I was reminded of the idea for this post from a comment on one of the inspector Facebook forums. I think we have all heard the scenario where the Home Inspector inspects an older home with his or her “New-Home” glasses on. The scenario is about how, when the house was built, everything was “up to code,” but today it is not “up to code,” so it is “wrong-and-has-to-be-fixed-yesterday.”
There are indeed some real estate agents that would have other agents, home inspectors and the rest of the world think that this is the way Home Inspectors are in general. They would like everyone to believe that home inspectors are all committed to turning every old POS into something that just received its first certificate of occupancy.
There are a couple of significant fallacies with this notion.
Number 1 Fallacy:
There are HUGE discrepancies with which codes were in place when the home was built and when those codes where adopted by any particular jurisdiction or even whether there were any applicable codes at all. What we have come to know as the modern IRC codes that include, plumbing codes, electrical codes, HVAC codes, building codes, fuel gas codes etc are relatively new. That the legislators of States routinely adopt the latest version of the IRC codes is an even more recent development. If your house was built prior to 1975, there is a safe bet that, unless you live in a large metropolitan area, there may not have been any enforced codes.
Electrical codes were perhaps some of the earliest widely adopted codes—with enforcement and inspections. Burning down our homes, businesses and even entire cities will have that effect.
I cringe when someone tells me that something built in 1950 “met code” at the time. I have even heard someone claim that a house built in 1901 met the codes of the time it was built. Just what code would that have been? Many cities didn’t even have building departments in 1950—let alone building codes—we can pretty much forget 1901. There were permits for installing boilers, doing electrical work and other mechanicals in the home—in some areas. These codes were the first to get on board. The quality of work and any “oversight” of work done, largely resided with people trained in the School of Hard Knocks as well as trade schools—especially after the Second World War.
Houses and their systems were not as complicated in those days—we could afford to just throw tons of BTU’s at a structure and call it good. We were a rich and wasteful nation—a nation that has been forced kicking-and-screaming to care—to conserve.
Number 2 Fallacy:
With older housing stock, a home inspector cannot afford to care what code cycle something was constructed under or even whether any applicable codes were in place or not.
We have to look at them from the perspective of what is wrong with them by “today’s standards.” No other lens will keep people safe or leave a buyer fully informed.
We merely observe, report, and recommend.
The fact that something has hung on the side of a house for 30 years or supported a house for 100 years, cannot be the end of the story for the inspector. We must look at all components to see how they are performing today, with today’s information resources. In other words, there is an assumption that we have learned something in the last 30 years or 100 years—not in a final way, but as a process.
Why would we think that anything from another Jurassic time period is still satisfactory today? Why would we not want to apply all that we have learned, and apply it to making things better today–to keep someone from killing themselves today?
In conclusion, we as inspectors must look at every house with the idea that many things can benefit from upgrading to today’s standards and that in some cases it might be downright dangerous and irresponsible to not do so.
Does any seller have to upgrade anything, or heed anything we have to say?
With a few exceptions, the answer is no. I think a lot of the confusion around this could be alleviated if real estate agents did more to educate their clients, our clients, about the idea that just because the inspector has some REALLY great recommendations, it does not mean the seller has to pay any attention to most of them. Most of it is merely for the buyer’s own information so that they can make their lives better if they want to—not to force the seller to make the buyer’s lives better.
Of course this is what negotiation is all about isn’t it? There will always be things that one will likely be able to wrestle from the seller—life and safety concerns typically. Many of the other things discovered during the inspection must be kept in the context of what one is buying. One cannot expect the seller of a 1947 house to hand over the keys to a house free of lead paint and asbestos. If a buyer does not want those things in their dream home—pick something newer—something less of a nightmare.
The real question here is why did the agent (assuming they understood the buyer’s dreams at all) bother to show them a house from this time frame in the first place?
On the other hand if there are obvious issues that could result in burning the house down in the near future, or the crawl space could double as a lap pool, you might reasonably expect some improvements to be made. This is true of even homes sold “as is.” A potential sale is on the hook waiting to be reeled in.
A fisherman will tell you that once you have one of the few fish in the pond on the hook, why would you let it go?
Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle