Doing it Better to Better Your Business
By: Alan Carson, Carson Dunlop
We all like inspecting houses. It’s fun and challenging and we are really good at seeing things that mere mortals can’t. The “show and tell” with clients is rewarding, and the appreciation they feel at the end of the process gives us real job satisfaction.
But, let’s be honest; most of us don’t get the same high from writing reports. Why is that? Well, there are several reasons:
* Most of us are not trained and experienced as technical writers, so although we know lots more about houses than our clients, we may not know more about writing.
* Most people spend much more time communicating verbally than in writing, so it’s only natural that we are better at speaking. Writing is more work because it doesn’t come as naturally.
* Writing is a more challenging medium because it does not include tools like tone of voice, volume, speed and tempo, hand gestures, body language, and the immediate feedback provided when speaking face to face.
* Writing inspection reports is hard because we have to take complex technical issues and make them easy to understand.
* Because the report is the permanent record, writing it is more intimidating than inspecting. When writing a report, you don’t get the feedback that allows you to clarify or reword an explanation. You get one chance to get it right.
* It is hard to remember everything that was discussed at the inspection. Most of us have left something out of an inspection report at least once. Our memories and handwritten notes can be imperfect. The fear of omission adds stress to the report writing process.
* Another difficulty is the selection process. What do you tell clients and what do you leave out? If you documented all of the thought processes and decisions you make during the inspection, the report would be very long indeed. And if you included every word you say to your client, the report would be enormous. The filtering process creates anxiety because leaving something out creates a risk of being sued. On the other hand, putting in something you did not discuss on site creates a different sort of risk – a very unhappy client.
* And did we mention that the English language is a particularly difficult one to use? There are a myriad of rules and almost as many exceptions to those rules.
* These issues have been carefully researched and developed since 1978 along with our overall definition of a home inspection, based on doing thousands of reports every year.
* We have worked hard to come up with a definition of home inspection that includes appropriate reference to the report writing process. The definition is as follows:
A business with illogically high liability, slim profit margins and limited economies of scale. An incredibly diverse, multi-disciplined consulting service, delivered under difficult in-field circumstances, before a hostile audience in an impossibly short time frame, requiring the production of an extraordinarily detailed technical report, almost instantly, without benefit of research facilities or resources.
To sum it up, writing a report is a challenging process that provides an excellent opportunity to look foolish and to get sued. But we have to do it to help our clients (since they’ll only remember 10% to 15% of what is said), to meet inspection standards or licensing requirements, and to compete in the market place. So, how do we minimize the pain and maximize the gain? Let’s start by looking at what we are trying to accomplish, and move on to some ways to succeed. We’ll discuss report writing in general, and touch on various report formats.
What Are We Trying To Accomplish?
- Help clients make an important buying decision
- Make it easy for clients to address the defects after they settle in
- Reduce our chances of being sued successfully
- Satisfy association requirements
- Market our business – differentiate ourselves with an outstanding report
What Do Clients Want In An Inspection Report?
Based on tens of thousands of inspections, we have learned what our clients are looking for.
- Clarity – everything should be relevant, and there should be no extra words
- Sound advice and no surprises
- Brevity – pictures are worth 1,000 words
- The ability to make the right decision in the shortest time
What Would We Want When Reading To Make A Decision?
We put ourselves in our clients’ shoes and came up with this list of what we would want.
- A short executive summary
- Clear, simple communication
- Give me the important stuff first – newspaper articles deliver all the key facts in the first paragraph.
- Allow me, but don’t force me, to drill down to get in-depth information where I choose
- No jargon or tech terms without translation
- Navigation tools that let me know where I am and let me move anywhere easily
What Do You Want When Writing Reports?
We have asked hundreds of inspectors what they are looking for. These are the top answers we have received.
- Fast, because time is money
- Easy to say what I want – flexibility
- A finished product I will be proud of
- Easy to move around quickly so I can work system-by-system or room-by-room
- Easy to see what I have and have not done
- A reminder system if I forget something
- A search tool to help me quickly find what I need
- Templates for typical homes, systems or problems that I can set myself
- No double entry of inspection data, client data, inspection address, fee etc.
What Would The Ideal Report Look Like?
1. From the home inspector’s perspective –
If we could write what we wanted, it might look something like this:
What I told you on site was pretty much it, but we don’t guarantee anything. The big item is the roof, and there are a bunch of little things. Get specialists to check every part of the house, especially the roof, before you take possession of the home. And remember, houses aren’t perfect so there will be problems that come up.
We’re not sure clients would like this.
2. From the homebuyer’s perspective –
If they could get what we wanted, it might look something like this:
For every single house component:
This item is working perfectly now under all conditions, will need a repair costing $250 in 2 ½ years and then will last another 3 ¾ years, and cost $765 to replace. Here is the phone number of someone who will fix or replace it, and give you a discount as well as a lifetime warranty.
And they’d like a summary at the beginning that lists in chronological order everything they’ll have to do in the home with dates and costs.
What is useful information?
So, we’re pretty sure we can’t write the reports we want or the reports clients want. Life is full of compromises isn’t it? So what can we do? Well, we can meet them in the middle. We can take responsibility for our work, within our scope of work. It’s fine to make it clear that we don’t go beyond our scope. It’s also important for our business success that we provide useful information to clients on issues within our expertise.
How would you define useful information?
* A brief description to define the system or component
* Identify non-performing items or items that will fail soon, noting their location.
* The implication of the defect to the home owner
* Direction as to what should be done about it and when
* In some markets, we may also provide ballpark repair costs
If this all sounds trivial, let’s spend a moment talking about reports that provide little or no useful information.
* “The swimming pool is located in the back yard.” (I knew that already!)
* “The 2 inch by 8 inch joists are spaced 16 inches apart and support diagonal plank subflooring.” (So what? Is that good or bad?)
* “The stairwell lighting is controlled by 3-way switches.” (Is that a problem?)
* “An overflow was noted on the kitchen sink.” (That’s good, right?)
* The furnace capacity is 80,000 BTU/hr. (and…….?)
In the first statement, the client picks up no valuable information. In the rest, there is not enough information for the client to know if there is a problem, let alone whether it is a serious, expensive, safety or priority item. When we don’t answer the “So what?” question for clients, we aren’t doing our job.
Stop Guessing and Start Asking
So far in this article, we have given you our perspective based on our experience and beliefs. Is that authoritative? Maybe, because we’ve been in the home inspection business since 1978, have worked with many reporting systems – electronic and paper, trained and spoken to many, many inspectors, and written some pretty comprehensive training materials. But is that enough? Some would say no, especially in a customer-centric business model.
There is a rule of customer service that says, “Give the customer what they want, the way they want it.” Every home inspector has an opinion as to what customers want, but few have asked. And some would say that customers don’t know what they should want. But while we spend a lot of time adjusting client expectations to fit the limitations of a home inspection, we spend very little time adjusting our service to fit what clients want.
We at Carson Dunlop have certainly been guilty of this, until we discovered an easy and inexpensive way to survey our customers and ask them what they want in an inspection report. We surveyed recent home inspection customers and received 350 responses. The percents below indicate the number who agreed or strongly agreed with the following statements:
* 96% – Reports should include a short executive summary.
* 81% – Point form is easier for me to read than paragraph style.
* 88% – Reports should be short and to the point, but provide easy access to reference material if I need more information.
* 98% – Headings should be used to help me stay oriented while reading.
* 44% – Reports should include codes and legends to save space. A directory to look up what the codes mean should be available somewhere in the report.
* 99% – Reports should make it clear why something is an issue.
* 97% – Reports should tell me what to do about the issues that the inspector identified.
* 98% – Reports should prioritize issues for me.
* 92% – Illustrations would helpful if they are clear and relevant.
* 87% – Photos of issues in the home would be helpful in the report
* 93% – Reports should include ballpark costs to correct problems.
* 77% – The comprehensive report can be delivered within 24 hours after the inspection as long as I have a verbal/printed summary that gives me the big picture at the end of the inspection.
We may decide to respond to some or all of these, but at least we now know what clients are looking for. We’ll spend the rest of the paper addressing some of the key report writing questions, and close with what we think are some key tips for successful report writing.
Report Formats – Electronic Or Paper?
People regularly debate the benefits of electronic and paper-based reporting systems. We break the discussion into two components – input and output. Let’s look at the input side first.
Input – Electronic or paper
* Paper can be faster
* Electronic can simulate paper – checklists, for example
* Electronic can store more selections more efficiently
* Electronic can be more convenient – PDA vs. clipboard
* Electronic can capture input for processing and storage
* Electronic input can be converted into output
* Paper can also act as output, but does not convert readily or store efficiently
* Now let’s look at report outputs.
* Output – Electronic or paper
* Information can be layered more easily with electronic formats (for example, hyperlinks can be embedded into reports).
* Color is much cheaper to use with electronic reports than with paper
* Electronic output is easier to send to multiple recipients
* Navigation inside an electronic document can be easier
* Storage is cheaper and more space efficient with electronic reports
* Storage is easier to duplicate for back-up
* Some electronic output can be used for data analysis
* Paper can be cheaper
* Electronic can be cheaper, if there is no hard copy
* Where output is handwritten, legibility can be an issue
Clearly there are pros and cons to each. A recent survey showed almost 80% of inspectors use electronic reporting systems. Our conclusion is that electronic reports offer some advantages over paper-based reports, but we understand that paper works best for some people. Many systems can also provide both electronic and paper outputs.
Make or Buy?
Home inspectors can create their own report systems or purchase or subscribe to one of the many systems available in the market. There are several considerations in this decision:
* Are you a skilled technical writer?
* Do you have the time to create something from scratch?
* Is your time better spent building this or building your business?
* Do you have the technology skills and budget to create better product than is already available?
* Do you have the time and energy to keep the system up to date over the long term?
In our opinion, report writing systems have improved significantly over the years and it would take a talented and dedicated home inspector a great deal of time to build a better mousetrap. We think it makes sense to look at the reporting systems available, to see if there is one that will suit your needs.
Building the Knowledge Base
Whether you make or buy your reporting system, you will need some sort of knowledge base. Many reporting systems have thousands of standard comments. These comments cover such areas as defects, descriptions, general maintenance advice, implications, limitations of problems, and mini-technical articles.
Some also have authoritative technical reference articles in addition to the standard database comments. The ability to direct clients to additional resource material with no research, writing, drawing, or sorting is a tremendous benefit. This helps establish your credibility as the home expert, without spending years building the library.
If you are considering building your own system, determine whether you want to be able to offer this added information, and consider the time and research required to create it.
How Much Information is Enough?
Some inspectors provide a lot of detail about issues; others do not. Why would there be different approaches? One of the challenges in home inspection is that we don’t know how much clients know. Worse still, clients are problematic because many know a lot about some things and little about others.
And, some clients want to know a lot, and others don’t. Some don’t want to know much when they buy the house. “Just give me the Bottom Line.” But then they want all kinds of detail when they move into the house. “What did you say we should do about that torn valley flashing? When? Where? Why?”
So how can we write a report that will satisfy everyone? We think there is a solution – The report written in layers;
- The first is an executive summary or bottom line.
- The second layer is a report that tells people about issues and what to do about them.
- The third layer is the detailed reference material that allows people to drill down and get more data. People don’t have to read long narratives on issues they are not interested in, but can do so easily if they want.
The layering approach works with both paper and electronic reports, and can be particularly elegant in an electronic report. Remember how we talked about giving people what they want the way they want it?
Include A Summary?
Summaries offer significant advantages for clients and we know that clients want them, because we asked. The argument against summaries is that our liability is increased because people will rely on the summary and not read the entire report. We are comfortable that we can provide wording in the summary to make it clear to any reasonable person that- the summary is provided as a courtesy and is not a substitute for the entire report. The complete report must be read and considered before making decisions related to the home inspection.
Summaries are easy to build with most electronic reporting software, taking almost no time or effort. They can also include other valuable comments such as these:
“All conditions noted in the report should be further investigated by a qualified specialist for related or additional conditions.” Some would add, “…PRIOR to the close of escrow.”
Reporting on Site
Some inspectors deliver their final report on site. Others deliver it later, usually within 24 hours. The split among inspectors is about 50/50. We think either option is fine, as long as clients have enough information at the end of the inspection to make their critical buying decision, and as long as the client receives the final report within 24 hours.
We said earlier that clients behave differently at different times. When they are trying to decide whether to buy the home, they need to know just the Bottom Line, focusing on the significant items. After they move in, they want to know chapter and verse, so they can look after the home. That’s when they get into the body of the report in detail.
How Can A Reporting System Reduce My Liability?
We think there are several ways:
* Define your scope of work clearly so that client expectations are appropriate.
* Your contract should contain this and should be delivered with and referenced in the report.
* Stay within your scope of work. Don’t add commentary on excluded items or people will assume there is nothing you really exclude.
* Use simple language
* Use spell check to help you say what you mean.
* Include illustrations to help you be clear.
* Structure the report to help you include everything you need. (Set up and check for items you can’t afford to miss.)
* Use a reporting system that calls for consistency.
For every defect, you should have: the item , problem, implication, location, recommended action, time frame.
We look to minimize risk, without compromising customer service. Good systems help you accomplish these goals.
Is My Report A Marketing Tool?
We think it should be. It should create a positive image of your company and you should assume your report will be shared with others – friends and family, real estate sales professionals, lawyers, lenders, insurers and so on. It would be a wasted opportunity not to make your company look really good every chance you get.
Imagine the leverage you create when people read your report and say, “Wow that was easier than I thought it was going to be. I really understand my house now. Thank you!” or, “That was the best technical report I have ever read, on any subject! It was clear, easy to read and easy to understand.”
We should be clear; a great reporting system will not save a bad home inspection or a bad home inspector, but it can make a good one look great.
What Should Reports Cost?
Over the years a number of surveys have indicated that inspectors consistently spend an average of roughly 4% to 4.5% of their sales on report writing. If your fee is $300, that is $12.00 to $13.20 per report. You can spend almost nothing on reports or more than $40 per report.
The hard cost of the report is not the only factor to consider. Let’s look at some of the soft or hidden costs of report writing. If you spend 1½ to 2 hours writing every report, and you could use a system that would cut that time by ½ hour, what would that be worth? Well, if you do 300 inspections a year, that’s 150 hours, or 4 working weeks! If you do two inspections a day, you’ll save (20 days x 2 inspections/day x $300/inspection) $12,000 in lost opportunity! And if you could save a full hour per report, you’ll save 300 hours (8 weeks) or $24,000!
Some systems allow you to book inspections electronically, and the client data moves automatically into your reports. The savings in time and reduced transcription mistakes are certainly worth something. Some report writing software makes it very easy to email confirmations to clients and agents. This improved communication reduces confusion and missed appointments, saving time and money.
Some systems help track your receivables, so you can contact people who owe you money. Some also help you track your sales, and see how your business is growing and where it comes from. There are even reporting systems that archive your records for you, so you have no storage or retrieval costs, and more importantly, you can always find an old report instantly when you need it.
One of the other soft costs is how much time you spend customizing and updating your reporting system. Some of the new web-based systems are updated automatically for you, minimizing time spent keeping current, and reducing mistakes made because your system is not up to date.
A Peek into the Future
Looking ahead, software will move onto the web and away from the conventional installed packages we are used to seeing. The benefits are clear:
* Zero installation
* Platform independence
* Anywhere/anytime access
* Continuous improvement
Microsoft is going there with Windows and Office. Google and several others there are already there. We will see more software services that we’ll subscribe to rather than buying software. A new degree of richness and flexibility is emerging on the web.
Our Top 10 (or so) Report Writing Tips
Irrespective of what reporting tool you use, here are some key suggestions to help make your reports effective for clients and protective for you.
* 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.
* 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 just for the record, most home inspection 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 were noted, or if you are compelled to comment on every item you inspect, say something like, “No defects were observed during the inspection.”
* Don’t guess. If you don’t know, find out, find someone who knows or recommend that the client find out.
* 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.”
* 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.
* Set a limit as to how often you recommend further evaluation by a specialist in a report. If you use it on 50% of the issues you identify, readers will see a pattern and may question your competence.
* Use industry standards to set your scope of work. Instead of saying, “We don’t test the alarm system”. say, “A professional home inspection does not include a test of the alarm system.”
* Record job-specific limitations factually and clearly in a separate section of the report. Don’t mix limitations, defects, descriptions and maintenance tips together.
* 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.
* Check your spelling. Clients may assume that if your English is sloppy, so was your inspection.
* 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 a 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.
* Include implications. Don’t make the client ask, “So what?”* 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.”
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 lots of customers and lots of 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.
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 most recently, HORIZON a unique web based reporting system. See www.discoverhorizon.com for more information.
You can reach Alan directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-964-9415.