Ask your home inspector a simple question: “Would you buy this house?”
by Walter Jowers
This being prime house-buying season, I figure now is a good time for me to give you house-shoppers some insight into the unspoken rules that have made their way into the real estate and home inspection professions.
As I’ve explained in recent weeks, most of the home inspections done in our part of the world—and as far as I know, everywhere else—are done by inspectors who were referred by real estate agents. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you’d hand your real estate agent a half-million bucks and walk them to a plane headed for the Cayman Islands, I say go ahead and hire your favorite home inspector. But if you wouldn’t trust them with a half-million—and you think they just might put you in a money pit if it meant picking up a quick $15,000 in commission—I say find your own home inspector.
In case you’re wondering, there are some local real estate agents I’d trust with a suitcase full of money, and some I wouldn’t trust to bring back change—or beer—from a beer run. The critical part of buying a house is finding a dead-honest real estate agent who’d rip their own eyes out of the sockets before she’d cheat you.
Whether you go with your agent’s home inspector or you pick your own, be sure you do a little research. For instance, read some of his inspection reports. Check for literacy, critical-thinking skills, and straightforward writing. Check his education. He could be anything from a kindergarten dropout to a Ph.D.
Then, on inspection day, as soon as he’s finished looking at the house, give him one last test. Ask him the questions that he’s been told he should never answer. You might as well start with The Big One, the question for which just about every home inspector has a joke reply, a boilerplate answer or a roundabout, deceptive remark that he hopes will change the subject.
Ask him if he would buy the house.
As soon as the words leave your lips, there will be an eerie silence. If you look quickly, you might see your real estate agent shooting your home inspector the “don’t go there” look, and you might see him shoot back the “don’t worry I’ve rehearsed this” look.
Somewhere in every home inspector’s career, he is told that giving a straight answer to this question is a deal-breaker, a career-ender. If he gives a straight answer, he’s liable to get dropped from the real estate agents’ referral lists. So, he’ll serve up some, uh, baloney. Something like: “Gee whiz, Mrs. Cleaver, that’s a beautiful necklace. It really looks nice with the chandelier in this fine foyer. This is a really swell house, but I’ve got a house already and my wife sure likes it. Heh, heh.”
Maybe it’s just me, but I think anybody who’s getting paid to answer questions about a big financial decision should give his customer straight answers. In the last 20 or so years, I’ve answered The Big One lots of times. Most of the time, I answered something like this: “If I had come over here this morning ready to buy this house, I’d still be ready to buy it.” That was my usual answer because it was the truth. We hardly ever found nasty, deal-breaking surprises in well-kept houses.
A few times, at houses that looked OK at first but turned out to be God-awful, I answered bluntly: “Nope. I wouldn’t buy this house. There’s just too much wrong. I’d never get it all fixed. Truth is, if you were my baby sister, you’d have to kill me before I’d let you buy this house.”
Fewer times, I’ve said this: “Yep. I’d buy it in a second. In fact, if you change your mind, let me know. I’ll snatch this sum-bitch up.” Nobody ever called.
There are other questions that home inspectors have been trained to duck. A while back, a home inspector in another state suggested that his customer—a single woman with a young daughter—check police records to see if there had been any recent criminal activity at the house or in the immediate area. Well, it turned out that there had been trouble in and around the house. Even so, the real estate agent threatened to “blackball” the home inspector because he strayed from his role and cost the agent a commission check.
A home inspector in a nearby state once told me that he wasn’t allowed to “give real estate advice.” I assume that meant that he was prohibited—by law—from talking about the value of a house, the quality of a neighborhood, zoning issues and the like.
Best I can tell, there’s an unspoken rule that a home inspector can talk all day about the good features of a house or neighborhood, but when it comes to bad things, he’s supposed to stick to the hard cold facts, and keep it short. If he departs from that script, the folks who sent him the referral will find somebody who’s more compliant.
Me, I’m just going to stick to a rule I picked up some years ago from Tampa home inspector Mark Cramer: “If somebody asks you a question and you know the answer, answer the question.”