Home inspections have been around for a few decades now, but are still not well understood by many homebuyers and homeowners. That’s partly the fault of the profession. Home inspections are diverse, and although there is some standardization, there are lots of different approaches to both the inspection process and the inspection report.
PURPOSE OF A REPORT
Most home inspectors provide a written report after the inspection is completed. The majority of professional associations require that the inspector do this. The reason is simple; most homebuyers won’t remember all of the information that a home inspector discovers and shares during the inspection.
The purpose of the report is to help a prospective buyer make an informed decision about the house they are interested in. A good report will document the current condition, and identify any impending repairs. Most home inspection reports also include a description of the house components, which can be useful in making decisions about home improvements.
We think a good home inspection report should help you set priorities for the various home improvements recommended. Some home improvements are discretionary and can be done at any time. Upgrading the amount of insulation in the attic would be an example, whereas other improvements may be more urgent. Replacing a worn out roof should be done soon. Safety issues, including damaged or exposed electrical wiring are also high priority. A good inspection report should identify these priorities for you.
The implications of problems are not always clear to homeowners. Good reports explain what the problem means. For example, when an inspector indicates that an electrical receptacle has reversed polarity, or a furnace has a cracked heat exchanger, most homeowners would not understand what that means. Therefore, a good report should explain the implications to the home buyer.
Home inspection is a technical process. However, we believe the inspection report should be written in terms that a typical homeowner can understand. Technical jargon may make the home inspectors feel clever, but confuses many homeowners.
Lots of home inspection reports include photographs of the home. These can provide reinforcement and clarity to conditions identified in the report. They also provide a visual break for the reader in the report. We consider photos to be optional, because if they are overused or used indiscriminately, they can distract the reader and clutter the report.
While simple language is good, it’s not enough. We surveyed our clients and most told us they did not want to read long paragraphs or narrative reports. They found it hard to stay oriented and separate the general description items from serious problem descriptions, which are often intermingled with sentences that limit the scope of the inspection and protect the inspector.
Good reports are clear, simple and well organized. We believe that the reader should be kept oriented with headings so they always know the topic and the context. Reading a home inspection report should not be a challenging intellectual exercise.
Reports should be free of filler; material inserted to sound authoritative that does not actually help the client. With modern technology, it is too easy to add generic, but only marginally relevant, information to create the illusion of value. In our experience, clients want lots of information, but only what is relevant.
We have found that our clients actually have three different needs at different stages of homeownership. As a result, we believe home inspections should be written in three layers. Let us explain.
ONCE YOU MOVE IN
After you move into the home, your needs are a little different. The report includes not only the major issues, but also several less important issues. For example, the report may say you should repair the mortar in the chimney and repair the leaking downspout.
The body of the report should set out all of these issues clearly, with relative priorities.
THE BIG PICTURE BEFORE YOU BUY
When you have not yet decided on the home that you are looking at, you want to see the big picture. You are trying to make a ‘buy or don’t buy’ decision. You need to understand how the house stacks up against its peers, and what challenges you will face when you move in.
An executive summary of the significant issues in the home is useful at this stage. A good summary is short and sweet, addressing only the significant items. Things like a cracked pane of glass, a sticking door or a cracked electrical switch plate, would not change most people’s minds about buying a house that is otherwise right for them. On the other hand, replacing the roof, upgrading the plumbing or electrical system, or even rebuilding a failing foundation, may affect someone’s buying decision.
A third level
Sometimes you need more detail. For example, your home inspection report may recommend a repair to the valley flashings, but you don’t know what a valley flashing is. A good report will include reference material to help you understand all the components of your house. A combination of text and illustrations is a great way to get the information you need, in the depth you need, when you need it.
Therefore, the three levels of a report are
1. The executive summary,
2. The body, and
3. The reference material.
Home inspection reports often tell you all the things that are wrong with your house, and give you some direction as to what you should do with them. But lots of reports fall short by not giving you some indication as to the cost that you may incur to correct these issues.
You may be in a negotiation process and do not have time to research costs. Further, because the house is not yours, it is difficult to get contractors in to give you quotes on home improvements, even if you do have competent, reliable contractors standing in the wings.
We believe a home inspection report should include ballpark costs because if a report says you need to replace the roof, you may not know if this will cost $1,000 or $20,000. Without costs, reports may create more questions than answers.
In our opinion, an order of magnitude for these costs is important, so you can make an informed decision
The home inspection report can be intimidating, and if poorly written, may scare people away from a perfectly good home. A good report should lend perspective to the issues. For example, if you are looking at a home in a 15-year-old neighborhood, most of the roofs will be close to the end of their life. This is not a defect in the home that you are looking at, but it is a fact of life. Roof coverings are disposable components and they last between 14 and 18 years, typically.
If written well, inspection reports should help the prospective buyer compare homes of a similar age and type. This allows buyers to make an educated decision.
In closing, we believe a good quality home inspection report should;
Be quick and easy to read with lots of headings
Include implications for defects
Be written in layers
Provide perspective for homebuyers.
Line drawings are from the Carson Dunlop Home Inspection Training Program and Home Inspection Software Tool – Horizon