For most of us, buying a home is the largest, most complex purchase we’ll ever make.
Whole industries and sub-industries have formed to help ease the understandable anxiety we endure before we sign on the dotted line to close a deal: real estate brokerages, real estate lawyers, mortgage brokers, property inspectors. That’s a lot of people doing a lot of things for us, and it’s not always clear what we should expect from each.
Home inspectors might be the most interesting of the lot. Home show king Mike Holmes has been dining out on a line for years: “The home inspection industry is like the Wild West — a lot of cowboys but not a lot of sheriffs.”
In order to protect consumers, British Columbia introduced mandatory licensing of home inspectors in 2009, and became the first jurisdiction in Canada to do so. The regulation established licensing requirements and new minimum training standards. B.C. and Alberta are the only two provinces that regulate home inspectors. While B.C. is a leader in this area, additional improvements to the existing regulatory model could further protect home buyers. Today there are 440 licensed home inspectors in B.C. To be licensed as a home inspector in B.C., a person has to meet the requirements of one of the four designated associations. Currently, Consumer Protection BC (CPBC) is responsible for the designation of home inspector associations and for the issuing of licenses to home inspectors. The four designated associations in British Columbia are Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors (BC), Applied Science Technologists and Technicians of British Columbia, Canadian National Association of Certified Home Inspectors, and National Home Inspector Certification Council.
Mike would admit that the Wild West has tamed in recent years. Provincial standards and licensing requirements are in place aimed at ensuring that the person hired to conduct a home inspection is ‘qualified to make a reliable assessment.’ In BC you need a license from the Canadian Association of Home Property Inspectors To get that license, inspectors must complete a minimum level of education and carry errors and omissions insurance. The latter protects you if an inspector makes a negligent mistake that costs you money. Regulation also demands that — to avoid conflict of interest — only you can pay your inspector. Real estate agents, for example, can’t pay your inspector, as their interests might not align with yours.
As the job title suggests, home inspectors visually inspect the home you’re interested in, and then provide you with a report. The idea is that you use the report to help you decide whether to buy. Inspectors are typically generalists who know a little about a lot. This is good. You need that sort of ally when you’re trying to identify problems across dozens of systems — HVAC, plumbing, building envelope, electrical, roofing and drainage, foundation, fireplaces and chimneys, etc. — that comprise a properly functioning home.
That said, most inspections are strictly visual, unless an owner agrees in writing to allow an ‘invasive’ inspection. So your typical inspector isn’t likely to drill holes to look behind tiling for leaks. Instead, they can look for signs that suggest underlying problems and suggest that further expertise be brought on board.
That means the inspection will not be exhaustive, and you’ll continue to be saddled with most of the liability for your purchase. That probably sounds at odds with your (understandable) wish of a guarantee of a trouble-free home for years in the future. Unfortunately that’s the hard reality of real estate.
Inspection contracts are filled with disclaimers and waivers, and will not typically provide recourse except in the case of professional negligence by the inspector. That’s not the same as ‘missing a problem.’ That means not having met the ‘standard of care of a reasonably prudent home inspector.’ Anyone in my industry can name lots of examples of costly misses from ‘reasonably prudent home inspectors.’ So where does that leave you?
Get an inspection, yes, but also be wary of the types of properties that typically have problems you can’t afford or are unwilling to tackle. Don’t rely solely on your inspector. Ask the seller and the listing agent if the home has any problems. The seller/agent is required by law to disclose any serious and hidden defects they know about.
For attached and detached homes that aren’t part of a strata plan, professional inspections are almost a given. But for a condo unit, where most of those big building systems are co-owned collectively and maintained by a condo corporation, it’s more feasible to concentrate your time and money on the condo documents, which should shed light on the physical condition of the building.
Finally, ask around. Seek referrals from friends, Realtors and family. Ask your Realtor if they get paid for referring a particular inspector, be wary if they say that one home inspector is better than another. Ask your mortgage broker or lawyer if they ‘use a guy.’