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Inspecting the home-inspection business

By Walter Jowers

APRIL 17, 2000:  A couple of weeks ago, I went on and on in this column about how nearly anybody can get a building contractor's license. I even quoted my builder buddy, Bruce Mott, as saying that anybody who can fog a mirror can become a licensed contractor.

Well, this week, Mott called me up and said, "Jowers, if you're going to quote me talking about the knuckleheads in my business, it's only fair that you slap your own brethren upside the head. Time to tell the truth about home inspectors."

Mott's right. It's time to peel back some veneer.

It is easier to become a home inspector than it is to become a builder. A home inspector can be totally illiterate, go naked full-time, and sleep 22 hours a day. I know this because my inspector pal Charlie Wood, down in Atlanta, once got his dog certified as a home inspector. I think it cost him 50 bucks. As far as I know, the dog's still in business.

If you're a regular reader of home-inspector publications (and sweet mercy on you if you are), you already know that the usual career path for a home inspector goes something like this: 1. Decide on a career change in mid-life. 2. Pay a few thousand dollars to go to a home-inspector school for three to four days. 3. Walk out of the school with a "certification" and a wheelbarrow-load of fill-in-the-blank forms, which you'll take to each house and fill in the way they taught you at home-inspector school. 4. Start inspecting.

I know some of y'all are thinking to yourselves: What? There's no licensing? No testing? No state certification?

Well, in some states, there is licensing, but it has not helped to keep boneheads out of the inspection business. Currently, Tennessee has a law that says home inspectors have to meet some basic requirements--possession of virtually any type of building or inspection credential--if they want to inspect new houses. That law was passed not because consumers demanded better home inspectors, but because of lobbying by Tennessee builders. Currently, there's a stealthy home-inspector licensing bill loitering in a committee of our state Legislature; it's there because of lobbying done on behalf of Tennessee's real estate salespeople.

If you think home inspectors ought to be licensed by the state, be careful what you wish for. Home-inspector licensing laws that come to you courtesy of builders or real estate salespeople are not likely to be consumer-protection laws. They're going to be turf-protection laws.

Take Texas, for example, which was the first state to license home inspectors. Today, Texas inspectors operate under the Texas Real Estate Commission's nine-member board, six of whom must be real estate salespeople. This board decides what a home inspector can report and even requires every inspector to use the same five-page fill-in-the-blank report form. Simply put, the folks who sell houses for a living control the information that gets to a Texas homebuyer, and they're doing their best to keep that info to a bare minimum. Check it out for yourself at http://www.trec.state.tx.us/.

If you ask me, the home-inspection business could use some oversight. Given that we home inspectors are the ones looking down the throat of most folks' biggest investment, we ought to have to prove that we're highly competent. That won't happen, though, unless some pro-consumer group lobbies hard for it. Home inspectors can't do it: There aren't enough pro-consumer home inspectors in Tennessee to fill up a school bus, let alone lobby effectively.

If it were left up to me, Tennessee would be the first state to require us home inspectors to prove that we're literate. We ought to have to show that we can explain what we find during an inspection without the help of check-boxes. Believe me when I tell you, a whole lot of home inspectors have trouble getting a simple message across. Apparently, the first thing they teach at home-inspector school is, never make a clear statement. If Tweety Bird were a home inspector, his big line would be, "It was thought that it was observed that it appeared to be a Puddy Tat."

This sort of goofy communication is common in the inspection business. Y'all might remember a story on NBC's Dateline, in which a fill-in-the-blank home inspector stood right there at the house and told the real estate agent (quietly) that the roof was shot, told the poor buyer that it would last another 15 years, and then checked off boxes in his report that covered his butt both ways. Result: The real estate agent got his commission, the buyer got stuck with a bum roof, and the home inspector said, "Hey, the report said the roof might need some repairs."

Which brings me to this: Don't wait for the government to do you a favor and license home inspectors. It's real easy to figure out which home inspectors know what they're doing and will tell you the truth. Just ask one for a copy of an old report. Some reports will be full of fill-in-the-blank nonsense and evasive "inspector-speak"; some will be make perfect sense. Choose somebody who makes sense.

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