- Accurate Condition Identification
Inaccurate description of conditions can result in:
- Financial damage- buyer or seller spends money needlessly.
- Inspector liability- the inspector may be liable for financial damages, or injury or death if he describes the condition in a way in which the narrative fails to protect.
- Damage to the inspector’s reputation (and business).
- Continued existence of dangerous conditions.
A common mistake is misidentifying the cause of a condition, even though inspectors are not required to identify the cause of a problem. For example, many inspectors think that if a crack in a wall is wider toward the top, the cause must be soil heaving. Not true! If the crack is near a corner and the corner experiences enough settling, the foundation will crack, the corner will settle, and the crack will be wider toward the top.
Supplying an identification of cause is not required by the SOPs, it increases liability and it's much worse if you're wrong. Don't give it your best guess. Don't offer a definitive statement unless you know that you're correct!
- Assessment of Condition Severity
Clearly describing a defective condition may not tell the narrative reader how serious that condition is. As an inspector, you may find a serious defect that you know could be very expensive to correct or which might be very dangerous. The reader may not know enough about homes to understand gravity of the problem by the description alone. The narrative should make clear how urgent the problem is.
Consider this narrative:
"Flashing of the walkways was improperly installed and should be corrected by a qualified contractor."
This narrative cost friends of mine almost $100,000.
He and his wife bought a 14-unit, 35-year-old hotel in California. Three buildings formed a courtyard and rooms on the second floor were accessed by wood exterior stairs and walkways. They had the hotel inspected and the above narrative was the inspector’s sole comment on the walkway condition.
Flashing had been installed incorrectly, and for a long time. About 4 years later my friends got to spend just under $100,000 to replace all the exterior stairs and walkways. The inspector hadn’t made it clear that the improperly installed flashing might cause serious, widespread decay that could destroy the stair and walkway structures, so my friends thought it was a minor issue and ignored it.
- Transfer of liability
When an inspector performs an inspection, that inspector assumes liability, meaning that the inspector assumes responsible for the accuracy of the information they provide and for the identification of actions, events or conditions that may affect occupant safety, and protection of the client’s financial investment. The third function of a narrative is to pass on this liability to the client. This won’t be necessary with a narrative that describes a condition requiring no action by the client, such as the ampacity of a service:
"The label of the main electrical service panel listed the panel’s amperage rating at 200 amps."
But if an inspector finds a defect that requires action, such as conductors at the service drop in contact with tree branches, liability would be passed on by transferring responsibility for action to the client:
"The overhead service-drop conductors had inadequate clearance from tree branches. This condition may result in abrasion and damage to the wires and is a potential fire/electrocution hazard. The Inspector recommends correction by a qualified contractor or public utility. Work around service conductors should be performed by qualified personnel only. Injury or death may result from attempts at correction by those without proper qualifications."
After reading this, the client should understand that contacting "qualified personnel" is the action required. The action may be taken by either the seller or buyer, according to the results of negotiation, but by notifying the client of the action required, the inspector has transferred the liability to the client.
Let’s identify the 3 parts of a narrative using that example:
Part 1. "The overhead service-drop conductors had inadequate clearance from tree branches."
Part 2. "to avoid abrasion and damage to the wires." and "Injury or death may result from attempts at correction by those without proper qualifications."
Part 3. "This condition should be corrected by a qualified contractor."
SIMPLE OR COMPREHENSIVE NARRATIVES?
Are longer narratives better or should you keep it simple?
It’s usually better to keep narratives simple as long as sufficient information is provided. It’s always a mistake to leave important information out in order to make the narrative shorter and you should be sure that narratives that describe defective conditions perform the 3 functions described above.
Simple or comprehensive? The real answer is two part:
One part is related to the amount of latitude you want to allow the reader in interpreting what he is reading. The second is related to the level of assumption you can make about what the reader knows.
LEVEL of INTERPRETATION
Narratives are read by people with different interests in a transaction:
- Buyer’s agents
- Seller’s agent
- Structural engineers
- Inspector’s attorney
- Opposition’s attorney
- Judges or arbitrators
- Expert Witness
Unless narratives are written clearly and specifically, those with different motivations and perspectives may try to impose their own interpretation on a narrative. In court, this could be confusing and possibly unfortunate for the inspector. With a properly written narrative, those with different motivations and perspectives should all reach the same conclusion about the meaning of a narrative after reading it.
LEVEL of COMPREHENSION
The more liability in the subject covered by the narrative, the less you should assume the reader will understand, and the more comprehensive the narrative should be. "Comprehensive" means that you include enough information to make your meaning as clear as possible, not that you should make the narrative complex or complicated. Although you can sometimes simplify or shorten a narrative by substituting one word for three or four, try to use words you’ll be sure the reader will understand.
Avoid using overly-technical language. The purpose of a narrative is to transfer information clearly and accurately, not impress the reader by using technical terms.
In a way, building codes offered by standards organizations such as the International Code Council (ICC) are similar to narratives. They describe conditions and make statements concerning what’s acceptable and what’s not. In looking through codes for the various home systems, you’ll see that they follow the "Level of Assumption" rule.
Compare the language used to describe roof codes with the language used to describe electrical codes. Yes, dangerous conditions can exist in roofing, such as the danger of collapse from installing heavy roof-covering materials on roof framing that might be structurally inadequate, but generally, they don’t carry as much liability as electrical conditions.
Electricity can cause electrocution or burn down a home. Many, many defective conditions are possible. Much electrical wiring is hidden behind wall, floor and ceiling coverings raising the potential for hidden defects to escape detection during an inspection. Electrical codes are written in very specific language. Although this language may be difficult for a layman to understand (remember, it’s not a narrative, but a code), electrical codes are very defensible in court because they’re specific, comprehensive and don’t leave room for assumption.
Inspectors should follow the same rules as building codes by providing more information about conditions or situations that carry high liability, but quoting building codes in a narrative is not a good idea. Home inspections are not code inspections but inspections for safety and system defects. For reasons related to liability, it’s important to keep the two separate. If an inspector quotes a code in a narrative, an attorney may argue in court that the inspector was performing a code inspection and was responsible for identifying all code violations.
Because building codes were developed to address safety in buildings it’s difficult to avoid referring to them occasionally. When a narrative refers to building codes, it’s better to use a different term, such as "modern safety standards" or "generally accepted current standards".
Because of the differences in climate and jurisdictional requirements across North America, and the many different deficiencies to be found in homes, inspectors are forced to write or edit at least some of their own narratives. Custom narrative libraries are available, but they won’t be able to cover all situations encountered by inspectors everywhere.
It’s always a good idea to have an attorney review narratives, but review is especially important for those inspectors who lack confidence in their writing or verbal skills.
In writing narratives, inspectors will face choices in selecting terms that may be similar but that may offer differing degrees of protection. In making decisions, in addition to advice from an attorney, inspectors may discover different approaches to wording a narrative by reading the InterNACHI message boards, which have an entire forum dedicated to report writing. It’s sometimes helpful to see how other inspectors have solved problems and an inspector may find that a good solution has already been invented.