Limitations of the Home Inspection
by Nick Gromicko and Kenton Shepard
The Home Inspection Defined
A general home inspection is a visual inspection for system and major accessible component defects and safety issues. The inspection is not technically exhaustive. A "general home inspection" and a "home inspection" are 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 at a home for sale can change radically in only a day or two, so a home inspection is not meant to guarantee what condition a home will be in when the transaction closes. It's not uncommon for conditions to change between the time of the inspection and the closing date.
Above: an overloaded outlet with no cover
It's a Visual Inspection
A "visual" inspection means that a home inspection report is limited to describing conditions in those parts of a home that an inspector can see during the 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. Some reasons 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 is that if an 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 systems are operating properly in that hidden space.
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.
In 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, the dangers to human health are from the inhalation of spores from indoor air.
Most people with healthy immune systems have little or no problem with inhaling spores. A few 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. Every home has 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. Other potential safety issues also fall into this category.
Above: the cutting torch and gutter system of roof drainage management
Although the majority of the inspection is visual, the InterNACHI Standards of Practice do require 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. Furnace air filters are one example.
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.
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 different home 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 a qualified contractor, such as a plumber or electrician, and sometimes for a structural engineer.
Above: the result of subfloor movement
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 with a general idea of the systems and components that they might 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 evidence correctly and make appropriate recommendations are things that can be improved with practice and continuing education.
Above: improper electrical splice
Part of a home inspector's job is to manage the expectations of their client. 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 them develop realistic expectations concerning what to expect from a home inspection report, and what lies beyond the scope of the inspection.
When a home buyer is interviewing inspectors, the buyer should ask about how the inspector handles special safety concerns.
Disclaimers are portions of an inspection agreement or report in which an inspector notifies the client that the inspector will not accept the responsibility for confirming the condition of a portion of the home or of a particular system or component.
Creating realistic expectations in a client's mind will help prevent misunderstandings and promote smooth real estate transactions.