Who inspects the inspectors?
In Ohio, the people who check out a house before you buy it aren’t licensed
Monday, April 24, 2006
By: Denise Trowbridge
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
</IMG> JILLIAN WELSH DISPATCH ILLUSTRATION
Hire plumbers or electricians, and they’ll likely be state-licensed, insured professionals. Hire a home inspector, and it’s a different story. Almost $5 billion in residential real estate changed hands in central Ohio in 2005, and most transactions hinged on a satisfactory home inspection. But Ohio has no licensing requirements or rules governing the industry. “Anybody can hang out their shingle and claim to be a qualified home inspector, without education or experience,” said Michael Metzger, owner of National Home Inspection Service in Gahanna. "Consumers are blind as to the quality of inspections.
“The industry lacks the checks and balances to prevent unqualified people from getting into the business.”
A handful of legislators are trying to change that.
Rep. Michelle G. Schneider, a Republican from Cincinnati, has introduced a bill that would tighten regulations on home inspectors. It has 13 co-sponsors.
Under the bill, a home inspector would have to pass an exam, perform at least 250 paid inspections and carry at least $100,000 of liability insurance. Other requirements would include a minimum of 120 hours of inspection training, and at least 20 hours of continuingeducation courses every year. Newcomers in the business would start as associate inspectors, working under the supervision of a licensed professional.
A similar bill was proposed by state Sen. Robert F. Spada, a North Royalton Republican.
Thirty states already regulate home inspectors.
Rod Berning, president of BrickKicker of Columbus, a home-inspection company, supports regulation of the industry but doesn’t approve of some of the current bills’ requirements.
The exam should be reconsidered, he said. “Exams are unfair to those who are bad test-takers, and they are no guarantee that someone is good at conducting an actual inspection.”
He is concerned by the “tagalong” rule, too. New inspectors should perform supervised inspections before going into business on their own, he said, but “it shouldn’t turn into a situation where you have to give up two years of your life and work for next to nothing” before you can go into business.
Columbus resident Tamiko Carter said it’s about time Ohio made a move to license and regulate home inspectors.
“Inspectors should be required to demonstrate their competence and qualifications just like any other professional,” she said. “People are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on houses based on their inspector’s word that everything is OK.”
Carter paid $245 for an inspection of the North Side home she purchased last summer. When water started running down the wall in the basement a week after she moved in, she realized her inspector had failed to report major plumbing problems.
She paid $600 for repairs, and her home warranty covered the rest. Carter tried to recoup expenses from her inspector but had no luck. She filed a complaint with the Ohio attorney general’s office asking for a refund of her inspection fee, but to no avail. The inspector denied wrongdoing.
Carter isn’t alone. In complaints filed with the attorney general, a couple in the Fairfield County village of Stoutsville said they spent more than $6,000 on unexpected repairs after an inspector overlooked significant roof leaks, an overloaded electrical system, insufficient insulation and a broken furnace.
Others said the inspectors’ spoken assessments didn’t match the written, official reports — threatening their home warranties and mortgage financing, or costing them a lot of money in unexpected major repairs.
Inspection reports are a valuable tool in the home-buying process. They allow buyers to renegotiate the sale price to account for costly defects or back out of a real-estate deal without penalty. Some mortgage lenders won’t provide a loan unless the house passes the inspection.
Consumers have little recourse in recovering damages when inspectors do a bad job, said Rep. John P. Hagan, an Alliance Republican and a cosponsor of Schneider’s bill.
Many inspection even contain a clause releasing the inspector from liability, which frustrates consumers, said Joan Coughlin, spokeswoman for the central Ohio Better Business Bureau.
Under one of the proposed bills, inspectors’ licenses could be suspended or revoked for malfeasance.
But both bills may have hit a wall. The Ohio attorney general’s office received nine complaints related to home inspections last year. In 2004, it received seven.
The inspectors didn’t land on the central Ohio Better Business Bureau’s top 10 list for businesses with most complaints last year, either, although home builders, mortgage lenders and roofing, construction and remodeling contractors did. The bureau received 56 complaints against home-inspection companies in the past three years. There has been an increase, but it is in line with the higher volume of home sales during the same time period, Coughlin said.
The lack of public outcry has kept the issue low on legislators’ priority list, Hagan said.
“It’s hard to convince legislators to create a new level of bureaucracy when there are so few complaints,” said Metzger, a member of the National Association of Home Inspectors joint legislative committee, which helped draft the legislation.
Hagan, a self-employed heating and plumbing contractor, says the handful of complaints might be misleading.
“More people probably have problems with their inspections, but they don’t know where to go to complain,” he said. “Others might not know for a year or more, when big problems arise, that their inspector didn’t do a good job.”
Hearings on both the Senate and House bills have begun, but Hagan doubts they will move forward before the end of this legislative session. “It would take a small miracle this late in the session,” he said.
The National Association of Home Inspectors and the Ohio Association of Realtors support the bills.
“Consumers should have the best service possible,” said Carl Horst, spokesman for the Realtors. “A home is the largest purchase you make in your life, so it’s important to have a good, qualified inspector.”
But license requirements shouldn’t be so strict that they leave rural areas with few or no inspectors, he said.
If the legislation withers on the vine, the state could require registration instead of licensing. The demands of registration aren’t as rigorous. Inspectors would be required to belong to a recognized professional organization and carry some liability insurance.
Before Ohio required plumbers, electricians and heating and air-conditioning pros to have licenses, those lines of work operated under a registration system.
In the meantime, it’s buyer beware.
The next time Carter buys a home, she said, “I’ll do more research on my end, check for complaints with the BBB and hire someone who is nationally certified. I’ve learned an expensive lesson.”