I released the first edition of my Narrative Library in 2008. I've done a full revision of all versions every three years, taking into account feedback from the many inspectors with whom I came into contact in the various capacities I served with InterNACHI.
Attitudes about writing narratives vary among inspectors, and some of the reasons are:
- Inspector preference
- Local market expectations
- Aptitudes for writing or using software
I've had to learn to write in a manner that will best serve inspectors across North America, including Canada. The 3 Functions of a Narrative forms half of InterNACHI's online Report Writing Course and are the most important things I've learned about writing narratives.
Accurate Condition Identification
A common mistake is misidentifying a condition as a defect when it isn't one. This is most often related to inexperience on the inspector’s part.
First, there’s always more to learn, and inspectors need to understand their limits. One of the hazards of performing mobile inspections and emailing from the property is that it offers less time to research conditions that an inspector may be unfamiliar with.
Second, this business is full of grey areas and conditions that require experience and good judgement to identify accurately. Conditions, systems, or components may be ugly or poor quality but not really a defect. This includes items that are of such poor quality that they’ll have a shorter lifespan than similar items of higher quality. An item that will experience a shorter lifespan might not be a defect, but it’s something you should make your client aware of.
Even though inspectors are not required to identify the cause of a problem, they often do. For example, inspectors may think that if a crack in a foundation wall is wider toward the top, the cause must be soil heaving, but this isn't always true. If the crack is near a corner and the corner experiences enough settling, the foundation will crack, the corner will settle, leaving the crack wider toward the top.
Inaccurate description of conditions can result in:
- Financial damage- buyer or seller spends money needlessly or incorrectly.
- Inspector liability- the inspector may be liable for financial damages, 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.
Description of Condition Severity
A narrative should make clear how urgent a problem is.
Clearly describing a defective condition only may not tell the narrative reader how serious that condition is. You may find a defect that as an inspector, you know could be expensive to correct or that might be dangerous. The reader may not know enough about homes to understand gravity of the problem by the identification alone.
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 by someone recommended by their agent and this narrative was the inspector’s sole comment on the walkway condition.
Well… flashing definitely had been installed incorrectly, and for a long time, too. 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 walkway and stair structure, so my friends thought it was a minor issue and ignored it.
Transfer of liability
A narrative should transfer liability from the inspector to the client.
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 actions, events or conditions that may result from the conditions about which the Inspector comments. The third function of a narrative is to pass on this liability to the client. This won’t be necessary with an informational narrative that describes a condition requiring no action by the client, such as the ampacity of a service:
Using the hotel example from #2, the action required would have been to contact a contractor to correct the flashing problem. The action could have been 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 away from himself.
SIMPLE OR COMPREHENSIVE NARRATIVES?
Are longer narratives better or should you keep it simple?
It’s better to keep narratives simple and short as long as sufficient information is provided. It’s always a mistake to leave important information out in order to make the narrative shorter. 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 they’re reading: you’re allowing a certain level of interpretation. The second is related to the level of comprehension (knowledge) that most people have about homes
Level of Interpretation:
Narratives are read by people with different interests in a transaction:
- Buyers and their agents;
- Sellers and their agents;
- Buyer’s and seller’s family members;
- Structural engineers;
- Inspector’s attorney;
- Opposition’s attorney;
- Judges or arbitrators; and
- 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. After reading a narrative, those with different motivations and perspectives should all reach the same conclusion about its meaning.
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, 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 Comprehension" rule.
Limit your comments on a concern to the business at hand. You don't need to give the entire history of Federal Pacific Stab-Lok panels. Just say what you need to say about them, make your recommendation and move on.
Building codes and home inspection narratives overlap in purpose: they're both designed to protect. The difference is that in addition to physical safety, home inspection narratives also protect clients by identifying conditions that are potentially financially hazardous. Whether to quote code provisions as a means of credibility is a controversial subject among home inspectors. The issue is whether quoting code will open inspector to the accusation that buy quoting code they were actually performing a code inspection and for that reason were responsible for identifying all code violations.
Most inspectors do not quote code in their reports, but are happy to have building codes to back up their reports if a narrative is challenged. Whether to quote code in a report is a personal decision.
CHOOSING TERMS CAREFULLY
When writing a narrative addressing an environmental hazard like mold, asbestos, radon, or some other concern that would require testing to identify, but that you feel a need to warn your client about, be sure that what you say is accurate.
Don't call it “mold” if it hasn't been tested. You can use “apparent microbial growth”.
Don't call it “asbestos siding”. It’s “fiber-cement that may contain some percentage of asbestos.” The same is true for old roofing. Be certain that you know what you’re talking about when you comment on drywall compound that may contain asbestos.
ON WRITING NARRATIVES
Inspection software typically doesn't come with extensive narrative libraries for several reasons. Inspection software is always evolving so they’re concerned with development of new features, keeping the existing program running smoothly and preparing new versions in order to keep up with the competition. Narratives are not their focus.
Providing narratives means assuming some responsibility. Especially with newer inspectors who may assume that their narratives are always accurate even though situations vary, that’s a scenario that software providers often don't want to deal with.
Because of the differences in climate zones, jurisdictional requirements, building practices, products, and materials across North America, and the great many different deficiencies to be found in homes, inspectors will have to write narratives.
A few custom narrative libraries are available, and they can be instructive and save new inspectors a huge amount of time, 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 crucial 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, by participating in social media groups, and by visiting professional association meetings. 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.