Robin Jade Conde

PODCAST: The Importance of Context in Communication

Today we’re going to talk about giving context and putting things into perspective for buyers and homeowners. 

Reuben and Tessa talk about the factors needed to be considered when reporting about different kinds of houses: the age and condition of the house and the unique or typical defects. Tessa shares that being a home inspector is a difficult job and it’s more than just the technical side of looking at defects and finding problems. It’s looking at the house, understanding clients and their concerns, and being able to communicate effectively and potentially address concerns that are outside the scope of the home inspection. She adds that it’s important that clients have a good understanding of what they are buying.

Tessa discusses the steps in inspecting, reporting, taking the inspection one step further, and collating important information for the client. They talk about categorizing the critical items in home inspections: health and safety, expensive or big repairs, and building performance. She highlights that effective communication is as important as doing a good technical inspection: it’s about what to say and how to say it. Reuben shares examples where proper context is necessary for discussing safety hazards. 


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 home inspections, houses, and anything else that’s rattling around in our brain. Well, we left the conversation about healthy homes and home inspections, we are going to pick up right where we left off. So Tessa, I’m not gonna mess up your world, I’m throwing it right over to you.


Tessa Murry: [chuckle] Well, yeah, so the last episode we were talking a little bit about how these things that homeowners care about, like comfort and energy efficiency and air quality and their health really matter to them, but a lot of times that is outside the scope of what we do as home inspectors. And so we touched a little bit about… Touched on the fact that this is kind of a difficult gray area to navigate and how much do we talk about in a home inspection or not. But the larger conversation that we wanted to dive into today is looking at what are the defects that you’re seeing? How do you categorize them? Are they critical? Are they minor? And really giving some context for the clients so that they can understand that, because to be a successful home inspector, you have to know your stuff technically, but you also have to be really good at communication and you have to have interpersonal skills too. And so we’re talking today about weaving both the technical side in with this interpersonal side.


Reuben Saltzman: Yes. Really what it comes down to, the key part you mentioned there, Tessa, is context, putting things into context. You can have… We closed the last episode talking about this, you can have something going on like maybe… I don’t know, eight inches of insulation in an attic and it’s a 100-year-old house. It is what it is. We’ll tell people, “Hey, this current standard is this. You may wanna add some more insulation up there for increased energy efficiency and reduce the likelihood of ice dams. It might be a good idea to add some insulation.” But if we’re doing a new construction home, we see the same thing, we’re gonna mark that as unacceptable and say that this was built wrong. So it’s the exact same issue, but we report on it very differently based on which house we’re looking at and it’s so critical for home inspectors to put all these different things into perspective.


TM: 100%. If you can look at the house with a wider lens and think about, “Okay, what’s the age of the house? What’s the condition of the house? And are the defects that you’re seeing, are they unique or are they typical of a house this age in this condition?” That’s really gonna help you decipher how to communicate and what to communicate to the client.


BO: This reminds me of back in the day when I used to help with complaints. Somebody in the South side of Minneapolis bought this house, a starter home… Again, back to the context of the whole situation. The client called back after they moved in in the winter time and said, “This place is cold. There’s no insulation in these walls. Why didn’t you guys tell me there were no insulation in the walls?” And it’s a 1902 house with the original plaster on and the original stucco on the outside and there were no drill holes through. I guess you could mention it in passing that this house probably not got a lot of insulation. That would have been enough to just tip them off, but they were so upset and…


RS: Really, what are you gonna do? You’re gonna have some conjecture and say, “Based on the age of the house, you probably don’t have insulation in the walls… “


BO: Well, my point was…


RS: No way.


BO: My point was, I know the inspector walked through there and just immediately understood what they were looking at. And it didn’t even raise an alert in their head to have a conversation about comfort in this old house. Obviously, it had never been “violated” either way from the inside or the outside to add any insulation that would have been retrofit. And it just… It’s a house. Great. Look at how beautiful this old plaster and this cold molding is. And people love those details, but they also wanted the performance of a new house and it just… You don’t get it.


TM: Well, this is… This is a good topic to discuss because this is why being a home inspector is such a difficult job is it’s more than just the technical side of looking at defects and finding problems. It’s looking at the house, understanding your clients, understanding their concerns and being able to communicate effectively any concerns they might have and potentially address things that might be a little bit outside of the scope again like we were just talking about. Comfort is not part of the ASHI SOP, but if you’ve got a client who that’s their number one concern, okay, you’re buying a 1900-built house with no insulation in the walls, do you know what that means? [chuckle] Do you know how that’s gonna affect your day-to-day life? 


BO: Well, and if the real estate agent is standing there and you go to that conversation, they would be like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, time out. That’s not a part of this decision-making process. This is what’s affordable in your price range at this time in the market. You can want everything, but we begin to make choices to get maybe the neighborhood you wanted or maybe the price point you wanted or maybe the neighborhood and the price point.” So it’s a sticky wicket for them to go into that.


TM: It is. It is.


BO: And I love your curiosity about how to do it and find out what’s important to the person and have that conversation that’s important to them. But again, you’re doing the best you can for your client, but you’re also… We’re here for the facts. Is this house put together wrong? No. Just ’cause it’s uninsulated doesn’t mean it’s wrong for the time. Let’s go back to step one. Tell us what step one is.


TM: Step one I think for being a good home inspector is to just analyze the house. And that’s what we’re trained to do, and that’s what we do best. It’s going in, looking at all the different systems, looking at the different materials, are there any defects in the house, problems that you’re noting. We report on those things. We follow… Typically, we follow standards of practice. And that’s all pretty cut and dry, black and white. And the part that’s a little bit more difficult is determining kind of the critical nature of each thing that we find. So we’ve got in our reports… Our report rating software, we’ve got kind of a standardization of these defects that we find. If we find, let’s just say, splice… Improperly terminated wire, that’s automatically ranked as a critical item in our reports. But as Reuben was saying, sometimes you have to put these defects into context. And so let’s just say you’ve got a house that’s built in 1900, and it has old galvanized steel water distribution piping. It’s got low water flow. It’s got knob-and-tube wiring and it’s got hazardous splices and knob-and-tube burden insulation, and it’s got maybe a stack stone foundation, that has lots of moisture kind of coming through it. These are all things that are not atypical for a house this age, at least in our area. These are things that are pretty common when we inspect a house that’s that old. And so…


RS: Yeah. We expect to find that stuff.


TM: We do. Yeah. And so I think it’s important to ask yourself as a home inspector, based on the age, based on the condition, am I finding kind of what’s expected or is there anything that’s unexpected? And that helps kind of, in my mind, is the beginning process of how I’m gonna categorize the defects that I’m finding when I talk to the client. But really, I like to break it down even further and kind of the most critical items in my mind are typically anything that’s health or safety-related. Anything that could be a hazard, burn the house down, hurt somebody, those are things that are always going to be critical, and those are things that I always make sure to talk about with a client if I run across them. Would you agree with that, Reuben? 


RS: Oh yeah, for sure. Good example would just be the service drop, the overhead wires coming into a house. And so often you’ve got exposed conductors where the utility lines connect to the house’s supply, where they just… They didn’t put the little insulators on ’em. And I say, look, this is a health and safety issue. Someone could die. You put a ladder up against ’em, you can get electrocuted. It’s a serious safety hazard. Now, what’s… Scale of 1-10, how big of a deal is this as far as repair goes? I’d put it as a one. The utility company owns this. All you need to do is call them, have ’em fix it. It’s really important for your health and safety. But as far as is it gonna affect your decision to buy the house? It’s nothing. It’s something that can definitely be fixed. And we find this every day. This is super common. And it really changes. If you don’t put it into context, you can just say, Hey, this is a serious safety hazard. Get an electrician out there to fix it. Home buyers are just gonna be kinda wide-eyed and then go, Woah, this isn’t a good house. So you gotta put things into context.


TM: Yeah. Another example would be, let’s just say you’ve come across a buried fuel oil tank, which we run across occasionally here in the Twin Cities, and let’s just say that fuel oil tank is buried underneath a sun porch. Well, that’s gonna be a difficult job to either have it removed or filled in place, if that’s an option. And so that might be something that would kind of move up on my scale of critical-ness to discuss with the client, because of the cost and the uniqueness of it.


BO: Everything is always relative to the next thing in this house. Is that a fair statement? 


TM: I think so. Yeah. So with that, so we’ve got your health and safety category, and then you’ve got your kind of big, expensive repairs or big, expensive maintenance items that need to be done. For instance, maybe a roof that’s at the end of its expected serviceable life. Now, if you’ve got let’s just say, a house that’s built in 1990 and it’s the original roof, well, then, I wouldn’t say that that’s an unusual defect to find. It’s just it’s ran its course. And it’s at the end of its life. And so, again, is this something that you’d make a really big deal about? No, this is normal. But it’s gonna be expensive, and prepare for budget for a replacement for something like this.


BO: I remember going to great pains to inform people roughly the age of their house. I don’t know why I did, but I did. It just seemed like a waste of time after.


RS: Well, what’s much more important is identifying the condition of the roof, like how much does it have left? And that’s really what’s more important. Now, I understand that some insurance companies get into some issues. They wanna know the age of the roof, and it can be helpful for that purpose. But so often we have no way of date stamping or carbon dating a roof, whatever you wanna call it. We don’t have a way of figuring that out. But yeah, what’s really more important is how much life does it have left? What condition is it in? 


BO: I’m on my own roof experiment on my garage right now, because when we bought the house, they said the roof was put on in 1991. And we had the actual house redone, but I left the garage, and I’m gonna see how far these three tabs will go. So we’re 30 years into it, and they look just fine, so.


RS: Wow.


TM: Wow. [chuckle] Good for you.


RS: Yeah.


TM: Yeah, yeah. And just to finish this discussion up, the third kind of category I have in the back of my mind is anything that’s not health and safety, and it’s not big, expensive repairs or just general maintenance stuff. It’s the stuff that kinda falls into this more building performance category. It’s like air ceiling and attic to improve the energy efficiency, comfort in the home, and reduce moisture problems in an attic. A lot of houses have these attic bypasses, and it’s not a critical issue. It’s not creating any major concerns that the homeowner can see, and so it’s something that could be done to the house to improve the performance but it’s not, in my opinion, it’s not causing any major pain points for that homeowner. There might be other things in this house that they should focus their efforts on first, like maybe some of the old knob and tube wiring we were talking about, or the old galvanized plumbing that’s reducing the water flow or water intrusion in a basement, and then once you’ve addressed these issues, you can start turning your focus towards more of these kind of building performance improvements in my mind.


BO: Tessa, I have to ask you. We have our internal communication page, and I saw a note come over to the whole team that a person wants a single item inspection, and they said “I had ice dams that caused damage, so we replaced the roof and added more insulation, and now I have another ice dam that’s caused more damage. Help.”


TM: Well, you know what? It’s funny, actually, I was just talking with Eric Larson today, another inspector in our team who has a background in building science stuff, and he’s actually… He went out there to that house for the single item inspection, and it’s sad, but there’s a ton of people out there who deal with these issues, and it sounds like… Okay, when we hear this, we hear this all the time, Okay, first you need to air seal and you need to insulate, make sure you’ve got good ventilation, problem solved, but in reality, this poor home owner had worked with a roofing contractor to replace the roof, and while the roof was off, they actually removed part of the roof decking at the eave like up about 10 feet from the eave, from the exterior wall top and they installed…


TM: Worked with an insulation company to install closed cell spray foam in the attic on that lower section of the roof, and then they put the roof back on and they blew in a ton more insulation in the attic. And fast forward, they’ve got water intrusion now, and so Eric went out and looked at this attic and he dug through a ton of this new insulation, new fluffy fiber glass in this attic space and found some pretty big attic bypasses that were still there around, you know, a chimney that was there in the attic and wall tops and all this stuff. And another challenge too, is that with this closed cell spray foam insulation that was installed at the eave, we can’t determine and we can’t really see if there’s ventilation that’s been blocked off or not, because the pitch of the roof is so low, you physically can’t crawl down in that little space where the roof pinches down on the exterior wall top and you can’t see if there’s vent shoots or if they left an air gap and so that insulation could have closed off the ventilation at the eave, and so that would potentially affect how that attic is performing.


BO: See I made an assumption, I thought they just did what everybody else does is re-roof and then just blow insulation in and didn’t address any of it, but here I sit with egg on my face.


TM: And the roof was actually installed kind of a unique type of intake ventilation that integrates with the shingles and they installed it like 10 feet up on the roof too, which also makes us wonder is there ventilation at the eave too? But all that being said, this home-owner has tried, in theory to do these things, they’ve tried some air sealing, they’ve tried some insulation, they’ve tried some re-ventilation strategies, but it still is not performing well, it’s still not working. And so where do you go from here? And it was interesting too Eric noticed in this house that the bath fans, when they were turned on, the dampers weren’t opening at the exterior, so they weren’t really removing adequate airflow, and there was no kitchen exhaust fan. There was no ERV/HRV in the house, and on the south side of the house, he noticed all of these water stains down on the side of it, which Reuben, you wrote a blog about why do houses cry? 


RS: Yeah.


TM: So if anyone’s listening to that and wants to know more, you can check out that blog, why do houses cry, but there’s a lot of indications that this house has problems with high humidity, and so when Eric went down in the basement, he looked at mechanicals and sure enough, there was a whole house humidifier installed on the side of the furnace, and he talked to the homeowner, and the homeowner said, “Yeah, we use this thing, we leave it on, I don’t ever really adjust it, I don’t know what it’s set up, but yes, we use it.” So now you’ve got this perfect storm of a whole house humidifier, not adequate point source of ventilation in the house to remove it, evidence of moisture kind of coming through the exterior walls and crying down the side of the house and portions of the attic that have been air sealed, but other portions that have been left wide open, and so now I kind of think of the lid of a house that’s leaking and allowing that warm moisture from the house to get up into the attic, kind of like the end of a garden hose, if you’ve got water flowing out the end, you take your thumb and you cover up half of that garden hose, you’re still gonna have the same amount of water coming through the end of that hose, but it’s gonna be coming through it at a higher velocity.


RS: Yeah.


TM: And so it’s just like that with your attic, you air seal half of that attic space and you leave the other attic bypasses open, you’re gonna have even more warm moist air coming through those attic bypasses into the attic space.


RS: Yes, ‘Cause you have the same pressure.


TM: Yes, the same pressure. And so a lot of times what can happen is that problem with frost in the attic or where the ice dam forms just moves in these houses, if you don’t have a comprehensive approach to all these contributing factors. So yeah, you wanna shake your head at these people and they’re like, Yeah, we re-roofed it and added more installation. Duh. But a lot of times, it gets a lot more complicated and messy than that.


BO: And this is a great example of these people needed to live there, the way they live, and they needed to stress the house out the way they live. This is not something that should have or would have probably been uncovered in a home inspection.


TM: Right. We definitely train our inspectors to look for signs of moisture in the attic, and attic bypasses, and does the house have proper attic ventilation? We look for those things, but to take it one step further would be okay, it doesn’t have proper ventilation, it does have attic bypasses and I am seeing rust on the nail tips on the roof decking from the attic side, so I’m gonna put all these clues together and take a wild guess, that this house probably has frost in the attic in the winter might have ice dam problems and could have building performance issues.


BO: Boom, you just nailed it. You nailed the reason why they need to know about structure tech on the front side and the back side, make sure it’s good, you get the thumbs up and then dial it in, and preferably do that before you spend thousands of dollars on roof and close cell foam. So how soon can people have this product, Tessa? Or is it available now? 




TM: Well, if you go through training with Structure Tech, we’ll definitely be talking about building performance and all of these things and trying to integrate it into our standard inspection process. But another big piece of this too… To answer your question, Bill, I don’t know when this Healthy Homes program will be ready, but hopefully soon. But one other thing I just wanna touch on too, in addition to kind of thinking about categorization of criticalness of these items is how you communicate them to the client. And it really is important to put these things into context, but I wanna say that it’s also really important to be able to read your client too. And if you show up to an inspection and you’ve got someone who is extremely nervous, really anxious, versus someone who’s been through the process a lot, owned homes, knows a lot about houses and they’re more laid back and calm, you’re gonna adjust your communication and adjust what you say and how you say it to that person. And that’s just as important as doing a good technical inspection.


RS: Yeah.


BO: Sure.


RS: You need to read the room. Absolutely.


TM: Read the room. And one thing, I was just talking with our two new inspectors on the team, Cory and Mike, after they did their first inspection, actually, on their own this week, got assigned to a big old duplex, it was built in 1900, and it has…


BO: Of course they did. [chuckle]


TM: Yeah, of course. It was three stories, and it was a big, old house. And they tackled that. And they found a lot of things, but again, as we discussed earlier, nothing was unexpected, or… Everything that they found was pretty typical for a house that age. But because it was so big and because it was so old, there was a lot of items that they found that were considered kind of “critical.” It could be safety issues, could be expensive to fix. And so their client showed up and it was a first-time home buyer, someone who had never bought a house before, didn’t know anything about houses, and they’re buying this big old duplex. And Cory and Mike were kinda trying to strategize how do we talk to this client about all these issues without freaking them out. And so what they decided to do was to kind of walk them through the house and point out the critical items when they got to them and give some context for each thing. And so it wasn’t like our typical kind of, Let’s do the quick run down of the big critical items, and we’ll stay in the kitchen and discuss these things. They actually took the time to kind of walk them through, show them these things piece by piece and put it into context.


TM: And when they were done, the agent said, “This is why we use Structure Tech, because you’re so thorough, but you’re not alarmists. And thanks for giving us all this information and putting it into context for us.” And the buyer walked away from that feeling like they had a really good understanding of what they were buying. And it’s amazing that… How did they share all this information, the critical items without overwhelming them. I think it takes… You have to be able to understand your client, know what their concerns are, and adjust your communication for that unique situation and that person and that house.


BO: That’s the final word from Tessa. Perfect. It’s not that hard. And your point is well taken. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. I’m gonna opine about one other thing. In the world of COVID and ownership… Home ownership after a pandemic, I wonder if people are gonna hunker down in their homes longer than they did previously that… People made a push, I’m set up now, I’ve got my home office, I’ve got this, that, or… I wonder if there’s a lot more people who wanna dial in their houses because they know they’re gonna be there a while. And I think the Healthy Homes thing might be really something people wanna look at for a long-term strategy to get their houses right, make them the most durable as possible, make them as durable as possible, and help these… Help the machinery inside the house last as long as it can too.


TM: Yeah, I think so. I hope so.


BO: Alright. Well, with that, we’re gonna put a wrap on it. You’ve been listening to Structure Talk, my name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Professor Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. Thank you. We will catch you next time.