Presented by Graham Clarke, P.Eng., RHI
Carson, Dunlop & Associates Limited


The phone call always starts like this: “You inspected the house we bought six months ago and now we are having problems…..” Most of us have received calls like this, and all of us dread them. A complaint can ruin your whole day, and most of your night. And there’s nothing we can do about it, or is there? Let’s look at one of home inspectors’ least favorite topics – complaints.  

It is appropriate for this topic to start with a disclaimer. Writing technical articles is easy. There is research that can be done, and technical issues are anchored in physics and building science. Writing about complaints is more challenging. There is little authoritative material and we are dealing with the art of human relations rather than a science. As a result, there are no definitive answers on the topic. Our goal in this article is to make you think. We encourage you to challenge everything presented in this article and to take away any of the pieces that work for you.  

One size does not fit all

When dealing with communications and human emotions, there is one thing we can be sure of - one approach does not work equally well with all clients. You will need more than one strategy to be successful. We have learned this lesson the hard way. We handled a complaint beautifully with a specific strategy in June, but when a similar situation arose in September, the same approach backfired, becoming a lawsuit.

Your philosophies

Your personal and business philosophies play a role in how you handle complaints. We find that, in general, there are three types of home inspection professionals:

The hardliner – these home inspectors defend themselves against any and all complaints vigorously, never admitting any mistake.
The validater – these inspectors defend complaints vigorously when they feel unjustly accused, but respond if there was a valid problem with the inspection.
The conciliator – some inspectors try to satisfy every client and may pay to make a problem go away even though they made no mistake.

There is no right or wrong, but you should decide on your approach before you are in the midst of a complaint.

Three kinds of issues

We find that issues come in three types as well:
White issues – these complaints turn out not to be a problem with the home.
Black issues – these are issues where there is a problem that the home inspector should have reported.  
Gray issues – these are issues where it is not clear whether or not the inspector made a mistake.

We find the white issues and black issues are straightforward to deal with. The difficult ones are the gray issues, because the inspector and client may feel strongly and very differently about an issue.
We find that about 10 percent of our complaints are white issues, 10 percent are black issues and 80 percent are gray issues. Nobody said it was simple!

Handling complaints – An important skill

Many people feel that resolving complaints is important because of the financial risk. While this is true, there are other reasons why effective complaint handling is an important skill.

An opportunity

A complaint can be an opportunity to impress or educate a real estate agent, to generate goodwill and to avoid bad publicity. A complaint is also an opportunity to turn around a dissatisfied client, changing a detractor into a supporter. Let’s look at each of these.

Real estate agents don’t have many tools to evaluate home inspectors. Their impressions are mostly based on your bedside manner. Your response to a complaint is one way to enhance your reputation with agents (We are assuming for the moment that this is important to you!)

A complaint is an opportunity to generate goodwill with others. We had a difficult complaint handled by the client’s attorney. The problem was subtle but serious, and there was considerable question as to whether we should have identified the condition. The issue was settled with a small amount of responsibility accepted by our firm. 

Most of us have seen what a hostile media can do to home inspectors. A dissatisfied client can be the catalyst for devastating news coverage and public humiliation.

Complaints are also a way to build you business by improving your service. We learn something from almost every complaint, whether or not we made a mistake. The secret is to apply the learning to future work. Everyone makes mistakes. Successful people do not repeat their mistakes.
Using complaints to build your business?

While some people say that you can’t make everybody happy, consider this. There are several studies that suggest:

  • 99 percent of clients who have a bad experience will not complain. This means that you don’t know about a problem and don’t have a chance to make it right.
  • 91 percent of clients who have had a bad experience will neither use the firm again nor recommend it to others. This does not help in building your business by referral.
  • The average dissatisfied customer tells ten (10) others about their unhappy experience.
  • The average satisfied customer only tells two (2) others about their good experience.
  • Nine out of ten clients (90%) will come back to use the firm again if the complaint is resolved to their satisfaction.
  • Perhaps more importantly, this same group will tell five (5) others, on average, about their good experience with the firm.
In a perverse way, you can create more positive feedback with clients who have had a problem resolved than with clients who were satisfied from the outset! We will stop short of advising you to generate complaints so you can resolve them, but this should help make you more enthusiastic about solving them.

Other results of complaints

Complaints can wear you down. They are distracting and emotionally draining for home inspectors. In addition to consuming your money, they may:
  • Consume your time
  • Change your attitude toward customer service
  • Make you a more defensive home inspector
  • Make it more difficult to get affordable insurance
  • Increase your stress and reduce your satisfaction
We hope that we have convinced you of the benefits of handling complaints effectively. Let’s move on.

Our goals

The article is divided into four sections:

 1. Avoiding complaints
 2. Receiving complaints
 3. Performing revisits
 4. Resolving complaints

Our goal is to give you some suggestions for handling each of these steps of the process.


Although the focus of this article is not risk management, we can’t resist touching on a few critical areas:

1. Invite the client to the inspection.

We have found that clients who do not attend the inspection are more likely to complain. There are several advantages in having the client with you during the inspection. You can adjust any unreasonable expectations, explaining the scope of a professional home inspection. You have a chance to establish rapport with the client and earn their respect. Clients see how hard you work on their behalf. Many home inspectors say, “Friends do not sue friends.” While it may be a stretch to say that home inspectors become friends with their clients, there is a respect that can be earned over a 2½ to 3½ hour home inspection.

Another reason to invite the client is that verbal communication is better than written communication in many ways. While it is your report that will be relied on if a problem comes up, a face-to-face discussion provides for feedback and allows you to repeat or modify your comments to ensure good understanding. You may also customize your reports to reflect your conversations with the client.

2. Use a good contract

While we believe a good contract is important, we look at contracts differently than some. For example, we send our Authorization Form (We don’t call it a contract!) to our clients ahead of time. This gives the client a chance to ask questions before the inspection. It also saves the inspector time at the beginning of the inspection explaining the scope, adjusting expectations and getting an agreement signed. We encourage clients to sign and return the agreement before the inspection. This is also an opportunity to take care of payment details before the inspection itself.  

We include a copy of the Standards of Practice so that the client can understand the scope of the inspection and realize that the rules of the game are well established, and not something we made up.

Those crazy expectations

We have touched on this already, but it is worth emphasizing. You need to create realistic expectations. Clients should know that you are there to find big problems, the kind that would change their mind about buying the property. In looking for the big problems, you will trip across some small ones. Rather than ignore them, we report them, as a courtesy. The problem with this is that it creates the impression (and expectation) that we find every cracked pane of glass, loose tile, soft mortar joint, and so on.

Unless we explain this to the client, who could blame them for expecting more? It is our responsibility to clarify the scope. Some inspectors say the inspection is a sampling process rather than an all-inclusive exercise. Some say they will not respond to any complaints below $500. Others define major problems as life safety items or items over $1,000, and respond only to those issues. Find your own way to get the message across, but make it clear.

The contract itself

There are many contract wordings and we encourage you to check with your attorney before settling on any. However, remember that attorneys have a specific goal – to minimize your liability. Their goal is not to build your business success, and an attorney typically has no role in your marketing or customer service activities. Your goals may include business growth as well as liability control.  

Many contracts have clauses to minimize the inspector’s exposure. These include the following:
  •  Limiting the liability to a fee or similar low number (if allowed in your jurisdiction).
  •  A statute of limitations that sets a restriction on how long people have to come after you for a problem (if allowed).
  •  A counter-claim clause that tells the client that if they sue you and lose, they will pay your costs.
  •  A technically exhaustive inspection is available at a considerably higher price. This is designed to reinforce the idea that a home inspection has a limited scope.
  •  Exclusions for everything you can think of (radon, lead, mold, building codes, engineering work, concealed items, environmental issues, operating costs, acoustical properties, etc.)
  •  The inspection is visual only.
  •  There is no inspection of concealed areas.
  •  The inspection identifies only conditions that are both present and apparent at the time of the inspection. Intermittent problems are not covered.
  •  Our professional opinions are often based on inference because there is no direct evidence or incomplete information.
  •  The inspection is not a guarantee or a warranty.
  •  There is no responsibility if repairs are done before we can examine the property.
  •  We are not responsible for betterments that put the client further ahead of where we told them they were. For example, if we say the roof has 5 years left and it has to be replaced immediately, we should not provide a new roof with a 15-year life expectancy.
  • We should only provide a roof with 5 years of life remaining.
  •  The inspector is not liable for any consequential loss (if the roof leaks and destroys a $20,000 piece of furniture, the damage to the furniture is not our problem).
  •  The contract is the entire agreement (anything we say in our advertising does not matter).
  •  This contract replaces all previous representations (including what we may have said on the phone or on our web site).
The purpose of the contract

Let’s look at the purpose of the contract. Many say the purpose of a contract is to limit the inspector’s liability. We believe the purpose of a contract is to clearly communicate to the client the scope of the home inspection. Clients should understand what we can and can’t do. It is fair for them to hold our feet to the fire within that window of responsibility.

 The goal of an agreement, in our opinion, is to have both the supplier and customer agree on the service to be delivered. It is the customer’s responsibility to pay for the service when it is delivered. It is the supplier’s responsibility to deliver the service.

Our contract is short and attempts to explain in layman’s terms the scope of the inspection. We refer to the ASHI®/CAHPI Standards of Practice because it is clear that the exclusions and restrictions are not specific to our company.  

There is, however, a risk in rigidly defining the scope. If you clearly set out what you are going to do, and then perform services beyond this scope, your contract may be thrown out by a court. (“I told you we don’t do things like asbestos, but I thought you should know that there is asbestos on these pipes.”) If you report on things outside of scope, it can be argued that you should have reported on other things outside the scope as well, since you were clearly not serious about defining your scope.

Promotional materials

We believe that your promotional materials can be positive without over-promising. Offering “complete peace of mind”, a “total solution” etc. may expose you to liability.  

Professional Liability Insurance

While people have different opinions about whether you should carry Errors & Omissions insurance, we encourage you not to advertise the fact, if you do carry the insurance.

When Things Go Wrong

One of the best ways to handle complaints is to anticipate them. We include a document called When Things Go Wrong in our reports. We remind clients of this document when complaints come in. It is very nice to be able to say, ‘We told you this would happen’.

Booking the inspection – a risk management opportunity

There is an opportunity to ask some risk management questions when an inspection is ordered. This is a great time to ask about and document specific concerns. Concerns outside the scope of the inspection can be identified at this stage and clients can be advised as to where to get answers to these questions. We prefer to avoid telling clients, “We don’t inspect for that”. We try to tell them where they can get answers to their specific issue. We also make it clear that when clients ask for things outside our scope, this is not part of a professional home inspection. We don’t want to leave the impression that other home inspectors may perform those services and that they have chosen a poor firm.

A conversation might go something like this:

"We are concerned about the septic system”.
Inspection firm:
"The evaluation of a septic system is not part of a home inspection. There are firms/septic contractors that specialize in this and we can coordinate a septic system evaluation for you, or refer you to a firm. "

In this example, we have made it clear to the client that what they are asking for is outside of what any home inspector does, but we have offered to respond on their behalf. There are several variations on this theme, but we encourage you to give some thought to this.

Good home inspectors don’t get complaints!

We thought we might catch your attention with this heading. Actually, we believe that all home inspectors get complaints eventually. Why is this? There are several reasons, but part of the answer may lie in our definition of a home inspection, which goes like this: Home inspection is a high-liability, in-depth, multi-disciplined technical analysis of the home conducted under adverse circumstances in front of a demanding audience, requiring the generation of an incredibly detailed written report prepared in an unrealistically short time frame for an inconceivably low fee.

Does anyone understand how tough our life is?

What to do at the inspection

The risk management process carries through the inspection itself. A good inspection is fundamental, of course, but it is also important to document special limitations, such as no access to a bedroom or roof space.  


It is important to be consistent between your verbal comments and your written report. Many home inspectors have a tendency to understate problems face-to-face and describe them more harshly in the written report. This frustrates clients, and if there are witnesses, the written report may be dismissed as not representative of the inspection.  

Don’t guess, bluff or ignore

Don’t guess about things you are not sure of. If you come across something you are not familiar with, say you will do some research and get back to them. You don’t want to bluff your way through a discussion. If you are caught, this will undermine your credibility on all issues. You can’t afford to ignore things you don’t understand because they may have a significant effect on the property.

Don’t show off

We encourage you not to show off. Clients are not well served by home inspectors who use technical language to prove their knowledge. Home inspectors are in the communication business and the best inspection is one that helps your client understand the condition of the home. You will be appreciated for your ability to make things understandable.

Don’t argue

We recommend that you avoid being argumentative. We are sometimes challenged about technical issues by one or more of the parties at the inspection. We think it’s best to avoid a confrontation. Simply provide authoritative backup for your position in the report. You should allow others their right to their own opinions. There is nothing to be gained from making one of the parties at the inspection look foolish. You can clarify your position for your client in private after the inspection if necessary.

Where does your loyalty belong?

We believe impartiality is a key to avoiding complaints. We are often asked to whom we are responsible or loyal during our inspection. Some say we are responsible to the client who pays our fee. Others say our responsibility is to the agent who brought us together with the client. Still others say that we are responsible to the seller whose home we are in. In our opinion, our loyalty lies with none of these. We believe our loyalty is to the home, we should represent its condition as accurately as possible to anyone who ever reads our report
Some tools to avoid and resolve complaints

Home warranties

Some inspectors offer a home warranty to clients. The warranty itself may address a problem. Some inspectors offer a home warranty to help in responding to complaints. The conversation might go something like this: “It is too bad you didn’t take advantage of the home warranty that we offered you during the inspection. The warranty would have addressed this issue.” The offer of a home warranty in itself is an indication to clients that the home inspection cannot predict future problems. This helps to adjust unrealistic expectations and again reinforces the scope of the home inspection.

Pre-possession checklists

Some inspectors give clients a checklist to complete before taking possession of the home. This puts some responsibility on the client to identify visible defects. If a client later calls to complain about a stain, crack or bulge, for example, the inspector points out to the client that they did not note it on their pre-possession checklist, so clearly it was not visible at the time of the inspection.  


Respond immediately if not sooner!

The single biggest mistake you can make when you learn of a complaint is delaying your response. Catching things early is great. Letting them fester is a serious problem. Non-response makes you look guilty, rude and evasive. You don’t calm an angry bull by poking him with a stick. If you take nothing else from this article, take away the thought that complaints are priority issues. Now, if we have convinced you that you must respond, let’s look at how.

It’s not about you!

How can it not be about you? Well, because it is about your client. And it is about their home. And it is about your business, not about you. It is unfortunate that in the home inspection profession it easy to confuse business and personal issues. Our emotional reactions are understandable personal responses. But they are not useful to us in dealing with complaints and can contribute to poor business decisions.  

Let’s look at an example. If you owned a store that sold toasters, and someone called to say their toaster didn’t work, how would you feel? You would take steps to show the client how to use the toaster, fix the toaster or replace the toaster as needed. But it probably wouldn’t ruin your day. You didn’t make the toaster. You just sold it.  

It’s not a personal attack, really!

Unfortunately, in our business, you designed and built the toaster, packaged it, advertised it and delivered it. To the client, it is a problem with a product or service, but to you, it feels like a personal attack.

The call

Complaints commonly come in by telephone or letter. The telephone call often goes something like this: “Hello, my name is John Doe. You inspected the house we bought in October and we moved in at the beginning of December and two days later it rained and the roof leaked into the family room and totally destroyed the hardwood flooring and everything got moldy and the dog who has asthma had a bad reaction to the mold and when my sister came over for the holidays, she tripped on the buckled flooring…”
The conversation often includes a list of problems and considerable emotion.

Listen first

The first rule is to listen, saying nothing. This is much harder than it sounds, especially for home inspectors. The second rule is to keep listening. The third rule is not to be defensive. It is important to let the client get absolutely everything on the table, without interruption, and without being challenged.  

Say thanks!

When we are sure that they have told us the whole story, the first thing we do is thank them for calling! We tell them this must have been a difficult call to make and that we appreciate the fact that they cared enough to call us and give us a chance to help them out. This lowers the energy level of the conversation and usually takes the client aback. They are expecting a fight. Don’t fight with them.  

Resolve the problem

We move quickly into a mode of helping them resolve their problem. We approach complaints by assuming the client just wants to get a problem resolved, rather than worrying about who is responsible for it. Something in their home is not working and needs to be corrected. The issue of responsibility is secondary.

After we have let the client describe their problem and thanked them for the call, we ask a number of questions. We typically say something like, ”Let me ask you a few questions to make sure I understand.” You may want to have a standard list of questions that include such things as:
  • Can you tell me the details of the problem? What does it look like? Exactly where is it? When did you first notice it?
  •  What was the date of the inspection and what was the date you moved in?
  •  What was the weather was like at the time of the inspection? What was the weather like when the problem first showed up?
  •  Was there any evidence of a previous problem in this area?
  •  Has any work been done in this part of the house since you moved in?
  •  Did you have any notes on your pre-possession checklist about this area?  
     Was there a seller’s disclosure form completed? Does it address this issue?
  •  Have you had any other inspections done on the property?
  •  Was the house vacant or occupied at the time of the inspection?
  •  Do you know how long the previous occupants lived in the house?
  •  Have you had any experts offer opinions on the problem?
  •  Have any repairs been undertaken yet? (Has the client removed your opportunity to examine the situation, and defend yourself?)
  • Have you had any other work done in the home? (Was the problem caused by other work being done?)
  • How was the problem discovered? (The use of special tools and dismantling are beyond the scope of an inspection.)
The last question is an interesting one. In some cases, we find that clients discover that all of their windows suddenly leak. This only makes sense when we learn that a conventional furnace has been replaced with a high-efficiency furnace, and the water on the windows is condensation, not leakage. Clients do not generally understand that a house is a complex set of interrelated systems and that changes in one area can affect others.

Is it in the Report?

Complaints are often about problems that are documented in the report. Many clients do not look at the report before calling to complain.

Don’t believe anything you are told

You should record all the responses, but not consider any of them as factual. We are always surprised at the amount of misinformation we receive from emotional clients telling us about their problems.


We thank the client again for calling and tell them we will pull our files and call them back in 60 minutes. We always look at our report before responding to any complaint. If it was another inspector who performed the inspection, we also encourage you to speak to that inspector before responding to the client. Resist the temptation to defend yourself even if you are reasonably sure that you have no liability.

Call back soon!

Call the client back before you said you would. If you tell them you will call them back in 60 minutes, then call them back in 30 minutes. If you need more time, tell them you’ll call them back in 3 hours, 24 hours or whatever, but always call them back before you said you would. There is little to be gained and much to be lost in further aggravating a client by keeping them waiting. This requires no additional effort on your part and is simply good customer relations.  

The problem is covered in the report!

You may find the problem is documented in the report. In this case, call the client back promptly and be positive and helpful. Remember, the client is looking for a solution and not a scapegoat. Offer to send them the appropriate section of the report and accept some of the responsibility for the miscommunication. Offer to go over the issue to make sure they understand what action is needed. Once again, thank them for calling and ensure that they are comfortable with your response.  

The problem is out of scope

Sometimes the problem is clearly outside of the scope of the inspection. When you call back, explain this but more importantly, show them that you told them earlier it was outside of the scope. You may refer them to the contract, to the Limitations section of your report, to the Standards of Practice, to When Things go Wrong , etc. Be positive and proactive. Ask if there is anything you can do to help. You may offer to help them find a specialist, for example. Before ending the conversation, ensure that they understand this was not something that any home inspector would identify. Thank them again for calling and encourage them to call back if they have any other issues.  

You may have made a mistake

If the problem is not included in your report and it seems to be within the scope of an inspection, schedule a revisit to the property. There are several reasons for this. 
  • The information reported is often incorrect or incomplete.
  • The client’s assessment of the cause may be wrong.
  • The client’s assessment of the implication may be wrong.
  • There are a number of issues that cannot be confirmed over the phone.
  • There may be circumstances that prevented you from discovering the problem.
  • The client will take some comfort in your revisit. You are responding rather than ignoring them.
The role of the contractor

In some cases, a contractor has discovered the problem. The contractor may have said, “Your home inspector should have seen this and told you about it!” If this is the case, ask to have the contractor to attend the revisit.  

Written complaints

Before we go any further with responses to complaints, let’s go back and look at what happens if you get a written complaint. This may be a letter from a client or an attorney. We believe you should call the client, no matter who sent the letter. This is an opportunity for you to re-establish your relationship with the client. It is also a chance to keep the problem from escalating.

Call, don’t write

Writing a defensive letter to a client or attorney may resolve the issue, but it more often aggravates the problem. As we said earlier, verbal communication is better than written communication in many ways. There is an opportunity for immediate feedback and the tone of voice and speech pattern are useful. Speaking is also less work than writing. Many people are intimidated by writing and are reluctant to write as much as they are willing to say. You will learn more in a conversation than in writing (assuming you can listen effectively), and knowledge is power in this situation.

The attorney’s disadvantage

Understand that the attorney has a problem. Attorneys are inevitably told one side of the story. Clients almost always frame the story so they don’t appear foolish, and often leave out key pieces of information, or add details. Attorneys’ letters always take strong positions based on hearing one side of the story.  

The attorney is doing their job but does not have all the information. Responding antagonistically to an attorney does nothing to help resolve the issue. Almost without exception, we find that the attorney has not seen our report, has not reviewed the contract and is missing some key pieces of information.  

Responding in writing

We suggested that you call when you get a complaint letter. But we are betting you won’t follow all of our advice, so here are some suggestions if you are responding by letter. Choose your words carefully; you can’t take them back. Do not reply via email; it’s just too easy to widely distribute emails. Avoid being defensive or aggressive. This is a business issue, not a personal issue. It can be very difficult to separate the two, but you need to retain perspective.  

In your response, do not accept any of the information in the complaint. Ask for the opportunity to revisit the property. Avoid building a defense based on the material presented in the complaint letter, since it is rarely accurate and complete.

If the letter is from an attorney and contains a demand for payment, you may want to turn the matter over to your insurance company. This is a business decision for you. Some inspectors avoid reporting claims to their insurance company for fear of the impact it will have on premiums. Others worry about insurance companies settling quickly in the amount of the deductible. We will avoid this discussion in the interests of keeping the article length within reasonable limits.

We believe that if you choose to respond to an attorney’s letter with a letter, you increase your risk. Your insurance company may feel that you have prejudiced their opportunity to defend, and if so, you may find that coverage is not available or is restricted. Again, we don’t want to get too far into this discussion but you should discuss these strategies with your insurance broker or carrier ahead of time.

Complaints through the real estate agent

Sometimes the real estate agent will make the complaint on behalf of their client. It is important to deal directly with the client so that the communication is good. But keep the real estate agent informed at every step. The agent will have heard only one side of the story, and you need to ensure that both sides are communicated clearly. Perhaps more importantly, you need to let the agent know that you are handling the issue promptly and professionally. This is an opportunity to educate the realtor and create a positive impression of your firm. Do not assume that the client will pass any message on to the agent.


The “mean scale” We like revisits because they help to put people in the right place on the mean scale.

The mean scale is our in-house term that means:

It is easiest for people to be mean in writing.
It is harder for people to be mean on the phone.
It is hardest to be mean face-to-face.  

: it is easy to be mean in writing, on the phone and face-to-face, when speaking about someone else.

Revisit basics

When you go out on a revisit, there are a number of things we recommend:
  • Take your report
  • Have your inspection report with you, although you may not want to refer to it directly. This is a strategic decision. Do not, however, rely on your memory of what is in your report. There may be an opportunity for you to present the report, resolve the issue and create a happy ending. You may also want to refer to your report privately to refresh your memory, clarify details, etc.
  • Take another inspector
  • If you did not perform the inspection, take the inspector who did with you. There are several reasons for doing this, but two that are fundamental.
  •  You will have no knowledge of what site conditions were during the inspection. The inspector may recall a crowded bookshelf along a wall that is now exposed. The bookshelf would not have been documented in the report as a limitation because the inspector would have assumed it was staying with the home.
The client will find it more difficult to accuse the inspector of inappropriate behavior if the inspector is standing there. It helps keep people honest, and keeps them at the right end of the mean scale .

If you did the inspection, take another inspector from your firm or a colleague from your association chapter, for example. Again, there are several benefits to having someone else with you, but the biggest is that they are not emotionally involved.  

You are fact finding

Do not act defensively or aggressively. Your role is to help solve a problem. Your focus is not on the blame, at least not at this stage. Ask lots of questions. You may even repeat the standard list of questions that you asked on the telephone. The answers are often surprisingly different. This can be helpful later on in the resolution process.  

You may also want to create more questions based on the initial answers you received.
You may offer steps to solve the problem. But don’t discuss responsibility for the problem.


Take photographs to document the situation. Some courts will not accept digital photos because they are so easy to alter. A 35mm camera may be better.

No fancy tools

Do not use tools that you don’t use during a home inspection. If you use fancy devices at the revisit, you may be asked why you didn’t use them during the home inspection.

Contractors should attend

We mentioned earlier that if it was a contractor who found the problem, it is wise to have the contractor attend the revisit. You might ask when they discovered the problem. If it was after work began, ask why their original quote did not mention this problem. If it should have been apparent to an inspector who is a generalist, it should have been apparent to a contractor who is a specialist.  

In most cases, the problem will have been discovered part way through the project. Try to have the contractor admit the uncertainty and unpredictability rather than challenging the contractor’s responses directly.

Thinking on your feet

As evidence unfolds, you will need to ask follow-up questions. This requires mental agility and focus. Emotions get in the way. This is another reason that two people should attend the revisit. Two heads are better than one, especially since the inspector who did the inspection will tend to justify or rationalize their original position. It is simply human nature.  

When you have collected information on site, advise the client what the next steps will be. Give them a date and time you will get back to them, and then get back to them sooner.

The responsibility yardstick After the revisit, pull out the responsibility yardstick, and see how you measure up.

There are six points on the yardstick.  
1. Is there in fact a problem?  
a. If No, explain to your client why the thing that looks like a problem is really a normal condition.
b. If Yes, go to Point 2.

2. If there is a problem, was it documented in the report?  
a. If Yes, show the client that your report addresses the situation.  
b. If No, go to Point 3.

3. If there is a problem, and it is not documented in the report, is it within the scope of the inspection?
a. If No, help the client understand why a home inspection would not reveal this problem.
b. If Yes, Go to Point 4.

4. If there is a problem, it is not documented in your report and it is within the scope of the home inspection, ask yourself, “Would a competent inspector identify this problem?”
a. If No, help the client understand that no home inspector would have discovered this.
b. If Yes, go to Point 5

5. Did it exist at the time of the inspection? (This may be difficult or impossible to determine.)
a. If No, explain this to your client.
b. If Yes, go to Point 6.

6. Was it visible at the time of the inspection? (This too, may be difficult or impossible to determine. Check for limitations in your report. Check for changes or demolition that expose the problem.)
a. If No, explain this to your client.
b. If Yes, you probably have some responsibility.

Let’s assume we are at 6 b.
Issues to consider:

Circumstances in which the problem is apparent

What were the circumstances? There are lots of things that may have prevented you from identifying the problem. A badly damaged floor may have been covered with broadloom. Ceiling tiles may have concealed rotted joists. Roofs may only leak when conditions are right – ice damming or wind-driven rains from the southeast, for example. Basements may only leak when thawing snow is combined with heavy spring rains on frozen ground.

Shared responsibility

Consider whether there is any shared responsibility. 
  • Did a seller, tenant or other third party conceal or misrepresent the problem?
  • Did a contractor, installer or homebuilder perform poor work?
  • Did a contractor conceal the problem?
  • Is the product under a manufacturer’s warranty?
  • Is the problem covered under a homeowner’s insurance policy?
  • Is the problem covered under a home warranty?
  • Is there a manufacturer’s recall on the product?
  • And so on.

Recreating the inspection situation

One of the most difficult things is to recreate the circumstances of the inspection. This is an argument for a statute of limitations on home inspectors’ responsibility. So many things can change in a home, and inspectors cannot remember the conditions from previous inspections.

The negotiations

Let’s look at the three possible situations:

1. You conclude that you have no responsibility. You have a communications task to move the client to the point of understanding why you have no responsibility.

2. You may or may not have responsibility. There is a problem that was not documented that is within the scope of the home inspection, but you don’t know whether you or your inspector should have identified it.

3. There is clearly a problem with respect to the inspection.  Situation 2 is the most difficult to resolve. What does the client think is fair? One of the first steps is to find out what the client thinks is fair. You’ll notice we didn’t ask you to find out what would make the client happy . We much prefer asking the client what he thinks is fair. We are sometimes surprised at how little the client is looking for. In some cases, an apology is what is required. In other cases, helpful advice in resolving the problem satisfies the client. In many cases, a refund of the inspection fee restores the relationship.

We try to look at the issue from the client’s perspective but avoid being drawn into the client’s situation.

The three philosophies

At the outset, we talked about three philosophies that may guide you. At this point, it becomes important to have taken a position as to whether you are one of those who denies all claims (hard liner), one who accepts valid claims (validater) or one who tends to settle all claims (conciliator). Your next steps will be based on the philosophy you have adopted. You may well find that your position is based on the way your client has been acting and reacting. It may not be logical, but we tend to react more favorably to people we deem as behaving rationally, professionally and with courtesy.

Unclear responsibility

In many cases, you are negotiating a compromise and you may make an offer as a business decision whether you think you made an error or not.  

Be careful with offers

Touch base with your attorney and your insurance company before making an offer, to make sure you will be able to defend yourself if the offer is not accepted.  

Only settle for business reasons if it helps your business!

Consider settling with a client only if the client is satisfied with the offer. It may not be a great investment to pay money and still have an unhappy client.  

Get a release

Get an attorney’s advice on what kind of release you need in exchange for a settlement. A release is a form signed by the client that frees you completely or partially from any further liability claims on that property.

Avoid betterment

We talked earlier about the roof that was 5 years old being replaced with a new roof that might last 15 or 20 years. It’s fair to pay for part of a new roof to put the client back to the point the report said they were.

Other responsible parties?

If there are others who may share responsibility, you may advise the client of this and encourage them to seek compensation in those areas. Your attorney and insurer should know about these, if things go that far. These may include the seller, the real estate agent, contractors, builders, manufacturers, homeowners’ insurance policies and home warranties.

Turning it over to the insurance company

You may choose to have your insurance company handle the complaint. This can be an emotional relief, but it may be expensive. It also probably eliminates the possibility of having a satisfied client. The insurance company’s world is typically adversarial. The exception may be if the insurance company offers to settle quickly for the amount of your deductible. Talk to your insurance company before you are in the situation, so this problem does not arise during the handling of a complaint.  


Handling complaints is no fun. Having a strategy developed for handling them in advance makes it less painful and less likely that you will make a serious mistake. We hope that this information is useful at least in part, and encourage you to use the parts that fit your business model.  


There may come a time that you discover something wrong with the house, and you may be upset or disappointed with your home inspection.

Intermittent Or Concealed Problems

Some problems can only be discovered by living in a house. They cannot be discovered during the few hours of a home inspection. For example, some shower stalls leak when people are in the shower, but do not leak when you simply turn on the tap. Some roofs and basements only leak when specific conditions exist. Some problems will only be discovered when carpets were lifted, furniture is moved or finishes are removed.

No Clues

These problems may have existed at the time of the inspection but there were no clues as to their existence. Our inspections are based on the past performance of the house. If there are no clues of a past problem, it is unfair to assume we should foresee a future problem.

We Always Miss Some Minor Things

Some say we are inconsistent because our reports identify some minor problems but not others. The minor problems that are identified were discovered while looking for more significant problems. We note them simply as a courtesy. The intent of the inspection is not to find the $200 problems; it is to find the $2,000 problems. These are the things that affect people’s decisions to purchase.

Contractors’ Advice

The main source of dissatisfaction with home inspectors comes from comments made by contractors. Contractors’ opinions often differ from ours. Don’t be surprised when three roofers all say the roof needs replacement when we said that, with some minor repairs, the roof will last a few more years.

Last Man In Theory

While our advice represents the most prudent thing to do, many contractors are reluctant to undertake these repairs. This is because of the “Last Man In Theory”. The contractor fears that if he is the last person to work on the roof, he will get blamed if the roof leaks, regardless of whether the roof leak is his fault or not. Consequently, he won’t want to do a minor repair with high liability when he could re-roof the entire house for more money and reduce the likelihood of a callback. This is understandable.

Most Recent Advice Is Best

There is more to the “Last Man In Theory”. It suggests that it is human nature for homeowners to believe the last bit of “expert” advice they receive, even if it is contrary to previous advice. As home inspectors, we unfortunately find ourselves in the position of “First Man In” and consequently it is our advice that is often disbelieved.

Why Didn’t We See It

Contractors may say “I can’t believe you had this house inspected, and they didn’t find this problem”. There are several reasons for these apparent oversights:  

Conditions During Inspection

1. It is difficult for homeowners to remember the circumstances in the house, at the time of the inspection. Homeowners seldom remember that it was snowing, there was storage everywhere in the basement or that the furnace could not be turned on because the air conditioning was operating, et cetera. It’s impossible for contractors to know what the circumstances were when the inspection was performed.

The Wisdom Of Hindsight

2. When the problem manifests itself, it is very easy to have 20/20 hindsight. Anybody can say that the basement is wet when there is 2 inches of water on the floor. Predicting the problem is a different story.

A Long Look

3. If we spent 1/2 an hour under the kitchen sink or 45 minutes disassembling the furnace, we’d find more problems too. Unfortunately, the inspection would take several days and would cost considerably more.

We’re Generalists

4. We are generalists; we are not specialists. The heating contractor may indeed have more heating expertise than we do. This is because we are expected to have heating expertise and plumbing expertise, roofing expertise, electrical expertise, et cetera.

An Invasive Look

5. Problems often become apparent when carpets or plaster are removed, when fixtures or cabinets are pulled out, and so on. A home inspection is a visual examination. We don’t perform any invasive or destructive tests.

Not Insurance

In conclusion, a home inspection is designed to better your odds. It is not designed to eliminate all risk. For that reason, a home inspection should not be considered an insurance policy. The premium that an insurance company would have to charge for a policy with no deductible, no limit and an indefinite policy period would be considerably more than the fee we charge. It would also not include the value added by the inspection.

We hope this is food for thought.

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