housemaster.com From everything I know, HouseMaster's marketing, inspecting, and reporting practices are close to the norm in the home inspection business.

The Herner case turned up this little tidbit, from HouseMaster's Inspector Guidelines Manual: "We all must be committed to our marketing program. As the inspector, you are actually the most important salesperson on our team."

Then there's this: "Don't dwell on negative aspects of the house. We promote the fact that an inspection should be an impartial evaluation."

And a little more: "We also stress that HouseMaster inspectors are very fair in their evaluation and non-alarmists.

"If you appear surprised or give off negative mannerisms, the buyer will pick it up.

"A common agent complaint is that inspectors 'nit-pick.'"

Well, don't you know, the court saw through all this chicanery, and dropped the hammer on HouseMaster. Here's a little something from the court report: "What the Herners did not want was an inspection whose undisclosed and predominant purpose was to market HouseMaster. The record establishes that the realtor is HouseMaster's customer in fact. Eighty percent of its business comes from realtors."

And a little more: "In this case, HouseMaster's system of home inspection resulted in a report to the Herners which was so 'balanced' as to render it pablum and worthless."

Friends and neighbors, I'm ashamed to tell you that a fair number of home inspectors feed pablum to their customers every day. Just a few weeks back, co-inspector Rick and I looked over an 11-month-old house, which had defects and code violations that would cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix. Before the homeowner bought the house, he got an inspection. What did his inspection report say? It said, "Well-built house." Well-built, my ass. The place was a nightmare, and any home inspector worthy of toting a flashlight would've known it, and should've reported it.

About once a week, I'll have the opportunity to read a pablum report. One described a house at the bottom of a hill so steep that water literally ran through the house whenever there was a hard rain. The inspection report called the slope of the lot, "moderate."

So, what's a smart homebuyer to do? Here's what smartypants lawyer-and construction defect specialist-Jean Harrison says: "Before you hire a home inspector, ask him what percentage of his business comes from word-of-mouth, and what percentage comes from realtors. The higher the percentage of word-of-mouth referrals, the greater the likelihood that the inspector will perceive himself as working for the homebuyer, rather than the realtor." She adds, "I would also ask the inspector directly: 'Do you consider me, or the realtor, to be your client?'"

I say don't hire any home inspector until you've read a report that he actually wrote. Those pablum reports are obvious. You'll know them when you read them. Whatever you do, don't hire anybody who writes them. Those people have turned to the dark side, and there's no bringing them back.