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Ask the Inspector

Referrals Must Be Based on Competence, Not Gain

November 19, 2000|BARRY STONE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: Before buying my home, I called a home inspector who was highly recommended. As it turned out, he was booked too far in advance, but he recommended another home inspector by name. I trusted this as a reliable referral.

But since moving in, major problems with my plumbing and heating have been found, and now I'm told that the inspector I hired has only been in business a short time. To make things worse, I've learned that inspector No. 1 received a referral fee from inspector No. 2. Do I have any recourse?

Answer: There is an implied understanding when a home inspector names an alternate. In effect, the home buyer is being told, "Here is someone whom I know to be fully qualified and accomplished, someone in whose hands your interests will be safe and well represented."

If this presumption is compromised or violated, then the liability for substandard performance should bear as heavily on the one who made the recommendation as on the one who performed the inspection. Whether a court of law would hold to this position is debatable, but from an ethical standpoint, it is unquestionable.

Home inspection referrals should be made without financial inducements or other dubious arrangements. Otherwise, they should not be made at all. For the inspector who recommends others, competence should be the overriding consideration.

Inspectors typically know which of their colleagues is most proficient. The professional capacity of home inspectors is directly proportional to field experience. This is true with rare exceptions and is common knowledge among home inspectors.

It takes years of practice to cultivate the skills of forensic discovery. When an inspector who has attained a high level of competency recommends someone who has not, clarification should be made to the buyer. If the referral is honest, it might read: "I know an inspector you can call, but he's new to the business, and I'm not sure about the thoroughness of his work."

But where referrals are served up as testimonials, when the true impetus is financial reward to the one making the recommendation, consumers have justifiable grounds for complaint.

In addition to ethical considerations, there is the matter of legal exposure. Liability is a central consideration within the home inspection business. Every experienced home inspector knows this.

Many inspectors, recognizing this position, refuse to give referrals of any kind, regardless of the competence of those they might name.

In the best of circumstances, referrals involve a degree of calculated risk, and risk of this sort requires faith and reliance on the persons being recommended. To tread on such waters for the sake of a paid gratuity is both foolhardy and disingenuous; first because it undertakes the weight of needless liability, and second because it violates the trust of those to whom such referrals are made.

Home inspectors are consumer advocates by profession. Their primary calling is to represent the interests of the home-buying public, even when the buyer is not a paid client of the inspector. If an inspector is too busy to accept a job, the needs of the potential client should still be paramount.

A substandard recommendation is as inexcusable as a substandard inspection. When the prime directive, consumer protection, remains in focus, home inspectors recommend only those whose skills are refined, tested and proved.

Evaluate Site Before Doing Drainage Work

Q: We were about to make an offer on a home but are apprehensive because of standing water beneath the building. The seller plans to install French drains on the property, but I have three questions: What are French drains? Do you believe they will solve the problem? And will this condition affect marketability of the property in the future?

A: French drains are typically used to minimize or eliminate ground drainage problems in and around buildings. They catch surface and subsurface water, directing it away from areas that could be adversely affected by moisture, flooding or erosion.

A French drain consists of trenches that are lined with drainage cloth, filled with rock, and which contain perforated piping. Ground water favors French drains because they provide an easier flow path than the natural grade of the property.

To ensure that the seller's French drain is adequate in its design and that it will be effective during wet weather, insist that a geotechnical engineer perform a site evaluation and provide specifications for the proposed drainage system.

The site conditions that promote drainage problems can be complex, and engineers who specialize in correction of such problems provide the most reliable analysis and methods of resolution.

As to future marketability of the property, having the drainage work designed and approved by a qualified engineer is the best way to reassure future buyers. When you resell the property, simply disclose the history of drainage conditions and provide full documentation from the engineer and the local building department.

And before you proceed with the purchase of this property, be sure to have it fully evaluated by the most qualified and experienced home inspector available. In the wake of flooding beneath the building, the foundations, subfloor framing and other building components should be carefully examined for possible moisture-related damage.

If you have questions or comments, contact Barry Stone through his Web site at http://www.housedetective.com.

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Distributed by Access Media Group.

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