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The Evolution of Home Inspection
By Aaron Dunn, NRCIA
Most people in the market to purchase a new home trust that a professional home inspector will perform a thorough evaluation of their potential new property. In fact, the majority of people are so used to the idea of home inspections that they seldom think twice about where the concept came from in the first place.
The truth is that home inspections in their current form are actually quite new to the real estate industry. Our modern understanding of the home inspection process has only been around for half a century at best. Before that, home buyers were very literally left on their own.
So how did the home inspection process get its foundation in our modern world? And when it comes to more specific situations like roofing issues, what systems are in place to protect today’s home inspectors from negligence and liability cases?
How Professional Home Inspections Began
If you wanted to buy a home at any time period from the beginning of private property up until the past hundred years or so, you had little choice but to inspect the property yourself before paying the seller. Without a professional inspector, unless you were well-trained or experienced enough to notice minor details like faulty appliances or a damaged roof, you were simply out of luck.
Later, when your appliances stopped working properly or the roof leaked at the very first rain, it was nobody’s fault but your own. In fact, the Romans had a term for it: Caveat Emptor, or “Let the Buyer Beware.”
This system stayed in place all the way up to the early 20th century, when buyers’ rights began to slowly take shape in the legal systems of civilized countries worldwide. Soon, professionals known as “home inspectors” began lending their services to real estate agents, buyers, sellers, and others involved in the sale of residential properties. But this popular new system was not developed fully until several important court cases helped to define the industry as we know it today.
Lingsch v. Savage
In 1962, a real estate broker sold a property “As Is” to a group of buyers. The property was in a state of disrepair, so much so that proper officials had placed the structure under condemnation. The buyers sued the real estate broker, saying they were led to believe the property was in “legal tenantable and properly repaired condition, as required by law”. This led to Lingsch v. Savage, a court case that determined that an “As Is” sale does not relieve real estate agents from their “duty” to have a full inspection performed on a property.
Easton v. Strassburger
In 1984, a case called Easton v. Strassburger set a precedent for all states to look to in litigating disclosure cases related to home inspections. The reason the case was brought forth was simple: a homeowner sued her real estate broker when massive earth slides on her property destroyed part of her driveway and damaged the foundation of her home. The decision in the case cemented the Case Law that real estate brokers are responsible for investigating and disclosing any defects they discover in a property they list for sale—also known as Civil Code 2079.
After Easton v. Strassburger, the home inspection profession began to resemble its modern-day form—however, there were too few practices standardized to establish what each home inspection should include. Associations like the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) were created to publish standards of practice, but they were neither widely known nor strictly adhered to by real estate brokers. Instead, those brokers would use contractors or engineers for specific purposes, which eventually led to a far more decisive case in how home inspectors could legally operate: Wilson v. Century 21 GWR.
Wilson v. Century 21 GWR
After the Wilson family purchased a home in 1987, they discovered some severe foundation problems and sued the seller’s real estate brokerage for fraud. However, the defendants from Century 21 GWR argued that they had indeed used professionals to perform inspections and therefore should not be held responsible for the results of those inspections. The appellate judge ruled that real estate agents using professionals to conduct inspections for disclosure must ensure that the information they produce meets the requirements of Civil Code 2079, thus relieving sellers as well as selling agents of further duty with respect to those items of information. However, they were still liable for any items not inspected or disclosed by themselves or a professional, which led to Civil Code 1102.4 and the expanded use of home inspectors.
The New Norm
These days, home inspections are performed in the vast majority of residential property sales. If you are a home inspector, you are most likely a very busy professional—an integral part of the real estate process.
However, the case of Wilson v. Century 21 GWR created a serious legal burden for home inspectors, as they can now be held liable for errors and omissions in their inspections. Instead of Caveat Emptor, we now have Caveat Inspector: “You Inspect It, You Own It.”
It’s critical for home inspectors to remember that they are generalists. In other words, it’s their responsibility to “Refer and Defer” when they suspect there may be an issue with a property’s foundation, structure, roof, electrical, plumbing, or otherwise.
Civil Code 1102.4 states clearly that “…the expert shall not be responsible for any items of information or parts thereof, other than those expressly set forth in the statement.” This means that home inspectors must be extremely careful about every word they write in a report and always defer to the experts when it comes to specific aspects of the inspection. In other words, if they see a structure that could collapse in the future, but is standing strong at the time of inspection, they only need to say that it is currently standing in their report. If they see a roof that could possibly leak within a certain period of time, they only have to report that it is not currently leaking.
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From Home Inspectors to Roof Inspectors
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were very few home inspectors in the United States. When real estate agents and homebuyers wanted a thorough inspection, they would reach out to general contractors. One of those contractors was Les Watrous, who specialized in roofs and roofing structures. Watrous quickly realized that the inspection process was nowhere near as thorough as it should have been, and often led to liability lawsuits for the inspectors involved. As home inspection associations formed and sent out their inspectors to provide reports, Watrous noticed that many inspectors neglected to bring ladders to inspect two-story buildings. Instead, they referred out to inspectors in more appropriate trades to complete inspections.
As the years went by, homebuyers began to complain about the roofing contractors they were referred to by their inspectors. Rather than a detailed inspection report, buyers would simply receive an estimate written on the back of a business card or letterhead. They felt that the roofing contractors were merely trying to sell them on future services instead of educating them on the true health of their roofs.
Noticing this trend, Watrous decided to create a company that focused solely on providing roof inspections. In 1993, he formed Cert-A-Roof to meet buyers’ growing need for high-quality, detailed roof inspections. His goal was to set aside free estimates and instead work to educate buyers, sellers, and agents on the conditions of their roofs. His customers wanted assurance that their roofs were in proper shape, so he created a roof certification to provide the stamp of approval buyers so desperately wanted. This certification was designed to protect not only the buyers but also sellers and real estate agents who wanted certainty that the roof in question would be leak-free for a minimum of 2 years. The detailed report Watrous issued his customers acted as an unbiased evaluation of their roof system, enlightening the property owner as to exactly what was wrong with it and how to fix it. Then, when the time came to shop around for contractors, they could refer to their report with confidence and avoid being upsold.
Providing the LeakFREE® certification as part of the roof inspection process gave further credibility to Cert-A-Roof. As he performed his inspections, Watrous would examine the interior of the house, the attic when accessible, the exterior perimeter of the house, and finally the rooftop itself. If he noticed spots that were leaking or were likely to leak in the future, he took pictures and created detailed inspection reports so that buyers, sellers, and agents could fully understand what was wrong. The idea behind this practice was to create a report that had total transparency so that nobody could question its validity. Watrous found that in many instances, contractors would perform simple patch work when, in reality, a complete roof replacement was necessary. With their report in hand, his customers could avoid being undersold by contractors who would only perform a fraction of the work required to ensure the roof was in the best possible condition.
Ultimately, by creating the LeakFREE® certification, Watrous established a new industry altogether.
The Establishment of the NRCIA
In 1995, Watrous noticed that reports from other contractors in his industry were still lacking in detail, professionalism, and quality. Thus, he took out a trademark for the National Roof Certification Association and sought to create an industry standard for roofing inspections similar to the standards for professionalism set by home inspection associations.
In the year 2000, Watrous changed the name of his association to the National Roof Certification and Inspection Association (NRCIA) so as to avoid confusion with the National Roofing Contractors Association. In 2001, Watrous developed an inspection reporting software that set the standard for what a roof inspection should look like. As the industry leader in roof inspections and certifications, the NRCIA has played a major role in the evolution of the home inspection industry. The purpose of the NRCIA is to establish and maintain a standard of excellence for the roof inspection process that did not previously exist. When customers deal with an NRCIA-certified member, they always know what to expect: detail, professionalism, and quality. Members are able to use a web-based inspection reporting software from their desktop PCs or mobile devices and issue LeakFREE® certifications as part of the proprietary system provided under NRCIA membership.
Today, more and more buyers, mortgage underwriters, and homeowners insurance companies are requesting roof inspections that come with LeakFREE® certifications because they want assurance that roofs will not leak. When home inspectors refer out through the NRCIA, they are able to dramatically lower their risk for negligence lawsuits because they are referring to a professional association guaranteed to issue genuine, comprehensive inspection reports. Plus, roofing inspectors associated with the NRCIA are trained to be both transaction—and inspector-sensitive. This means that home inspectors will find peace of mind that the roofing system on the property they are responsible for inspecting will be in responsible, trustworthy hands.
NRCIA certified roof inspectors perform in-depth inspections, examining interior walls, ceilings, attics, attached garages, perimeters, and rooftops for visual evidence of leaks and provide thoroughly written inspection reports. Then, they determine whether or not the roof in question has a likelihood of leaking within a given period of time, establishing a LeakFREE® certification for two to five years, depending on the state of the roof.
As we move further into the 21st century, we may see even more developments in the home inspection industry. For now, we can all breathe easy knowing that trustworthy, talented professionals are available to ensure that properties everywhere are fully inspected for their safety and their value. And with associations like the NRCIA on their side, home inspectors can feel confident that every aspect of their inspections is thorough and professional—especially when it comes to the roof. However, if a home inspector does see a roofing red flag, they have the option of recommending a LeakFREE® roof certification for their customers’ properties.
About the Author
Aaron Dunn is a content specialist with more than seven years in the industry. He primarily works as a copywriter for professional service firms. He earned a Bachelor of Science in political science and contributes regularly to online publications. Aaron has worked for NRCIA since May 2021.
To learn more about how NRCIA’s new affiliate membership can protect you and your business and enhance your service, please visit www.nrcia.org.
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