Editor’s Note: According to veteran inspector Rick Bunzel, business efficiencies used by the most successful corporate giants can also mean good business for inspectors.

In Search of The Perfect Home Inspection

By Rick Bunzel, CRI, ACI

As I approach my 10th year in business I am still learning about homes and perfecting my trade. Our clients expect a perfect inspection that will catch 100 percent of the issues. However, few are willing to spend the time or money such an exhaustive inspection would require.

Agents wouldn’t support it because a multi-day inspection would inconvenience sellers and buyers and likely nix the deal. Like all inspectors, I don't like getting the phone call from an upset client about an issue they found in their newly purchased home that they feel I should have caught. Mike Holmes’s Show, “Holmes Inspection” doesn't help either, as his favorite line seems to be, "The inspector should have caught that." So the question remains, can we deliver a near-perfect inspection in the few hours we spend in a home?

Companies like Boeing must have processes that produce 99.9 percent defect-free airplanes or they wouldn't remain in business. McDonalds is another example- they have to create a menu of items that are consistent around the world. One might say that the inspection business is different because we are not producing a standardized product. But I disagree. Our inspection report is a product and we can take some of the techniques that companies like Boeing and McDonalds use to create a better product. Both companies thrive on certain core fundamentals:

• Standardization: a Big Mac is a Big Mac and a Boeing 737 built in 1968 can use parts from one built in 2010.
• The highest levels of quality possible: planes can't fail and the food must be pure and taste the same regardless of location.
• A production process approach: different work cells combine to make the finished product.
• Quality processes throughout their systems: from suppliers to management oversight, checks are built into each process.
• Production systems which are reproducible and easy to teach to new employees.
• Lean production: steps are broken down and analyzed to get the most from each employee.

Translation Please
What can we learn from these companies that translates to the home inspection business? I looked at the process and broke down the components into the following: initial contact, information flow, scheduling, arrival at the property, physical inspection, creation of the report, delivery of the report, follow-up and after inspection issues.

Initial Contact
In many areas of the country, real estate agents give their clients the names of multiple inspectors, so frequently we get calls from clients shopping for a home inspector. My business partner/wife and I share the office duties so it’s important that we are consistent in what we say and quote to the client. We have built processes into our business to ensure that every client goes through the same process, from the time they first contact us through the follow-up survey. We have a paper form that gets filled out and goes into our 3D Office Management System. This step includes calling the agent to get access to the home and ensuring that the utilities will be turned on.

A confirmation is sent out with the time, date, location, cost and a copy of the inspection agreement for their review. We have learned that setting expectations is an important part of customer satisfaction. Most home buyers are bewildered by the home buying process. The more education we can provide upfront the better they will understand the information they receive down the line.

Information Flow and Scheduling
It’s important that I receive information prior to arriving at the site, beginning with the initial contact from the agent. When the client is booking the inspection, we identify their concerns and issues. I usually will look over the schedule and inspection details the evening before. Since we have been performing inspections for some time in this area, I am familiar with the neighborhoods and their particular issues. We usually block out four hours for an inspection because you never know what you will find until you show up at a property. The last thing we want to do is rush through an inspection due to a scheduling crunch. Our information forms capture cell phone numbers for both the client and agent. If we are running late we can call and let them know when we will arrive.

All inspectors have their own way of handling the physical inspection of a home. The key is standardization. Like McDonalds, you want a systematic approach that allows you to adequately view the property and identify issues. Like many inspectors, I try to get to the property before the client to do a “sizing up.” This allows me to do some pre-planning on where to access the roof, the order of things to be inspected and to identify features, such as out buildings that weren't disclosed. I also begin cataloging issues that will need further examination, such as LP siding or hazards like overhead wires. If the client and agent have not arrived yet, I will start taking pictures of the exterior. Usually I shoot the front elevation and each side of the home and roof. Photo documentation is part of my standard process. In a small home inspection I will take close to 100 pictures and use about 25 in the report. Clients will frequently forget the condition of the home but if there is a disagreement on the condition they have a hard time arguing with a picture.

Master craftsmen spend hours perfecting their trade. As they learn, they build muscle memory. This muscle memory makes it easier to get the tasks right time after time. Most home inspectors already have muscle memory. For example, when I first got my telescopic ladder I looked pretty awkward opening and closing it. I have now used it more than 1,000 times and can select the height, extend the ladder, get the right climbing angle and check it while I am talking to the client. I have done it so many times I have perfected the process. Most experts will agree that to master a process you have to perform it at least a 1,000 times. Practice your inspection process and be consistent. We can't control our inspection environment but we can master the inspection process so we can perform it regardless of the environment.

A critical step in my quality control process is loading information into my reporting system onsite. I have my forms setup to follow my physical inspection process. I will normally setup my laptop in the kitchen and enter data there. If it’s a large home or multi-building complex, I will inspect an area and then enter it into the computer. If it’s a smaller home, I will enter data at the end of the physical inspection. If I am missing information, such as the size of the furnace, I can go back to get the information. Occasionally I will miss a concealed water heater or an electrical panel hiding behind a painting. My inspection software will remind me that I am missing a piece of information. I also have several check boxes at the end that remind me to verify that the oven is off and the furnace and water heater temperatures are returned to original position.

The Report
I will create most of my report on-site but I don't complete it until I get back to my office. I've tried it other ways but have found that I had to recall and update the report more often than I wanted to. Even though I would tell customers that this could happen, I felt like I was sending out reports with potential errors. For this reason I don't send out reports until I get back to the office. This allows me to digest the information from the inspection, do research if needed, enter the pictures and fine-tune the wording. We have reduced the number of errors that go out in the reports to less than two percent. I use pictures as one of my quality controls. If I find a defect, I take one or more pictures of it. As I going through the report I am looking at the pictures and comparing it to the comments I have entered. Frequently, I will find a small item such as a broken sliding door latch that didn't make it in the initial report. During this pass I will ensure that I have all the issues documented and pictures entered. My last steps are spell checking, looking at a summary of issues and creating the PDF. The final quality control check is looking at the finished report and making sure it printed as I want it.

Setting Expectations
Even the best, most thorough inspection can produce an unhappy client. If your customer is unhappy with your service, then you have failed at your job. In my experience, the most common reason is poorly set expectations. Most customers don't understand what a home inspection is and what it isn't. We all have contracts that stipulate the terms of the inspection but how many clients read the contract? For this reason, I encourage the client to attend the entire inspection. This is a business decision for each inspector and from informal polls I have taken, about 50 percent of inspectors encourage clients to attend the inspection while the rest prefer the clients show up at the end.

I do a pre-inspection briefing when the client shows up as part of my process. The briefing covers what I will be doing, checking to see if they reviewed the inspection agreement, safety (please don't follow me on to the roof) and finding out if they will be staying for the entire inspection. This briefing helps set the client's expectations and lets them see what I am seeing. If there is an area that is not accessible, I tell them and why it won't be part of the inspection. Occasionally I get clients (and their family) who are all over the place, pulling me in different directions. In this case I gently encourage them to hold questions until the end or have the buyer/client collect the questions and ask them when I am done. This does extend the time it takes to inspect a home but the majority of our clients get more out of the inspection and feel more confident about their purchase after reading the report.

Follow up
In most cases, we do our inspection, collect a check, deliver the report and never hear from our clients again. Many of us take the head in the sand approach: no news means we are doing okay. But how do we know that we are doing great and that our clients are bragging about how happy they are with our services? How many of us ever check back with our clients? I would wager that less than 10 percent of inspectors have some type of formal feedback system. Companies like Boeing and McDonald have established customer service metrics that are constantly measured. At this point I don't have a formal system, but I know I should. I do encourage clients to review me on Google, Yellow Bot, Bing and Judy's Book. I also poll the agents who refer me for feedback. I consider them a secondary client as many clients depend on the agent to recommend an inspector. In our state they are required to supply three names.

The quest for perfection should never end. Our markets are changing and we must change to continue to meet the expectations of our customers. We should never get lax and think that we are delivering a good inspection and that this is good enough. Can we live up to the standards that Mike Holmes talks about? Probably not because he goes far beyond ASHI Standards and the homes featured in his shows are setup to make good TV. However, Mike does give us something to strive for.

About the Author
Rick Bunzel is the principle inspector with Pacific Crest Inspections and an ASHI Certified Inspector #249557. He holds a BA in Business Marketing. He is past Chair of the Marketing and Public Relations Committees for a national home inspection organization. Locally, he Chairs the North Puget Sound Board of Realtor’s Communications Committee and is a firefighter/ EMT with the Mt. Erie Fire Department in Anacortes, WA.

Reprinted from www.WorkingRE.com magazine, published by E&O Insurance provider www.orep.org .

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