There is no clear career path for home inspectors. I will try to give you a quick orientation here, and resources to look into.
There are a number of commercial schools teaching home inspection. If you join the American Society of Home Inspectors, as a candidate, one of the immediate benefits you receive is a subscription to the ASHI Reporter. This monthly publication carries ads for several of these schools. ASHI itself markets a home-study course called ASHI@Home. This is a substantial course, involving hundreds of hours and a commensurate cost. Other than this one course, ASHI does not endorse schools, because the Society hasn't reviewed them all for thoroughness. Membership will also get you access to the members-only online message systems, where you could post questions about schools. These message boards are an education in themselves, but can really eat up your time.
The Society holds an annual meeting and conference, about a week long, usually in January. The 2003 conference was in Orlando, FL, the 2004 in Albuquerque, NM. You can attend 20 or more hours of educational sessions at these meetings, and the speakers are often people with national reputations. The conference sessions are usually organized into several tracks, such as Candidate, Business, Commerical, Special Topics and Advanced Technical.
ASHI Members and Candidates can join chapters. (As of the date of this writing, chapter membership isn't mandatory.) Some chapters are quite small, a dozen or so inspectors in a single city, and their meetings contain some educational component, such as a speaker with dinner. The Great Lakes Chapter is on a somewhat different scale. We cover several states, and our 2-3 day educational meetings can get pretty involved. We do three of these per year, usually in April, July and October. Our sessions have often been the source of speakers for ASHI's national seminars. Lately, our spring conference has been in Ypsilanti, MI, summer in Schaumburg, IL, and fall in Milwaukee, WI. These locations are flexible; we have held meetings in Cincinatti, OH, Indanapolis, IN, and Davenport, IA. The educational offerings vary from code updates and boilers to business management and legal affairs and well beyond. The informal discussions in the halls and over lunch are often as educational as the meetings themselves! The conferences are open to anyone interested, but non-members pay slightly more. Even at that, GLC meetings are still some of the best deals going in education. If you want to get a handle on what home inspecting is all about, come to one of our meetings. Scheduling info is always posted first in the Schedule of Events.
What background do you need to be a home inspector? Many things can help prepare you, but four items should comprise more than half of your qualifications:
- Hands-on work in old houses. Not necessarily antiques, but not just new builds. If you have been fixing up junky old homes, you have insight into what happens to a building as a result of neglect, decay, obsolescence and just plain human stupidity. If you know how to spot the signs of amateur wiring, if you know how a lot of roofers rip off their customers, if you know what part of a steam boiler should hiss and when, you have the beginnings of a home inspector's education.
- An analytical mind. If you look at a crack in a brick wall and say "That's not a code violation, so I don't care", you don't have a home inspector's bent. If the crack tells you that tuckpointing is needed, you're leaning in the right direction. If you look at that crack and can't rest until you figure out what made it happen, then you have home inspector potential. Is the crack there because the foundation is failing? Or is the steel lintel over a window opening rusting and expanding? Is the basement being pushed in by frost pressure? Did the house get hit by the U-haul truck? Once you have the answer, you can inform your client what the significance of that crack is, and that's the inspector's real job. A passion for deductive reasoning is your most important tool.
- The ability to communicate. All the knowledge in the world won't do your client any good if you can't get the understanding from your head into his/hers. I think a lot of retired code inspectors try to get into this business, and walk away baffled because they can't make themselves understood. Of course, they have spent their lives communicating with the trades, where everybody speaks the same lingo. A home inspector has to describe why that toilet needs an anti-siphon valve, and his client needs to understand him. No matter how smart your clients are, they probably won't understand your construction jargon. You will work with stockbrokers and hairdressers, Chinese and Quebecois, the hearing-impaired and the merely distracted. If you can't communicate with a wide variety of people verbally and in writing, then your skills in finding and understanding problems will be for nothing, and your venture will never get off the ground.
- An insatiable thirst for knowledge. Learning about home inspection is a never-ending process. Seminars, books, magazines, websites, discussion groups, organizations. Side branches of inspection like radon, mold, asbestos, lead, IAQ, energy audits, expert witness work, bank draw inspections, HUD 203-K inspections, EIFS, the list goes on. So does the learning. You don't need to be an expert in all these areas to be an inspector, but a good inspector needs at least a basic familiarity with most of them. The cross-training you get this way leads to a deeper understanding of those areas where you chose to specialize.
Other background features that a lot of inspectors have:
- New construction work, trade tickets
- Code Inspection
- Real estate sales or appraisal
- Builders license
- Property management
- Structural engineering
Other handy traits:
Thick skin. You will be called every name in the book by sellers and their agents. You have poked your nose into a transaction that is already overloaded with tension - emotional, financial, personal. No matter what goes wrong, it will be your fault. You made that crack in the heat exchanger, didn't you? You caused the roof to wear out, you are the one who filled the service panel with rust. You didn't? No matter, it's still your fault because "It was all okay until YOU got here!".
A high comfort level with technology. Nobody wants to wait a day for a report to be typed and few want to try to puzzle out your handwriting. The Internet is your friend, and a computer will be a constant companion and tool.
A strong tolerance for uncertainty... unless you have an independent source of income. Right now, my appointment calendar is filled solid for the next 5 days. Does that mean I will have an income next week? I dunno! Nobody books home inspections more than 5 days in advance. Want to project next month's income? Consult the stars, or the tea leaves. No better forecasting exists.
A very flexible life (and tolerant spouse). Whoever said running your own business means being in control of your time has never tried it. Your customers control your time. Yes, there are some very experienced, high-demand inspectors who refuse to work weekends, evenings or holidays. When you've been in the business 10 or 15 years, you may be able to get away with that.
An ethical backbone. It's easy to get referrals. Just do a few half-competent inspections in front of a half-trained real estate agent. Miss most of the problems, and gloss over the others. That agent will think you're a prince, and will keep sending customers to you. After a while, she will inform you that the problems you found on the last house "killed the deal", and if you want to keep getting referrals, you should "find a better way to phrase your results and not be an such an alarmist." Then you'll find yourself telling your customer that that roof looks ok, even though you saw cracks in the shingles, and that the furnace is fine, even though you know this brand usually doesn't last this long. One day, the agent's boss will inform you that you need to pay an "advertising fee" for each job they send you, and if you don't pay it, you're off their list. This, my friend, is the path to perdition. After a couple of months of this, those inexperienced agents will be calling you 'buddy', knowlegeable, experienced agents won't call you at all, and former clients will be calling you at all hours of the night. They won't be happy calls, either.
You have exactly ONE customer on that job: the one who pays your fee. You owe nothing but professional courtesy to anyone else in the transaction. The minute you lose sight of those facts, you are behaving unethically and possibly illegally. And it's still unethical when the "big guys" do it. Enron was a big guy. The ASHI Code of Ethics is very clear on keeping your client's interests first. Even if you have nothing to do with ASHI, you will be held to the same rules. That Code has been recognized nationwide as the standard of the industry.
So, that's the home inspection profession in a nutshell. My advice on getting started is this:
- Join ASHI as a candidate.
- Join the Great Lakes Chapter, which you can do as soon as you have candidate status in ASHI.
- Start reading The Laker, GLC's advertising-free home inspector publication. This is considered by many to be the best magazine in the field, and it's free to GLC members.
- Contact experienced inspectors in nearby towns (don't be surpised if inspectors in your own town don't want to train their competition) and try to arrange a few "ride alongs", so you can see what's really involved.
- Come to a few GLC meetings, for education and for networking.
- Read everything you can in the Reporter, the Laker, on the Web and anywhere else you can on home inspection and related fields.
- Sign up for some type of course, the longer the better. The course should include a substantial amount of hands-on training in real houses.
- Take the National Home Inspector's Exam, which you can get through ASHI whether or not you are a member.
- When you feel ready, take the plunge.
Is this an easy way to make a living? No, not if you want to do it right. You are lawyer bait in this business. Your best defense is to find out the best way to inspect, and make sure you are working that way. The best way, as usual, isn't the easy way.
Is this a good way to make a living? Yes, if you enjoy teaching and learning, if you don't mind getting dirty, and those things usually called "fringe benefits" aren't terribly important to you. Saving a young couple from a disastrous home purchase can be very gratifying. Educating people about how use their homes with greater comfort, greater safety, and less expense is also rewarding. Knowing that you provide a valuable service and are doing it right helps you sleep at night.
Is this a way to financial independence? No. There's way more overhead in home inspection than most people realize. At least half of what you bill will go to various insurance companies, phone services, your car, your tools, computers, webhosting, advertising, memberships, publications, education, etc. etc. You won't get rich, or even close.
Still interested? Good! See you at the GLC meeting!