READERS DIGEST MAGAZINE - MAY 2003
Hire a home inspector and find
out - before you buy
BY CHRIS WOOD
T0 JOCELYN LACROIX, an office supervisor, and Tilda Soueidan, a head cashier at a grocery chain, the cream stucco cottage with light-green trim looks almost perfect. On a corner lot in a suburban Montreal neighbourhood of streets named after songbirds, the home has a sunlit atrium, three upstairs bedrooms and an unfinished basement. A deck and a hot tub complete the sense of promise.
They've made an offer, and the owner has accepted. Now, the deal hangs on a burly man in jeans who's getting out of a pickup. Brian Crewe is a home inspector, one of about 4,000 in Canada. Joining Lacroix, the real estate agent and the homeowner at the front door, Crewe explains, "I'm here to take your house apart."
For $344 plus tax, Crewe will spend almost four hours scrutinizing every nook and cranny for visible defects and hazards. He'll check heating, plumbing and electrical systems. If he does his job well, no shortcoming will be unexposed. For both buyer and seller, it's a tense Friday afternoon.
Crewe's external examination finds little to worry about. Poorly directed downspouts that risk water in the basement are easy to remedy, and an extra roof vent is needed. Hints of bigger trouble come when Crewe looks up from the foyer. The right-hand wall rises to a cathedral ceiling. Behind it, upstairs, are the master bedroom, two other bedrooms and two bathrooms. Crewe shares a concern: "What is the weight of these walls resting on?"
He gets his answer in the basement. Like many new homes, this 1995 house was built from engineered components. Instead of solid-wood joists, builders installed I-beams fabricated from chipboard and wood laminate. They're supposed to be stronger than conventional joists, but the beams have sagged.
"There's only 3/8 inch plywood holding up this house," Crewe says. The builder's lapse means it could one day crumple. More likely, as the beams slowly buckle, there will be sagging doors, uneven floors and cracked walls.
"But it can be fixed for $200," Crewe adds. A little lumber and an afternoon's work will give the couple's new home the support it needs.
BRITISH COLUMBIA home inspector Ed Witzke warned health consultant Gilbert Renaud and his wife, Bai Xue, an insurance underwriter assistant, of bigger trouble. The Vancouver couple had been house hunting for months before finding a rare duplex in their price range in a neighbourhood of older homes and mature trees. Renaud knew it needed work, perhaps $15,000 worth.
But bars on the downstairs windows set off the first alarm for Witzke, and behind the duplex, he noticed a rough, covered hole penetrating the exterior wall of the house. Inside, Witzke confirmed his suspicions: Past tenants had hidden a marijuana plantation in the ground-floor apartment, breaking a hole in the wall for extra ventilation. Nevertheless, heat and humidity from the greenhouse had encouraged a fungal explosion behind the building's walls and ceilings. Renaud would need to more than double his repair estimate.
Witzke also drew the couple's attention to quality elsewhere: neatly mitred corners, good materials and generous roof overhangs, needed in Vancouver's wet climate, but often omitted. They decided to stick by their offer and have since transformed the downstairs into a cozy rental flat.
CHOOSING a home is one of the biggest decisions most of us ever make. For around $400-a tiny portion of the average Canadian house price of $186,000-a professional inspection is an inexpensive investment in knowing what you're getting into. Faced with a list of defects, some buyers walk away from potential heartache, though most inspectors say this happens less than five percent of the time.
Until 20 years ago, home inspectors were few and little known in Canada. Now most qualified practitioners earn respect for the help they provide. While a real-estate agent brings buyer and seller together, a lawyer or notary ensures the transaction is legal, an appraiser estimates a home's value and a building inspector checks new construction for building-code compliance, only the home inspector puts a microscope to the house you're about to sink your savings into. In 2001 the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) endorsed professional home inspection as "one of the best ways to understand a home's condition, habitability and safety."
It's a value that even real-estate agents-who get paid only after a deal is completed -appreciate. Many agents now make inspection a condition of every offer they submit for a client. Like a failure to obtain financing, an unsatisfactory inspection can be cause to walk away from a deal, though more often, a seller agrees to make a repair or adjust the price. "But the decision is left to the client," says Debbie Norman, a real-estate agent in Fredericton "and when the worst happens, you take them to another house. My interest is the client. I don't want the house to fall down around them."
WHEN MILITARY medics Mark Wetmore and Tina Watson were transferred from Ottawa to CFB Gagetown in Oromocto, N.B., they asked Richard Gorham to inspect the neat, whitesided bungalow they'd chosen.
The three-hour job turns up nothing to worry about. "Someone cheaped out," Gorham says, showing a small gap in the siding. Later, his voice echoes down from the attic in approval: "These are the better quality trusses."
Wetmore and Watson listen attentively as Gorham explains that a sweep should inspect the chimney. Adding support to the deck where it joins the house could keep it from collapsing, and the entry from the garage should get an automatic door closer. "So you don't get gassed in your sleep," says Gorham.
"We're looking at the house and saying, 'Oh, that room will be great for my daughter!'" Watson says afterwards. "But he knows what to look at to protect us. It's like having my dad here."
Probably better. A qualified home inspector needs wide technical knowledge. Even without extras such as security systems or central vacuum, a modern house is so much more than four walls and a roof. Virtually all have the essentials: heating and cooling, electrical service, protection from weather, hot and cold water. Many also include appliances that are expensive to replace: furnaces, plumbing, window frames-all of which will eventually wear out.
Older structures could have new systems next to old. Past owners may have followed building codes and manufacturer's guidelines-or not. And structures built in the past 20 years may contain complex subcomponents and synthetics, each with limited approved uses and specific risk factors.
"I compare this to being a doctor," says Witzke. "You become a forensic investigator."
Witzke was born into the business. His contractor parents were known for their honest judgment of a building's condition, and they turned their opinions into a business. Ed joined it in 1965, later supplementing his knowledge with an architecture degree.
"Building inspectors are opinionated, independent-minded people," says Crewe. Like most, he's a one-man operation. He used to counsel companies on reducing energy costs, but people seemed more interested in his advice on what buildings to buy, so in 1984 he became one of Quebec's first full-time home inspectors.
What practitioners seem to share is a boundless curiosity for how things work-from why soil pushes up sidewalks to how heat moves from furnace to bedroom and back...
...A little later Cooke stands on a deck attached to a brick-and-stone house that sits amid newer homes. Through a hole in the decking, he aims his flashlight at a broken clay pipe in a gully Along side the foundation. "Am I going to expect dampness in that corner?" he asks. "You bet."
Two hours later Cooke sits in a restaurant with his nervous client, flag maker Doug Williams, as a thunderstorm pelts the solarium overhead.
"On a day like today," he explains, "there's about 4,000 litres an hour coming off that roof." The broken pipe means water in the basement. It will cost less than $300 to fix, however.
The rest of Cooke's 45-minute report shows his range of knowledge. The stump in the lawn attracts powder post beetles, carpenter ants and termites. Williams and his wife should avoid stripping interior paint as it likely contains lead. Some aluminum wiring needs attention. Fixing failing masonry on the chimney top will be a bigger job. "Maybe $2,000," is Cooke's worst-case guess.
Still, Williams's tension is gone. "That's the reassurance I needed," he says. "No surprises."
A binder accompanies Cooke's verbal account, summarizing his findings and providing pages of background on everything from flashing to furnace. "So the client doesn't get stung by contractors in future," Cooke says.
IT'S WISE to remember, "buyer beware" when selecting a home inspector. Not all meet the standards of Cooke and Crewe; the job description is unregulated in Canada. "People can just hang out a shingle," says Martin MacGregor, director of professional standards and registrar of the Applied Science Technologists and Technicians of British Columbia (ASTT), which certifies several technical specialties.
Vancouver therapist Chris Bohne bought her first home eight years ago, picking an inspector from three names her real-estate agent provided. He spent about an hour in the house and handed her a sheet of check marks. "It was totally superficial," she says. She threw out his report.
Bohne has since found more qualified inspectors for houses she's considering as investments. "You want someone familiar with the area and the type of structure," Follow them around. Ask questions. "Partly," she says, "you're paying for the education."
Despite the lack of a regulatory body nationally, it's becoming easier to identify inspectors with professional standards. The 1,400-member Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors (CAHPI) certifies inspectors with knowledge in every facet of house construction and systems. The Ontario Association of Home Inspectors (a CAHPI affiliate) gives Registered Home Inspector certificates to qualified candidates. In British Columbia, the ASTT calls its registrants Certified House Inspectors and Certified Property Inspectors. And Crewe and others, through their national body and with CMHC help, are working to establish national standards by fall 2004.