What is a Home Inspection

By William Decker, CRI, CCI, CMI

The Home Inspection industry is relatively new and many people ask, exactly what is a home inspection.  How does it differ from a building code inspection?  What can I expect from an inspection?

    The first thing to understand is that home inspection criteria and requirements differ from state to state.  Some states require that inspectors be properly trained, educated, do annual continuing education and be state licensed.  In other states, there are no requirements and anyone can call them self a home inspector.  I live an work in the State of Illinois, which I believe has a good middle ground.  Illinois requires pre-licensing education, psychometric testing and state licensing with continuing education.  For the purposes of this article, I will refer to things based upon Illinois requirements.

    The Illinois Home Inspection Act, passed in 2002 and amended a couple of times since then defines a home inspection as:

"Home inspection" means the examination and evaluation of the exterior and interior components of residential real property, which includes the inspection of any 2 or more of the following components of residential real property in connection with or to facilitate the sale, lease, or other conveyance of, or the proposed sale, lease or other conveyance of, residential real property:
(1) heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system;
(2) plumbing system;
(3) electrical system;
(4) structural composition;
(5) foundation;
(6) roof;
(7) masonry structure; or
(8) any other residential real property component as established by rule."

    So, the three major criteria are:

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Inspecting 2 or more major systems of a residential property;

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For a fee;

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As part of a real estate transaction.

    And no one can inspect residential property within this definition except an Illinois State Licensed Home Inspector.  Not a contractor, not a Structural Engineer and not an Architect.  If they do, they are guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.  If you want a roofer to look at your roof, or an electrician to check out your electrical system, that's OK, but no one can inspect 2 or more systems other than a home inspector.

    But what do home inspectors do?  what do they inspect?  The law says that home inspectors are required to "inspect and describe" the 10 major home systems (Interior, Exterior, Heating, Cooling, Electric, Plumbing, Insulation, Ventilation, Structure and Roof) and report on the systems, items or components that that are, in the opinion of the inspector, significantly deficient.  A significantly deficient item is defined as "Does not operate or is unsafe".

    This gives home inspectors wide latitude on what they can do.  Code inspections are, usually, only done when the house is first built or when the house has significant work done.  While there are several national building codes, these are general guidelines that have been developed by different trade association groups.  States, and in Illinois, local municipalities, can determine their own building codes.  Many times, they adopt, in part of in full, one of the national code guidelines, usually amended somewhat to fit local differences in climate and construction standards.  In essence, local building codes define the limits of what the code inspector can call out.  The local building code is a bare minimum standard for immediate health and safety items.  It says nothing about quality of materials and workmanship, choice of components or long term habitability.

    And, because most local code inspectors are underpaid and overworked, many things get overlooked.  In this area, a major city area, code inspectors usually spend a total of 10 - 20 minutes inspecting a house.  The average home inspection can take between 2 and 4 hours and is much more comprehensive and detailed.  The major difference is that while code inspectors have the authority to require repairs, they have no liability of they miss something significant.  With home inspectors, the exact opposite is true.  We can call problems out in more detail, but we cannot require that any repairs be done, we can only recommend.  The final decision is up to the client.

    So, what are some of the things that we commonly see?  Usually, there are problems and dangerous conditions that have been caused by non-professional or do-it-yourself work done of the house.  Many times the problems are caused by deferring maintenance or not having regular servicing of furnaces, water heaters or air conditioners.  Sometimes, we see mold growth because the homeowner has kept the humidity too high.  Many times we find problems that the current homeowner had no idea existed.

    Usually we do inspections for people who are buying a house, a pre-purchase inspection.  But we also do inspections for people who are planning to sell their house and want to know what will come up during the pre-purchase inspection.  These are called pre-listing inspections.  We also do inspections for people who just want to know the current condition of their house or may be planning some repairs or remodeling.  Some inspectors also do specialized inspections for specific issues.  These include roof, water intrusion, mold, lead paint and structural inspections.  In short, a home inspector is like a diagnostic physician.  We do not fix things, but we inspect and refer you to the proper "specialist".

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