Our office will be closed on Thursday, November 24 in observance of Thanksgiving. We will resume normal business hours on Friday, November 25. Have a safe and happy holiday!

Robin Jade Conde

PODCAST: Home Inspection Legal Issues (with Atty. Steve Laitinen)

The home inspection industry is subject to lawsuits. Attorney Steve Laitinen, a litigator and a trial lawyer from Larson King Law Firm, joins the show to discuss home inspection legal issues.

Steve discusses the typical lawsuits against inspectors. He mentions that cases vary in different jurisdictions- some have specific statutes of limitation for the type of claim. Reuben highlights that some of the claims don’t come from direct clients.

They talk about the role insurance companies play, the financial terms of the claims, and the time and effort spent on the process. Reuben shares Structure Tech’s experience with a lawsuit. Steve confirms that setting expectations is vital before doing an inspection. He discusses the important limitations stipulated in the inspector’s and client’s signed agreement. Steve also shares experiences when it was difficult to defend clients.

Today’s show was requested by one of you! Send your questions and topic suggestions to podcast@structuretech.com.


 TRANSCRIPTION

 

The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

 

Bill Oelrich: Welcome, everyone, you’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman, as always, your three-legged stool coming to you from the Northland, talking all things houses, home inspections, and anything else that’s rattling around in our brain. Well, it’s great to have the whole crew back, it’s been a few weeks since we’ve done this podcast together, so it’s nice to see, Reuben, Tess.

 

Reuben Saltzman: Yeah, I said I was a little busy and Bill, you’re like, “I’m just going without you guys, see you later.” You left us in the dust. Bill, you’ve been the solo host for several weeks now. Thank you.

 

BO: Yeah, reviews are down and comments are up, asking why and such, but you just do what you can and you hope to put out some good content. So it’s good to see you guys nevertheless, and I’m really, really excited about today’s conversation. We are just giddy to have an attorney that, full disclosure, we have worked with in the past, so Steve Laitinen, from Larson King has been gracious enough to give us some of his time to talk a little bit about litigation in the home inspection world. And this came up from, a listener wrote in, just talking a little bit about his experiences in the Northeastern part of the country and he was saying that he had three clients in one year threaten lawsuits against him. And so he said, “Hey, if you guys ever wanna talk about litigation, please do. I’d love to hear an attorney’s opinion on this.” And so, Steve has done contract work for us in the past, he has been a very good sounding board for… When we’re in our ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure mode, we’d like to reach out to folks like Steve. So Steve, why don’t you ahead and introduce yourself. Kinda give the particulars, how long have you been in the business, what’s your specialty and contact information if you wanna throw that out as well.

 

Steve Laitinen: Well, thanks, Bill. Again, my name is Steve Laitinen, and I’m with the Larson King Law Firm in Saint Paul. I’ve been a lawyer now for almost 30 years, started in 1993, I’m a litigator and trial lawyer, I’ve got a varied practice, but over the years, I’ve been privileged to representing residential home inspectors.

 

BO: And did that happen just organically? How did that happen? 

 

SL: We get work either if I get a direct call from a residential home inspector, which has happened over the years, typically that’ll come through an insurance company relationship. So for example, if a residential home inspector has insurance, and I sure hope everyone out there does, then that insurance company then typically will have the ability to choose a lawyer for that home inspector, if they run into a legal issue, and so this probably happened 25 years ago. When I first got involved, I had an insurance carrier that insured many Minnesota residential home inspectors, started sending us work and I was the kinda go-to guy that time to handle those claims. So, I’ve handled scores and scores of residential home inspection cases over the years. Typically, almost always, when that home inspector gets sued by a client that is not happy with the result, or it will be from a buyer that is not happy with the home after some period of years because they believe that the home inspector did not fully disclose all of the issues that may have later come to light. So really two avenues, the direct client lawsuit against the residential home inspector is, it’s more like you have a home owner that’s not happy with the state of their home, and they will try to come back after that residential home inspector.

 

BO: Is there some sort of statutory limit of liability for a home inspector? 

 

SL: Right. So, the standard is always check your jurisdiction, I know you have valued listeners all over the country, so this is gonna be a little bit different depending on the jurisdiction that your listeners are in. But for example, in the State of Minnesota, what you’re typically looking at is a breach of contract claim, where your statute of limitations will be six years. Some jurisdictions will have specific statutes of limitation for the type of claim that you might have against the residential home inspector, but basically, it’s a breach of contract claim that is premised on that residential inspection agreement.

 

RS: And you know, just to be clear, so we know what we’re talking about, as a home inspection company, we always have our clients sign an agreement before we do the work for them, “Here’s the terms, here’s this, here’s that.” But the type of claims that Steve is talking about and correct me if I’m wrong, Steve, is not coming from our client, it’s the people whose house we inspected, we haven’t had any type of legal agreement with them, they don’t sign anything, we’ve got no relationship. And then they just kind of come out of the blue and they’re like… Well, not out the blue, we inspected their house, but they come at us sideways and say, “Hey, I don’t like what you said about my house, now you’re making it tough for me to sell”, or something like that. So, there is no type of agreement that we have with them. Is that fair? 

 

SL: Yes, fair and accurate. So again, what the typical litigation landscape is going to be, a current home owner that has been inspected by that residential home inspector and that homeowner one year, two years, three years, four years later, encounters a condition in their home that they feel should have been disclosed to them in that residential home inspection agreement, and so that’s typically the route that is used when you’re gonna go to litigation. There are other avenues of litigation, it’s more rare to have an actual client sue you because you did a moisture test inspection, for example, that didn’t allegedly find all of the moisture. So, believe me, there’s always ways for people to sue other people, but as you’ve pointed out, Reuben, the typical route is a current home owner that’s not happy with the condition of their home.

 

BO: What size conversation are we having here, if we could put it in financial terms? Are these $0 to $10,000 conversations? Are they $50,000 to $100,000? Are they usually over a hundred? 

 

SL: Well you know, it really depends, but typically, you are gonna have a case that’s going to be in the realm of $50,000 to $100,000, typically. And I say that because most folks aren’t gonna pursue litigation if you have a $10,000 or $15,000 claim. Not to say that they won’t, but they’re going to be restricted, really jurisdictionally based on what they can do. So to answer your question, Bill, for example, in state court, in Minnesota, you have to allege in excess of $50,000 to get jurisdiction in that state court. If it’s less than that, then you’re looking at conciliation, but which is a different type of venue. If you’re in federal court, and fortunately, you’re not gonna see many home inspection disputes in the federal court, the jurisdictional limit in that venue is $75,000, so we are talking about a larger type of claim, and then it’s really gonna depend on the damages, and that doesn’t factor in the legal fees and costs that might be involved in defending that case.

 

BO: Is there a threshold by which you need to… From an attorney perspective, if we’re arguing over $25,000, it’s probably not gonna benefit you to take this to court because it ends up being that you get paid, and so does the other counsel, but the actual plaintiff, maybe not. Is that accurate? 

 

SL: Right, yeah, typically, when you’re on the defense side of the equation, defending the trustee home inspector, my legal fees are gonna be paid by the insurance company for that residential home inspector. There’s a contractual relationship between the inspector and his or her insurance company. The insurance company issues the policy. The insurance company has a duty to defend the residential home inspector, and what does that mean? Well, that means that the insurance company typically gets to pick the lawyer to defend the home inspector, and then the insurance company pays the fees; the legal fees, the cost to hire an expert, the filing fees, deposition transcripts. And on the other side of it, the plaintiff’s lawyers can take the case on an hourly basis where they get paid by the hour, or they can take it on what’s called a contingent basis, where that lawyer may front all the costs up front and then they’ll take a third or more of the results. So let’s say if you have a $100,000 case that goes to verdict, that plaintiff’s lawyer would get a fee of $33,000, plus he’d get his costs, so that plaintiff might get $40,000 out of that case; $60,000 might go to the lawyers and the experts, and the plaintiff might only get $40,000 on that type of dynamic.

 

SL: The general rule of thumb though is that most lawyers on the plaintiff side that are gonna sue a residential home inspector, you’re not gonna take a case unless it’s worth at least $100,000 because the economics just don’t work for the plaintiff’s law firm. You’re gonna spend $10,000 on experts. So most lawyers are either gonna take that on an hourly basis or they’re gonna take it on a contingent basis, but it’s gotta be a big enough claim and for it to make economic sense.

 

RS: Fascinating.

 

Tessa Murry: Steve, over the years of doing this, would you say there’s a common theme to what you see home inspectors get sued over the most? 

 

SL: Yes. This is words to the wise, and I know all of you preach this mantra to your valued listeners, but first and foremost, you have to get a signed agreement. That is the most important thing you can do from a defense perspective, is make sure the client signs your fee agreement, your inspection agreement. First and foremost, that’s gonna help as an inspector not to get sued by your own customer, by your client. Get that inspection agreements signed. You wanna typically get that signed before the inspection, because when I get hired, and let’s say that a former client of a home inspector’s upset with the inspection for some reason or another, first thing you look at is, do I have a signed agreement by this plaintiff? Has the plaintiff signed the inspection agreement? And if they haven’t, then those terms and conditions of your inspection agreement are arguably not going to apply, or as a lawyer, I have to get creative and say, “Did you read the inspection agreement? Did you rely on it? Did you understand what the inspector was telling you about the inspection?”

 

SL: So, get it signed, and then all inspectors should sit down and have a conversation with the client before the inspection as to what that inspection agreement contains. Setting expectations. “Here’s what I’m here to do. Here’s what I cannot do. I cannot detect concealed defects. I can’t do this, I can’t do that. I’m not testing for pests, I’m not testing for radon, I’m not here to test for mold,” or whatever the parameters of that inspection might be. The typical claim is that typically a concealed defect was not revealed in the inspection.

 

RS: All of the stuff you’re talking about, the first time I met you, Steve, was in 2004. That was the only case that you have defended our company in. You were defending my dad, and it feels like it was just such a perfect case study of all of the stuff you’re talking about gone horribly wrong. The deal was, it was an out-of-town purchaser. He didn’t set up the home inspection. The realtor scheduled the home inspection. The realtor popped by during the home inspection, and my dad… At the time, we didn’t have all this digital stuff with having people sign stuff. We just always had people sign the agreement on site, and the agent said, “Well, I can sign for him.” And the agent signed the agreement. Well, that was worthless. That was meaningless. We never made that mistake again. Again, this is 18 years ago. And the issue was, there was a crawl space and it had a panel that was nailed in place, like a ton of nails going over this cover. Now we don’t remove nails. Like, if there’s 20 screws, sure, we’ll take those out, but if it’s nailed shut, we’re not getting a hammer and prying it out. And then on top of that, there was a ton of stuff stored in front of it, blocking access to it. We had pictures. There was no way to get at it. My dad had documented all the stuff on the outside showing you got bad landscaping, and you got water coming against here, you got no gutters, you got rot on the outside.

 

RS: Well, once they got in the crawl space, they found a lot more rot, and that’s what the whole claim was over, and Steve did end up getting it tossed out. Basically in the end, argued it down to the client got the money for their inspection back. In my book, that’s the same as getting it tossed out basically. If the client’s unhappy, you can have your money back, but that was it, but oh my goodness. You say we won, but you go to court and you’ve lost. So much time involved in all of this, so much lost sleep, it just… You lose. If you go to court, you’ve lost. So I just feel like that was a perfect case study of all the stuff that we did wrong, and we have never done wrong again ever since.

 

SL: Well, and I would jump in. I don’t think your dad did anything wrong at… Back then, almost now 20, 18 years ago, but that’s gonna be your typical claim. I defended a home inspector that had inspected a 1910 farm house up in the North Metro, and it was built at a time when the wood was wet when it was constructed, and so we had some sloping floors, after a 100 plus years, we had some… Just the way that the building was constructed, there was a little bit of sag or bend in the joints, but it was structurally sound, and the buyers ended up suing our inspector because they felt that he’d missed a load-bearing wall, they felt that he’d missed the sloping floors, they felt that the home was structurally unsound, so $75,000 later, I had to hire a home inspection expert, I had to hire a structural engineer to talk about building practices back in 1910.

 

RS: Wow.

 

SL: And we ended up getting a total defense verdict for the inspector, a jury found in his favor, no liability at all, but that was a year and a half process, and the poor home inspector, it really upset him and it stressed him out, because he was worried about his professional reputation. So litigation is my life, I’m used to it, but it’s not fun for anybody once you… We get involved in a suit.

 

TM: So what I hear you saying, Steve, is the best thing we can do to prevent our butts from getting sued is have people sign the agreement, ideally before we do an inspection, and set the expectation, talk to the client, tell ’em what we’re doing and tell ’em, even more importantly, what we can’t do, is that right? 

 

SL: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Setting the expectations, and having that conversation before you ever inspect, “Here’s my inspection agreement.” And then we can talk about some proactive litigation avoidance issues in your… In folk’s inspection agreement, so you… And again, depending on the jurisdiction, we have what’s called a limitation on liability provision, so that has to be very clearly set out in the agreement, it’s gotta be explained to the client, where they understand, if anything goes south on this inspection and you believe either home inspector have done something wrong, your claim is limited to the cost of the inspection fee, and that’s called a limitation on liability provision. They’re enforceable in Minnesota. I’ve got, over the years, probably 20 plus cases dismissed on that provision. If you’re in Wisconsin though, they don’t allow it. So and they have state regulation, state law, been passed in Wisconsin and some jurisdictions have this, where they do not allow a limitation on liability provision, that’s not allowed in Wisconsin. What else can you do? Well, you can, you can try to limit the statute of limitation. So one of the questions Bill asked at the top of the hour was, what’s your statute of limitations? Typically six years.

 

SL: If you have it in your agreement, you can limit to one year, two years, and I’m not gonna guarantee that that’s enforceable, but if it’s in a signed contract, you’ve got a pretty good legal basis for limiting the statute of limitations, which protects the inspector because now you don’t have somebody coming back at you five years later, because, again, as we know, that home inspection is a snapshot in time, that inspector spends four or five hours, and sometimes more, looking at that house, looking at that property, that day. We don’t know what happened before, we can guess sometimes as to what’s happened before, but we don’t know because we know that sellers oftentimes spruce up their property, they conceal defects, they’ll paint over defects, they will do things to intentionally hide problems, they’re not gonna be within the scope or purview of the inspector. We also don’t know what happens after the inspection, homeowner maintenance, how are they treating their property, what is going on in their property, so five years later, they claim, “Hey, this was missed.” Then we, the lawyers, have to try to reconstruct what happened over the last five years. So limiting that statute of limitations to a year or two years, if it will fly in your jurisdiction, is always helpful. You’re limiting the exposure period where a claim can be made.

 

TM: Recently, within our company here, that I think ties into our conversation, is getting these agreements signed and how important that is. And Reuben, you can speak more to this than I can, you were involved in it, but we’ve always done our best to get these agreements signed before our inspector goes out to the inspection. Our client care coordinators have a system that sends out this agreement to the client before the inspection, we have a reminder that goes out to the client to sign it, if they haven’t signed it by a certain time, we text ’em, we email ’em, and still sometimes it doesn’t get signed. And we’ve talked about this internally at Structure Tech for years about, what do we do if the client hasn’t signed before we go out. And generally, we’re able to still go out there and make sure the client signs it and have a conversation with them, get it done, but recently, we had a different situation that’s made us rethink that policy. Reuben, do you wanna talk about that? 

 

RS: Well, I won’t get into a lot of the specifics, but what can I share here? Basically, we did almost the entire inspection and then it was our client, who we thought was our client, was at the inspection, and we brought that up saying, “Hey look, yeah, still haven’t signed this yet. And we’ve sent you this many notifications.” And they’re like, “Oh, it’s actually my family member, like an aunt or grandma or somebody who’s gonna be actually the signer on the house, they’re really the person who needs to sign it.” And then that person refused to sign and said, “I don’t like this, I don’t want anything to do with this.” At the end of our inspection, and we were at a complete impasse, and so we ended up not giving them the report, we didn’t charge them, we just terminated everything, but this is after doing an entire inspection and writing the report, it was a big hassle. And we decided after that, “We’re not doing this anymore. If that agreement is not signed, we’re not going out to the property.” And I’ve never wanted to do that.

 

RS: I know a lot of the people on the team, who are obviously a lot smarter than me, have lobbied for this, but I’ve always been the one saying, “This is gonna be a hassle. At some point, it’s gonna be a big, stinking deal on a real estate transaction, where emotions are very high, and we’re not gonna be able to do the inspection and it’s on their last day of the inspection contingency period, and we’re gonna look like the jerks, and I don’t want that.” But we’re at that point. I’m sorry. Too bad. That’s what we’re doing now. If it’s not signed, we’re not driving out to the property.

 

SL: Do they pay in advance, typically? 

 

RS: It depends. I think most of the time, maybe 75% of the time or so they pop in a credit card and we charge their card right before we send the report but not always. Sometimes they pay with a check on-site.

 

TM: They can’t view the report, though, unless they pay? 

 

SL: Okay. Smart.

 

RS: And unless they sign the inspection agreement.

 

TM: True. Yeah. That, too.

 

RS: Yup.

 

SL: Well, you know as long as you’ve… I mean, I just… The only thing I’d say there is, and I’m sure you’ve done it, just the folks have to understand, you don’t sign the agreement, we don’t do the inspection, period.

 

RS: Yeah. Yeah. We’ve always said that in our communication, but we’ve never enforced it. But we’re gonna start enforcing it.

 

SL: It makes sense.

 

RS: Now, changing the conversation a little bit, something else we had talked about before the show was kinda doing it yourself. I mean a home inspector may be coming up with a generic home inspection agreement that they found online, like, “Hey, here’s a national agreement. Modify it to your own state standards.” And a home inspector just starting out might look over it and say, “Yeah, it looks pretty close. I’ll go ahead and use that.” Have you ever had any bad experiences where it was tough to defend people or you saw people at a big increased risk of liability because they were trying to do stuff themselves without working with an attorney? 

 

SL: Yes, it’s happened so many times. I can’t even put a number on it. It’s what I call penny-wise and pound-foolish. I’ve had some… And just… Not just residential home inspections, but all the cases that I… I do construction defect, I do professional liability, I do all sorts of different types of litigation. And clients will not wanna spend money on a lawyer, they don’t wanna spend 500 bucks on a lawyer looking over an agreement or tweaking it for them, and then they end up in a $200,000 lawsuit. And so it’s a pain in the rear end.

 

SL: But I’m telling you, it is so important to just have the lawyer spend a half hour, an hour helping you craft the right language for your agreement. And it will pay dividends in the long run because that lawyer is going to know what the laws are in that particular jurisdiction. They will be able to craft a language of the agreement that’s gonna protect that home inspector. And I’ve had so many instances over the years where I’ve been called by a potential client that’s come to me with a problem, and I’ve said to them in a very nice way, what do you want me to do? ‘Cause, there’s not much I can do at this point. You know, the horses already left the barn. I can counsel you. I can try to give you an extra strategy. I can try to get the case resolved for you, but we’re only as good as the facts that we have and the documentation we have. And so there are some cases where there’s just not much I can do. If there’s a bad agreements, if the documentation is bad, if there’s an admission made by the home inspector, for example, we’re always so good as the documentation and the facts that we have.

 

TM: Stay in our lane. Right, Steve? 

 

SL: Well, yeah, stay in your lane. And people say, “Well, this is just a lawyer that wants work.” Believe me, I have better things to do than spend 250 bucks helping some guy in a home inspection, but I’ll do it. I’ve got plenty of work to do, but it will help that client if they just get that small legal fee, they pay it, and that will help them for years to come. It happens in leases, it happens in inspection agreements. It happens any time you have a documented transaction, have a lawyer look at the darn agreement and tweak it. Typically, what happens in the landlord-tenant world, just to give you an example, you’ll have landlords that’ll have a lease that’s been in play for 15, 20 years that they just keep cutting and pasting, adding clauses to it, and it turns out that some clauses compete with other clauses, and that’s legally not good, because then it creates ambiguity. A judge cannot throw it out or not enforce it. So just spend the time and the money to call up your friendly lawyer, have them look at your inspection agreement to make sure that it’s the disclosure.

 

RS: And if you’re a landlord, call up an attorney and have them review that document, too. Right? 

 

SL: That’s right. Yeah. That’s right.

 

RS: Whatever it is. Penny-wise, pound-foolish, again.

 

SL: That’s right. Yeah. And so… And just to give folks kind of an idea of what happens, so what happens when you get sued, what does that look like in a typical state court matter, using Minnesota as an example. The… Our Minnesota courts, now that we’re thankfully moving past the pandemic here, the goal is that that case is gonna be tried within one year. So if a home inspector gets sued in state court in Minnesota tomorrow, that case will likely be tried in September, October 2023.

 

RS: Wow.

 

SL: So then we’ll got an entire year of litigation. If you’re in federal court, it’s a year and a half to two years, but again, typically, and fortunately, we’re not gonna see federal cases in these types of claims. So then what happens in a context of a lawsuit? You have to answer the complaint, you have to do written discovery where you’re serving, written questions, you’re getting documents. You’re gonna get written questions and document requests from the other side. So they’re gonna wanna know from the home inspector, give me all of your texts, give me all of your emails, give me all of your correspondence, give me prior inspection reports.

 

SL: Let me know if you’ve ever been sued before, give me your insurance policy. Tell me if your insurance company has reserved the claim or if they’re gonna defend you, all these sorts of things happen upfront so that inspector has to go digging through his or her emails and texts and everything else too… Information that might be relevant about this particular plaintiff, then you’re gonna go through oral discovery where that inspector is then gonna get deposed as your dad did in the case that I had with your dad. He got deposed. So you go under oath. You’re in a lawyer’s office. That might last three, four, or five hours. Prior to that, the lawyer has to prep the inspector, so we have to sit down and work. That might be 10, 12, 15 hours of preparation to get that inspector ready to testify under oath. Typically, it’s a 2:3 ratio. If you’re gonna have a four-hour deposition, you might prep from 8 to 10 hours to make sure that you’re ready to answer any questions that might come down the pike. Then after you get through that phase, then we go through motion practice to see if we can dismiss the case.

 

SL: Let’s say we’ve got a limitation of liability provision, we’ll go to motion practice, then we get ready for trial. And trials are very, very expensive. We have experts, we have other witnesses that we have to bring to trial. And the home inspector has to take time out of her busy schedule to be at trial for five days. So they’re not working for five days because they’re in trial. So it’s a tremendous outlay of time, effort, and money to defend a case.

 

TM: Usually, I would say most home inspectors would try and settle outside of court whenever possible to avoid all of those steps, right? 

 

SL: Right. And from that perspective, then we go back to the client relationship, setting expectations, being responsive to the customer complaint, and as we all know, I’ve had many cases where the inspectors come back out to the property to listen to the complaints and listen to what the owner might say, and a lot of times, maybe you can get it resolved then where the client then has a better understanding as to what the inspection covered and that we can’t detect defects. We can’t look at things that might be hidden from view.

 

RS: You’re talking about all this and throwing stuff out, and something that we’ve done in the past too when people have come to us and threatened to sue us over stuff is we’ll turn it over to Steve or our insurance company’s preferred attorney, whoever it is. And the attorney will write a letter, kind of a go-away letter, like, “Look, this is not worth your time, for this reason, this reason, and this reason. We have all of the stuff. We did nothing wrong.” And most of the time, that’ll make it go away.

 

RS: But there was one time where I had signed up for some type of service where it was like I don’t wanna get into a lot of details here, I don’t wanna give away who this was, but it’s somebody who works… It’s an attorney who works at the national level, and I had had him write a go-away letter, and I read it and I was like, “This is really condescending and insulting to the people he’s writing it to.” And it just… It creeped me out, and I thought, “My gut is telling me, don’t do this. This feels wrong. But this is not my world. I’m gonna stay in my lane. Apparently, this is how they do business, and this is what works.”

 

RS: And we sent it over, and that was the only time that I have personally ever gone to small claims court. The letter did absolutely nothing. I think it did the opposite of what we wanted it to do. It made them a lot more angry and it made ’em set their… They dug their heels in a lot more, and so I ended up going to small claims court over that, and we had done nothing wrong. The judge did throw it out. We “won,” but again, it was such a colossal waste of time. Even though we didn’t have attorneys involved, the person who was bringing this claim against us was an attorney. The homeowner was an attorney, so he was representing himself, but he… I swear he did not have a leg to stand on. It was so garbage, but I think if we had been much nicer about it, I think it could have gone away. It was just from having a really nasty letter, so I really regretted that.

 

SL: Yeah, and that’s a good point. It’s all about the messaging, so as you know and practice in your business, we show empathy, we listen, and a lot of times, folks just wanna be heard. They want to be listened to. They wanna have their concerns vetted. You’re empathetic, you listen, and you care. And then you say, “Look, I understand where you’re coming from. However, here’s our position.” And then you just calmly lay out kind of the facts as you see them, and then you can respectfully decline to make an offer to settle the case or whatever it might be, or perhaps you offer to give that inspection fee back, but giving an exit ramp to the other side in a diplomatic way oftentimes might work because you give them a graceful exit that appears to be their choice, where you’re not being confrontational about it.

 

RS: Yeah, I think that would have worked out a lot better.

 

TM: You know, that’s assuming people are reasonable, and I’m sure, Steve, you’ve seen the opposite where people are not always reasonable.

 

SL: Well, yeah, but I think the best reaction to a screamer is just to be very calm in your response back, and I’ve had those situations where if you’re reasonable, you can take the temperature down and then engage in a conversation. I think most folks want things to be pleasant and cordial. Now, sometimes not, but one of the challenges folks face all the time is that, as we know, this can be an emotional area. People get very emotional about their property, about their homes, about buying a home. It’s a big deal for ’em, and so that emotion can sometimes drive the bus sometimes, but again, have your systems in place, get that inspection agreement signed, set expectations, be responsive. Reuben, I can tell you that your dad was one of the first home inspectors in the Twin Cities ever to use photographs in his inspection reports.

 

TM: Nice.

 

RS: That’s awesome.

 

SL: Yeah. He really set the trend. I mean before… And I remember this… Before… ‘Cause I had represented folks before your dad where there was no photos in the inspection reports at all. It was just a narrative, and sometimes not very much of a narrative, but your dad was one of the first guys to use photos in his reports and now that’s the standard in the industry.

 

RS: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I remember working in the office back in ’97 when he bought Structure Tech, and we’d take rolls of film and we would send them out for processing and then we’d get photos back in the afternoon, and I would take a glue stick and I would put those photos on sheets of paper and put plastic over it to protect the rest of the report, and we would put that in there and we would mail it out and people would get it the next day. Like, we were doing photos before they were even digital. Blows my mind.

 

BO: That’s right. Exactly.

 

TM: And I’m sure for you to do your job well too, a picture’s worth a thousand words, Steve, so to have… The more documentation the inspector can provide to you, the better, right? 

 

SL: That’s absolutely right because you can decide a case on a photograph. Because if a plaintiff says, “This area was not looked at or inspected,” you show them a picture, and I’ve settled cases on this where we’ve got a photograph of the exact area that was looked at.

 

TM: Our system for documentation has evolved over the years. As we’ve mentioned on this podcast before, we learn from our mistakes a lot of the times, and so where we’ve landed now is we take just a ton of pictures while we’re on-site, both with our cell phones or cameras, but also with 360 cameras as well to capture the condition of the space in another lens, and we save all that information in files. Hopefully, we don’t ever need it, but sometimes we do need it.

 

SL: Right. Yeah. One other tip for your listeners is that try to explain why you don’t have access to something.

 

RS: Yeah.

 

SL: Why you were not able to observe or look at a particular condition because that will come up a lot in litigation. Did the inspector look at that? Why didn’t they look at it? What was there? And so memories fade, two, three, four years later, an inspector that’s done hundreds of inspections since the time at issue, they’re not gonna remember. And so one of the things about policies and procedures and systems is that one of the ways that we defend these cases is the inspector, 300 inspections later, three or four years later, is not gonna probably remember that inspection from three, four years ago. However, the way we defend them is we’ve got the photos, we’ve got the detailed report and then we can talk about what does the inspector typically do as a standard of practice every time? 

 

SL: So, Mr. And Ms. Inspector, do you, as a matter of practice, always go over your inspection agreement with the customer for the inspection? Yes, I do. And what do you typically do when you go through that inspection? Well I go through sections one and two and three and I talk about this and I talk about exclusions, and I talk about… That’s the way that we can defend the cases because that’s absolutely admissible in a court of law. It’s custom and practice. What does that inspector typically do when she’s out there inspecting a home? Even though they might not remember all the particular details of that particular inspection.

 

RS: Yep.

 

TM: That’s why we have a process and that’s why we follow our process, we try to be consistent in every house, what we look at, what we don’t. How we get into attic accesses, why we don’t. That sort of thing.

 

BO: Hey Steve, do you practice in other states other than Minnesota? 

 

SL: Great question. So the answer is yes. So the way that works for folks is that… That’s what we call the pro hac vice process, so I’ve got cases outside the State of Minnesota as we speak and so if a client wants me to represent them in State of Wyoming or in the state of Alaska, or California or wherever, North Dakota, then I can contact a colleague in that particular state, they can vouch for me that I’m a good guy, that I’m a lawyer in good standing in the State of Minnesota, and then I can be admitted into that jurisdiction for the purposes of that case. And that’s called pro hac vice.

 

SL: And so that’s typically how it works for most lawyers, other lawyers can also get… You can get a license to practice in another jurisdiction, if you’ve got a lot of cases there, we have some lawyers for example in my office, that were born in North Dakota, they’ve got contacts back in North Dakota and they might have a North Dakota license to practice as well as Minnesota. So you can kind of attack that a number of different ways, but typically if you’re a lawyer and if you’re in good standing, you can practice anywhere in the country based on that pro hac vice practice.

 

BO: Outstanding, thank you for that explanation. And for everybody listening that’s Steve Laitinen from Larson King Law Firm in Saint Paul, home inspection expert. So take advantage of his experience, if you ever need some help. I think we’re gonna put a wrap on today’s episode. Steve thank you very much, I love talking with attorneys, most people are like, “No, that’s not fun,” but you guys always use… Guys and girls, women always use such specific language and it fascinates me how precise law is, yet there’s so much interpretation that goes into it. ‘Cause everybody’s like, “Well, they signed this, so that means this… ” It’s like, well, maybe. Well it depends, right? 

 

SL: It’s been a privilege to be on, Reuben it’s been great to see you again and Bill you as well.

 

RS: Good to see you too Steve. I try to see you the least amount I possible can of course, but it’s always good to see you anyway.

 

SL: Well the… Yeah, the line that I get always is, “Steve I love you, but I hope I never see you again.”

 

RS: Exactly, exactly.

 

BO: And with that, we’ll put a wrap on this episode, you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. Thanks for listening, we’ll catch you next time.

 

[music]

 

BO: Hi everybody, Bill here again with Structure Talk. We really wanna thank you for listening to this podcast. It’s been a ton of fun for us to put this presentation together and if you could we would love it if you would go to any of the podcast platforms where you find Structure Talk and leave us a rating and subscribe to the show. You can also subscribe to our blog at structuretech.com, and of course, you can listen to the show on the Internet at structuretalk.com. Thanks again for listening. We appreciate the support. And if you have any suggestions for show topics, please email them to podcast@structuretech.com. Thanks for listening.