Building Officials and Home Inspectors: Not the Same

I know there is confusion out there about what a Home Inspector does. Over the years that I’ve been a Home Inspector, I’ve explained it several times to clients who ask for an ‘Appraisal”, an ‘Assessment’ or a ‘Building Inspection’. Sometimes they had the right understanding but used the wrong title, other times they truly misunderstood the roles and a more detailed explanation was required.

HomeXam Inspector

Appraisals are performed by an Appraiser to establish the market value of a property; usually for the purpose of securing mortgage financing (see The Difference Between a Home Inspection and an Appraisal). Assessments also set a value on the property but for property tax purposes and typically lag behind the current appraised market value.

This morning I happened across yesterday’s article in the Calgary Sun entitled “City improves home inspection process”. The caption reads, “Getting a home inspection done on a property is a sure way to identify major structural problems in your prospective home.” Unfortunately the headline and caption are a mismatch for an article that clearly describes the work performed by a municipal building official.

Building officials conduct their series of inspections in step with the construction stages of a house. Here in Ottawa, builders go through nine different inspections by building officials, plus a geotechnical soils report confirming soil-bearing capacity, electrical inspections by the Electrical Safety Authority and septic inspections, if warranted. Your municipality may define the stages a bit differently but will the share the same intent. This is all a mandatory part of the building permit process for new homes that builders must comply with. The eventual homeowner has no need to be involved as long as an Occupancy Permit is successfully obtained. Clearly municipal building officials take on a lot of responsibility for the quality of homes being built in our communities. While the article applauds the value of their efforts, it is only fair to correctly attribute the credit to the right profession. Thank you Building Officials.

In contrast, Home Inspectors do the the vast majority of their work after the home is already built. The most common type of home inspection is performed as a condition of sale to discover issues with the home before a purchase agreement is fully executed. We don’t get to see the footings, behind finished walls and ceilings but still have a long list of items to review. In addition to structural and safety issues we also assess the condition of the major components of a home as it ages. New home inspections are sometimes performed to help consumers with warranty reporting when their province has such a program.

While some of the knowledge base and items inspected overlaps, Home Inspectors have a different job to do than Building Officials. Both are needed at different times in the life cycle of a home to protect consumers. It’s pretty simple really. Just to clarify this for consumers, Home Inspectors do home inspections; building officials do building inspections according to the building code in response to the issuance of a building permit. Kudos to the City of Calgary for their improvements to their building inspection process. Let’s hope city hall doesn’t get too many calls for home inspections next week. If you need a home inspection visit, the Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors at www.cahpi.ca to find a qualified Home Inspector.

Home Inspector Licensing in Ontario

The Ministry of Consumer Services of Ontario has been holding discussions with various stakeholders to investigate the possibility of introducing the licensing home inspectors (see stakeholder report). For the record, I am in favour of licensing for home inspectors, if done properly. So here’s my take on what ‘done properly’ means. The goal here should be to ensure that consumers receive at least the minimum level of competency when they hire a home inspector. Not only does this include the working knowledge that a home inspector must have before taking on their first inspection client, it should also include the a basic definition of what must be inspected.

Inspecting Panel

Let’s start with the education component. At the moment, anyone can claim they are a home inspector. If a rookie ‘inspector’ has never owned a home or had significant construction experience, it seems fair to question their ability to offer a home inspection service. What might be less apparent is that even for people with significant construction experience, there’s still a lot to learn. The trades operate as specialties that address different construction tasks. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, heating and cooling specialists, roofers, drywall, are just a subset of the segregated roles played in constructing a house. Also, there are those who work for decades on commercial projects rather than residential construction. My point is that for business reasons home construction has become very specialized and a narrow field of experience is not enough for doing home inspections. There’s no doubt that trade experience and knowledge is helpful; but it’s not enough. You might not expect it, but tradespeople hire home inspectors too.

Home inspectors by training and experience are generalists. They are able to examine multiple aspects of a home looking for signs of functional problems and safety concerns. As a rule, we don’t have the depth of experience that trade people do, but we have more breadth. If we find signs that call for that detailed knowledge, we will call for further evaluation of that aspect of the home by a contractor or trades-person.

As for the basic definition, there won’t be much value in any licensing scheme that fails to establish a consistent baseline on the minimum scope of a home inspection. Every inspection should review the roof, exterior, plumbing, electrical, heating, cooling, insulation, interior and structural elements. Individual inspectors may choose to look at more than this baseline, but all licensed inspectors must review this minimum scope of work to call their service a home inspection. In the professional association that I belong to we refer to this baseline as our Standard of Practice.

The home inspection industry has a problem with it’s position in the real estate sales process. There is an inherent ethical issue when the real estate agent’s compensation is paid by the seller and they are allowed to influence the hiring of the home inspector. The temptation to refer work to inspectors who might be less thorough is a concern. The home inspector should always act as an objective and independent information resource for the buyer. In addition to the consumer, the real estate industry will be well served by removing this perceived conflict of interest by not allowing agents to refer home inspectors under any circumstance.

There are also some concerns about the possible costs and bureaucracy that might evolve into the process of licensing. To address these issues and to successfully implement a licensing process, I offer these guidelines for consideration:

  • A minimum program of education that covers the breadth of the standard of practice and professional ethics to be successfully completed with written exams before practising. Existing college programs to be considered for exemptions.
  • An ongoing educational requirement that can be fulfilled by attending relevant conference seminars and courses.
  • Mandatory errors and omission insurance with sufficient competition to maintain costs.
  • Significant fines for unlicensed inspections.
  • Reduction of the reporting window to two years from the date of inspection.
  • License fee of $250 or less.

Some concerns arise when unnecessary requirements come into the mix. I have heard the idea of criminal background checks being required. Inspections are always accompanied. There seems little risk of this being a problem. While it might seem like a prudent precaution, I have yet to hear of an inspector accused of theft. I have had to undergo background checks for being a landlord, for my volunteer work, and to drive my daughter and her team-mates to sporting events. When did it become standard practice to prove you have not been convicted of a crime to work in our society?

Finally, there is some discussion around the idea in the field testing of inspectors to be completed on a five year cycle to remain active. I can see where this gains support with the tougher is better crowd, but I find the value of this to be questionable. If you are successfully doing inspections and pursuing ongoing education, I see little need to keep re-qualifying. My fear is that this is more about revenue generation than improving inspectors and all these cost must eventually be paid by consumers.

The fundamental service that a home inspector provides is to help inform the client of the presence of issues in a home they are in the process of buying. A key component of the value proposition of a home inspection is that the client leaves the process more informed about the condition of the home. There is a lot of confusion in the marketplace about what a home inspection is and there are some common home inspection myths held by the public. Licensing home inspectors should help to ensure consumers have common expectations of home inspections and are consistently provided quality reports. I have tried to outline the major issues with respect to the licensing of home inspectors operating in Ontario and hope that the final process will benefit all.


Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2014 HomeXam Inc.
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