Rebutting Complaints

> This story is excerpted from the new Working RE Magazine- Home Inspector Edition. If you haven’t already, take a look!

How to Successfully Refute a Complaint

By David Brauner, Senior Broker at OREP.org

First, contact your insurance agent right away. Why not get the help of the insurance company pros when responding to a complaint?  Get the experts on your side.  Not only is it smart but it is typically required: most insurance policies obligate you to notify the insurance company immediately and prior to responding to the complaint directly, as a condition of coverage.  Having said that, if you are going to respond with your side of the story, to either a disgruntled client or to your insurance company, there are commonsense basics to keep in mind.

When a dissatisfied homeowner dashes off a complaint that is heated, insulting, inaccurate or not very well thought-through- maybe just a belligerent phone call, it is human nature for us to take it less seriously and to want to respond in kind: garbage in, garbage out.  But that’s a mistake.  No matter how crude or “stupid” a customer’s complaint seems, your response must be professional; after all, it is your livelihood on the line not theirs.  Think twice before dashing off an angry reply to an emailed complaint especially; most of us regret not exercising better judgment and patience before hitting “send” at least once or twice in our lives.

Shooting Yourself in the Foot
Many professionals damage their own defense by ill-advised, half-baked responses to complaints.  It’s called shooting yourself in the foot.  Not taking every complaint seriously is how it happens.  Often, shortly after receiving a homeowner’s irrational, undocumented and half-baked complaint- one that seems not even worth considering, the formal notice arrives on legal letterhead, usually via certified mail, from his cousin Joe the attorney. When this happens, you’re a whole lot happier if you have kept your powder dry and your mouth shut.

If you ever do have occasion to respond to a complaint, either to the client or to your insurance company, it is important to remain rational, unemotional and professional. Below is a good example of such a response. A good rebuttal/response letter doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome, but it does help you avoid doing any unnecessary damage to your own defense.

What’s professional? Proper spelling and grammar are givens.  Avoid profanity and not taking the complaint seriously and/or dismissing the client as “an idiot” or scammer or something along those lines.  If you are unable to put together a rational, thought out, clearly-communicated response or don’t bother to verify as accurate what you’re saying, what does that say about the kind of inspector you are and the quality of your service/product?  And what does that tell the insurance company about the kind of risk they are taking on by insuring you for $100,000 or $1,000,000?

If you did something wrong, admit it. Whether you made a mistake or not, try to learn from the complaint.  In your response, note any routines or procedures you will set in place to avoid the same situation happening again, if possible. (After all, innocent or guilty, responding to a complaint costs you time and money. If it can be avoided in the future, everyone is happier.)  Here is an example of a prudent response: “While I clearly never said anything like that to the client, and my report bears that out, I understand how discussing an issue of that nature with the client opened the door to this type of complaint.  To avoid this happening in the future, I will take notes of every verbal conversation of this nature or avoid them altogether and put everything in writing, into the report.”

Sometimes the insurance company claims adjusters will not ask for much beyond a short statement and your report and contract.  Usually your report and contract contain most of what they need to know.  If they need more, they might conduct a verbal interview with you over the phone.  This may seem informal but again, be on guard-everything you say matters.  Be truthful and careful.

Whether you respond over the phone or in writing, the same rules apply. Be prepared. Have the facts at your fingertips.  Document everything you say. Don’t guess. If you don’t know, find out before answering.  Never be pressured into making a decision or to respond before you’re ready. If you’re uncomfortable giving responses verbally, request the questions in writing so you can take your time preparing your written reply. Some people think on their feet better than others.  You can always say, “Please send me the questions in writing so I can be as accurate as possible in my responses.”

Below you’ll find a complaint letter from a homeowner, claiming the inspector did not properly inspect the chimney and roof. Below that, you’ll find the response from the home inspector.  Note the impression left by a well written rebuttal letter.

Letter from Joe Homeowner to ABC Inspection
I hired a contractor to paint the outside of my house after we purchased the property at 1234 Main St., Sunnyville, OH. The contractor said he had bad news for me. He said that the backside of the chimney had never been painted, it was rotten and water had been running inside the house. This we found to be true when we took up the carpet in the back bedroom. He also said the rest of the roof was in very poor condition. Large sheets of shingles were loose over the entire roof and nails had been driven through the shingles in many places.
would have asked the seller to replace the roof or we would not have purchased the house.

You said you could see everything from the ground with your binoculars and we trusted your inspection of the roof.  I believe you should bear this cost of the roof replacement because of your misjudgment and negligence.

Response Letter from Home Inspector
My name is John Inspector.  I have been performing inspections since 1992.  I have been certified by the American Society of Home Inspectors since 1994.  I perform somewhere between 250 and 400 whole house inspections per year.  I am also licensed by the Ohio State Department of Agriculture as a pest control Commercial Applicator, which means that I can perform wood destroying insect inspections.  I am also licensed by the Ohio Department of Health to perform Radon inspections.

Notes for 1234 Main St, Sunnyville, Ohio
I received a call from the buyer’s agent around August.  She had received a call from Joe Homeowner regarding a problem at the above address.

I called Homeowner the next day.  He said his painter found weathered and rotten wood on the backside of the chimney that needed repaired.  Painter also said the roof looked bad. Homeowner said he had contacted a roofer to look at it too.  I told him I would stop by within a few days and told him to call me to let me know what the roofer said.  I also understood from this conversation that he had asked the seller to make repairs to the roof per my inspection report.  I told him at that time that I knew nothing about any repairs that had been made by the seller.  He also said he would call me after talking to the roofer.

I went to the property within three days. Painters were there but homeowner was not.  The chimney in question (backside) was not visible from the ground and it was too steep to walk the roof.  At this time, I decided to wait and see what the roofer said.  Homeowner never called backed.

I  received the above letter emailed from the buyer’s agent on Sunday December 13 at 10 pm.

Notes Regarding Letter from Joe Homeowner (emailed from agent)
With respect to the statement, “The previous owner repeatedly stated that she fixed everything our inspector stated needed repaired.”  I was not asked to re-inspect the roof so I have no idea what was done after my inspection.  Many times buyers will hire me to do a re-inspect before closing to verify repairs that were made by the seller but I was not contacted to do this.

With respect to, “You stated when we asked you several times that we should not have to replace the roof for at least five or six years.” I don’t remember this conversation but I assume it was taken out of context. Dimensional shingles normally have an estimated economic life of 22-28 years. (The shingles appear to be the same age as the house which would mean they are 15-16 years old.)  If the conversation took place I’m sure I’d have said- as I always do, with proper repairs the roof may last another five to six years but there is certainly no guarantee.

With respect to, “If we would have known the real condition of the roof we would have asked the seller to replace the roof or we would not have purchased the house.”  The buyer was given plenty of information (along with pictures) to know that the roof needed further evaluation and repairs. They obviously chose not to follow the recommendations on the report.

With respect to “misjudgment and negligence,” I judged that there were many problems with the roof.  I did not neglect to put these problems in the report and also included pictures of some of the problem areas.

Notes Regarding Inspection Report
My report was conducted per the ASHI Standards of Practice.

I identified moisture stains on two ceilings.  My report states “repairs needed” and “recommend further evaluation.”

I identified rotted wood due to roof flashing problems.

The backside of the chimney was obviously not readily accessible or visually observable.

I walk every roof that I can but this roof was obviously not walked due to height and steepness, so was inspected with binoculars as is stated in the report.

Notes Regarding the Residential Inspection Agreement
Buyer agreed to and signed the Residential Inspection Agreement which contains the following information:  “Your inspector is a home inspection ‘generalist’ and is not acting as a ‘specialist,’ licensed engineer or expert in any specific trade or craft.  The inspection is not technically exhaustive and is not a substitute for obtaining specialized evaluation of any particular component, unit, or feature of the structure, nor is it a home warranty, guarantee, insurance policy, or substitute for a statutory property disclosure form.”

Any claim must be made in writing within three days of the discovery, it was not.

Any claim must be made within 30 days after inspection, it was not.

About the Author
David Brauner is Editor of Working RE magazine and Senior Broker at OREP.org, a leading provider of E&O Insurance for appraisers, inspectors and other real estate professionals in 49 states. He has covered the appraisal profession for over 20 years. He can be contacted at dbrauner@orep.org or (888) 347-5273. Calif. Insurance Lic. #0C89873.

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