Sleeping with real estate agents

No not THAT way!

Although if your significant other is one–that’s probably OK!

There is a public perception of the relationship between home inspectors and real estate agents being too cozy at times. I think most home inspectors at least give lip service to maintaining appropriate professional distance from agents. While for a very few, sleeping with agents may not be so far-fetched.

clockMany home inspectors openly court agents for referrals, while others insist they do not. Most home inspector Associations openly support consorting with agents as an acceptable business model and expend a lot of energy figuring out ways to gain those referrals. Regardless of where a home inspector stands on soliciting referrals, it is largely immaterial.

The reality is the system is rigged!

Years and years of cooperation between real estate agents and home inspectors has made it very difficult for home inspectors to truly distance themselves from real estate agents. I can argue reasonably well that it may not be possible at all–given the way the system works. It has gotten to the point where the “transaction” is so bound up in what home inspectors do, it is logical for home inspectors themselves to even think their profession would cease to exist if it were not for real estate agents.

If you are saying to yourself, “But it is true we would cease to exist,” shows just how deep the entrenchment may be.

There is even a “movement” among home inspectors that would have laws written to make it illegal for real estate agents to recommend a specific inspector.  Of course this amounts to nothing more than “monster spray” where the monsters rarely real.  Even the common practice of having a list of three inspectors for the client to choose from is only a band-aid on what many inspectors see as “the problem.”

Monsterspray1I personally think any such laws would be a bit draconian for the many agents that work very hard for their clients and who only want the best for their clients–including wanting the best inspector for their client. 

Also, does anyone really think that a list of three inspectors is going to include inspectors the agent would not want?  Would not that list be vetted to suit their needs?  I think a better approach and perhaps get inspectors to a similar or even better place, would be if home inspectors refused to solicit work from agents.

While there is no shortage of sand in the gears, there is one main stone in the gears that prevents the home inspection profession from becoming anything more than something necessary for a real estate transaction.

That stone is: Our Very Own Standards of Practice.

Now I am not talking about any personal Standards of Practice related to our own particular business model.  I find most home inspectors do go beyond the SOP’s in some manner.  I am talking about the Standards of Practice we are expected to subscribe to by the Home Inspector Associations we belong to or ones mandated by Licensed States (often carbon copies of the Associations).

It is these Standards of Practice that makes the choice of a home inspector more like whether you are going to dine at, Burger King, McDonalds or Jack-in-the Box–and not a significant choice like you could have when dining at Aloro in Bandon, Oregon.  You won’t starve to death picking this sort of minimalist inspector, but the long term consequences might give you indigestion.

Some of the more technical trades, and most “real” professions, have considerable amounts of education/training in order to perform their particular work.  Their qualifications revolve more around these huge amounts of education and training than it does around a specific “standards of practice” for the particular trade or profession.  Their “Standards of Practice” might be considered the particular “building codes” associated with their trade.

Our Standards of Practice are designed around what a real estate transaction will tolerate. 

They set a “minimum” expectation of performance that is too often seen as a “maximum” level of performance. In other words if they were more extensive or more in depth, they would take more time and cost more money and become an impediment to getting the deal done.  Real estate agents even suggesting what the “anticipated cost” of an inspection will be, or how long the inspection “should take,” or what the inspection should or should not include is all part of how the process is rigged.

We are unusual as a profession in that we attempt to create quality inspectors with minimal training and experience, but at the same time we want to  be able to guarantee good performance with a simplistic Standards of Practice.

Who among us wants to go to such a doctor, or lawyer, or electrician–one committed to doing the least amount possible? (I know it may seem like that at times.)

In terms of a real estate transaction, there is an imagined amount of information that is necessary to the transaction. Anything beyond that is by definition unwarranted–and certainly  not wanted (except for the very parties the whole process is for–the consumer).  What constitutes this “imagined amount of information” is kept somewhere inside a secret box to be dragged out when appropriate, to describe inspectors that are too nit-picky, too thorough, too slow, or write reports that are too long.

The excuses used to support this notion are things like the client would be overwhelmed by too much information, or that it would take too much time for the agent who might be in charge of baby-sitting the inspector, or that too much information might scare the buyer and result in ruining the deal.  It is even argued that the inspection would cost too much.

It is a strange dichotomy that home buyers are somehow too stupid to handle all the  information and yet smart enough to be homeowners.

Of course there are both inspectors and agents who are exceptions to this generalization–but that is because in any trade there are going to be practitioners that are “exceptional” as well as those that are “mediocre.”

The process also seems to assume everyone can or should be a homeowner.  In my experience the vast majority of home buyers are ill prepared to be home owners.  That a home inspector could help sort out whether the client is capable of being a homeowner would certainly be seen as an impediment to reaching closing.

The irony is that both really great agents, and really great home inspectors, are adversely affected by the status quo.

Short contingency periods and other various mechanisms are in place to make sure the process moves as quickly as possible.  The agent might not even be able to book the inspector they would prefer to recommend because of the inspection contingency is too short–the inspector is already booked.  Of course, historically, that has not been a problem because all inspectors were seen as basically doing the same thing, adhering to the same Standards of Practice, with only “personality” being the difference between inspectors.  After all, they pretty much all graduated from either  the Burger King, McDonalds or Jack-in-the-Box schools of home inspection–and some only ordered everything on-line–or at the drive-through.

The whole process needs to happen at a fast-food pace so there is no time for “buyers remorse” or “second thoughts” to rear their ugly heads.  Interestingly enough, this does not seem to be an issue in commercial inspections where there are much longer time frames to get things done.

The time constraints placed on residential purchases are “manufactured” with intention and purpose; and, maintained by apathy, entrenchment and making a quick buck.

If home inspectors want to be nothing more than a facilitator of real estate transactions, why not just drag it out of the closet and say so?

If home inspectors, with their checklists and flashlights, want to be more than TSA with their guns and dogs, we need to have the brains commensurate with what the job entails.  We need to attract the best and brightest to the profession and pay them what they deserve.

The business models of many home inspectors supports the status quo.  This seems especially true of multi-inspector firms that rely on volume to make it pencil out financially.  How are they going to get to the 3rd and 4th inspection of the day if more is expected of them?  Even inspectors themselves use time constraints as a reason to not go beyond the SOP’s or especially to resist improving the SOP’s or add new technology to performing inspections.

When I hear about home inspectors resisting new technology, or talking about “scope creep,” because it will increase the amount of time they would have to be on site, or how much the agent would have to be on site, it makes me wonder how much they are thinking about their client. It sounds to me, they may be more interested in their own business model and the agent’s business model, than they are in taking care of their client.  I am also aware the Standards of Practice work to “set expectations.”  To set them low, such that they are easy to meet and impress the client when the inspector goes beyond them.  Promising a client two apples when there are actually ten to give, should impress no one when the  third apple is given.

We do not need scope creep–we need scope leap!

I cannot imagine a client wanting to find out about all the things we do not do because it would take too much time to do them–in spite of the fact some of those things are even listed in the SOP’s.

What better way to keep the inspection minimal than to spell out “exactly” what the inspector is NOT going to do–is not “required” to do.

However, if we want to be something more, it is going to require a shift in the way we see ourselves as inspectors. Otherwise, the consumer will see us as nothing more than part of the house selling machine.

One of the many things that can be seen as supporting what I am saying is true, is indicated by the resistance to doing pre-listing inspections. Pre-listing inspections, while being of great value to a seller, will always be perceived as “outside” of business-as-usual because it provides a level of information that becomes part of the process well before the normal time frame. This miscellaneous information floating around is hard for the traditional transaction format to deal with–it is difficult to control.  The seller might decide to not even list the property or find a different agent.

It is necessary for the transaction to be controlled.

Anything that risks breaking that control is going to be frowned upon. Adhering to a minimal Standards of Practice works toward facilitating control.  Seeing the Standards of Practice as a “Maximum” of what we do facilitates control.  Making inspections inexpensive facilitates control.  Keeping inspection reports short facilitates control.  Having very short inspections facilitates control.

Arguing which association is better or which inspector provides the best service to their clients is a bit like picking 100 apples from the same tree and trying to figure out which apple tastes better.  It is akin to thinking there is any substantive difference between McDonald’s, Burger King and Jack-in-the-Box.

The consumer should be able to choose between hundreds of kinds of apples and choose to dine at the very best of restaurants if they want.

Given the minimal amount of education that it takes to become a home inspector (even a licensed home inspector) speaks volumes about how home inspectors are merely cogs in the real estate machine’s gears–meshed to promote the sale of homes.

Too often the mantra of home inspectors is to keep it simple. We are often very capable of informing, of explaining, of diagnosing, but instead we “withhold” information and leave clients adrift in an ocean of unknown possibilities.

We allow ourselves to be seen as the idiots we are by other professionals that are called in to figure out the things that not only should have been obvious to us but in some cases were obvious to us–we just didn’t say anything.

On top of this are the many things being espoused by home inspectors as gospel that are just plain wrong.  Generally poor vetting of home inspector education is still a huge problem for our profession, but it is all too painfully consistent with the educational materials available for entry into the profession.  And yes there are the less than professional professionals out there as well–and sometimes they are us.

In the State of Washington it takes in excess of 1000 hrs of education to become a barber, 300 hrs to become an animal massage practitioner and 200 hrs to become a reflexologist.  Most people come into Home Inspection Training assuming they don’t even need the 160 hrs required.  160 hours is not nearly enough.

Is it any wonder we attract the derision of some of trades whose work we are asked to inspect?

A “general electrical journeyman”  requires 8,000  experience-hours with 24 hours of basic classroom instruction for each 2000 experience-hours.  Residential Specialty plumbers require 6,000 hours of work experience on top of approved classroom training.

There is the argument that if we stick to only the Standards of Practice, the amount of entry level education should be adequate.  But if that was the case, why is continuing education even necessary?  Lets just forget all that continuing education and just stick to the SOP’s.

This is obviously NOT the answer.

There are indeed other opportunities for home inspectors besides the real estate transaction.

When a homeowner or building owner has a problem, unrelated to anything to do with buying a home, and home inspectors are not at the top of the list to sort out those issues, we are missing out on something else this profession can be all about.

It is also a sad indictment of how we are perceived by the public, and that perception is largely that we are merely part of the home-sales machine.

The home inspector association that confronts this mediocrity head on and develops a Standard of Practice, and an acceptable entry level training program, that reflects what it takes to understand a house, it’s present condition, and where the house is headed–beyond the traditional minimalist approach–will be well on their way to turning the Home inspection Industry into a real Home Inspection Profession.  We will cease to be a wannabe profession.

There are a growing number of inspectors who are not satisfied with “business as usual” and are providing much increased levels of service to their clients.  There are even great agents that are on board with this increased level of service as well. There are more and more inspectors where, inspections for real estate transactions is just one part of all they do.

These business models are met with considerable resistance from many of their peers, many real estate agents, but not from their clients.  These renegade inspectors are beginning to get paid fees commensurate with the service they are providing.  A big part of this resistance from other inspectors, is that if some inspectors provide more service, it puts pressure on everyone else to do more as well.  I think we can all see how unfortunate this would be for the consumer (tongue firmly in cheek).

Many home inspectors seem content with the same old same old.

Every day, homeowners and home buyers are coming into the marketplace better informed and are becoming less and less happy with the same old same old.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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  1. Hey Charles, I agree with a lot of what you say here, but I’m also one of the people who stands firmly in the “keep it simple” camp. I know your business model; you do about two inspections every three days, right?

    I say you’re doing business in a bubble. You’re doing inspections for people who read your blog, know who you are, and are the analytical type who want everything explained in detail. That doesn’t describe most home buyers.

    I believe that the best inspection reports will include lots of photos, lots of diagrams, be easy to understand, and be filled with hyperlinks giving excellent information about as many topics as possible. That’s a big part of why I blog.

    • Charles Buell says:

      Reuben, you may be right about my “bubble” but I love my bubble 🙂 I have no way to know what percentage of buyers do not want my business model because they likely do not call me. I am skeptical that such people are a very big number—but like I said, I have not way of really knowing.

      • James Quarello says:

        I would agree with Reuben. In the course of the purchase, I have found many buyers can be over whelmed by a plethora of information. I think a major part of what we should be focused on is the client themselves. Some do want the analytical, in depth, every piece of minutia inspection, and many do not. They are looking for the “major stuff” with a sprinkling of deeper information. One should be paying attention to the level of which the client is willing to take in the information, not what WE believe they should be taking in. The other part of that would be to make ones self available for later consult. There we can satisfy the more in depth aspects of information.

        • Charles Buell says:

          Jim, and if that is true, that there are those that might be overwhelmed, that would be a reason for different business models. I personally never hear about that scenario but perhaps those people weed themselves out before they call me. As to what they need as to information related to the transaction, that is what the summary is for, the rest is more “plan of action” related to the house—how it can be maintained, improved etc over time.

          • James Quarello says:

            I think you may be missing my point. Its not about hearing it, its about being perceptive, receptive to your clients. One can create a bias through their business model. What you experience may in fact be true….in the inspection environment you have created through your business model. Its not that yours is wrong or bad, its just your perceptions. You raise many great points for discussion on improvement of the industry, BUT we are in a service business. The clients needs trump all others. One must not become caught up in their own ideals at the expense of the big picture.

          • Charles Buell says:

            Jim, I do hear what you are saying I just am not sure it is going to be possible for either of us to get past what is at best anecdotal information related to our perceptions.

  2. James Quarello says:

    True, which is why these ideas need to be discussed and explored to bring this “profession further along.

  3. Mark Bishton says:

    I truly respect all 3 of you guys. Thanks for giving me the chance to say that.

    Everybody wants as good an inspection as they can get. Most don’t want to pay for what it costs, and those who have no idea of what the importance of a top notch an inspection is have little besides price to influence them.

    Those that do typically will do the due diligence to get one and while the sticker price opens their eyes, they do not choose 2nd best.

    We are like doctors diagnosticians. How do you choose your doctors? I call friends and friends of friends for referrals.

    Jim, I know we all agree that the client’s needs come first, but I also think that I usually know what they are more so than they do. That should not preclude me from listening and observing for them, but this is not that complicated. They need to know what kind of condition is the house in, why, how to act on the significant deficiencies, how to operate, why and how to take care of their house & why. All we have to do it the first thing. What we can do is whatever our skill set enables us to do and whatever we can successfully plug into our business plan. There are people who can afford to have us on retainer just to ensure everything that happens at their place is or has been done well and would be well off to do that?

    Sometimes the questions that a buyer of services should have are not so obvious. I feel like I should know the right questions to ask when they are shopping for inspectors or while I am inspecting a house, but not my client. During my inspections, I ask most of the questions then give the answers, but the best way to find any service person is by referral.

    The only thing left then is determining who will refer us. Nothing is better than a client referral unless it is a referral by a client who is a nit picky engineer, but immediately 2nd are people in the real estate industry including lenders & of them, the ones who are held in highest regard by their clients, not necessarily the most successful $$$ wise, although sometimes they are one in the same.

    Here in Indiana all a nonfelon has to do to get a license is 60 classroom hours & take the test. Most schools give them a few more hours but all any of them do is teach how to pass the test. The average new inspector isn’t hardly competent enough to take a bifold door off & put it back on and they’ve been taught not to, if it blocks getting an access panel off. They’ve also been taught that their clients are just aching to sue, so they disclaim, obfuscate and/or recommend further evaluation for everything of consequence. Licensing in this state has lowered the bar & flooded the market. Turns out some fish don’t do well when the water goes down and leaves them on the bank.

    Charles & I have traveled similar paths. We started off as young builders trying to build as good a house as we could and the next time a better one. We built reputations as builders for being honest, considerate and particular about our product. This added the reputation of ‘costing more’ than the other guys & narrowed our market, but screened out clientele who didn’t recognize that cost was not the most important thing when it came to building the place they would call home.

    I think our inspection businesses evolved the same way, how else could they?

    When a small business is successful, it gets pressured to do more, get bigger. If it takes that course, the owner becomes a manager & soon hangs up their tools. Eventually some realize one day that the business’ reputation is tied more to the worst employee, subcontractor or supplier than to the best. A lot of the time the income helps overlook that, but I couldn’t. That was an epiphany for me and I basically jumped my own ship into the little dinghy that was the best way to describe my inspection business at the start. It turned out to be a true lifeboat and when the choice to get bigger came again, I chose to just do more/better for my clients and charge more. I learned how to screen clients better so I am generally working for better humans who don’t need to be sold on the $/Q quality ratio. I almost only am referred by agents who are good humans and appreciate that the $/Q ratio. They can cut & paste the language from my reports into the inspection response. They know that I truly do speak house and can write it too. At this point I am doing less than half the inspections that I once did, make just a little more, and actually have free time.

    The one thing we can all control is the quality of our service, to our clients, to their agent and to ourselves.

    I think I wrote this one other time, but my first exposure to ASHI was a big 3 day chapter seminar. I met all kinds of inspectors but there were some that stood out as honest, sincere, and not satisfied when they weren’t expanding their knowledge and graciously willing to give to their industry and fellow inspectors. I wanted to be like those ASHI inspectors and the only way to do that, seemed to be, to become an ASHI inspector.

    I didn’t particularly want to become an ASHI inspector; I just wanted to be like those ASHI guys. Thanks to so many of those guys and guys like you guys, I am.
    Thanks for reading my riff!

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