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Home inspection report writing advice & methods:
Here Alan Carson describes how to write a home inspection report. A properly prepared home inspection report serves the client by providing accurate, clear, useful information about the condition of a property. A good home inspection report also benefits the home inspector by providing a superior service to his/her clients.
Readers should also see Carson Dunlop's web-based inspection business management and reporting system described at Horizon: Web-Based Home Inspection & Commercial Inspection Writing & Business Management Software from Carson Dunlop. Along with good inspection report practices, the characteristics of web-based inspection reporting are discussed below.
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Alan Carson, Carson Dunlop
We all like inspecting houses. It's fun and challenging and we are really good at seeing things that mere mortals can't. The "show and tell" with clients is rewarding, and the appreciation they feel at the end of the process gives us real job satisfaction.
But, let's be honest; most of us don't get the same high from writing reports. Why is that? Well, there are several reasons:
These issues have been carefully researched and developed since 1978 along with our overall definition of a home inspection, based on doing thousands of reports every year. we have worked hard to come up with a definition of home inspection that includes appropriate reference to the report writing process. The definition is as follows:
A business with illogically high liability, slim profit margins and limited economies of scale. An incredibly diverse, multi-disciplined consulting service, delivered under difficult in-field circumstances, before a hostile audience in an impossibly short time frame, requiring the production of an extraordinarily detailed technical report, almost instantly, without benefit of research facilities or resources.
To sum it up, writing a report is a challenging process that provides an excellent opportunity to look foolish and to get sued. But we have to do it to help our clients (since they'll only remember 10 to 15% of what was said), to meet inspection standards or licensing requirements, and to compete in the market place. So, how do we minimize the pain and maximize the gain? Let's start by looking at what we are trying to accomplish, and move on to some ways to succeed. We'll discuss report writing in general, and touch on various report formats.
Based on tens of thousands of inspections, we have learned what our clients are looking for.
We put ourselves in our clients' shoes and came up with this list of what we would want.
we have asked hundreds of inspectors what they are looking for. These are the top answers we have received.
1. From the home inspector's perspective - If we could write what we wanted, it might look something like this:
What I told you on site was pretty much it, but we don't guarantee anything. The big item is the roof, and there are a bunch of little things. Get specialists to check every part of the house, especially the roof, before you take possession of the home. And remember, houses aren't perfect so there will be problems that come up.
We're not sure clients would like this.
2. From the home buyer's perspective - If they could get what we wanted, it might look something like this:
For every single house component -
This item is working perfectly now under all conditions, will need a repair costing $250 in 2 years and then will last another 3 1/2 years, and cost $765 to replace. Here is the phone number of someone who will fix or replace it, and give you a discount as well as a lifetime warranty.
And they'd like a summary at the beginning that lists in chronological order everything they'll have to do in the home with dates and costs.
So, we're pretty sure we can't write the reports we want or the reports clients want. Life is full of compromises isn't it? So what can we do? Well, We can meet them in the middle. We can take responsibility for our work, within our scope of work. It's fine to make it clear that we don't go beyond our scope. It's also important for our business success that we provide useful information to clients on issues within our expertise.
How would you define useful information?
If this all sounds trivial, let's spend a moment talking about reports that provide little or no useful information. For example -
"The swimming pool is located in the back yard." (I knew that already!) "The 2 inch by 8 inch joists are spaced 16 inches apart and support diagonal plank subflooring." (So what? Is that good or bad?) "The stairwell lighting is controlled by 3-way switches." (Is that a problem?) "An overflow was noted on the kitchen sink." (That's good, right?) The furnace capacity is 80,000 BTU/hr. (Is that enough?)
In the first statement, the client picks up no valuable information. In the rest, there is not enough information for the client to know if there is a problem, let alone whether it is a serious, expensive, safety or priority item. When we don't answer the "So what?" question for clients, we aren't doing our job.
So far in this article, we have given you our perspective based on our experience and beliefs. Is that authoritative? Maybe, because we've been in the home inspection business since 1978, have worked with many reporting systems - electronic and paper, trained and spoken to many, many inspectors, and written some pretty comprehensive training materials. But is that enough? Some would say no, especially in a customer-centric business model.
There is a rule of customer service that says, "Give the customer what they want, the way they want it." Every home inspector has an opinion as to what customers want, but few have asked. And some would say that customers don't know what they should want. But while we spend a lot of time adjusting client expectations to fit the limitations of a home inspection, we spend very little time adjusting our service to fit what clients want.
We at Carson Dunlop have certainly been guilty of this, until we discovered an easy and inexpensive way to survey our customers and ask them what they wanted in an inspection report. We surveyed recent home inspection customers and received 350 responses. The percents below indicate the number who agreed or strongly agreed with the following statements:
- 96% - Reports should include a short executive summary.
- 81% - Point form is easier for me to read than paragraph style.
- 88% - Reports should be short and to the point, but provide easy access to reference material if I need more information.
- 98% - Headings should be used to help me stay oriented while reading.
- 44% - Reports should include codes and legends to save space. A directory to look up what the codes mean should be available somewhere in the report.
- 99% - Reports should make it clear why something is an issue.
- 97% - Reports should tell me what to do about the issues that the inspector identified.
- 98% - Reports should prioritize issues for me.
- 92% - Illustrations would helpful if they are clear and relevant.
- 87% - Photos of issues in the home would be helpful in the report
- 93% - Reports should include ballpark costs to correct problems.
- 77% - The comprehensive report can be delivered within 24 hours after the inspection as long as I have a verbal/printed summary that gives me the big picture at the end of the inspection.
We may decide to respond to some or all of these, but at least we now know what clients are looking for. We'll spend the rest of the paper addressing some of the key report writing questions, and close with what we think are some key tips for successful report writing.
People regularly debate the benefits of electronic and paper-based reporting systems. We break the discussion into two components - input and output. Let's look at the input side first.
Input - Electronic or paper
- Paper can be faster
- Electronic can simulate paper - checklists, for example
- Electronic can store more selections more efficiently
- Electronic can be more convenient - PDA vs. clipboard
- Electronic can capture input for processing and storage
- Electronic input can be converted into output
- Paper can also act as output, but does not convert readily or store efficiently
Now let's look at report outputs.
- Information can be layered more easily with electronic formats (for example, hyperlinks can be embedded into reports.)
- Color is much cheaper to use with electronic reports than with paper
- Electronic output is easier to send to multiple recipients
- Navigation inside an electronic document can be easier
- Storage is cheaper and more space efficient with electronic reports
- Storage is easier to duplicate for back-up
- Some electronic output can be used for data analysis
- Paper can be cheaper
- Electronic can be cheaper, if there is no hard copy
- Where output is handwritten, legibility can be an issue
Clearly there are pros and cons to each. A recent survey showed almost 80% of inspectors use electronic reporting systems. Our conclusion is that electronic reports offer some advantages over paper-based reports, but we understand that paper works best for some people. Many systems can also provide both electronic and paper outputs.
Home inspectors can create their own report systems or purchase or subscribe to one of the many systems available in the market. There are several considerations in this decision:
In our opinion, report writing systems have improved significantly over the years and it would take a talented and dedicated home inspector a great deal of time to build a better mousetrap. We think it makes sense to look at the reporting systems available, to see if there is one that will suit your needs.
Building The Knowledge Base
Whether you make or buy your reporting system, you will need some sort of knowledge base. Many reporting systems have thousands of standard comments. These comments cover such areas as defects, descriptions, general maintenance advice, implications, limitations of problems, and mini-technical articles.
Some also have authoritative technical reference articles in addition to the standard database comments. The ability to direct clients to additional resource material with no research, writing, drawing, or sorting is a tremendous benefit. This helps establish your credibility as the home expert, without spending years building the library.
If you are considering building your own system, determine whether you want to be able to offer this added information, and consider the time and research required to create it.
Some inspectors provide a lot of detail about issues; others do not. Why would there be different approaches? One of the challenges in home inspection is that we don't know how much clients know. Worse still, clients are problematic because many know a lot about some things and little about others.
And, some clients want to know a lot, and others don't. Some don't want to know much when they buy the house. "Just give me the Bottom Line." But then they want all kinds of detail when they move into the house. "What did you say we should do about that torn valley flashing? When? Where? Why?"
So how can we write a report that will satisfy everyone? We think there is a solution
- The report written in layers;
The layering approach works with both paper and electronic reports, and can be particularly elegant in an electronic report. Remember how we talked about giving people what they want the way they want it?
Summaries offer significant advantages for clients and we know that clients want them, because we asked. The argument against summaries is that our liability is increased because people will rely on the summary and not read the entire report. We are comfortable that we can provide wording in the summary to make it clear to any reasonable person that, The summary is provided as a courtesy and is not a substitute for the entire report. The complete report must be read and considered before making decisions related to the home inspection.
Summaries are easy to build with most electronic reporting software, taking almost no time or effort. They can also include other valuable comments such as these: "All conditions noted in the report should be further investigated by a qualified specialist for related or additional conditions." Some would add, PRIOR to the close of escrow."
Some inspectors deliver their final report on site. Others deliver it later, usually within 24 hours. The split among inspectors is about 50/50. We think either option is fine, as long as clients have enough information at the end of the inspection to make their critical buying decision, and as long as the client receives the final report within 24 hours.
We said earlier that clients behave differently at different times. When they are trying to decide whether to buy the home, they need to know just the Bottom Line, focusing on the significant items. After they move in, they want to know chapter and verse, so they can look after the home. That's when they get into the body of the report in detail.
We think there are several ways:
We look to minimize risk, without compromising customer service. Good systems help you accomplish these goals.
We think it should be. It should create a positive image of your company and you should assume your report will be shared with others - friends and family, real estate sales professionals, lawyers, lenders, insurers and so on. It would be a wasted opportunity not to make your company look really good every chance you get.
Imagine the leverage you create when people read your report and say, "Wow that was easier than I thought it was going to be. I really understand my house now. Thank you!" or, "That was the best technical report I have ever read, on any subject! It was clear, easy to read and easy to understand."
We should be clear; a great reporting system will not save a bad home inspection or a bad home inspector, but it can make a good one look great.
Over the years a number of surveys have indicated that inspectors consistently spend an average of roughly 4 to 4.5% of their sales on report writing. If your fee is $300, that is $12.00 to $13.20 per report. You can spend almost nothing on reports or more than $40 per report.
The hard cost of the report is not the only factor to consider. Let's look at some of the soft or hidden costs of report writing. If you spend 1 to 2 hours writing every report, and you could use a system that would cut that time by an hour, what would that be worth? Well, if you do 300 inspections a year, that's 150 hours, or 4 working weeks! If you do two inspections a day, you'll save (20 days x 2 inspections/day x $300/inspection) $12,000 in lost opportunity! And if you could save a full hour per report, you'll save 300 hours (8 weeks) or $24,000!
Some systems allow you to book inspections electronically, and the client data moves automatically into your reports. The savings in time and reduced transcription mistakes are certainly worth something. Some report writing software makes it very easy to email confirmations to clients and agents. This improved communication reduces confusion and missed appointments, saving time and money.
Some systems help track your receivables, so you can contact people who owe you money. Some also help you track your sales, and see how your business is growing and where it comes from. There are even reporting systems that archive your records for you, so you have no storage or retrieval costs, and more importantly, you can always find an old report instantly when you need it.
One of the other soft costs is how much time you spend customizing and updating your reporting system. Some of the new web-based systems are updated automatically for you, minimizing time spent keeping current, and reducing mistakes made because your system is not up to date.
Looking ahead, software will move onto the web and away from the conventional installed packages we are used to seeing. The benefits are clear:
NOTE added by D Friedman, 10/7/08 - the web-based home inspection reporting projected by Mr. Carson is currently available from that firm. See:
Irrespective of what reporting tool you use, here are some key suggestions to help make your reports effective for clients and protective for you.
So, reports are a necessary evil that are not going away any time soon. The goal is to find a way to write reports quickly that will delight customers while protecting yourself. The better the system, the more easily you will be able to meet this goal.
After 30 years' experience, asking lots of customers and lots of home inspectors, and after making most of the mistakes possible, we have finally found a reporting solution that allows us to achieve all of these goals.
©2010 - 2005 Alan Carson Carson Dunlop, All Rights Reserved. Used with permission of the author, 23 January 2008.
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