Your inspection report is the face of your business. A good one can help bring you more work, and a poor one can cost you work. Home inspection is a competitive business. Across the North American inspection industry, reports now commonly include the use of photos to support narratives describing defects, and videos are becoming increasingly common.
The purpose of a photo or video is to support a narrative and to help clarify a condition that might be awkward or difficult to describe in text. This helps keep reports shorter, which is always good. Your goal should be to keep your reports as short as possible, while missing nothing that should be included and including nothing that is unnecessary.
Photographs and videos included in your report serve as both marketing and communication tools.
Potential homebuyers looking for an inspection company are likely to look at and compare the services offered by different companies. To remain competitive, most inspections companies need to include photos in their reports. The public perception of companies whose reports don't include photos is that the company have failed to evolve in order to capably inspect home systems and components that are continually evolving.
The presence of photos and videos in the report gives the reader an immediate impression that you’ve invested in the equipment necessary to shoot acceptable quality photos and video, and have developed and maintained the technical skills required to record, re-size, annotate, edit, and place them in a manner that enhances the report.
In addition to emphasizing your technical abilities, used judiciously, photos and videos simply make a report look better. But… this is true only if images are used where appropriate, are clear, properly sized, and framed in a manner that that makes it easy for the viewer to understand its purpose (more on this later in the article).
We’ve all heard the cliché, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. Even without a picture, if you can't describe a particular condition in WAY less than even five hundred words… you’re in the wrong business.
In our business, a picture can cut down drastically on the number of words needed not only to describe a condition, but it can also give background information. For example, a client might not know:
- What a cricket is;
- Why one should be installed on the uphill side of a wide chimney; or
- What severely-corroded cricket valley flashing is.
With one photo and a short description, they can understand all three, and see for themselves the condition of the cricket flashing.
New inspectors tend to make the same mistakes:
If One is Good, Two Must be Better
In an inspection report, the purpose of a photo is to support a narrative. It typically only takes one photo. The only reasons to use two photos of the same component are:
- A shot is helpful in establishing where the subject of the narrative is located. An example is an exterior wall with a small but important defect not easily identified without knowing where to look.
- Two separate defects exist on opposite sides of a single component. This situation would typically require two separate narratives- one for each defect- each with it’s own supporting photo.
Including photos unnecessarily makes a report look cluttered, but even worse, it looks unprofessional, especially to an agent who has seen many reports and knows the difference between good ones and bad ones.
If you find a doorknob hole in a wall, it doesn't required two photos. It doesn't even require one. All it requires is a narrative, “A wall in the second upstairs bedroom had a hole behind the entry door. The Inspector recommends repair and installation of a doorstop to prevent future damage.”
No one will have a problem finding or understanding that hole without a photo.
No mention of the doorknob is included in the narrative because including a description of cause without a good reason is a bad habit, and inspectors- especially those who are new- are often wrong.
Framing Shots Correctly
Depending on how far the camera is from the subject of the photo there are five types of photos: long shots, medium-long, medium, medium close, and close-up.
Long and medium-long shots are typically establishing shots, often showing an entire side of a home, and many inspectors include a long shot of each side of the home. This is a good idea because each photo conveys a lot of information, including the nature of the homesite, the weather conditions during the inspection, the general design of the home, and the materials used in it’s construction. A good practice is to shoot from as far back from the house as possible and then zoom in. This will allow you to include more of the roof in the photo.
Medium shots might be used to show a widespread condition, like thermal cracking across a stucco wall, or stucco bulging at a second story floorline where the roof load has caused shrinking wall framing to compress over time.
Medium close-ups that include some background or show some of the area surrounding the photo subject are typically the best choice because they allow the viewer to establish a frame of reference.
In critiquing new inspector’s reports, I saw photos taken so close to the subject that it was difficult to even identify what was shown in the photo!
A cut floor joist or roof truss shot from extremely close leaves no clue about where the damage is located (and sometimes… what type of framing member has been cut). Shot from further back, including some of the surrounding area and background in the photo not only shows the damage, but helps identify its location.
Close-up shots should typically only be used with an establishing shot, or where the location is so obvious that no establishing shot is needed.
When shooting hail damage to an exterior wall, because hail is usually directional, a good practice is to include a medium-long shot to establish which wall was affected, and then a close-up of typical damage.
If the shot is of a double-tapped breaker in the electrical service panel, located in the report under ELECTRICAL, Service Panel, then no establishing shot is needed.
NUMBER of PHOTOS
Take lots of photos. You’ll only include in the report those that are necessary, but you never know when in the future you might need to refer back to photos of a certain portion of the house.
Including blurry photos in your report is unprofessional. It’s not unusual to occasionally take a blurry photo, but if you take lots of photos, including multiple photos of defective conditions, if one photo is bad, you’ll still have the option to include a good photo in your report.
A photo that looks OK on your camera screen in full sunlight might not look so good once you view it inside the home. Taking multiple photos will give you the option to replace it.
PHOTOS as RECORDS
Shooting to develop a visual record of the conditions that existed during the inspection is a good idea.
Shoot the data plates of major appliances that will remain with the home, like the water heater. Sellers have been known to replace newer water heaters with older ones after the inspection has taken place. Your client might want to know how it was possible for you to miss a water heater that produced no hot water!
Shoot crawlspaces, attics and roof slopes. These are areas that the client might otherwise never see, so consider including these in the report as client education.
Most inspection software now gives inspectors the opportunity to annotate photos, that is, to add text, arrows, circles, rectangles, etc. to a photo to draw the viewer’s attention to a particular subject. This can be especially helpful in establishing shots, but time spent annotating is accumulative and not always necessary.
If you include in a report a photo of a doorknob hole, and in the photo the viewer can see the door, and the wall with a hole in it, the viewer is not going to mistake the door for the hole. You don't need to install an arrow pointing to the hole.
Bear in mind that some (very successful) inspectors use fewer narratives and instead use extensive annotation. No matter what method you use to create reports, some experimentation will help you find that method that works best for you.
One of the advantages of video is that in addition to visual information, it includes audio.
Referring back to the cricket example, with video, you could easily show the location of a cricket on the roof while explaining its function, and then focus on the corroded valley metal.
If malfunctioning equipment is making unusual or excessive noise (like an AC condenser), the client may forward the report to a contractor in order to more easily get estimates for service or repair.
Video also allows you to show a problem from different angles. This can be important when lighting conditions change the appearance of the subject depending on the camera angle.
The main disadvantage to video is that the report must be viewed on an electronic device that will play video. This is becoming less of a problem since most electronic devices will now play video, and most inspection reports are provided to clients via email.
THERMAL (InfraRed) IMAGES
Because heat is invisible, thermal images can be very helpful in identifying areas in which heat is a factor. This might be related to heat gain or loss through the building envelope, Electrical components that are overheating, HVAC registers that are producing inadequately conditioned (hot or cold) air, or electric stovetop burners that not functioning properly.
And… if photos are clear- which is not always the case with IR images- they look really slick!
Digital cameras that will shoot both still photos and video are now common and inexpensive relative to the fee for an inspection. Here are some things to consider when deciding on a camera:
- Tablets and phones used to compile the report (using mobile software) may also allow you to automatically place a photo next to the narrative it supports. This can be a big timesaver, since the alternative is to transfer photos from the camera to the device used to create the report (typically a laptop or desktop computer) and then to go through the report, placing photos as necessary.
- Some cameras allow wireless transfer of photos to electronic devices.
- A good zoom with image stabilization is important. They can save you a lot of time spent climbing around.
- A good macro will allow you to shoot very close to the subject. This is especially handy when shooting items like information printed in very small text on electrical breakers, or shooting conductors that were nicked when they were stripped for insertion into a breaker.
- Use rechargeable batteries and carry spares. Use a system that allows you to recharge batteries while you are performing inspections. Portable re-charging devices are available that are about the size of a cigarette lighter.
- Carry a spare camera. Many inspectors learn this lesson the hard way.
How you use images in your reports is a reflection of your overall abilities as an inspector. Take the time to learn how to properly take photos and videos, how to re-size them, and how to properly place them in the report.