The Limitations of a Home Inspection

The Home Inspection Defined

A general home inspection is a visual evaluation of a home's accessible structural elements, major systems, and components to determine whether defects or safety issues exist. The inspection is not technically exhaustive. A "general home inspection," a "standard home inspection" and simply a "home inspection" are all the same thing.
 
A home inspection is designed to reflect, as accurately as possible, the visible condition of the home at the time of the inspection. Conditions of a home for sale can change radically in only a day or two, so a home inspection is not meant to guarantee the condition of the home on the date of the sale, for example. It’s not uncommon for conditions to change between the time of the inspection and the closing date.
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It’s a Visual Inspection

A visual inspection means that the home inspection report is limited to describing conditions in those parts of the home that the inspector could see during his inspection. Obviously, parts of the home that are permanently hidden by wall, ceiling, and floor coverings are excluded, but so are parts of the home that were inaccessible during the inspection for some other reason. Such a reason might include lack of an access point, such as a door or hatch, or a locked access point, or because an occupant’s belongings blocked access, or because of dangerous or unsanitary conditions. There can be many more reasons.

The point to remember and to remind the client of is that if the inspector can’t see a portion of the home, the inspector can’t assume responsibility for ensuring that a safe and proper condition exists or that a system or component within a hidden space is operating properly.

Safety

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Safety can be a matter of perception. Some conditions, such as exposed electrical wiring, are obviously unsafe. Other conditions, such as the presence of mold, aren’t as clear-cut.

Using the example of the possible existence of mold, it's difficult to accurately call it out during a general home inspection because mold sometimes grows in places where it can’t be readily seen, such as inside walls, making its discovery beyond the scope of the inspection. 

Also, mold's dangers to human health are caused by the inhalation of spores from indoor air. Most people with healthy immune systems have little or no problem with inhaling a few random spores. However, other people whose immune systems are compromised by lung disease, asthma or allergies can develop serious or even fatal fungal infections from mold spore levels that wouldn’t affect most people. Nearly every home has some mold, and mold colonies can grow very quickly, given the right conditions. Mold can be a safety concern, but it often isn’t. The dangers represented by mold are a controversial subject.

System Defects

Although the majority of the inspection is visual, InterNACHI's Residential Standards of Practice requires inspectors to operate space and water-heating equipment and air-conditioning equipment, if it can be done without damaging the equipment.
 

Inspectors will also examine the major, accessible components of certain systems, as required by the Standards of Practice, such as a furnace's air filter.

A home inspection is not technically exhaustive, meaning that systems or components will not be disassembled as part of the inspection. For example, an inspector will not partially disassemble a furnace to more accurately check the condition of the heat exchanger. Inspectors typically disclaim heat exchangers.

Hazardous Materials

Asbestos, mold, lead, water purity, and other environmental issues or potential hazards typically require a specialist inspection, and may additionally require laboratory analysis.

Home Inspectors Are Generalists

Home inspectors are not experts in every home system, but are generalists trained to recognize evidence of potential problems in the home's various systems and their major components. Inspectors need to know when a problem is serious enough to recommend a specialist inspection. Recommendations are often made for further evaluation or repair by a qualified contractor, such as a plumber, electrician or structural engineer.

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Inspector Qualifications

Very few home inspectors have been in the inspection industry for their entire working lives. According to an InterNACHI poll, about half the home inspectors have a background in the building trades. Those with a construction background started their inspection careers with a general idea of the systems and components they expect to find installed, as well as how those systems age and fail.

This doesn’t mean that inspectors with a background in something other than the building trades are not qualified -- only that they started in the inspection industry at a relative disadvantage. Building the skills and developing the judgment to consistently recognize and interpret the evidence correctly and make appropriate recommendations can be improved with practice and Continuing Education.

Managing Expectations

Part of the home inspector’s job is to manage his clients' expectations. This is especially true when a client has never dealt with a home inspector before. Explaining the limitations of a home inspection to a client will help him develop realistic expectations concerning what he is likely to read about in his home inspection report, as well as the items that lie beyond the scope of the inspection.

When a home buyer is interviewing an inspector, the inspector should explain how he handles special safety concerns.

In addition to providing a copy of InterNACHI's Residential Standards of Practice and discussing a home inspection's limitations, another way to manage the homeowner's or home buyer's expectations is to use disclaimers.  Disclaimers are portions of an inspection agreement or report in which the inspector notifies the client that he will not accept responsibility for confirming the condition of a portion of the home or particular system or component for some stated reason, especially items that are hidden or obstructed.

Creating realistic expectations for the client will help prevent misunderstandings, promote smooth real estate transactions, and keep everyone safe during an inspection.

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A general home inspection is a visual evaluation of a home's accessible structural elements, major systems, and components to determine whether defects or safety issues exist. The inspection is not technically exhaustive. A "general home inspection," a "standard home inspection" and simply a "home inspection" are all the same thing.
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