Today we’re going to deconstruct critical items of a home inspection and how the home inspection is integrated and overlaps with building science.
Tessa shares that home inspectors look at specific separate systems and structural things and then identify potential defects. While the industry is chopped into specialized systems, Tessa highlights that home inspectors are positioned with a unique opportunity to assess a house holistically. She explains that homeowners expect a lot from their house: they want it to be safe, healthy to live in, comfortable, and energy-efficient.
Reuben mentions that the industry holds on to the standards and there are risks and potential liabilities if inspectors go outside the standard practice. He also mentions that some home inspection companies in the country do healthy home assessments by troubleshooting pain points that people have. Bill clarifies if these companies are observing the ASHI standards of practice. Bill also asks if this can be a different product and if this service has a market.
They talk about indoor air quality, comfort, performance, durability, and installation. Tessa and Reuben talk about how they integrate some building science with home inspections and how Structure Tech trains inspectors to widen their perspectives and effectively communicate to the client. Tessa mentions that some comments in the home inspection reports are above and beyond the SOP; these are concerns for comfort and building performance. She adds that mentioning these to the client will impact the quality of their day-to-day life. Reuben also shares his experiences with clients who he gave additional information to ahead of time.
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 North time, talking all things home inspections, houses and anything else that’s rattling around in our brain. Welcome to an unscripted and potentially meandering conversation.
Reuben Saltzman: No, no. We’re gonna be so laser-focused, Bill.
BO: Tessa has been jonesing to have a conversation about a specific topic, and we are going to do it today. We’re gonna deconstruct critical items of a home inspection. Is that a fair statement, Tessa?
Tessa Murry: Yeah, this kinda came about as part of the class I was teaching for the Building Science students at the University of Minnesota this spring with Pat Huelman. And trying to kind of show them what we do as home inspectors and kind of touch on how building science integrates with that. And it made me think about what a home inspection is, what it is not, and how it overlaps with building science, and kinda where the gaps are. And so for that class, I was kind of showing the students of all the potential defects that we can find when we’re doing a home inspection and how we look at all the different systems. We look at roofing, siding, windows, grading, and drainage. We look at structural things, plumbing, mechanical, electrical, all of these things and how they fit together. But really kind of this unique skill is to be able to put all those pieces together and try and figure out what things are working or not potentially working in a house. And to give an example of that would be, maybe you’ve got a house that was 1970s build and the homeowner wants to make it more energy efficient, and so they start doing these incremental improvements to it over time, like doing some air sealing in the attic, adding some more insulation. Maybe they’ve replaced the windows, maybe they’ve replaced the old 80% efficient and induced draft furnace with a high efficiency furnace, one that is a direct vent to the outside and holds fresh air in from the outside too.
TM: And making all these incremental changes will affect how the house works and how it doesn’t work. And a house that might have before been a little bit more drafty and had more heat loss and all of that, now it’s more energy efficient, but it’s also more air tight, and you don’t have the air exchanges happening anymore. And so you might need to look for potential problems with moisture and indoor air quality. And so can you identify those things? When you’re going through a house looking at all these specific separate systems, can you kinda take a step back and put the pieces together?
BO: This sounds like it’s a concern for you for this industry and maybe we’re not talking holistic enough. But is it your thinking that this firmly puts a home inspector into gray area? And is that part of the concern you have with this conversation?
TM: Yeah, it’s really… What I’m talking about is kind of… I think it’s arguably outside of the home inspection standards of practice.
BO: Is that a bad thing?
TM: And that’s a great question, Bill. I’m glad you asked that because I think there’s a lot of things that homeowners expect when they’re living in a house. They want the house to be safe, they want it to be healthy to live in, they don’t want it to make them sick, they wanna make sure that it’s comfortable, and that it’s energy efficient. And those are all things that are really kind of outside of the scope of what we’re required to identify and report on as a home inspector.
BO: But, isn’t this something that most homeowners would really wanna know about? Isn’t this useful information?
TM: I think it really is. And I think there’s this need out there where there’s… Homeowners are having problems with their houses. They have ice dams, or they have mold problems, or they’ve got air quality concerns or comfort issues, and they don’t know where to start. And our industry is so chopped up, we’ve got people that specialize in just mechanical systems, we’ve got people that specialize in just roofs, people that specialize in just plumbing and who’s looking at the house holistically to see maybe all these different variables that are contributing to these pain points of homeowners and who can help them. And I think that home inspectors are positioned in a really unique opportunity to be able to kind of take it to the next level and assess a house holistically and help people that have these issues in question.
BO: Does this home inspector you speak of need to come out of a training program like you did that is a building science? And now I have a follow-up question for Reuben after you answer that.
TM: There definitely is some sort of additional learning that’s necessary that tacks on to what you learn as a home inspector. And how you get it could be I think lots of different avenues. For me, I did the Building Science Program at the University of Minnesota, but for me, where I really learned a lot about just the practical application of building science and what that looks like when it works or doesn’t work in a house, was actually when I worked for an insulation company and a building performance company, and I was doing the diagnostic testing and really seeing hands-on what worked and what didn’t work and what failed and what didn’t in houses. And so to answer your question, Bill, I think there is some additional training that’s needed. But what that looks like, I think has not been completely mapped out yet.
BO: Reuben, how do you feel about this conversation? And how would this fly at a Convention of Home Inspectors and Tessa, just throws this grenade into a room of people who by large had followed a set of guidelines for doing their work?
RS: Well, it all depends on how you present it. If you present it as something where this is something you should be doing, and you should have always been doing this, not well at all.
RS: That’ll be a LED balloon. [chuckle] And shoot your boot off the stage. But if you more presented as something where, “Hey, here’s more information. Here are some tools that you can use to do your job better,” people will be extremely hungry for it, and they’ll want a lot more. I mean, Tessa… I’ve seen Tessa present on this. And you look at the faces in the crowd, and for people who already understand building signs, there’s a lot of head nodding, a lot of agreement, a lot smiling, people get it. And then for other people where this is more new to them, they’ve only been inspecting for a few years, it’s like their mind is blown. [chuckle] Their eyes are just wide open, and they’re sucking it all up like a sponge. So with the way that Tessa is talking about this, it has been very well-received.
BO: Is there an appetite to put it into practice?
RS: You’re asking me?
BO: Yes. [chuckle]
RS: An appetite amongst home inspectors? I think…
BO: Yeah. This is the conversation that where I bog down a little… Or this is the point where I bog down a little bit in the conversation, not because I don’t think what Tessa’s saying is really important. It’s knowing the industry likes to hold tight to the standard. That’s outside of the standard? This is what I do. If I go outside, that opens me up to potential liability. If I stay over here, I know what I’m getting, I know how to protect myself. I could still do a great job over here, but if I go outside of my lane, that may cause problems.
RS: Home inspectors are a paranoid bunch, and there’s always home inspectors who are going to pooh-pooh anything that’s not the status quo. But there’s plenty of home inspectors who are very interested in doing something like this. I was just having a conversation yesterday with… I’ll just name-drop. He wouldn’t mind if he’d listen. It’s Joe Konopacki out of Chicago. You guys both know him.
TM: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
RS: And with his company, he is big into this stuff. I don’t know what percentage of his work is exactly this type of thing, but I gotta guess maybe half of what he’s doing is energy diagnostics and single-item inspections. They don’t call ’em single-item inspections. I think he called them issue inspections. But it’s troubleshooting pain points that people have, and they love doing this stuff. So I know there’s other people in the country who are doing this.
BO: Are they using the ASHE standards of practice as a guideline for the conversations they’re having and the reporting they’re doing, or is that a different door you walk into when you walk down the hallway of services offered by this company?
RS: Well, I didn’t ask that question, but I’m gonna say that I don’t need to ask. The answer has to be a resounding no, because that’s not what the ASHE standards are written for. You can’t use the standard of practice. You could use the ASHE code of ethics, just to say that you’re being ethical when you come out to a house and you’re not sharing this information with people who don’t have any business seeing it. But no, you wouldn’t use the ASHE standard of practice to do this type of healthy home assessment that Tessa is talking about.
BO: Tessa, if you incorporate this conversation into the home inspection itself, is that what you’re thinking, or are you thinking this is a different product that would serve as a layer on top of a standard home inspection?
TM: That’s a really good question, Bill. And I think there’s a market for both. I think that there’s a lot of houses that we go into and we inspect, and we can apply this building science kind of lens to help us do a better inspection and identify potential weak points in a house, failure points in a house, and help the home buyer kind of better understand what they’re getting into. And it can be used for education, but then I think there’s also a market for people that are already living in a house that have these pain points that we discussed and need help and need some guidance figuring out what to do next.
BO: And I’m not gonna say this, because I wanna upset the real estate community, ’cause that’s not my point here. I would think, in the process of a transaction, dialing in your house is a conversation we don’t wanna have. During the transaction process, we want a home inspection, let’s figure out if this is a green light means go or a red light that means no or whatever traffic light you wanna use. But this seems like a really deep conversation that might make it difficult for people to make decisions on purchase.
RS: Bill, I totally agree. And I think that having these types of discussions probably freaks out some real estate agents. And I guess if I were selling in real estate, it would freak me out to know that my home inspector is doing deep dives on energy efficiency of a home, because really, that… I don’t think that that should be part of what affects your decision to purchase a house. We’re there to focus more on health and safety and durability of the home and installation errors, not how energy-efficient is it. I mean, it’s something that people are interested in, but it really feels to me like that’s something that would come later on after you’ve already purchased the home. I think that this type of assessment fits in way better after somebody has already purchased a home, and they’re starting to think about what they can do to improve it.
RS: The unfortunate part is that they’re probably not gonna take the time to hire somebody like us to go in and do this, just because when you’re buying a house, you’re gonna get the home… Well, hopefully. In today’s market, maybe some people aren’t getting a home inspection. But you’re already having somebody out there, and it’s just one more click. It’s just, “Yes, let’s throw this on there. Let’s get it done at the same time.” And it’s almost like you do it now or you never have it done. There’s the law of inertia where people just don’t take the time to pick up the phone and schedule this after they’ve moved into their home. So that’s the challenge.
TM: Reuben, you brought up a good point. I don’t think it’s definitely too much of a deep dive to go into energy efficiency for a regular home inspection, but I was thinking a few ways that we do integrate some of this building science knowledge with our home inspections is when we’re inspecting a story and a half house, for example, we have […] comments in our report that mentioned that a house of this style is more difficult to adequately insulate and air-seal and have proper attic ventilation, and therefore you might be more prone to problems with ice dams. And for example, also, a lot of times these houses have maybe one supply register for the entire upstairs, and there’s no return. So expect that you might need some supplemental window AC units in the summertime to keep this upper level comfortable. So we do, in my mind, those are kind of outside of the standard SOP for a home inspector, ’cause we’re thinking about comfort, we’re thinking about building performance, and we’re mentioning those things to the client, because in my opinion, those really impact the quality of life and just day-to-day life in the house when you own a story and a half house. And so we’re preparing people for those potential headaches down the road.
RS: Oh, completely agree, Tess. And I’ve received calls from people who’ve said, “You did my home inspection, and we moved in, and it’s really cold up here.” And I’m just… [chuckle] This isn’t something I knew about, and I’ll turn back to my report, and it’s like, I put it right in the report, I said, “You got really poor insulation, and you’ve got one heat register, and it’s probably gonna be really cold,” and I’m like, “I kind of said exactly that, and we talked about it.” And they’re like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I guess I forgot. Well, what can I do?” [chuckle] It’s like, “Can we go over the options.” And it’s no longer accusatory like, “Hey, you didn’t tell me about this.” They’re like, “Oh, well, you did tell me, but do you have some advice?” So it really changes, and in every one of those cases, I’m really glad that I gave them that extra information ahead of time.
TM: Yes, that’s back. And I think one thing that we can do is we’ve talked about how we’re kind of going above and beyond the SOP when we’re thinking about a standard home inspection, and part of being a good home inspector is being able to integrate all this stuff and communicate effectively to a client, and so we’ve got, I think, this training that we do at Structure Tech, which really, first of all, teaches the inspector to look at these technical problems and then to widen their perspective to understand more of these systematic implications of these problems, and then we really work on integrating all of that with effective communication to the client, because you can be really strong technically, but if you don’t have the communication skills, then it’s all lost.
BO: Reuben, you talked about, number one, health and safety, then you threw in durability, and you had a third…
BO: How it was put in.
RS: Yeah, exactly. Whether you put it together right or not.
BO: Okay. And you’re saying that’s the home inspector’s domain?
RS: Yeah, yeah, I really think of the home inspection as those three areas.
BO: Okay. And then Tessa, you’re layering on top of that indoor air quality, comfort, performance, and durability. There’s this one overlapping thing, and durability is more of the result of good installation and all of that other, working right, being installed right. Is that a fair statement or no?
TM: Yeah, and actually, just to elaborate on that, I think failures, “Failures,” which could be anything like mold, rot in a wall, backdrafting water heater, ice dams, comfort issues, it could be a variety of different things, but failures really depend on… In my mind, it could be due to design, the original design of the house, like if you’ve got a valley that drains in the back of a wall, you’re asking for problems, you’ve got materials that could also lead to failures, like certain materials are more prone to durability issues than others, or even like we talk about new stucco versus old stucco, you’ve got the methods that it’s installed, is it installed properly or not, that we’re looking at as home inspectors.
BO: Reuben wants to look at that when he’s doing a home inspection.
TM: Yeah, so it’s understanding design, understanding material, understanding how it’s put together or not put together properly, understanding the impact of the environment on it as well, both external environment and occupant behavior on the house as well, and so kind of thinking about all those different things.
BO: Okay. Installation materials, home inspectors never comment on materials. Are they… Other than, “This is what’s there,” but they almost never comment on the fact that this material probably won’t perform well here because, one, it’s just not a durable application for this place. Have you ever done that, Reuben, where you called out a particular material and said, “That’s just not the right material for this application?”
RS: I wanna say yes, but I can’t come up with any examples, Bill.
BO: I mean, the only thing I could think of would be shingles that are on a roof that’s too low-sloping, where you might have failure due to the use of the wrong material.
RS: Yeah, I’m sure I have. I’ve seen people put up OSB and paint it and use it as siding, and I’ve said, “This isn’t gonna work.”
RS: I’ve seen people use 4 by 8 sheets of this tile looking stuff, it’s almost like high grade cardboard, and they use it as a shower surround, and it says on the back of every one of those pieces, “Not for use in a wet location.” And [chuckle] I’ve told people like, “This is not a suitable material for a shower surround, this is going to rot fairly quickly, so plan on redoing it soon.” So I have made some of those recommendations, but as I think through it, because it’s so tough for me to get examples, I guess I’m pretty few and far between, Bill, you’re mostly right.
BO: Yeah, and I’m just trying to… I’m trying to zero in here on the differences, ’cause there’s a lot of overlap. The words Reuben use and the word Tessa is using, I mean, I know, Reuben, you talk about gable-itis and bad design, but that’s in a conversation of water management, which could lead to failure, right?
RS: Yeah. And it’s not… We don’t bring it up in a way to say, “Look, you need to redesign your roof and change your roof lines and get rid of these gables,” it’s more of, “This is what you have, and you’re going to have an increased potential for this because of this.” It’s more just education, it’s not like we’re giving somebody an action item.
BO: Okay, and…
TM: Yeah. And I think if you understand… If you understand building science, then it also allows you to be able to do a risk assessment of the house too, it’s like if that water that’s hitting the wall is going into a wall that is like a 1900’s house that’s got old growth lumber as solid wood sheathing and it’s got no insulation in the walls, no vapor barrier, so all the heat and air flow that’s moving through it can dry it out versus a house that’s built in 2005 with a wall cavity full insulation, a poly vapor barrier on the inside, and OSP or chipboard on the exterior sheathing, like when that wall gets wet, it’s not drying out, and so you just got an increased potential for durability issues, mold issues, because those materials are more susceptible to moisture too, so it really is looking at these materials, understanding how a house is built and what these potential implications could have based on all these different variables [chuckle] that we’re talking about.
BO: All things being equal, the design of a feature of a home shouldn’t matter if it’s old growth or if it’s new material, like engineered material, because it should be constructed in such a way that it doesn’t get wet, right? We shouldn’t lean on the materials themselves to take over where failure has happened, to bridge the gap of human error and your ability. It just feels weird that if you luck out and you’ve got an old house that’s leaking water, it’s just gonna take a lot longer for that board to decompose than a normal 2 by 4 would.
TM: Yeah, I think older houses have… Some of the pros are that they’re a lot more durable and resistant, but they’re also really uncomfortable and drafty and leaky and cost more to heat and cool because of that, and the trade-off today, newer house is more energy efficient, more comfortable, but more fragile, if there’s an issue with improper installation materials or less durable materials or poor design. So yeah, there’s pros and cons, but I think in a perfect world, yes, we wouldn’t have to worry about design, we wouldn’t have to worry about how materials are installed, but that’s just not the case.
BO: Okay, Reuben, do you ever feel like you’re on the home inspector side of this conversation? And I’m not setting up two sides of a table here, but I really am. So Tessa and Reuben are playing ping-pong right now. Reuben’s on the HI, home inspection side of things, and Tessa’s on the HH, healthy home side of things.
RS: Yeah, good cop, bad cop. [chuckle]
BO: Right. Do you feel like you stand over in the world of facts and just reporting what you see? And, Tessa, you’re standing more in theory and how it should be…
RS: I think we’re almost perfectly aligned with how we report stuff, how we inspect, what we communicate. I have more of the classical home inspector training and Tessa comes from the other side of it, but once we’ve merged what we do, there’s so much overlap, so… No, really, really, I don’t think so. I think we’re on the same page. Tessa, what do you think?
TM: I agree with you, 100%. Yeah, and really it’s kind of funny. Somehow we got a little bit off track. Initially, I was really excited to talk about how we communicate our findings to clients and how to try and break down into different categories of defects in a way that’s understandable for clients, and to do that effectively, and really, as you can see, a big part of this is just, how do you assess a house in the first place, what kind of defects do you find, what defects do you look for, and what do you tell your client? And so we’re having this conversation about building science because really, I feel like it should be integrated into just your overall kind of assessment of a house.
BO: Tessa, I think that’s a great place to just jump in and say, “Time out.” I think it’s a great place to end this discussion, you set it up, but part two of this conversation should really be going deeper and deconstructing the communication and how the home inspector wants to report it, and how the healthy Homes person wants to report it. Is that fair to say?
TM: Yeah, I think there’s another discussion that we can have about basically how to formulate these home inspection defects in an effective way, depending on the type of client you have.
RS: Tessa, that is a fantastic summary. I think that’s a really good stopping point because that’s gonna be part two of this series where we do a deep dive into what’s a big deal and what isn’t dependent upon the home and dependent upon our client, because let’s be realistic, we can have the same defect and we can report on it two very different ways, depending on what house we’re looking at. It’s all about putting things into perspective, and that’s what part two of this is going to be all about.
TM: Well said. Yeah, well said.
BO: Okay, 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, tune in for part two.