Brendan Ryan, the president of the Examination Board of Professional Home Inspectors (EBPHI) joins the show to talk about the National Home Inspection Exam (NHIE). Brendan explains the complexity and importance of taking a psychometric exam for a home inspection license. Passing the high-stakes examination is an advantage in the market as well as a requirement in various associations such as the American Society of Home Inspectors. He then shares how the exams were written and how often they are updated.
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.
Brendan Ryan: So I started flipping houses before flipping houses was cool. Little did I know I probably should have started a TV show at the time.
Bill Oelrich: Welcome everybody, you’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murray and Reuben Saltzman, as always, your three-legged stool, talking about home inspections and all things related to houses. On today’s episode, we have a special guest, Brendan Ryan, and Brendan is here to talk about National Home Inspection Examinations. He is a senior in the home inspection industry, he has a tremendous amount of experience helping train and helping the younger generation get up to speed, and Tessa and Reuben are both very involved in this process as well, and so we’re just gonna have a conversation with Brendan today, maybe pick his brain about what he has seen over the years, where this industry is going, how to best get… Introduce yourself, tell us about your company, where you’re located, kinda give us the important highlights.
BR: Thanks a lot, Bill. It’s great to be here with you and Tessa and Reuben. I’m located just north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, kind of a rural area called Butler, and I’ve been doing inspections now… Well, I guess I did my first inspection back in about 1987. It was an interesting way to get into the business. I was in the ski area management business, and I needed something to do in the summer times, so I started flipping houses before flipping houses was cool. Little did I know I probably should have started a TV show at the time.
BR: In doing that, somebody inspected, we had very few inspectors in Pittsburgh, there were a total of six at the time, and somebody came and inspected my house that I was selling, and they were in and out in probably 20 minutes, and…
Tessa Murray: Wow.
BR: I kinda said to myself, “He didn’t find anything wrong with the house, and I know there’s stuff wrong with it, I flipped it.”
BR: And he didn’t serve a very good purpose for his client. And I thought I could do this too. So I figured I’ll give that a shot, and I started doing some inspections for friends of my parents and stuff like that, and I thought I was really good, and then I saw the opportunity to go out to California and go to Inspection Training Associate. That’s not around anymore, but that was a big school back at the time, in 1990. And took classes from Kevin O’Malley there. Mike Casey did classes there as well, and I found out I was giving people an awful lot of bad information. I knew how to put things together, but I didn’t really know what existing systems were like and whether existing systems actually were good or bad. When I came back, I started doing inspections very quickly full-time, and that got me out of ski area management, been in home inspection ever since, pretty much full-time since 1990.
BO: Do you have a construction background?
BR: I did, it wasn’t really in-depth. I was young at the time, through high school. I had worked with construction crews. It was kind of cool, I grew up in an area where they were building a lot of houses, so even when I was really young, I was climbing around houses, looking at stuff, how did they put that stuff together so I could go build tree forts and stuff the way they build houses, and was always interested in construction. Then when I was in college, it’s kind of how I got, other than with my father in the ski area management, but in college, I’d spent time out on Martha’s Vineyard, and in my summers there, I did framing and roofing and then worked nights with some of the trades guys helping them do their jobs. So I got a little taste of everything over the course of maybe six to eight years and figured I’d take that information that I had and start working on houses.
BO: So how does a kid from Pittsburgh end up at Martha’s Vineyard?
BR: I was very lucky.
BR: I went to college at New England College up in Hannaford, New Hampshire. And a lot of my friends from college spent time in the summers, either on the Cape, or out in Nantucket.
TM: Now, one of the things that we didn’t say during your intro that I feel we probably should, you are now the current president of EBPHI, is that correct?
BR: Yes, correct. I am the president of the Examination Board of Professional Home Inspectors. It’s a great honor to take on that position. It’s a very unique organization in that we don’t actually have a membership. Our board’s sole purpose is to create high standards for home inspection and to maintain a psychometrically sound entrance examination for the profession. We feel that as a home inspector, we have an incredible duty to the general public who does not know what we do, what we look at, and oftentimes doesn’t understand the components of the home they’re buying. And the more the people are educated as home inspectors and then tested on that in order to get into the business as a baseline competency assessment, the better inspectors that will be available out there.
Reuben Saltzman: So how long have you been involved with EBPHI?
BR: I’ve been with EBPHI since 2017. In general, as a director, you can figure on spending about six years on that board. There’s a pretty large learning curve to what the EBPHI does as far as development of examinations, and we do have reference materials as well, such as the NHIE manuals. We are all volunteers. So that’s another thing. It’s not a full-time job, so a six-year commitment seems to go pretty fast.
BO: Brendan, can you talk a little bit about the psychometric analysis? What do you really mean by that?
BR: So it was a pretty eye-opening experience getting into what actually entails a psychometrically sound examination. Everybody thinks, “Okay, you can just go write some questions and come up with a couple of answers, true/false answers, things like that,” and that’s just not the case. There’s a whole science to creating properly written sentences, framing those sentences and questions, or they call them items, correctly, and then believe it or not, it’s very difficult to come up with wrong answers. You need to come up with answers that completely outlandish, answers that make you think, but they also, they can’t have distractors in them, they can’t have enemy questions and such, and then you can’t just take a question and put it on to an examination. We can talk a minute about SMEs here shortly, but our questions are developed by subject matter experts, and even once they’re developed, they are put onto the examination, but they’re not scored, so they have to be tested.
BR: Typically, we try to get at least 250 responses to those questions before we have enough data to figure out whether a question is valid and reliable, meaning it’s a good question, and that it’s reliable enough to get the correct answer more often than not. And there’s about seven different parameters to figure that out with. We do have a firm called PSI that does manage the psychometrics for us, but we do need to figure these out, determine which items or questions are good and which ones are not.
TM: So Brendan, can you explain to anybody that’s listening to this podcast who is thinking about getting into home inspecting, and they’re new to this industry, or anyone who’s listening that maybe is a real estate agent or a homeowner, what the NHI is and why somebody would take it.
BR: So the NHIE is the testing product that the examination board develops. NHIE stands for the National Home Inspector Examination. The National Home Inspector Exam currently is used by 35 of the 36 regulated states for licensing, is also used by five different associations, either national, state or even in Canada provincially, and so in many cases, the state will determine whether you need to take a minimum competency examination and where to get your license. So that makes a very easy decision if you live in one of those states. People who don’t live in a regulated state, they do have the opportunity to take the NHIE also, and taking the NHIE is a fantastic way to not only show yourself what you know, but to be able to show your clients that you have passed the high stakes examination and be able to advertise that. In unregulated states, you’d pick up the phone and call a home inspector, you could be home inspection number one for that inspector and know nothing about them. Or if they’re able to prove that they’ve passed a test such as the NHIE, you know that they’ve taken some schooling and getting into their profession seriously and passed that test.
BR: When you do pass the NHIE, we do have a home inspectors marketing tool kit that we give them, and it provides them with a verifiable link and a digital badge that indicates that they’ve passed it, and their client can click on it and see it online, that they have.
RS: Yeah, that’s a good point, Brendan. Here in Minnesota, we don’t have any type of licensing, there’s nothing out there, and that’s one of the things that we do require for all of the inspectors at Structure Tech is before you go out in the field, before day one, you need to have passed that test. And like you said, Brendan, it’s also a requirement for a bunch of associations. Here at Structure Tech, all of the inspectors on our team are also members of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors, and that’s one of the requirements that ASHI has, is you need to pass that. I mean, you can join ASHI and just be a member, but you’re not gonna progress toward being a certified inspector until you’ve passed that National Home Inspector Exam. So here at Structure Tech, we think it’s a very important tool that we use to just make sure people are meeting the floor for what we do here at our company. I’m really glad that this exam exists.
BR: Yes, it’s a great marketing differential from you and the rest of the competition. I appreciate how you take that seriously and have your inspectors pass the NHIE also. It’s a great step towards moving forward in their career, as well as building your company.
BO: How often is that exam rewrit, or is it one question is taken out and then another one’s added? Is it kind of constantly being updated, or is there chunks that get redone every certain period of time?
BR: Well, that’s a great question, Bill, and it’s kind of a mouthful. So the answer is yes to everything. It is constantly monitored and tweaked on a regular basis. We have subject matter expert sessions where we review test questions and review their performance, and if they’re not performing correctly, we will edit them to what we think is gonna be an appropriate format and send them back into testing again. So those sessions are usually done twice a year. Now there is a larger rewrite that happens every five years, and that’s our Role Delineation Study, and we’re starting one of those right now. Some people call it a job analysis, we call it a Role Delineation Study, and what that does it is us a good picture of what’s going on in the profession at this particular time, and we will shortly be sending out surveys to every home inspector we can find an email address for in North America, because it’s taken in Canada as well.
BR: And this survey asks you how you do your job, what tools you use to do your job, what you look at, everything that’s pertinent to home inspection. It is in-depth, and we do actually provide a little bit of an incentive for completing that for us. The last Role Delineation Study we had, I think we had close to 2,000 respondees on it. So that Role Delineation Study will then be taken apart by a panel of subject matter experts, and they’ll determine, “Okay, what’s changed in the business over the last five years, what new things should we put in here, what things aren’t inspectors doing anymore, can we pull out of the test?”
BR: And then they’ll put together a list of those items, which will then go to a list of another bunch of SMEs who begin to rate questions and for trial purposes, moving forward in the test. This whole process, in order to update the exam that we do, takes approximately three years and an awful lot of time and work by a small group of people. The larger group of people that are the SME volunteers, they do invest some time into this, it’s a great experience as an SME, but they aren’t in it for a three-year duration. Yeah, they’ll be in it for maybe a couple of months working through questions.
BO: Tessa, I know you were working with Brendan at some level at the National Home Inspection Examination. Can you talk a little bit about how you two have worked together?
TM: Yeah, well, EBPHI reached out to me to see if I would volunteer as a subject matter expert a few different times, and this is when we were going through some questions and working on rewriting them, updating them, and also then the second session, I think I volunteered out, we were also then citing sources for questions, so it was just a lot of looking things up and researching. And actually, Reuben, you’ve volunteered too, haven’t you?
RS: Yeah, I did one of the sourcing ones. No, the SME sounds really interesting. The sourcing one wasn’t quite as interesting.
RS: I mean, really, you’re looking over the questions and you’re like, Alright, how can you prove the answer to this, find a reference to make sure that this is valid? And it’s like, oh boy, here’s your reference material. And someone trucked in world’s biggest stack of books, and they’re like, “Here’s where you can find the answers to these questions. Now, get to it.” And they were cracking the whip on us. No, actually, it was a lot of fun.
BR: Well, one of the great things about SME sessions is, of course, Tessa and Reuben, we’re looking for the brightest people we can find for these…
RS: Oh, go on, go on, Brendan.
BO: It’s why I wasn’t invited.
BR: In addition to those people, we also invite people who have just recently passed the NHIE, ’cause we’re very interested to know what their opinion of the test was. They’re the people who are gonna be taking the test, not the people who’ve been out there for years, teaching classes, doing seminars, and all. So we need to have an opinion on what we’re doing, not only from people who have been there forever, but we want the opinion of new inspectors, we wanna know how they feel about it, whether they think the questions were fair. Should they have been posed in a different way? It’s very interesting, after you’ve been around for 30 years or more, to get input from newer inspectors.
BO: Are the subject matter experts ever brought in from other areas, plumbers, HVAC, and then teamed up with subject matter experts who have been in the business?
BR: Yes, we have brought in licensed contractors, usually educators in specific areas in the past to help out with some of these sessions. Particularly when we’re moving into concentrating on writing new items in one particular area, say electrical, we’ll bring a guy in to make sure that we’re staying on track, and believe it or not, home inspectors do have a tendency to go on and on. They’ll rein us in and keep us on track with what we’re actual task happens to be at the time. The code guys, the guys that have been there, they’re very short and concise, and that helps us out as inspectors whose job it is, is to explain things, and their job is just to point stuff out.
BO: Brendan, can you take me through what it’s like to tackle something that’s relatively new, at least like geothermal is something that I don’t think home inspectors have a great understanding of. I think they understand the concepts, but to actually do an inspection on some of these systems, seems like we need some real good training on that. How do you tackle it at the examination level, introducing these types of concepts?
BR: So when something new comes up through the Role Delineation Study, we’ll take a look at things, like right now, one of the big things that’s coming our way across the country is smart house technology. And we wanna know how many people are really delving into smart houses. We will bring in not only our standard group of SMEs, but we’ll bring in some people who are specialists in smart houses, same as we would with geothermal, and they’ll sit down and go over what the basic knowledge for somebody who wants to be competent in evaluating these systems is with us, and then we can start moving forward, creating items for a test. We don’t actually go out and try to learn it ourselves, we wanna learn from experts.
TM: I appreciate your organization’s willingness to kind of stay in touch with the current market and the current industry and evolve and change with it. Just to that point [chuckle], one of the subject matter expert groups that I was a part of, we were reviewing questions, exam questions, and I remember some questions came up that involved like ice dams and attic ventilation, and [chuckle] if anybody’s listening to this podcast and doesn’t know my background, I’m a geek about when it comes to building science stuff, and so that was kind of my wheelhouse. And I remember having a pretty good strong debate with some of the inspectors in the room about how ventilation is not a solution to ice dams, and I think we debated on that one for about 15 minutes before we finally decided to rewrite the question.
RS: Way to hold your ground, Tessa. I appreciate that.
TM: Speaking to this organization and just how you are inviting in people, younger people and polling the audience across the entire country to see what are we looking at, what’s relevant, what should we change, adapt and all of it.
BR: It’s interesting that you brought that up ’cause I remember that conversation. Yeah, you would have proud, she stood her ground against some of the foremost people that I know and educated them.
BR: So it was fantastic. But with that, this is a national examination, we can’t get too too technical because it’s an entrance level test. But with it being national, boy, there’s guys out there who said, “Ice dam? What are you talking about?” And they’re the same guys who we look at and we say, “Why do you live under a swamp?”
TM: Yeah, well, and for us, it’s like pools, there’s questions about pools, and there’s not a ton of them up here in the north land.
RS: Or termites. I mean, I had to learn all about termites.
RS: I’ve never seen one in person.
RS: Yeah, we just don’t have them here.
BR: I can send you handfuls.
RS: You can keep them. You keep them.
BR: You can start a whole new business out there.
RS: Oh, right.
BR: With that, there’s things such as swimming pools, and there were some questions that went through the trial period because more and more people are inspecting swimming pools. It’s kind of outside the scope of what is expected of a home inspector, it’s more of an ancillary standard. And so although we tried them out, they didn’t count for anybody’s scores, they were just trials, and we’ve opted not to use questions like that. We’ve thrown a few flags up there just to see how they flew, opted to stick with the core of home inspection. We do not build this test according to any standard of practice. We build it to the Role Delineation Study, and when a substantial amount of people start saying, “Hey, we all inspect pools,” and really there’s more and more pools every year being built, maybe someday in the future, I’m not sure. For now, we’re sticking with what the core of what home inspection is.
BO: And smart houses seem to beginning to move into our world, right? And Reuben, Brendan, I would be curious, you are senior people in this industry, smart house technology would not be something in the past that we looked at. We would basically be like, “That’s outside the scope of our home inspection,” correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s something that a client would absolutely wanna understand when they’re moving into this house. So how do we educate them? How do we inspect? And is that even part of a home inspection?
TM: Good questions, Bill.
BR: Yeah, thanks, Bill. And that’s where we start trying to figure out where we go with things like smart housing. There are so many different products out there for smart housing, it would be impossible for anybody to know them all, but there are basic components of smart housing technology that all those products use, and it would almost be looking at a furnace. Well, yeah, there’s an awful lot of furnaces out there, and maybe we don’t know everything about every one of those furnaces, but we do know the principles of combustion, we know the principles of air flow, blower dynamics, how to put together a reasonable distribution system. Well, same with things like smart house technology. There will be those basic components that will be available to us to use. We may not operate all aspects of somebody’s smart house system, we may not operate any of them actually, but we wanna look at how it’s put together, maybe how it’s powered, how it’s distributed, and a couple of basic operations just to make sure it’s working.
TM: This kind of reminds me of the discussion that we’ve had internally at Structure Talk about, should we test appliances? How do we test appliances, and that has been a big topic of discussion for us within the last few years of changing our methods because we’ve found that when somebody hires us to do a home inspection, they are assuming that we are gonna be testing all of their appliances if they’re there, washers, dryers, ovens, refrigerators. And if they move in and something is not working properly, you better believe that we will hear about that. [chuckle] And so we’ve changed some of our standards and what we do, and we’ve really amped that up, so I kinda wonder if smart houses will fall into that category too. It might take a while, but that’s the direction it seems like it’s going in.
BR: You’re right.
BO: And from the consumer side, Tessa, I think you just put your finger on it, there are certain aspects of a house that when you move in, you just expect them to work, and whether that falls under the standards of practice that a home inspector is, there’s still an expectation. “Why didn’t you check that?” I think that’s the hard part, that balancing between those worlds.
BR: But that’s what differentiates you as an inspector from other people. Anybody can inspect a house to the standards of practice. It takes a special inspector to know how far beyond the standards of practice that they’re comfortable with going, You don’t wanna be at the bottom bar. You wanna set the bar for yourself at the top, and if that includes doing extra things, so be it. It’ll work out for you in the long run.
TM: We didn’t pay you to say that, did we? I was gonna say EBPHI and the NHIE is lucky to have you, Brendan.
BR: Yeah, well, thank you guys very much.
BO: Yeah, absolutely.
BR: It’s a pleasure talking to you guys, and it’s great to be able to sit down and talk like this, and by all means, make sure you make it out for more SME sessions. We’d love to have you guys and your input. We’ll even invite you, Bill.
BO: Thank you.
BO: And if we could do it at Martha’s Vineyard, that would be awesome. And I don’t know what kind of pull you have for setting up the venue. We appreciate it, Brendan. You’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murray and Reuben Saltzman. Thank you very much for listening, we’ll catch you next time.