Be a Good Customer

After 12-plus years in the home-inspection business, with thousands of excellent customers and a few memorably wacky ones, I figure I'm ready to lay down some customer guidelines. Here goes:

Do be late We ask customers to show up about an hour after we do. Just about all of our customers are home buyers, and they're rightfully nervous. They've got questions, and they want 'em answered quick. But we can't tell somebody if their furnace is shot before we're all the way out of the car. We need a little time.

The hour gives us a chance to look at the house undistracted, and to pay closer attention to any odd things we run across. It also gives us time to anticipate questions and think through the answers-we don't want to run off at the mouth like Alexander Haig after the Reagan shooting.

Don't follow the home inspector Probably three-quarters of the home inspectors in the world disagree with me on this one. That's because most home inspectors do their inspecting, talking, and report-writing all at the same time. Since no sane businessperson ignores his customer, the talking part gets the high priority. The final product, which is the written report, usually gets the low priority. (More on this later.)

We tell our customers that the inspection has two parts: The looking part, followed by the talking part. It's a lot like a general physical. The doctor looks you over, then calls you into the office to talk. That's how we run our jobs. After we've seen the whole house and all of its parts, we mull over what we know, then we call the customers in for a round of Q&A.

Do bring a tape measure A lot of our customers measure rooms, windows, and doors while we're doing the inspection. That way, they're thinking about decorating while we're thinking about roofs, wires, and furnaces. It's a good division of labor, because co-inspector Rick and I are literally the last people on earth you'd want to call in on a decorating consult. All we know is that every house we've ever seen will hold the required fridge, TV, and sofa.

Don't bring a flashlight For the most part, flashlight-bringers are trouble. Especially the ones who follow us around and turn on their flashlight every time we turn ours on. Do you know how hard it is to look inside an electrical panel while some guy's standing over your shoulder, dancing the beam from his mini-Mag all over the wires that you're trying to look at? It's enough to give an inspecting boy a seizure. Y'all leave the flashlights at home, or at least keep 'em holstered when you're with the home inspector.

Don't bring an entourage Remember, your home inspectors need to work undistracted. That means don't bring any kids who couldn't sit stock still through a two-hour sermon on the evils of mixed bathing. We've had busy toddlers try to follow us up into attics and down into basements-and look for things they could stick into electrical outlets, just like we do.

Don't bring folks who'll whine about the cold when we turn on the air conditioner and fuss about the heat when we turn on the furnace. We've had people turn off heat-and-air systems in the middle of a test, making us think the unit was busted. We've also had frugal fanatics follow us and turn off lights as soon as one of us walks out of a room. (One of our habits is to turn off the lights only after we've finished checking everything in a room. Turning lights off could make us miss something.)

Do get a narrative report At the end of a home inspection, you get a report-that's the product. There are two kinds of reports: checklist and narrative. Checklists are thick, prewritten, canned things that, frankly, take the "baffle-'em-with-bullshit" approach. And they're so dumbed down, they make USA Today look like the writings of Steven Hawking. One home-inspecting franchise's checklist has three icons for each department (roof, electrical, etc.): a smiling house, a frowning house, and one with a straight expression.

I say get a plain-English, complete-sentences narrative report, and don't settle for any home inspector who can't write one.