Friday, March 25, 2016

"How can I prevent a house fire?" 20 Suggestions to Limit the Risk of Fires


Most house fires are preventable.  I spent many years handling insurance claims and coordinating fire restoration projects at homes that had burned or were damaged by heat and smoke, and the majority of those fires could have been prevented.  The following are some simple tips to prevent fires in your own home:

1.   Reduce clutter - clutter affects fire safety because it limits the ability to view or prevent potential fire risks, promotes the spread of flames, and makes it difficult to extinguish a fire once it starts. 

2.      Don't overload electrical outlets.  Avoid using power strips or extension cords.

3.      Extinguish cigarettes properly (or just don't smoke).

4.      Never leave a candle unattended; if burning candles do not place candleholders or jars on a wooden surface without protection (if a candle burns to the bottom of the base or jar the heat can burn the wood surface below), and make sure there aren't any combustibles nearby.

5.      Don't leave an oven or stove unattended when in use.  Don't store items inside the oven.

6.      Use extreme caution when burning in a fireplace or wood stove.  Understand the components of the system (fire box, damper, flue, flue cap, etc.), how it works, and potential risks.  Don't let fires burn too hot.  Keep the flue clean and clear of creosote (this should be checked regularly when in use).  Don't burn wet or sappy wood in fireplaces or wood stoves because it will cause creosote buildup in the flue / chimney.

7.      Keep dryer vents clean and clear.

8.      Do not allow children to play with lighters or matches; keep fire starting tools and ignition sources out of reach.

9.      No heat lamps.

10.  Do not keep combustibles near heat sources such as stoves, fireplaces, furnaces, space heaters or water heaters.

11.  No gnawing pets (rabbits, gerbils, domesticated rats, etc.) because if they are loose they chew on electrical cords and wiring.

12.  Eliminate mice (mice chew on wiring and get in power boxes causing electrical shorts).

13.  Don't keep chemical soaked rags indoors, and don't launder rags or other cloth material that's soaked in any flammable chemical / solvent.

14.  Keep combustibles such as gasoline in a separate building or storage shed if possible.

15.  Do not use glues or solvents designed for outdoor use indoors.

16.  Don't bring grills indoors after use and dispose of used charcoal properly.

17.  Don't ignite fireworks near structures.

18.  Unplug devices when not in use, such as phone chargers.

19.  Have a working smoke detector at each level of the home, especially near bedrooms, and have a working carbon monoxide detector in the home.

20.  Have a fire extinguisher in the home.

Some fires aren't preventable, such as fires caused by lightning or an unpredictable event such as an electronic device combusting spontaneously.  However, if you follow the above guidelines you will reduce the risk of fire your residence significantly, or at least limit the potential for damage from a fire greatly.









Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Top 10 Deal Killers - Ten Reasons Homebuyers Cancel Purchase Agreements

I’ve compiled the following 10 reasons homebuyers choose to walk away from purchase contracts based on my observations and first-hand experiences. The list is arbitrary and the numbered reasons aren’t necessarily provided in order.  I started working on this list years ago after being unfairly portrayed as a home inspector that kills deals.  Subsequently, as far as I know, every terminated contract I've been involved with was the result, wholly or in part, to one or more of the reasons listed below, not the result of an overzealous home inspector planting seeds of fear into the minds of apprehensive homebuyers as some might have others believe. 

Reason # 10:  Blinded by Love

Sometimes folks fall in love with a house because it has character, is in a desirable neighborhood, has a lot of "potential", and/or has appealing features such as a modern kitchen, large master suite or gorgeous view.  But falling in love with a house can be like falling in love with the wrong person.  When we fall in love on impulse we have a tendency to ignore or minimize problems, which affects our ability to make rational decisions. 

Reality starts to set in when folks pull their heads out of the clouds to notice the wiring is outdated, siding or roof is bad, the cars won't fit in the garage, the neighbors have 4 dogs that bark at all hours, the laundry room is two steep flights of stairs away from the bedrooms, there are landscaping / drainage issues, the heating / cooling costs are outrageous, the foundation is bad, etc., etc.  I often hear homebuyers say, "What was I thinking?" after they recognize all the obvious problems they ignored when signing a purchase contract. 

Most purchase agreement contracts don't allow a home buyer to terminate the contract based on merely coming to one’s senses, but the contract does have an exit clause or contingency if the home inspection reveals unsatisfactory conditions, thus buyers often claim the home inspection is the reason for killing the deal when in truth there are other factors at play. 

Unfortunately it reflects poorly on good home inspectors when buyers initially choose to buy a bad home on impulse but use the inspection report as the excuse to get out of the deal.

When looking for a home a buyer should have a list of priorities (or a list of things to avoid) to follow before offering to purchase a home.  This might help save all parties involved time, money and excuses.

Reason # 9: Termites

Sellers must disclose termite problems at a property if they are aware of any, but homeowners / sellers often have termite problems they aren't aware of, or sometimes sellers don't disclose the full extent of known problems to homebuyers. 

Termites are white, ant-like critters that are very common across much of the country but we usually don't see them because they typically live underground and can't survive when exposed to light or air for long periods.  In my region I discover evidence of past or present termite problems at probably 1/3 or more of the properties I inspect. 

Termites prefer living in wet soil and consume wood or cellulose for nourishment.  They build hollow mud tubes along foundations, walls and other structures for concealment and protection when navigating between soil and the wood they are consuming.  Their ability to exist without light or fresh air is what makes them capable of doing so much damage without being observed. 

Termites are often discovered before they do too much damage, but not always.  When I inspect a home with termite problems the damage I find through the course of the home inspection is usually more extensive than what can be seen on first glance.  The challenge with termites from a home inspector's perspective is the full extent of damage can't be known unless walls, floors and/or ceilings are removed where the evidence of termites exists, and neither home sellers nor homebuyers want to start tearing the house apart days before closing.  Repairs to structural framing damaged by termites can be expensive, and trying to estimate or predict the costs of repairs without removing the finishes is impossible. 

Understandably, termite problems create much anxiety for homebuyers and can postpone a closing, or cause the buyer to terminate their purchase agreement altogether.


Reason #8:  Dishonesty or Non-disclosure by Sellers

Many times home sellers try to hide problems by covering or obstructing them.  Sometimes they use rugs, furnishings, shelves, boxes or close off areas to crawlspaces, attics or nooks under stairs to make them inaccessible.  Often I observe patches or touchup paint on ceilings and walls where there have been leaks or cracks, though no problems related to leaks or cracks were disclosed to the buyers.  Problems related to water leaks or cracking / settlement are supposed to be disclosed to a homebuyer even if they've been repaired.  Homebuyers get scared when they discover attempts to conceal problems that should have been described in the "disclosure statement" by home sellers. 

Deception is common.  As a home inspector I’m impressed by the memories and details shared by sellers when they describe the work that has been done in their home, but when I ask for information related to past problems, the memory suddenly gets very clouded. 

Years ago while climbing into an attic a home seller told me I was the first person to go up there since the home was built.  Once in the attic I followed a path through the insulation to a 5-quart ice cream bucket filled with fresh water collected from recent rains leaking through his roof.

There are many ways for home inspectors to determine if there have been past problems or existing conditions that home sellers are trying to conceal.  On one occasion I discovered water stains on a bathroom ceiling after using a bright light to check for such flaws.  The stains were not visible to the naked eye in natural lighting, but with a camera flash or bright light it was obvious there were moisture problems that had been covered and not disclosed.  After my discovery the listing agent told the buyer she knew about the problem and minimized it as insignificant, but the buyers were infuriated the listing agent knew about the problem and only shared that knowledge after it was brought to their attention by the home inspector. 

Homebuyers are prone to walking away from deals once deception has been discovered because betrayal causes fear and anger, and also leads one to conclude that there might be more problems that haven’t been disclosed.  


Reason #7:  Sewer Problems

Probably one of the most dreaded problems facing any homeowner is a clogged sewer or sewer backup.  Sellers of homes with sewer problems always say, "We just have the drain snaked every year or two."  What sellers don’t disclose is the whole story:  "Last Christmas we had the whole family staying here when the basement flooded from a sewer backup.  Roto-Rooter came right away, but it cost $300 to clear the line, we had to stay in a motel for days, the house smelled terrible for two weeks, and it wasn't covered by insurance."

Any sewer problem that needs to be snaked every year should be fixed, not ignored, because they problems will get worse.  Tree roots growing into sewer lines are the usual cause of sewer backups.  Any tree can have roots that grow into sewer lines, but silver maples are notorious for the invasiveness of their roots.  Things to watch for when house shopping are: 1) replacement cleanout caps on sewer pipes / waste stacks or caps with teeth marks from wrenches, and; 2) silver maple trees in the front yard. 

Other types of long-term sewer problems besides tree roots include: 1) deterioration of pipes; 2) collapsing pipes, or; 3) pipes that don't slope properly due to either improper placement / installation or soil movement.  Soil shifting, settlement or heaving can cause buried sewer lines to shift, sag or lift, which can trap water, solids, grease and other waste in the line, leading to clogs.

Not all sewer problems are due to bad pipes.  Many sewer problems are caused by putting the wrong products through drains, garbage disposals or toilets such as grease, starchy foods (rice, pasta, potatoes), non-flushable wipes, or feminine hygiene products.

Sewer lines can be scoped with a camera prior to purchase to determine the condition of the pipe, see if tree roots are a problem, and/or observe any sections of the pipe that don't flow properly.  The cost of scoping is somewhere around $200.  Considering the replacement of a sewer line can be in the multiple thousands of dollars it is often a good idea to scope the sewer if there are clues there have been prior problems so you don't get stuck with the problem.


Reason #6:  Shoddy Workmanship / The Do-It-Yourselfer House

Does a "new bathroom", "newly finished basement" or an "updated kitchen" really add any value to a home if the work wasn’t done properly?  The answer is “no” and in fact often it costs more to correct faulty work than if no updates had been done in the first place. 

Sometimes when I point out the flaws of poor workmanship is scares homebuyers because they usually assume the work was done properly in the first place.  The flaws that can be seen are often indicative of the condition of the hidden systems, and this creates fear, especially considering the most important components of a home are usually hidden (wiring, plumbing, and framing).

When buying a home that's been renovated a buyer can often check with the local building and safety department to determine if there were permits / inspections for modifications.  Buyers should ask homeowner for copies of contractor bids, invoices, warranties and other documentation such as photos taken during the renovations to help authenticate the work was done properly.

Some clues of unprofessional or poor workmanship to look for in a remodeled or renovated home include but are not limited to:  1) lack of proper ducting and air venting in newly finished spaces; 2) uneven finishes at walls and ceilings; 3) doors that are out-of-square or don't latch; 4) bathrooms without exhaust fans or air supply vents; 5) enclosed utility rooms without combustion air venting; 6) too many lights or outlets on a single circuit; 7) gaps at miter joints of trim and casing; 8) uneven stain / finish at trim and doors; 9) non-treated wood in contact with concrete; 10) improperly vented or trapped drain plumbing under sinks; 11) loose or exposed wiring; 12) lack of GFCI protection at outlets near sinks, and 13) duck / duct tape.

Don't be the one that puts an offer on someone else's DIY project unless you are prepared to make it your own project.

Reason #5:  Cold Feet

Usually when folks decide to walk away from a purchase agreement it’s because the house isn't right for them, but there are occasions homebuyers realize their own situations or other problems prevent them from being able to comfortably move forward with the home purchase.  Here are some examples of circumstances that might lead to a buyer getting "cold feet" after signing a purchase agreement:

a.  fear of the responsibility or commitment of ownership

b.  fell in love with a different property

c.  can't afford insurance, mortgage interest, utilities, etc.

d.  job loss

e.  breakup

f.   health problems

Most purchase contracts don’t allow a person to just walk away from a deal and the circumstances listed here typically aren’t part of a contract’s exit clauses or contingencies, so buyers might have to forfeit their earnest money or be responsible for the costs related to the delayed sale of the home should they choose to walk away from the purchase agreement for reasons not specified in the contractual contingencies. 

It is imperative a homebuyer be cognizant of all the potential life situations that might arise when signing a purchase agreement contract, and be prepared to lose some money in the event the contract must be terminated for any reason not specifically included in the contract’s terms and conditions.

Reason #4:  Electrical Problems

Undersized or outdated fuse panels, improper modifications, antiquated wiring and other electrical problems can affect the function, value and insurability of a home.  Specifically, the following electrical system components should be considered red flags for homebuyers:  1) fuse panels with 60-amp capacity or less; 2) improperly modified electrical panels; 3) “knob and tube” style wiring; 4) aluminum wiring; 5) certain Federal Pacific breaker panels manufactured in the 1960s and 1970s because they are more susceptible to malfunction, causing electrical arcing or fires.

Older homes were not designed to handle the number of electrical fixtures or amperage loads that are required today.  Subsequently old electrical panels have often been modified to support the need for extra outlets, lights and appliances, and often those modifications have been done incorrectly. 

In the early days of residential electricity, the hot and neutral electrical wires were run separately and attached to framing with ceramic "knobs" and routed through framing in ceramic "tubes", thus the name "knob and tube" wiring was given this type of system.  Knob and tube wiring is common in homes built prior to the 1940s.  Knob and tube wiring is actually a safe mechanism for conducting electricity, but because it lacks a ground conductor and is often either improperly altered or overloaded with too many fixtures, it can be hazardous.  Another problem with old electrical systems is electricians don't like to work on them because they don't conform to present-day codes, which creates a dilemma as to the degree or extent of correction or upgrading necessary when electrical repairs are performed. 

I've learned of home transactions that have been affected either by insurers not willing to provide coverage for homes with antiquated wiring or because the challenges of correcting bad wiring were more difficult and costly than the buyer believed they would be when putting in an offer.   

If you are buying and older home make sure the wiring is suitable for your needs.  Also, check with your insurer to determine if they will provide coverage for the property if there is old wiring or an outdated panel, otherwise you might either be shopping for a new house or different insurance company.


Reason #3:  Groundwater / Flooding / Drainage / Foundation Issues

Water is a home’s biggest enemy.  Problems related to drainage and groundwater can be nagging and virtually impossible to correct entirely.  Most home sellers don’t disclose the full extent of groundwater problems to buyers.  Conversely, many buyers are seeking a new home because of water problems at their existing residence, thus when groundwater problems or flooding are discovered it can affect the sale negatively.

Lack of sufficient drainage and groundwater can affect a home’s foundation.  A majority of foundation problems are the direct result of drainage problems because saturated soil creates hydraulic pressure on foundation walls and causes them to bow.  Also, fluctuations in subsurface soil moisture affects the expansion / contraction of soil, which can lead to settlement or heaving at footings and foundations. 

In addition to soaking basements and damaging foundations, groundwater problems are a primary source of deal killer #2 - mold.

Reason #2: Mold 

One of the problems most likely to hinder or delay a sale of a home is mold and/or conditions that have led to the growth of mold such as groundwater issues, inadequate ventilation, or long term plumbing leaks.  All homes have some mold-related fungi present, but the cause and quantity of fungal growth are factors that affect the severity of the problem.  Finding a bit of mold on a foundation wall or behind a bathtub isn't a serious problem, but having large areas of fungal growth in attics or basements covered in mold is serious.

Mold can be difficult to deal with because it indicates there are probably other problems related to moisture and ventilation, so it creates two issues that must be dealt with:  1) How do we remove the mold?  2) How do we prevent the mold from coming back? 

Mold removal should be done by a professional to ensure the spores are contained and removed rather than being dispersed, hidden or missed.  The most serious mold problems I've discovered have been at properties being sold by foreclosure specialists who don't disclose mold problems and who've tried to hide mold and moisture problems rather than correcting them.

No contractor can guarantee mold won't return once removed, and correcting the moisture and/or ventilation problems that led to the mold can be costly.  The fear of mold is something that scares a lot of people, and if a homebuyer has some pre-existing concerns about a house or has a family member with allergy problems, mold problems will often kill the deal.


Reason #1:  The Antagonistic Seller

Butting heads will ruin a deal.  If you are selling a house or are an agent representing a house that's for sale you shouldn't make excuses or minimize problems.  While all the people involved might be friendly folks, the process of negotiating a purchase often puts the parties in adversarial roles.  Hostility and stubbornness on the part of agents or sellers will scare a buyer.  In my experience, buyers are most turned off by sellers or real estate professionals that minimize or invalidate their concerns and feelings.

The most common mistakes made by agents and homeowners are excuses, misleading or incomplete explanations, and minimizing of problems.  Another common mistake is not negotiating earnestly – delayed responses, playing good-cop / bad cop, or manipulating the terms of the agreement.  Defensive or hostile sellers will cause buyers to hesitate and reconsider.  I frequently hear agents and sellers tell buyers things like: "It's always been that way;”  “Never been a problem;" "That's not a big deal;" or "Show me a house that doesn't have a problem."  While those things might be true but they are nonetheless words and phrases used as a distraction or excuse that avoids dealing with the issue at hand comprehensively, and that scares homebuyers.

Numerous homebuyers have walked away from good properties because they were turned off by the parties selling the house and couldn't stand the idea of buying a home with a stigma or negative "vibes." 

Contrary to what would seem to be common sense, it has been my experience that home buyers are more likely to buy a home from someone that lied to them than someone that’s being hostile.  I suspect it’s because we know most home sellers have something to hide and thus we are better prepared for a bit of deception than hostility or stubbornness. 

If homebuyers perceive the process of negotiation and problem solving with seller or listing agent as fighting and butting heads, the probability of a buyer walking away from a purchase agreement increases because they’ll fall out of love with the property – and once that happens it becomes almost impossible to close the deal. 

Home buying is an emotional process.  Most homes have problems and usually buyers and sellers will come to terms so they can proceed with the transaction, but if a buyer has a bad experience with antagonistic seller or listing agent the chances of resolution and transacting the deal are greatly diminished.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Possibly the Biggest Trend in Real Estate You'll Never Read About, Until Now...

The number of residences sold without the assistance of real estate agents appears to be growing but relatively few know about the trend because it's not been widely reported, and those who have noticed aren't publicizing it.  In fact, the National Association of REALTORS (NAR) has reported a decrease in the number of for sale by owner (FSBO) transactions despite evidence contradicting that conclusion.
I've personally witnessed a surge in FSBO transactions over the last year or two, and there's been a corresponding growth in the number of home purchasers without agents.  My observations are unscientific but nonetheless are evidence of the shift away from agent-assisted transactions.  To back up my own observations I've discussed the topic with title company closing agents, residential appraisers and other home inspectors who've observed the same.  Each person I've discussed the matter with described a substantial increase in residential transactions closed without the assistance of real estate agents in the last year, and some speculated non-agent transactions have doubled as of late.  One appraiser told me 25% to 40% of the appraisals she'd performed in the last few months were on FSBO transactions when in prior years the number was less than half that.
Real estate transaction data and trends are recorded by and publicized through organizations that exist for the advancement of real estate agents and affiliated groups who rely on real estate-related commissions and fees, thus they aren't likely to publicize stories describing the ease at which these transactions are successfully facilitated without agents because it might empower homebuyers and sellers considering going without agent representation.  The NAR and other real estate entities discourage individuals from buying or selling homes without an agent.  Type "Should I sell my house FSBO" into an internet search and you'll likely discover most of the results are posts by real estate agencies or organizations trying to sway people into using agents through fear and subjective statistics.
The number of persons buying and selling homes without agents is unknown.  There's not an independent organization tracking these statistics, and local register of deeds offices aren't a good resource because they don't always differentiate the demographics of the parties to transactions and/or whether the properties are residential homes, lots, commercial buildings, or multifamily dwellings.  The numbers publicized by the NAR and the affiliated Multiple Listing Service agencies (MLSs) overseen by the NAR are recorded by those agencies using information culled from their clients and reported by real estate agents.  Subsequently, statistics of home sales transacted without agents are purely anecdotal, and the research is less than scientific. 

The NAR has published this information on their website, presumably to discourage FSBOs:
FSBOs accounted for 8% of home sales in 2014. The typical FSBO home sold for $210,000 compared to $249,000 for agent-assisted home sales."
From the 2015 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, National Association of REALTORS®
These statistics are misleading:  First, the NAR doesn't actually know how many transactions were FSBO because they're using subjective and partially fabricated data - the NAR's stats are not derived from objective or independent sources (they do sell their data for $249.95 on their website if you want to check it).  Second, NAR's data doesn't compare the price of identical houses sold both with and without agents, rather they compare the comprehensive sales of all residential properties minus those sold by agents.  Their numbers exclude low-dollar residences, such as trailer homes and dilapidated properties that are generally far more likely to be sold without the assistance of agents, which skews the statistics significantly.
Independent studies have shown FSBO properties and those sold by agents generally sell for the same price.  A report published in 2009 for American Economic Review by Igal Hendel, Aviv Nevo, and François Ortalo-Magné revealed virtually no difference in sales price of agent-listed homes versus those sold without agents.  From the report's conclusions:
"We have compared the performance of MLS and FSBO platforms for the sale of single-family residential properties. After controlling for differences in house and seller characteristics, we find that the MLS delivers no price premium (even before netting commissions)"
Independent research, such as the study cited above, raises doubt to the legitimacy of the NAR's claims.  To make matters worse for the NAR, it has been determined agents have been providing inflated and inaccurate sales numbers to the NAR's affiliated MLSs from which the sales data is sourced.  A January 27, 2016 article in the Washington Post by Kenneth Harney reports independent researchers discovered inflated or inaccurate sales prices provided to the MLS by agents 8.75 % of the time.
The FSBO trend hasn't gone entirely unnoticed.  A May 2015 article cited statistics from Eddie Tyner, president of, who claimed seller traffic to its website was up more than 200% for the first quarter of 2015 over the same period in the prior year.

The shift towards buying and selling real estate independently is likely the result of unprecedented opportunities to market or search for properties via Zillow, Trulia, Craigslist, and other online services.  These resources offer buyers and sellers the opportunity to both publicize and seek properties without an agent's assistance, and at little to no cost.  Advancements in technology and free access to real estate listings have provided most homebuyers and sellers with many of the same resources and tools that weren't available to non-agents in the past.    
Another reason home buyers and sellers might forego using an agent is poor customer service.  According to the 2015 National Association of REALTORS Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, only 67% percent of home sellers would definitely use the same agent again.  This is an abysmal number for an industry so driven by customer service.  A 67% satisfaction rating indicates many agents aren't doing a good job in the eyes of their clients. 
The worst home buying or selling horror stories I've heard are from people who felt they were misled or underserved by their agent.  Of all the persons I've worked with who've bought and/or sold both with and without agents, almost every one that expressed a preference said they'd rather go without. 
To be clear I am an advocate of real estate agents in many cases.  I'm friends with many agents and I've seen first-hand the benefits of using a good agent.  There are some very good reasons for enlisting the assistance of a real estate agent to help home sellers and buyers conduct residential sales and purchases, and there are a number of excellent agents that have to ability to make the process easy and expeditious.   However, diligent persons considering the sale or purchase of a home without an agent shouldn't be intimidated by the fear tactics used by some in the real estate industry.  Title companies, mortgage lenders, home inspectors, lawyers and appraisers are available to help independent buyers and sellers navigate through the process without an agent's assistance.  Documents for buying / selling homes are available at title companies, office supply stores and on the internet. 

Buying or selling homes can be done independent of real estate agent assistance, and it appears a growing number of people are discovering that fact for themselves despite what some are publicizing.  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

"Is the house I'm buying safe?"

Subsurface contamination from old fuel tanks and industrial facilities is much more common than most people realize.  Earlier this year I performed a home inspection for a home buyer at a vacant residential property that sat on an EPA “Superfund” site.  I knew about the history of toxins at the property because it was near my childhood home and the presence of hazardous materials at the location had been publicized when discovered some 30 years ago.  I was surprised to learn the seller’s disclosure made no mention of the hazardous waste, nor did the agents involved with the transaction have any knowledge of the past problems with toxins on the site.  Subsequent to my inspection I returned to my office and conducted my own investigation, discovering the property’s status was “active” on the EPA’s list of Superfund sites.  The active status indicated the property had not been give a clean bill of health.

I informed the buyer and buyer’s agent of my discovery, and later called the listing agent to notify him of my findings.  I consider it my ethical obligation to inform homeowners, real estate agents and tenants of any potentially hazardous conditions at a property, regardless of whether they’re my clients.  After I explained my discovery the listing agent said, “I find that hard to believe.  I’ve had this house listed for over 6 months and hundreds of people from the community have walked through the house - not one of them mentioned any problems with hazards.  I think my clients would’ve said something to me if they knew.  They’ve owned the place for over 10 years and they aren’t the type of people that would try to hide something like that.”

Despite his disbelief the agent was polite and we laughed about the fact we’d never dealt with something like an EPA “Superfund” site before.  Before I got off the phone I asked the agent to keep me up-to-date.  I told him I wanted to know if I followed the proper protocol and how could we prevent a situation like this from recurring.

I did receive a very thoughtful email from my clients who were thankful for my diligence and opted not to buy the property because of the uncertainty related to the EPA status.

In the days after my inspection the listing agent contacted the EPA and took the property off the market until the situation was resolved.  At this point no one, including the EPA, is sure why the property’s status is “active.”  The agent is coordinating testing to ensure there are no hazardous materials on the site, and if there are any problems it will be taken care of by either the USDA or EPA.

Typically, as a home inspector I don’t do a “background check” on properties I inspect, but that’s going to change.  Through the course of this experience I discovered an interesting website that provides information about properties at no charge:   

The website gives information about a property’s history, schools, crime, nearby registered sex offenders, hazardous spills and other information including any local Superfund sites.  I recommend all real estate agents and home buyers check prospective properties on – it could prove invaluable.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Are all real estate agents "REALTORS"?

Not all real estate agents are Realtors.  Real estate agents can’t call themselves a “Realtor” unless they are members of the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR).  As per the NAR, the term “Realtor” must be capitalized because it is trademarked, thus the use of the term “realtor” with a lowercase “r” is technically forbidden, and non-member real estate agents can’t refer to themselves as either a Realtor or realtor.  There have been multiple lawsuits attempting to remove the trademark, but the courts have decided “Realtor” is a trade name and not a generic term for real estate agents, despite the fact many of us use the terms “realtor” and “agent” synonymously.  There is a pending lawsuit challenging the exclusivity of the use of the term “Realtor” and there have been other attempts to remove or limit the trademark, but all have failed.

It should be noted that not all Realtors are agents.  Many of the members of the NAR are not licensed agents, in fact, according to the NAR’s Field Guide to Quick Real Estate Statistics, only 58% of Realtors are licensed sales agents.  Non-agent members might include appraisers, property managers or non-sales staff and administrators of real estate organizations. 

Licensing of real estate agents is handled by the individual states and licensed agents facilitate real estate transactions without being members of the NAR.

According to the NAR there are approximately 2 million licensed real estate agents, and 1.1 million members of the NAR.  Using NAR’s statistic that only 58% of its 1.1 million members are actually licensed sales agents; one could conclude only 32% of all licensed agents are actually Realtors.  


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Should I use a "certified" home inspector?

Real estate experts often recommend homebuyers hire "certified" home inspectors. In the state of Nebraska there is no licensing for home inspectors, thus certification is often used as a way to verify the legitimacy of an inspector, but certification or membership to a home inspection certification organization is not a reliable measure of a home inspector's qualifications.

Becoming certified as an inspector sometimes requires little more than a membership fee and an online test that a novice could pass. There are numerous home inspection organizations that use different protocols for membership and certification, and it can be difficult for someone outside of the industry to differentiate experienced home inspectors from beginners.

Another problem with certification is verification can be difficult. I've known of home inspectors that weren't certified but fraudulently claimed to be certified and/or used certification emblems on their website and promotional literature. There isn't a policing organization to oversee or stop this type of behavior, and most consumers don't have the motivation to check the qualifications of every inspection candidate.

Many home inspectors violate ethics or just don't do a good job for their clients yet continue to remain certified. I've written the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) regarding violations of ethics of certified inspectors, but the organization has never responded to any of my communications. Individuals who've violated the organization's code of ethics or performed substandard inspections continue to remain certified. I was informed by a local ASHI chapter officer the organization doesn't respond to informal complaints, written or otherwise, or publicize a process for filing complaints against home inspectors that have violated ethics or performed substandard work, thus bad inspectors remain certified and the phone calls, emails and letters from consumers complaining about bad inspectors are ignored. Even if a bad inspector's certification was revoked, there are numerous other home inspection organizations jumping at the chance to gain new members and willing to overlook past violations of ethics or performance.

I am not certified with any of the various home inspection associations for a myriad of reasons, such as all the behind-the-scenes politics and what I consider a lack of oversight by allowing their members' unethical behavior to continue unchecked. I am however certified as a home inspector and 203(k) consultant through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.  I don't think being certified makes me a better inspector, but it does probably give some clients peace of mind knowing my credentials, qualifications and experience have been verified by a third party.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

What's with the title "A Total Idiot's Guide to Home Inspections"?

In 2011 an unethical real estate agent broadcast false and misleading information about me in an email to most of the real estate agents in my community in an effort to steer business away from my inspection company, at one point referring to me as a "total idiot."  The agent didn't smear me because I'm an inadequate inspector, the agent was upset because I conducted a thorough inspection exposing serious flaws at a property she'd listed. 

Subsequently the Nebraska Real Estate Commission disciplined the agent for such inappropriate behavior, but the damage to my reputation at that point was irreparable.  Instead of letting it get me down I've decided to use the experience as a motivational tool for exposing the behind-the-scenes world of the home inspection and real estate industries.  My goal is to educate home buyers, home sellers, real estate agents, home inspectors and those interested in the workings of the real estate industry by sharing stories about my own experiences as a home inspector, and maybe someday write a book about it all.