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Pre-purchase building inspections have become meaningless

The above photo is a time exposure taken with a flash at high speed showing the amont of invisible  microscopic dust particles suspended in the air around an old wood burning fireplace.

Pre-purchase building inspections have descended to the lowest common denominator. They are of little value. They are not protecting the consumer. It all has to do with the deregulation of the service which occurred in 1994 by virtue of the revised Quebec Civil Code, and gotten gradually worse since then. Most people don’t realize that the service was totally deregulated so that anyone is allowed to do it, even the purchasers themselves, the only proviso being that it be done in a prudent and diligent manner. It actually goes on to say there is “no need for expert assistance” [Ref. Quebec Civil Code, article 1726]. Over the years I have watched the quality of inspections descend precipitously. The situation is similar in the rest of Canada ever since software came out for pre-purchase inspections, a kind of check list or boilerplate formula that anyone can fill out.Those that benefitted have been 1] lawyers who now do a multitude of latent defect claims; lawyers  probably authored the deregulation in the first place, 2] real estate agents who get to recommend inspectors, the more incompetent the better, because they need a sale to go through in order to make money/collect their commission. There are jurisdictions in the States [e.g. Boston] where real estate agents are not permitted to recommend inspectors because it is such an obvious example of a conflict of interest, 3] builders and renovators because this laissez-faire attitude also prevails at the municipal permits departments where the main concern seems to be  exterior aesthetics [in order to preserve local heritage, e.g. tremendous fuss about what new  windows look like but disregarding the need for mechanical air changes] rather than enforcing current health and safety regulations. Quebec is the only jurisdiction that I know of where municipalities  allow occupation to take place in residential buildings  still under construction based on a visit from a municipal fire inspector and without certificates of completion from the presiding engineers and architects. Construction sites remain contaminated until a building is completed not when it is substantially complete and construction is still going on.

But times are hard now and houses are more expensive than ever. Don’t waste your money on superficial pre-purchase inspections. Know what you are buying and what it could cost to make the house healthy and safe according to current standards not those that prevailed years ago. The going rate for a pre-purchase inspection is a paltry $500 for those working  with the kinds of disclaimers and computerized check-lists promoted by the Association of Quebec Building Inspectors [same for the rest of Canada, the exception being Mike Homes]. It has never become a government recognized profession and it is only the real estate agents who refer to its members as “certified inspectors”, as if that has some legal basis. That’s the whole point of deregulation. Anyone has the right to do an inspection. Being called a “deal-breaker” should be considered a badge of honour. It is the same kind of integrity that motivates a whistle blower who also can be made to suffer  consequences as a result of having revealed defective practices.

My rates for a pre-purchase inspection can be 5 or 6 times more expensive than the going rate. If one were to charge by the number of defects actually discovered with an attempt at estimating the approximate cost of repair, then maybe the value of a good inspection would become more evident. A computerized type report generated from software that basically categorizes the few  defects that are revealed, offers the following ridiculous choices 1]should be monitored, 2] may need repair in due course 2]requires the services of an expert. It is not really useful to a purchaser having to take a decision within a short deadline.

A pre-purchase building inspection that doesn’t  refer to the more important health and safety issues as defined in the current building code is not worth anything. That is what is meant by due diligence. The value of a pre-purchase inspection lies in the revelation of real issues not superficial ones, explaining the risks involved. That does not mean that a pre-purchase inspection  should get to reveal all the non-conformities; that isn’t realistic. It would take an enormous amount of work [many days, many visits] by an expert and it is not even possible given the limited time allotted to a pre-purchase inspection. However, going to the other extreme and not mentioning any building code issues at all doesn’t make sense. It is the current practice whose real motivation was to make  inspectors judgement proof, to minimize their liability, so that anyone can get to do an inspection even the purchasers themselves. What has happened to all those consumer protection advocates that were so prevalent  a few decades ago [consider what Ralph Nader did for the car industry with his book “unsafe at any speed”].

Recent comment/exchange with the well known architectural critic, university professor, and author, Witold Rybczynski, who has written numerous articles and published books on the subjects of housing, architecture, and technology.

On Sep 5, 2016, at 8:40 PM, Morris Charney <mcharney@videotron.ca> wrote:

Hi Witold, Thought I would send along these two posts that I wrote this summer to try to arouse interest in my proposal regarding building inspections. I’ve spoken about it to you last time you were in Montreal. I’m not trying to start a revolution but I am convinced there is something of merit in the idea. It would provide good work for experienced architects, benefit ordinary consumers [purchasers of homes or other properties], give more purpose to the profession and provide feedback and good critique to a profession caught up in aesthetic pursuits and ruled by celebrity architects. Would love to have your comments or for you to pursue the idea further. Thanks/Morris

From: Rybczynski, Witold [mailto:rybczyns@design.upenn.edu]  Sent: Wednesday, September 07, 2016 9:59 AM To: Morris Charney Subject: Re: home inspections

Hi Morris,

My experience confirms your observations. When we bought our house, the real estate agent recommended an inspector. We got what I now realize was a canned “evaluation.”

Nothing that he mentioned proved troublesome. On the other hand, he did not mention any of the issues that did later require repairs.

It seems like this is a local issue (you mention Mass.). In Penna. for example, the (Quakerish?) law allows either party in a prospective  house sale to withdraw at any time (for any reason) before the final closing, even if docs have been signed and deposits made and bids accepted. I imagine other states have other arrangements.

This variety makes it hard to discuss in the media, which generally has a national focus.

It also gives an advantage to the large homebuilders, who offer warranties and generally stand behind their products.

Witold

On Sep 7, 2016, at 10:45 AM, Morris Charney <mcharney@videotron.ca> wrote:

Really appreciate your thoughtful response. Would you allow me to post it on LinkedIn under one or both of the posts I sent you? You may prefer posting it yourself as a comment after the two posts. I think you are on LinkedIn and I have asked that we be connected. I appreciate that you may not want to get too many others trying to get you to comment on what they have written. The readership on LinkedIn, my connections, are mostly architects, urban planners, doctors, dentists and especially lawyers. The McGill alumni will probably recognize who you are. I feel your response is significant because it confirms my own experience. I have done inspections on three continents. Two of my kids live in LA. When they bought their houses, the real estate agents offered to throw in a pre-purchase inspection free of charge by the nearest Amerispect franchise, which got me to fly out to California asap. I helped one of my daughters to purchase a home in Boulder Colorado. I helped choose a home built and owned by an architect. The agent insisted that we have an independent inspection done since I was participating financially. It gave me a false sense of security, and like your experience, the home turned out to have a serious radon problem which I had to deal with. I give the subject of inspections a lot of importance because 1] it would be one way of finally improving the quality of housing for everyone [not just the 10% that use architects] by getting architects involved with ordinary housing, 2] I hate the deception used by real estate agents to the extent that they openly use the expression “staging” in regard to preparing a house for sale, 3]inspections would give new purpose to experienced architects…they sure need the work. It’s the next best thing to requiring architects to live or work in some of their creations, 4] I am also reminded of the tremendous influence Stuart Wilson had on all of us at McGill [yourself included] regarding good construction practice, of properly detailed construction drawings not the imagery passing for architectural plans today where contractors improvise their own construction details. Thanks/Morris

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