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Writing a Better Inspection Report
By Charles Buell
Home inspectors sometimes forget that, above all else, their inspection report is meant to communicate meaningful information about the property that is understandable and useful to all the readers of the report, most importantly, to the client.
As a home inspector and instructor, I have had many opportunities to read reports from other inspectors. Sometimes I find them on other inspector’s websites and other times it is because I have been called in by other parties asking me to decipher an inspector’s report. Interpreting the meaning of some reports after the fact often poses quite a challenge.
Most inspection software is adequate to produce very thorough inspection reports. Unfortunately, all too often, it is used to crank out meaningless reports that provide almost no real information to the client. As far as I know, all the software can be modified to do a great job and many inspectors do modify them in an attempt to provide excellent service to their clients.
The failure to properly communicate most often arises when reporting on property defects. What should report write-ups describing home defects look like? If you talk to 100 agents and 100 home inspectors, you will likely get 200 different answers. However, if you talk to clients, you will likely get just a few answers. This is telling because after all, the report is paid for by the client and is written for the client primarily, is it not?
If you asked agents, some would argue that it is for them to assist in negotiations. If you ask inspectors, some would argue that reports are written to reduce their liability. Both would likely add that of course they are written for the homebuyer too. Who the report is written for and who your client actually is sometimes gets lost in the process. Since I work for the client, I write my reports for the client. In that context I also know that the agent needs to be able to read and understand it. Repair personnel also need to understand it but most importantly, the client needs to understand it.
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Many inspectors do not go beyond simply stating that an issue exists—leaving any real solutions up to speculation by the client. The statement often is so non-specific that it imparts almost no information of value. Some reports are not even specific as to where a problem is located on the premises but merely state that the issue occurs “one or more” times in the home. This reporting style allows the inspector to get in and out of the house very quickly and maybe even provide the report on site before they scamper off to their next inspection.
But one must ask whether any of the parties involved in the transaction are served by such report writing. For other than very minor issues, this type of “shorthand” report writing serves no one—not even the inspector. Vague, non-specific call-outs will do little to protect a home inspector in the case of a claim.
As I get to see a large number of inspection reports in the course of a year, I am noticing a trend toward simplification of report writing to the point of rendering the report almost useless. There are a number of reasons for this but a major reason is time. There is a huge push to spend as little time as possible on inspection reports so that the inspector can move along to the next inspection. To achieve this goal, the inspector relies on canned comments that have a one-size-fits-all mentality. For example, the inspector takes the cover off the electrical panel and notices there are issues. The report then reads something like: “Inspector noted issues in the electrical panel. Recommend evaluation by electrician.”
This kind of report writing is not informative or useful to any of the parties involved. All it accomplishes is to keep the inspector moving on down the road. This is not inspecting. To inspect something means: “To look at (something) closely and carefully in order to learn more about it, to find problems, etc.” (Merriam Webster). This kind of reporting becomes even less useful when there is no agent involved attempting to interpret whatever the report is trying to communicate. What the report comment actually does is recommend that someone else do the inspection. If a home inspector does not document what exactly the issues are, what is the client to think? They could think there is almost nothing wrong or that the house is in imminent peril.
Home inspectors must provide enough information about what was observed to put the issues in some kind of context for the reader. The recommendation should discuss what the implications of the issues are. This should also include an indication as to the urgency of repairs. Can it wait until the electrician is at the home doing other things or does it need repairs yesterday? A more appropriate write-up regarding the electrical panel would include a description of all the noted issues in the panel, what each means, what is wrong, and what the implications of the issue are. Is the issue a fire hazard, a shock hazard or a maintenance issue?
For example, this is what I might typically say about an old split bus electrical service panel: “The older style split bus type panel may no longer be adequate for the needs of the home as upgrading of wiring throughout the home occurs. Split bus type panels do not have one main shut-off but rely on several breakers at the top of the panel being shut off to turn all power in the house off. As the house wiring is upgraded, additional circuits will be required and I do not recommend adding additional circuits to this panel (or adding additional wiring to the existing circuits). I recommend that a licensed electrical contractor install a new panel to provide more adequate space for additional circuits. Adding a sub-panel to this panel is also a possibility—but that would not eliminate the inconvenience of not having a single main shut-off.”
Instead of just noting “electric issues,” a home inspector should attempt to explain to the client what that means. Most clients will have a knee-jerk reaction to “electrical issues” that is somewhat fearful or negative. Helping clients to understand the severity of issues can help them relax and respond appropriately to issues of more consequence—electrical or otherwise.
When you document and explain to the client what the issues actually are and what they mean, the client has a much better understanding of the house and has the information necessary to make a more informed decision. Good real estate agents will appreciate your diligence as well, but be warned that agents who are not interested in protecting their clients do not like reports that are too long and too detailed. But the agents who do choose to use inspectors like me know that all parties are well protected. I do not market to agents or write my reports “for” agents. I write my reports for my clients. Obviously it takes more knowledge, experience and time to inspect and report in this manner. But that is why they call it an “inspection.”
Home inspectors who truly want to excel in the field need to continually be educating themselves. Our main job as home inspectors is to communicate meaningful, understandable and useful information to our clients (and all users of the inspection report). Let’s not forget that.
About the Author
Charles Buell has been a licensed home inspector and structural pest inspector in the state of Washington for over 12 years. Prior to his career as a home inspector, Buell was a builder for over 30 years. He is the Chair of the ASHI Technical Review Committee and is an Adjunct Professor at Bellingham Technical College where he teaches Residential Home Inspection Training. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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