A few weeks back, my friend Bill Loden, who’s a home inspector down in Huntsville, Ala., told me about a little run-in he had with a Huntsville builder. The story started when a prospective homebuyer called Bill and asked him to inspect a new house. Bill agreed to do the job. So far, so good, because Bill is one of a small subset of home inspectors who is very good at his job, backs up his findings with reputable sources and would dig both his eyes out of his skull with a rusty fork before he’d cheat anybody.
So don’t you know, Bill’s got a reputation. If you’re a Huntsville builder or real estate agent, Bill is a bad home inspector—one of those incorrigible uppity ones who won’t soften up his reports to help the builders and real estate agents move their deals along. He’s one of those technical-minded guys who can cite the building codes and manufacturers’ specifications, and be right every time. Besides all that, Bill’s a perfect gentleman. He’s just more discerning than most home inspectors.
It probably has something to do with his NASA training. “Given my background at NASA,” Bill says, “providing references to the building codes seemed like a natural and logical thing to do when I moved into home inspection. At NASA, I constantly found myself in an adversarial role with the hardware builders who wanted to cut corners. I found out early that if I documented the engineering requirements, I always won the argument. Dealing with a house builder is exactly like dealing with a spacecraft builder. The lowest bidder is always looking for a way to cut corners, shave costs and increase profit. If an inspector doesn’t know the requirements and codes, quality and reliability will suffer. Building houses isn’t rocket science, but it’s just as important to the buyer that the builder gets it right.”
Given Bill’s quality-assurance background, I can see where he might get annoyed when a builder delivers the usual canned speech: “I’ve been building houses this way for 30 years. Every house in the subdivision is built the same way, and all the houses passed their codes inspections.”
Just so you home-buying folk will know: all houses pass their codes inspections. Municipal code inspectors from Maine to California pass out code-compliance inspections like old dogs pass gas. If they didn’t, nobody could move into the houses.
But I digress. You’d think that a builder would be happy to let an experienced home inspector take a look at his spec house—but not this time. The builder told Bill’s customer that he could find another inspector or find another house.
Which brings me to this: if you’re buying a new house, the builder is not your friend. If the Huntsville builder had been the buyer’s friend, he not only would’ve let Bill do the inspection, he would’ve praised the buyer for finding the best home inspector in town.
Your real estate agent might be your friend. Judging from the agents I’ve met here, and conversations I’ve had with home inspectors all over the country, Nashville has more honest—and genuinely friendly—real estate agents than most towns do. Still, if you’re buying a house, remember that every person in the deal is focused on getting you to the closing table.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of real estate agents in Nashville who I’d trust to drive my car, water my plants, feed my dog or even guard a suitcase full of money (if I had one). But folks looking for a house should know that taking a real estate agent’s recommendation for a home inspector will likely get them a raw recruit in Tennessee’s new army of 600-plus home inspectors, many of them under-trained, overworked and essentially working for the real estate agents.
A survey conducted by the American Society of Home Inspectors showed that 68 percent of all home inspection business is the result of a referral from a real estate agent. Simply put, two-thirds of home inspectors risk their businesses every day if they don’t live up to the referring agents’ expectations. And since real estate agents are salesfolk, not building-science scholars, their main measure of a home inspector isn’t how much he knows about house but how much he helps them close deals.
In the home inspection business, there’s this little homily, which has been around for a long time. From a real estate agent’s point of view, there are three types of home inspectors:
The inspectors they recommend when they’re acting as the seller’s agent. These are the undereducated, cheap and compliant home inspectors. They comprise 100 percent of the 68 percent who ignore their customers’ interests, and live or die by their ability to help agents sell houses.
The inspectors they recommend when they’re acting as the buyer’s agent. Truth be told, they’re pretty much the same as the 68 percent described above.
The inspectors they recommend to their relatives. They likely comprise less than 5 percent of the home inspectors in any given area. These are the inspectors you want. They’re the ones agents never recommend, except when a friend or relative is buying a house, or they’re buying a house themselves.
When it comes to house-buying time, you want the home inspector that all the builders—and almost all of the real estate agents—hate. He’ll be the most expensive guy in town—and worth every penny.