Editor’s Note: The following is a (brief) excerpt from the story Successful Report Writing by expert Alan Carson. (Find answers to these questions and others: What are you trying to accomplish with the report?; What do clients want?; Format: electronic or paper?; Should you purchase vs. create your reports?; How to build a knowledge base?; How much information is enough?; Should you include a summary?; Onsite reporting; Using your report to limit liability; Using your Report as a marketing tool; What should a report cost? Plus Survey results about what clients say they prefer in style, formatting and approach.)
Top 10 Report Writing Tips
By Alan Carson, Carson Dunlop
Home inspection reports are a necessary evil that are not going away any time soon. The goal is to find a way to write reports quickly that will delight customers while protecting yourself. The better the system, the more easily you will be able to meet this goal.
After 27 years’ experience, asking many customers and home inspectors and after making most of the mistakes possible, we have finally found a reporting solution that allows us to achieve all of these goals.
Regardless of what reporting tool you use, here are some key suggestions to help make your reports effective for clients and protective for you.
1. Don’t use technical jargon without an explanation or illustration. Header, joist, truss, swale, conductor, heat exchanger and polarity are all examples of words that without further description mean very little to most people.
2. We recommend against using Satisfactory, Acceptable, Adequate, Functional, etc. In many situations, you won’t know whether is something is satisfactory under all conditions. (And most errors and omissions insurance experts hate those terms, since they cause problems for inspectors and their insurers.) Many defects only show up under certain scenarios. Bathtub enclosures may not leak until someone stands in the shower, deflecting water against the walls. It’s better to remain silent where no defects are noted or if you are compelled to comment on every item you inspect, say something like, “No defects were observed during the inspection.”
3. Don’t guess. If you don’t know, find out, find someone who knows or recommend that the client find out.
4. Don’t leap to conclusions. Report what you see and if you are going to speculate about the cause or effect, say so. “We noted extensive water damage at the eaves and exterior siding. While it could not be verified, there may be concealed damage to the underlying structure.”
5. Be definitive if you know and clear about why you can’t be definitive when needed. “We could not determine whether there is damage behind the wall because there is no access to this area.” Use the words possible and suspected sparingly.
6. Set a limit as to how often you recommend further evaluation by a specialist in a report. If you use it on 50 percent of the issues you identify, readers will see a pattern and may question your competence.
7. Use industry standards to set your scope of work. Instead of writing, “We don’t test the alarm system,” write: “A professional home inspection does not include a test of the alarm system.”
8. Record job-specific limitations factually and clearly in a separate section of the report. Don’t mix limitations, defects, descriptions and maintenance tips together.
9. Be consistent. Don’t go into great depth on a single topic just because you know more about it. Clients and judges won’t understand why you didn’t go to the same depth on every area of the home.
10. Check your spelling. Clients may assume that if your English is sloppy, so is your inspection.
Here are three “bonus” tips – 13 in all.
11. Write what you say and say what you write. There is a temptation to go easy when describing a problem on site, especially if there is a seller and real estate agent nearby. There is also a temptation to come down hard in the report to protect yourself. This frustrates everyone, is poor customer service and is bad for your business.
12. Include implications. Don’t make the client ask, “So what?”
13. Stay away from code references. No one knows all codes. Codes have varying effective dates. You will be considered a code inspector and will attract additional liability. Simply describe the condition and the implication. “The short railing is dangerous because it will not prevent people from falling off the balcony.”
About the Author
Alan Carson is a Past President of ASHI, a principal in Carson Dunlop, authors of the Home Reference Book, the ASHI@HOME training program, the Illustrated Home, and HORIZON, a unique web-based reporting system. See www.discoverhorizon.com for more information. You can reach Alan directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.