Over the years, home inspector Chris Perry has made some eye-popping discoveries on the job.
One house’s 60-amp electrical panel was channeling 200 amps—a fiery disaster waiting to happen. In another, the water pipes had been stolen for their copper. And he’s seen more than one scorched water heater, a sign of potential trouble ahead, says Perry, a licensed inspector in Little Rock, AR, and author of “The Official Guide to Home Inspections: Knowing and Playing by the Rules.”
Of the roughly 30,000 U.S. home inspectors nationally, those in about 15 states don’t need to be licensed, according to the American Society of Home Inspectors, a trade association. Among the non-licensure states—a group that includes California, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio—there’s no official oversight over the industry. That’s right. Nada.
Several more states, including Alabama, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, require registration in lieu of licenses. Texas was the first to adopt a licensing law in 1991. Virginia will require licenses for inspectors starting July 1.
“Some states just require a very minimum. … You have to have a business license and pretty much that’s it,” says Frank Lesh, ASHI’s executive director. “It really depends on where you’re located.”
Minnesota is one state where it could pay off for wannabe homeowners to take a closer look at their inspectors.
“We’re the Wild West of home inspection: zero requirements,” says Bob Day, a Realtor® who now operates a HomeTeam Inspection Service just outside of Minneapolis. “You yourself could be a home inspector tomorrow and charge somebody to go look at a house.”
Now, home inspections aren’t required to buy a home, either, but most buyers prefer to get one to ensure they’re not surprised by expensive-to-fix problems after closing. Those issues can be used as bargaining chips to bring down the prices of their would-be homes—or even lead them to walk away from money pit purchases.
Quality of home inspector licenses vary by state
Just because most states license their home inspectors doesn’t mean their standards are consistent. Some require 140 hours of training, a passing grade on the National Home Inspector Exam, and supervised inspections to become a bona fide professional. In other states, scoring a C- on the exam is good enough.
“When you hire someone to do an inspection,” says Geoff McIntosh, president of the California Association of Realtors, “it would be of some reassurance to know that they’re qualified to do it.”
And even if inspectors aren’t required to carry credentials, that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing. Some groups, like the ASHI, offer training and certification programs that may meet or even exceed the standards of states that dole out licenses.
What even licensed home inspectors might not catch
Even great inspectors—the ones with licenses and long track records—won’t find every flaw. So just because buyers are shelling out a few hundred bucks on a professional doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed that everything in their homes-to-be is hunky-dory.
“They’re just looking for red flags,” says McIntosh. “In the course of that inspection, they will often say, ‘This looks suspicious to me. I recommend that you get a specialist to evaluate further.’”
Inspectors typically focus on the major structural parts of a home (e.g., checking the roof for leaks and the foundation for cracks, as well as the plumbing, electricity, heating, and cooling systems). They usually limit their reviews to parts of the home they can see and easily access when they visit. That means they’re not moving furniture around, cutting open walls, or taking apart furnaces.
Also, basic inspections don’t necessarily cover everything a homeowner might want to know about in a specific part of the country. So they may not be looking for things like, say, radon, a radioactive gas that can cause cancer that’s commonly found in certain regions.
How to inspect the home inspectors—and find a winner
Still, there are ways to increase the likelihood of picking a star.
A common refrain among experts is the importance of buyers doing their homework. In some licensure states, prospective homeowners can look up inspectors through the licensing authority.
In unregulated states, buyers can check with their local Better Business Bureau and read reviews online. They should also grill their inspectors about their experience and ask about their plan of attack for their potential new homes.
Buyers can also ask whether inspectors carry errors and omissions insurance, a type of liability insurance that covers omissions or mistakes they might make. Day sees insurance as a sign of basic competence as an insured inspector has at least been vetted by an insurance company.
Those hoping to close on a home can also ask about professional affiliations, such as membership in a prominent trade organization.
Once an inspector has been vetted, that doesn’t mean the buyer’s job is done. The buyer should attend the review, ask questions, and secure a written report of the findings. Following the inspector around can amount to a private tutorial on the inner workings of the buyer’s home-to-be.
After all, “a house does not have a ‘check engine’ light” to alert its owner to problems, says ASHI’s Lesh.