One of the most common questions that I get from out-of-town readers is "How can I find a great home inspector in my area?"
I want to start this off by covering the most obvious stuff; getting a personal reference from someone you know and trust is best. If you know and trust your real estate agent, go with their recommendation for a home inspector. If you have a great real estate agent, they'll have a great home inspector to recommend. This is what they do for a living, and their job is to work in your best interest. While many home inspectors like to complain about sleazy real estate agents only recommending semi-incompetent home inspectors who won't "kill the deal," I've also heard plenty of home inspectors around the country essentially brag about what horrible customer service they give. There are good and bad folks in every industry.
If your agent gives you the names of three home inspection companies, they're probably doing this because they don't want you to sue them for a bad home inspection; not because all three inspectors are equal. Ask your agent, off the record, who they would use. If they say it's a tie or they won't commit to one, read on.
Step One: Read Reviews
Assuming you don't have a great personal reference, the next logical step is to hire the company with the largest ad in the yellow pages, or has taken the bold move of calling their company AAA Home Inspections or Aardvark Home Inspections.
Or you could search online. If you want to find a great home inspector, start by comparing highly rated home inspection companies. By highly rated, I'm thinking of companies with great reviews on Google, Yelp, and Angie's List. *
* There are other web sites that allow you to see ratings for home service providers, but the way that these service providers get work, and therefore get rated, is by paying money for every lead they get. I truly believe that the best home service providers don't need to use these services, so are not listed in their rating system. I'm not going to say what web sites these are, so don't ask :-).
Great reviews are great, but it's also nice to look for bad reviews. If a business gets a bad review, hopefully they respond to it. Their response will give you a lot of insight into what kind of company they really are.
Also, one little trick with Yelp is to go to the bottom of a company's review page and look up the non-recommended reviews. It seems as though about 40% of Yelp reviews show up in the non-recommended section.
Step Two: Read Sample Home Inspection Reports
Once you've found what you feel would be a great home inspector based on online reviews, go to their web site and read a sample report. If they don't have a sample report available, I'd seriously re-consider hiring them. Short of actually attending several home inspections, reading reports is the best way to compare different home inspectors. It's a little bit more work to do this, but if you weren't willing to put in a little extra time researching your home inspector, you probably wouldn't be reading this.
The best home inspection reports have several things in common:
Photos – Every home inspection report should include photos.
Easy to read – You shouldn't need a legend to figure out what the inspector is trying to say. Home inspection reports should be easy to understand and shouldn’t need someone with industry knowledge to interpret them.
Complete – home inspection reports should contain three basic components when addressing an issue: what the issue is, why it’s an issue (if not obvious), and what should be done. For example, if a water heater had a pressure relief valve that was plugged off on the end, a great home inspection report might say
“The pressure relief valve discharge tube had a cap attached to the end, which will prevent the valve from functioning; this could cause the tank to explode if the water heater malfunctioned. Have the cap removed.”
A weak inspection report might say
“Capped relief pipe needs repair”
Both of these descriptions address the defect, but the first description is obviously a far superior description, and lets the client know why this item needs repair.
Disclaimers kept to a minimum – Many home inspection reports are filled with CYA verbiage that is focused on explaining away why the home inspector couldn’t see this or why they couldn’t inspect that. This isn’t helpful to home buyers, and when there’s too much of it, it starts to sound ‘weaselly’. Nobody wants to read through a list of stuff that wasn’t inspected. That list belongs in the contract or the Standards Of Practice.
Realistic recommendations – This one is huge. Many home inspection reports are filled with recommendations for further testing and further inspections to the point where it gets absurd. Mold testing? Asbestos testing? Lead testing? Sewer scans? Plumbing inspections? Electrical inspections? When I see recommendations for all these other inspections, I get the feeling that the home inspector is only concerned about not getting sued; they’re not nearly as concerned about providing great service.
Confidence – this one is a little harder to define, but it’s really what sets asides the rookies from the experienced home inspectors. Anyone with the most basic understanding of a house can observe an abnormality, call attention to it, and recommend a second opinion / further inspection. With knowledge and experience comes the confidence to say that something isn’t a problem.
Once you've read a through a number of online reviews and sample inspection reports, you should begin to have a clear idea of who the right inspection company will be. You'll probably have to spend more money to hire this company, but you won't regret it.