Looking Not Seeing

Michael Flack

IN THE NAVY, THEY USED to say, “You don’t get what you expect, you get what you inspect.” Inspections played a major role in how the Navy determined the competency and capability of a warship. For nuclear-powered submarines, the most important inspection was the Operational Reactor Safeguard Exam, or ORSE, which rhymes with horse.

A team of experts thoroughly inspected all aspects of a submarine’s nuclear power plant. This covered everything from material readiness (“verdigris on valve stem”), to written exams (“draw the main seawater system”), to reviewing documentation (“the strike-through on page 15 wasn’t initialed”), to simulating a reactor leak (“excessive time was required”).

Everything was fair game and, when it was all done, the ship was given a detailed report and a definitive grade: above average, average or below average. An above-average or average rating meant that life—and careers—could go on as normal for officers and crew. A below-average grade meant that a new captain and chief engineer might be in order, with comprehensive training for everyone else.

I played a small role in two ORSE exams, which resulted in two average ratings, thankfully. They were so painstakingly comprehensive that, when they were over, the Navy felt confident in the crew’s ability to safely operate the reactor—and I started thinking about getting into another line of work.

It would be nice if home inspections were as definitive and comprehensive as an ORSE. After reviewing my last three home inspections, I’ve found they are not.

The inspectors were generalists and therefore may not have been capable of inspecting all of a home’s individual components. The last inspector I dealt with inspected my heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, finding no significant issues. Later on in the year, after the evaporator coils on the air conditioning started freezing up, it was found to have a refrigerant leak that required a complete replacement. As the inspector never checked the refrigerant pressure, there was no way his report could have alerted us to the problem and the system’s eventual costly failure.

All three inspectors, while no doubt properly trained, had no background in the building trades. Two had spent careers in information technology and the third inspector had been in some other line of work. While they all met the professional qualifications, how can you properly inspect a home if you’ve never helped build or repair one?

To be clear, I’m not talking about incompetent inspectors who perform cursory inspections—although this is also an issue, according to Consumers’ Checkbook. Even the best-trained inspector who performs a detailed review can’t be expected to be an expert on roofs, HVACs, foundations, plumbing and electrical.

At the end of my three home inspections, each inspector provided me with a list of deficiencies—in some cases quite extensive—along with numerous photos. They seemed to go out of their way, however, not to offer an overall grade or broad subjective judgment about the condition of the house.

My last inspector mentioned a roof “patch/repair was beginning to show cracking at edges,” but made no assessment of the overall condition of the roof or how long it might last before a total replacement would be required. This is perfectly acceptable under the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors’ Standards of Practice, which states, “An inspection does not determine the life expectancy of the property or any components or systems therein.”

I also don’t like that I hired my inspectors through my real estate agent each time. This set up a conflict of interest. If the inspector found something that would kill the deal, why would the agent recommend him ever again?

Using a home inspector can bring peace of mind to a buyer about many little things like “the anti-tip bracket was missing from the range” or the “microwave exhaust fan lightbulb was out.” I have doubts about how effective inspectors are at detecting major issues that could compromise the safety and integrity of your new home.

What can a buyer do? First, there’s value in knowing that a home inspector can’t provide a comprehensive inspection. Even if you vet them, hire good ones, accompany them on their inspection and ask the right questions, you need to realize that many potential issues are beyond their technical competence.

Second, there could be a way around this problem for a well-organized home buyer. A colleague once told me he skipped hiring a home inspector. Instead, he hired a roofer, an HVAC tech and a general contractor to each separately inspect a home he was buying. He said the cost was about the same as the general home inspection, but the amount of technical expertise brought to bear was significantly greater.

Michael Flack blogs at He’s a former naval officer and 20-year veteran of the oil and gas industry. Now retired, Mike enjoys traveling, blogging and spreadsheets. Check out his earlier articles.

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