The Four-Letter Word

Code. It’s considered a “four-letter word” by some home inspectors, and the reason why we have building codes is often misunderstood. Code refers to the set of rules that specify the standards intended to (hopefully) guide the contractors who built the structure that you are now inspecting. The main purpose of codes is to provide construction guidelines that help to protect public health, safety and general welfare. Codes exist to help protect us from unscrupulous contractors looking to take shortcuts in the building process in order to maximize their profit margins.

building waiting to have a home inspection

Unfortunately, the extent to which home inspectors are responsible for inspecting code-related issues is quite a murky issue. During our continuing education (CE) classes, it seems that every time someone brings up the idea of code a “heated discussion” always ensues. There are always a handful of (typically older) home inspectors that immediately start to complain that “we are not responsible for code” inspections, and therefore shouldn’t have to learn anything about it. This always strikes me as amusing, as (almost) everything we do as home inspectors is, in one way or another, is based off code requirements.

Looking in the electric panel to see if the wire size matches the breaker size?
That’s code.

Chimney sticking out far enough past the roof?
Guess what: Code.

Proper handrails on that set of stairs?
You got it. Code again.

It’s ironic that most of the laws and standards across the country preclude code from our home inspection process. Don’t misunderstand me, as I am certainly not in favor of making home inspectors responsible for verifying code compliance. I just think that the more an inspector knows about code requirements, the better an inspector they will be. They will be able to do a more thorough inspection, provide a better product for their paying client and be better able to defend themselves against potential conflicts with contractors trying to discredit them as well as attorneys trying to get at their assets.

attorney about to sue a home inspector

This article was precluded by a recent discussion that I had with another inspector about whether they should write a defect in their report. It was an older home, and the inspector was debating whether to include a particular electric panel defect in their report, as they thought that the problem was probably allowed by code at the time that the house was constructed. It was a benign issue, and the inspector (who is relatively new to the profession) was worried that having that information in the report would cause the client to freak out about the panel and demand that the entire panel be rewired by the seller.

My advice was that he should always include any potential defects that he observes in his report. Whether or not those defects make it to the summary page are always something that must be a separate consideration. In this case, at issue was the fact that there were multiple neutral wires installed under a single screw in the electrical panel. While this is not correct according to the NEC, it is not a deficiency that I usually include in my summary page. This issue is (typically) easily remedied for a minimal monetary investment, and doesn’t pose an immediate health/safety concern, so it typically remains in the body of my report without a mention.

The inspector was worried about what to say if questioned about the defect. When I am posed such a question, I typically explain that I am there to discover deficiencies and report on them. I am not there to advise the client which repairs to ask for and which to put on the back-burner for later consideration. That’s what their real estate agent is there for. It’s simply my job to report on the defects that are visible at the time of the inspection.

As I typically provide a summary with my reports, it can be argued that I am assigning importance to the various defects that were uncovered during the inspection. However, I always include language with my summary page that clearly states that the items listed in the summary are simply items that I would consider to be important if I was purchasing the home. I advise my clients to thoroughly read the entire report and discuss the findings with their real estate professional, as everyone has their own ideas regarding what is most important when buying a home, and my priorities may not be the same as theirs.

read and learn more about home inspections

Every inspector must decide for themselves how far to go in learning about the various codes and requirements involved in residential construction. Some will (attempt to) ignore code entirely, while some will take the extraordinary steps to become a certified code inspector. There is no right or wrong answer in this regard.

The fact is the more knowledge that you possess, the more you will benefit your business.

-You can provide a better product for your client.

-You will be in a better position to defend your report from lesser-educated people who want to disprove your findings.

-You will eventually attract a higher caliber of clientele.

-And you can charge a premium for your now more valuable services.

Seems like a no-brainer to me…

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

-Robert Orben

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Thanks, Joe

pic of me, Joseph Cook Jr, home inspector