Posts Tagged ‘Alan Carson’s Blog’

Alan Carson’s Blog

Thursday, June 5th, 2008
Alan Carson

Alan Carson

This is my blog, so it’s my opinion. It’s not the last word on any subject. You are welcome to read, encouraged to consider, and should feel free to disagree.

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Guidelines are not rules

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

Based on recent conversations with some inspectors, I fear there is a problem that may be hurting your business by creating unhappy customers, while increasing your liability.

Virtually all report writing systems have a bunch of standard items. They are easy to use. Most inspectors have some guidelines for report writing – e.g. I report defective electrical outlets as being in various locations, rather than naming two locations and missing several I did not test. These guidelines are often not written down; it’s just what you do every time you see a situation. It’s why you get more comfortable with experience: you have seen it before and thought through how to handle it already.

Here is what I believe:

  1. You are not constrained by the items in your report writing tool.
  2. You are not bound by any guideline you follow, whether written down or not.
  3. You are bound by good professional judgement. Change, remove or replace an item if does not fit the situation. If there is nothing in your database that describes the situation adequately, add something.
  4. I am seeing inspectors who are unwilling to customize reports to describe what is there. Is it fear of making a mistake? Is it laziness? I don’t know. But I believe it is hurting those who do it.
  5. Deviate when common sense dictates – e.g. if you are in a large home with a large fee and there is very little wrong, and the client asks you to record where you found the electrical outlet problems, by all means do it, even if you have to add something to your report. Also, report that there may be others since you could not test them all. Good customer service – no liability increase. Win-win.

There are lots of guidelines to help you follow the only rule – “Do the right thing – for your customer and for you.” It may take a little longer, but it will help you and your business.”

Report writing strategy using Horizon Home Inspection Software

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Our report writing goals are quality and speed, in that order. Horizon is like lots of tools. You can use it in a primitive way to get the job done, or you can use it elegantly and do a better job. Here are some ways to use Horizon Laptop to save time writing great reports.

Descriptions and Limitations

This is the boring stuff. We include descriptions to meet the standards, and limitations to manage our liability. You can use Required Items or Templates to get these done. Let’s start with Required Items.

Set up your Required Items on the Web. They are easy to set up and easy to change. Include all the items that you need to meet the standards. Here’s our list:

  1. Describe the methods used to inspect under-floor crawl spaces and attics (You might do this in Limitations.)
  2. Describe the foundation
  3. Describe the floor structure
  4. Describe the wall structure
  5. Describe the ceiling structure
  6. Describe the roof structure
  7. Describe the cladding/siding
  8. Describe the roofing materials
  9. Describe the methods used to inspect the roofing (You might do this in Limitations.)
  10. Describe water supply, drain, waste, and vent piping materials
  11. Describe the water heating equipment including energy source(s)
  12. Describe the location of main water and fuel shut-off valves
  13. Describe the amperage and voltage rating of the service
  14. Describe the location of main disconnect(s) and sub panels
  15. Describe the presence of solid conductor aluminum branch circuit wiring
  16. Describe the presence or absence of smoke detectors
  17. Describe the wiring methods
  18. Describe the heating system
  19. Describe the energy source for the heating system
  20. Describe the cooling system
  21. Describe the energy source for the cooling system
  22. Describe the insulation and vapor retarders in unfinished spaces
  23. Describe the absence of insulation in unfinished spaces at conditioned surfaces
  24. Describe fireplaces and solid fuel burning appliances
  25. Describe chimneys

To start writing your report, click on Required Items. Then click on the Quick Edit tool (see below).

The Quick Edit Tool

The items for the first Required Item will pop up. Select the item you want and Horizon will move you to the next heading. You can complete all of your Descriptions and Limitations very quickly. Use the Back and Next arrows to move forward or back.

Using the Quick Edit Tool

Using the Quick Edit Tool

Templates are another option. Set up templates for different homes in Profile on the Web side. You might have templates for new homes, 1980s homes, 1960s homes, 1930s homes, century homes, ranch bungalows in a certain part of town, intercity rowhouses, etc.

Once your templates are set up, they will be carried down to Horizon Laptop the next time you sync. To complete your Descriptions and Limitations for any report, simply click on the applicable template. It will make all of these entries for you. Use the Report so far tool to make sure that these say exactly what you want to say.


Recommendations are the meaningful part of the report. If you use photos, you can use the photos to guide your work in adding recommendations. Some inspectors actually use their camera instead of a notepad or clipboard. You can take a photo of anything you want to comment on. Photos are faster to take and are more accurate than written notes. You can take photos of equipment data plates too.

When you start writing reports, upload the photos into the first recommendation you make. Uploading photos is fast and easy – from the Notes screen just click Load photos. You can load a folder or just one file. Horizon goes to the same folder on your computer every time to find the photos, and uploads them in the order you took them. You can select small or large previews. You can select any bad photos and delete them as a group, fast.

Use the photos to guide you to the next recommendation you want to make. If the first photo is a rusted metal chimney go to the Chimney recommendations. Make the Chimney Recommendation, and add the photo. You can easily add edits and a caption if you want. Before you close the photo area, note what the next photo is. That will be your next recommendation. Make that recommendation, add the photo, and move on to the next, and so on.

Any photos you don’t use in your report are kept on file for your records.


Use Required Items or Templates to enter Descriptions and Limitations. Use photos to enter Recommendations. It’s fast, it’s easy and it makes for great reports!

Good functional features

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

A controversial topic is whether you should point out positive features of a home.  On the one hand, you might argue that the role of a home inspector is to describe the condition of the home, and if the home is in really good condition you should tell the client that.  On the other hand, people worry that you are selling the home and trying to appease a real estate agent if you say anything positive.

I land on the side of telling people about good functional components of the house.  I don’t suggest commenting on cosmetics, but if the house has new high-quality shingles installed well, I think that’s relevant.  If the house has a high-efficiency furnace instead of a regular furnace, I think we should let the client know that.  If the air-conditioning system has a scroll compressor, a very high SEER, a filter/dryer, a thermostatic expansion valve or any other high quality options, it speaks to a quality installation, and I think the client should be told.  While we probably don’t need to point it out to most homeowners, I would suggest that a granite countertop is much more functional than a laminate surface.

If the diameter of the water service entry type on the plumbing system is one inch diameter, instead of the typical half inch or three-quarter inch pipe, that’s noteworthy in my opinion.  That one inch diameter service pipe will deliver better water flow and pressure.  If the water heater is 20 gallons larger than I would typically find in a house that size, I let the client know.  I have said that we should report vulnerable conditions, even if nothing has failed yet.  To me, this is the other side of the issue.  If things are better than normal, or what would be expected, this is part of describing the condition of the home.  We have never had an objection from a client for pointing out these things.  The objections are more likely to come from other home inspectors.

I should be clear that I do not condone misrepresenting the home or making up positive features.  If none exist, say nothing.

Life expectancy

Friday, October 24th, 2008

This is an optional thing that a lot of home inspectors include in their reports.  Life expectancies are often projected for heating and cooling systems, water heaters and roofs.  There are couple of ways to do this.  You can indicate how many years of life you think remain.  You might be wise to give a range if you do this. 

You can also indicate the age of the system (you can narrow it down quite nicely on mechanical equipment) and the typical life expectancy.  For example, you might say the furnace is 12 years old, and this type of furnace has a typical life expectancy of 15 to 20 years.  I leave it at that. You don’t have to do the math and tell the client how much life likely remains.  You might be wise to indicate that premature failures do occur from time to time.  It’s kind of like predicting when a light bulb will burn out.

By the way, if you have trouble identifying each piece of mechanical equipment, our book called Technical Reference Guide is pretty useful.  You can get it by calling 800-268-7070.

I prefer the second approach, for mechanical equipment at least.  It’s more difficult to know the specific age of an asphalt roof, for example.  There are lots of variables that affect the life expectancy of roofs.  If the roof is relatively new, that is a good thing most homebuyers would like to know.  We will often say the roof appears to be in the first third of its life.  If the normal roof life expectancy is 15 years, that might mean the roof is less than five years old.  If the roof is neither new nor old, we might describe it as being in the middle third of its life.  If it is showing its age, we might say the last third.  If it’s quite worn, we will say replacement is recommended either immediately or within the next year.

This is all part of helping the home buyer understand and feel the same way about the house as you do.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater

Monday, October 20th, 2008

This old saying has some relevance in the world of home inspection.  It means you shouldn’t get rid of something valuable while getting rid of something worthless.  It’s a problem for home inspectors, because if we make one little mistake in our report, it throws our whole credibility into question.  People often dismiss an entire inspection report because of one error.  It’s not necessarily fair, but people wonder where else you messed up.  We need to be really careful, and we need to stay within our scope when writing reports to reduce the risk of errors.

When the media thinks it’s a problem

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

Sometimes issues are raised in the media that are of considerable concern to our clients.  A lot of times, we don’t have any particular problem with these issues, but need to recognize that our clients may be concerned and need good information.  This may include things like urea formaldehyde foam insulation, vermiculite insulation that contains asbestos, aluminum wiring, radon, knob and tube electrical wiring, and so on.  The way we like to address these issues is to find authoritative sources that can be quoted to refute a media buzz that has created an issue for consumers.  We try not to be dismissive of the issue, but help the client put it in perspective.  In some cases, we don’t believe it’s any problem at all; in other cases, we point out how it can be dealt with easily and inexpensively.

Vulnerable conditions

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

Sometimes there is nothing broken, but we think there’s a problem about to happen.  A badly worn roof, a 35-year-old forced air furnace, a lot that directs all the surface water toward the house, or a corroded pipe are all examples of things that I think we should write up even if they’re still working.  Where we think failure is imminent, we include it in our reports.  If you were a lay person buying the house, wouldn’t you want to know?


Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

This is the meat and potatoes of the report. Homebuyers want to know what’s wrong with the home. We think there are a few elements to reporting each recommendation as listed above. Let’s look at each:

  • Component – We need to tell the client what component or system has the problem.
  • Condition - We need to say what the problem is: Inoperative, loose, broken, missing, sagging, etc.
  • Location – If the problem could be anywhere (front left downspout), or there are several problems (windows), you probably need to give the location. If the whole roof is the issue, location may not be necessary.
  • Implication – The client needs to understand what will happen if they don’t do anything about the problem. Let’s look at cracks. The implication of a cracked pane of window glass is very different from a cracked furnace heat exchanger. And the implication of a foundation crack is different than either. By the way, the implication of a foundation crack can be anything from nothing, to possible leakage, to foundation failure. Some implications require a little explanation. Most people do not know what reversed polarity means.
  • Task/Action Item/Direction – Whatever you call it, we have to tell the client what to do about it. Some things are fairly straightforward, like a rusted, leaking plumbing trap. Some things may not be straightforward, like that foundation crack. Your instructions may be repair, replace, provide, improve correct, monitor or further evaluation if you are not sure of the implications, extent of the problem, etc.
  • Time – While not required by most Standards, you may want to help clients prioritize by telling them when they should do things. You might say Immediate for the plumbing trap, Within the next year for that old roof, Unpredictable for that 13-year-old air conditioner, and Discretionary for the lost seal on the double-glazed dining room window.
  • Cost - Some home inspectors include ballpark costs to improve problems. This is often market specific. The majority of home inspectors do not include costs. The Standards do not require it. We do include costs, and typically provide a range of 100%. I might say that a mid-efficiency furnace costs $2500-$5000. We also say that any cost up to $500 is described in the report as Minor. Our Life Cycles and Costs document might be helpful with ballpark costs. It’s available on
  • Cause – You may have noticed I did not include the cause of the problem as something to report. That’s because I think it’s often a bad idea. Why?
    • Speculating on the cause increases your liability, since it often includes a lot of guesswork. If you are wrong, that can hurt you. It can be very tough to know the cause. Look at something as simple as an inoperative light. What is the cause?
      1. No bulb
      2. Bulb burned out
      3. Faulty ballast on fluorescent light
      4. Switch defective
      5. Fixture damaged
      6. Bad connection
      7. Wire damaged
      8. Fuse blown or breaker tripped
      9. GFI or AFCI tripped
    • The Standards do not require it.
    • If you speculate on cause for one condition, you may be expected to do it for all. We think reports should be written consistently, and we consistently do not discuss the cause of problems.
    • Most of your peers don’t do it.
    • The cause does not usually matter. Whether the roof was damaged by hail, raccoons, squirrels or people hacking away at ice dams with axes doesn’t really matter. The roof needs to be repaired or replaced. Why the pipe cracked doesn’t matter; it’s leaking! Fix it!
    • Sidebar: If the problem you see is a symptom of a condition, you need to understand the real condition. That sometimes feels like a cause. The basement gets wet every time it rains because the downspout is disconnected.


Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

This mostly for the benefit of the Standards, and this section was originally required primarily for the benefit of people who reviewed reports trying to decide whether to let you into the group. Your ability to describe the house components gave reviewers some indication of your competence. The Descriptions may not be of much interest to clients unless they need it to answer questions. The Descriptions may be helpful if the insurance company wants to know some details about the home, for example.

I think some of the things many inspectors put in their reports are a waste of time. They don’t help the client or the inspector much. More about that in another discussion.