The Hungry Home Inspector by P Nathan Thornberry :: Why Some Inspectors are Always Hungry for More While Others Just Go Hungry

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The Hungry Home Inspector

Why Some Inspectors Are Always Hungry For More
While Others Just Go Hungry


Chapter 8

Liability and Lies

You've nothing to lose and everything to gain, unless you are always fearful of loss in which case you should avoid any gains and then you will never have to lose.


Wool carpet in a solid color doesn’t seem on its face to be a big deal. Frankly, I’m not a big fan. Give me hardwoods, slate, travertine, or even a really good carpet and I’m happy, but in the McMansions of Carmel, Indiana there are quite a few $2 million + houses that have wool carpeting. Expensive wool carpeting.

On one of those minor detours in my life between the last time I was fired by my parents and before I took over the home warranty company, I started a little property services business.  Eventually I figured out that the most money to be made was in big contracts with management companies, which ultimately led to my being able to sell that company less than a year after starting it for pretty decent money at the time. But before I figured that out I went for the home runs in the form of McMansions.

I left fliers, made phone calls, offered everything from cleaning gutters to changing light bulbs and doing general maintenance to housekeeping services. Since most people don’t trust their home maintenance needs to an eighteen-year-old who looks not a day over fifteen, I picked up a bunch of housekeeping clients.

What a pain in the butt.

I was still in high school, so I would assemble my staff in the mornings, I had around ten people within two months of starting the service, and I would assign them their jobs, and then I would check on them in-between classes.

There was one house I’ll never forget. Probably a $1.7 million house at the time in 1999. It was around 12,000 square feet, half a dozen kids lived there, and the client was extremely particular about how things were cleaned.  She would watch the team of three I’d send over there ever Wednesday, two of whom couldn’t speak English well.

It made them nervous.

Especially nervous was the newcomer to the group, his name escapes me. He was cleaning an upstairs bathroom, and it was right off this sizeable “bridge” between the master bedroom and the other bedrooms spanning the dramatic two plus story entryway.

He was using a bleach-based cleaner in the bathroom and he was being watched. He was looking away as he put the bottle down into his bucket, and he missed. The bottle hit the carpeting,  the brownish-orange designer wool carpeting. At first it appeared just wet apparently.  Over a period of about an hour it got lighter, and lighter, and then white as the perfect ring the size of the bottom of the bottle now showed brightly on what I thought was an otherwise ugly carpet.

I carried two cell phones in high school. One was forwarded from my office line so I never missed a call, the other for employees (and friends/family I suppose) to call me on. They both  vibrated in my pocket, I excused myself from class to go to the bathroom (a.k.a. my “office”), and I took the call from the office line first.

It was the high-maintenance, pain in the butt homeowner.

She was bouncing off the walls, furious. I calmed her down, let her know it’s just carpet, no big deal, we’ll take care of it.

“But it’s specialty carpet!”

I didn’t argue with her, I just told her to get an estimate to fix it and get me a copy so I can look at it. I spoke to my employees, found out what happened, and the bottom line was this: I was responsible.

I was new to the business. I didn’t want a big claim on my general liability insurance, but this shouldn’t be a big deal. A couple hundred bucks, maybe?

Try $4,600.

$4,600 for some stupid wool carpet in what can’t be a 200 square foot area, and of course no way they could patch it in.

You can do a lot with $4,600. You can replace both a furnace and an air conditioner. You can put a new roof on most houses. You can fix a major structural issue.  You can mitigate the home for radon, treat it for termites, and have money to spare for a vacation.

$4,600 was a lot of money to an eighteen-year-old running his first business. I had payroll to meet, a mortgage to pay, and an addiction to fast cars to pursue.  As painful as it was, I committed to take care of the issue.

Ultimately I found a company that specializes in coloring high-end carpeting, and the issue was resolved for less than $1,000. Had I not answered the client’s phone calls, had I not committed to solving the problem, the client may not have accepted the repair.

I owe that to my parents and how they ran the business I grew up in. White Ford Rangers with blue logos, uniformed inspectors, letterhead and business cards, and computer-generated reports before anybody else in the business even had a computer. They answered the call before the third ring every time, and no they were not afraid to solve a problem even if it meant writing a check.

I’m not even positive when they started in the business that Errors and Omissions insurance for inspectors was available. I know it was uncommon. Very early on they did thousands of inspections each year when most of their competition did less than a hundred, and every once in a while there was a complaint. Less often, the complaint turned into a threat of legal action. Seldom, those threats turned into reality and what you’ve heard from other inspectors about that limitation of liability in the inspection agreement not  necessarily holding up in court is absolutely true. It does sometimes, but not all the time.

The rule for us was simple: you don’t go to court if you’re in the wrong. Period.

So while other kids my age were enjoying being “kids”, I was dressing professionally, printing up business cards, printing out professional invoices, and answering the phone every time it rang.

If this homeowner had been dealing with anyone else twice my age, they would have likely not accepted the repair. Liability has little to do with standards of practice or with contracts. These things are important, but the real test in the client’s mind is how comfortable they feel throughout the process (your level of professionalism) and your response to their complaints.

Let’s look at the various ways you can look professional, versus the less professional opposite:

Professional- The client calls to book an inspection, gets a professional phone answering staff member who takes their information, gets them scheduled, and then sends them a confirmation e-mail along with the inspection agreement and a detailed written  proposal as to what the inspection includes. The phone is answered, “Thank you for calling Professional Home Inspections, this is Nicole, how may I help you?”

Unprofessional- Client calls and gets the inspector himself who answers the phone, or maybe a voice-mail that even says which cell phone service he uses and gets a call back.  The inspector proceeds to take the order with background noise clearly indicating he is not in an office. There is no e-mail follow-up, and the person who answered the phone is the same person who shows up to do the inspection. The phone is answered, “Jim’s Home Inspection Service”.

The first company exudes confidence and professionalism. The client now has the name of not only the inspector, but also someone who works in the office at this professional organization they’d never heard of before they were referred by their real estate agent or found them on the Web. They feel good and know that if they have a question or an issue that they can call the business phone number any time, talk to a person, and get their issues resolved.

The second company, in this case “Jim” (he’s the entire “company” in the client’s mind, and it’s never a good idea to have a word like “company” in quotation marks), has destroyed any possibility that he will ever be a true professional in the client’s mind. The best he can hope for is a personal relationship and level of trust that he might be able to create once on-site, but that’s about it.

This is where liability starts. After the inspection, after the closing, after the move-in, and after something doesn’t work correctly, people have a tendency to want to get things fixed. If they have an air conditioning issue and they call a company with a big  advertisement in the yellow pages, they’re going to get a professional response. When that contractor then shows up in a big painted truck in a uniform with a professional bid for replacing the air conditioner for some ridiculously large sum of money, you’re already behind the eight ball.  When that company says (erroneously) that “Your inspector should have told you this thing needed to be replaced”...The client believes him!

If you were just as professional, showed up in a truck with your logo on it, had an office staff or a call center that made you look professional before you even showed up, you would be on a level playing field.

It doesn’t matter what type of contractor we’re talking about. It could be a plumber, a termite treatment company, a structural  contractor, or a mold remediation firm- it doesn’t matter. When people experience a problem, they don’t automatically call an attorney and sue their home inspector. They have to have a reason to, and they have to go through a few stages to get there:

1. First Impression- was the inspector just an inspector with a truck, or was this a professional home inspection company with the resources to handle my issues?

2. Problem Found, Now What? – What do I do when there’s a problem? Can I call the inspection company and get an immediate answer to my concern or will I just get the inspector’s cell phone voice-mail? Will he even return my call in time for this problem to be resolved before it causes more problems in my life?

3. Where’s the process? – When I called the contractor, they told me I should definitely go after the inspector for this. That if they had missed [fill in defect here] they would take care of it. So is there a process for handling this, or do I just get it taken care of and deal with it later as the contractor suggests?

4. Demand- A request has been made to solve the client’s problem. Whether it is a real problem or not has already been determined in their mind through stages 1, 2, & 3.

5. Resolution- The issue has either been resolved in the client’s mind or it hasn’t. If it hasn’t, they continue to be active in seeking resolution.

There are a few frivolous exceptions to any of this, but short of the rare individual who is actually out to get you, acknowledgement of these stages and building systems to avert complaints every step of the way is a sure-fire way to reduce liability.

None of this relieves the need to have a good, solid contract or to be well versed in the minimum Standards of Practice, but the number one way to reduce liability is to be “more than just an inspector,” be a company.

Let me give you an example outside of the inspection business. Let’s say you bought a car from a small car lot, the kind that doesn’t have a brand affiliation like Penske or Tom Wood or Germain or whoever is the big car dealer in your area with brand  affiliations and multiple dealerships. You purchased from the kind of car lot that doesn’t have an indoor showroom and does not sell new cars.

They had the car you wanted; it’s a used Ford Mustang for this example. You test drive the car, you buy it cash, and you take it home.

The next day the engine seizes. What do you do?

I think most people might call the dealer, tell them about the issue, and see what they’re willing to do about it.

What if they don’t answer the phone?

What if they tell you that you bought the car “As-Is,” no warranty?

What do you do next?

A few Google searches, maybe a call to an attorney or two, and about 24 hours of completely stressing out later, you’ll come across your state’s “Lemon Law,” that usually says something to the effect that if you buy a total piece of garbage and it falls apart within seven days, the dealer either has to fix it or buy it back.

Now that you know the law exists, you confront the dealer about it, and they say, “Oh, we’ll fix it.”

You drop off the car and wait. Days pass. A week passes.  No word.

It’s clear that the dealer doesn’t have the backing to deal with the issue, so they’re likely shopping some hole in the wall auto shops trying to find someone to fix this issue on the cheap, which doesn’t mean they’re fixing it “well.”  This is of course nothing more than  a theory on your part, but it’s building up in the form of stomach acid until you finally call them and ask for your money back.

“We’re fixing it, be patient.”

Eventually you sue them for the sticker price of the car, and they don’t show up in court. Then you pay your attorney (again) for a “proceedings supplemental” to actually collect on your default judgment, which only goes so far because you can’t squeeze juice out of a turnip.

What if this whole issue was nothing but a simple fix, and there was legitimately a backup of service at the auto repair shop they took it to? What if they chose a mechanic who was known to be the best in the business at working on that year, make and model of  car, and they genuinely wanted to get it fixed right for you?

None of that mattered.

They lost your confidence the minute the salesperson was also the finance guy and was also the guy to clean out the car and also the guy to handle your call when you had a complaint and you assume he was also the guy who bought the car at an auction in the first place.

Zero structure + Zero staff= Zero consumer confidence.

This is how many clients are made to feel almost immediately when they order a home inspection at most home inspection companies. Think about it.

Now let’s take the same example from above, except you bought a used car at the largest dealership in town.  Same thing happened. You brought it home and the engine seized. You call the dealership, explain the situation, they put you in contact with a service manager.

He has you bring the car in, they want to check it out and see what they can do.

They find the minor issue that appears to you like it is seizing, fix it, you pick up the car, and everything is fine.

Does it cost them some money to resolve these sorts of issues? Yes. Do they invest a lot of money in staff and resources to be able  to handle complaints in this manner? You betcha. Do they have a better reputation and higher confidence from consumers in their products and have more repeat business? Oh yes. Do they charge more for their used cars than the tiny car lots out there and make bigger profits? Absolutely!

As a home inspection company owner, you have to make the decision as to whether you want to look like a greasy, low end used car dealer or a pristine, world-class, high end dealership.

How do you do that?

Simple. If you have more than three inspectors, hire someone to work as your office manager and answer the phones. If you have less than three inspectors, hire a call center. There are two of them listed in the resources section in the back of this book, and  they’re the only two in North America that specifically handle home inspection call center services (if you’re a franchisee, there may be additional options for you).

The other thing you need to do is have scripts. How you answer the phone every time it rings. “Jim’s Home Inspection” is not a proper call answering script, and if you think I’m being harsh just go seek advice from counsel on your future bankruptcy now.

Try something more like, “Thank you for calling Security Home Inspection, this is Nathan, how may I help you?”  I’ve only repeated those words tens of thousands of times. I could walk into that office right now and I would almost automatically reach for the phone when it rang and if I didn’t stop myself I’d end up saying that to the person on the other line.

The final thing to do is to leave your ego at the door. If you’re still in the field inspecting, and that’s a good use of your time, when you’re on site you are not the owner, the president of the company, or any other such nonsense. You are the inspector.

Print up business cards that say it. Wear a uniform. Install logos on your truck. Be a humble servant to your clients on inspections the way you want every inspector that ever works for you or carries on the business after you to do.

Then establish processes for dealing with complaints, a hierarchy to make sure clients have confidence in the process, and a policy that issues are tended to quickly, resolved efficiently, and dealt with before they cause the biggest liability of all, the one that happens a thousand times as often as an inspector going to court, losing future clients and referrals.