Evolution of the Modern Home
Take a moment to consider that less than two hundred years ago, homes were quite simple; nothing more than walls, a roof, and a fire in the dwelling that was used for both cooking and warmth. Building with safety measures in mind (other than ensuring that the house was strong enough to stay standing) was a distant concern during this time.
Since then, many new and complex systems have been introduced to home building such as plumbing, sewage, electricity, insulation, heating, and cooling. Out of necessity, building standards were implemented to assure that these systems continued to function correctly and safely. Over time, building code has continually evolved to keep pace with new technology and building materials.
The Dilemma of Code Changes
The constant changes in building code creates a dilemma for home inspectors, as there will always be situations – especially in older homes – that the code cannot account for. Because of this, during any inspection, we must consider where to draw the line between strictly following the most current code standards, and using our own judgment to make decisions when creating our report.
This also begs other questions, such as how often we need to re-learn the building code of the area in which we are inspecting, and at what level of detail? Do we quote building standards in our report when we notice violations? How do we know which items can be grandfathered in?
Seeking to Understand Rather than Memorize
There is an elegant, simple solution to the code revisions dilemma, which is this: rather than attempting to memorize the entirety of building code, we should seek to understand the materials that are being used, along with the intended purpose of each component and system.
It’s important to understand that the majority of building code is based on the home’s common failure points, and the rest covers the habitability and functionality of the home and its systems. When inspecting the home using the lens of understanding rather than memorization, our job becomes much simpler, and areas of deficiency become obvious regardless if they happen to be in code or not.
The Authority and Responsibility of Home Inspection
As for relating inspection deficiencies to our clients, noting items in terms of a code violation does not provide the “why”, which is a critical omission. If your clients don’t understand the “why”, they are more likely not to take the matter seriously and have it corrected. Further, quoting an outside authority takes away from your authority. Although you are merely a consultant who is meant to provide unbiased information, knowledge of the correct source of information is critical, and provides real value to your client.
As an example, let’s say that the home you are inspecting has an elevated deck attached to the second floor. The deck is constructed with 2×6 pressure-treated lumber that is spaced 24 inches apart, with 12 feet in between each floor joist. In your report, stating that the deck is “not in conformance with local practice” does not specify what (or more importantly why) something is wrong, and it’s therefore not any help to your client.
A more helpful alternative is to quote the specifics of the local building code, or even better, quote the original source of that code. In this case, the source is the American Wood Council (AWC), which is a provisional body of engineers who test lumber for its design failure points. Providing the AWC’s standard here would give important, real information to your client or a contractor who is charged with remediating the deck.
Unbiased Reporting and the Myth of ‘Grandfathering’
On the subject of ‘grandfathering’ things in, which is allowing out-of-compliance items because they would have passed with an older version of the building code, this is not the job of the inspector. When asked, I tell my students that “I am nobody’s grandfather, and therefore can’t grandfather things in.”
Regardless if we are actually a grandfather, it’s not our job to know what was acceptable in code through the history of construction, only what makes something safe or unsafe in the present. We must advise using an objective, unbiased perspective, then it is up to the client to act on the information and recommendations we’ve given.
In situations where we encounter something that is out of compliance, but remediation is not feasible, we need to remember to provide only unbiased feedback on our report. Let’s say that the home we’re inspecting has a stairwell that is clearly not safe, but in order to solve it, an entire section of the home would need to be rebuilt.
Since we are inspectors and not contractors, we can’t give specific advice of what the client should do in this case. We do have a responsibility to state what is unsafe, why it’s unsafe, and note that remediation may not be not feasible. Then, we should state that further evaluation by a general contractor is “at the discretion of the client.”
The Ultimate Responsibility of a Home Inspector
If we see something during our inspection that is so unsafe that it poses an immediate risk for injury or loss of life, what should be done? In most cases sharing inspection information with people other than the client is not allowed, but this is an exception.
As the inspector, we have a responsibility beyond our contract that requires us to act in best interest with our client and all parties that may be affected by our services. This means we have a “duty to act” when situations arise such as risk of serious injury, loss of life, or property damage. Keep in mind that this may include something not located on the property, such as a fallen tree in the neighbor’s yard. It also may include items that are not required by our standard operating procedures (SOPs), such as a swing set that is structurally compromised and could easily collapse.
To benchmark whether something is safe, we can imagine our 3 year old child or 93 year old grandmother encountering the situation, and if there is a possibility they could get injured, then it’s not safe. Many people forget how vulnerable these age groups are, especially children, as they do not have the knowledge or the experience to tell them when something is dangerous.
When I’m doing my job as an inspector, my focus is squarely on ensuring that I communicate potential dangers to the client, and express the importance of getting them addressed. If a client doesn’t take me seriously or challenges my recommendations, I often respond with “I inspect every home as though I was purchasing it and moving in with my family later that day.”
We can summarize our job as an inspector as “doing everything we can to ensure people’s safety in the home.” Although liability is a factor, preventing injury and loss of life should be our primary motivation. With this in mind, we can take pride in what we do and be sincere in presenting information. This simple thought is the basis of every inspection I do, and it’s why I feel that the members of our field have such an important responsibility.
Patrick Hardy is a graduate of the Inspection Certification Associates (ICA) home inspection course. After completing his training, he founded H & H Home Inspections, a multi-inspector firm based in Central Florida. H&H performs residential inspections, commercial property inspections, WDO, wind mitigation inspections, and 4-point inspections. Patrick is a pre-licensing classroom instructor for ICA, and also teaches home inspection continuing education.