I’ve been following the comments on the message board and wondering what it should take to be a certified master inspector (CMI), and what it means to be a good inspector. I’m not even sure what “good” means. All I know is that after completing thousands of inspections without a lawsuit or significant complaint, I was beginning to believe that I was a good inspector, and then I was served with a lawsuit. It was frivolous, but still an affront to my self-esteem and a real embarrassment. This is what happened. I arrived early for an inspection of a slab-on-grade tract house built on a flat level pad, and was greeted by a gracious young woman who invited me to begin my inspection on the outside, but cautioned me to wait until her husband arrived before venturing into the back yard where a large Rottweiller salivated for foreign flesh. I was happy to oblige, and was noting some deficiencies with a water heater in an exterior closet when the woman’s husband arrived home. He was definitely aggressive, and berated me for having started the inspection without him being present. I allowed him to bluster for a moment or two, learning that he was not only the seller but also the listing agent and that he had completely remodeled the residence himself. Without playing the role of amateur psychologist and giving my unprofessional evaluation of his personality, and also without revealing too much of my own latent hostility, I let him know that I wasn’t particularly interested in his opinions and wouldn’t tolerate him interfering in my inspection.
The residence had been renovated: re-plastered inside and out, and freshly painted, with new windows, new doors, new tiled floors in the entry, living room, bathrooms, and hallway, and new carpets in the bedrooms. There were some mechanical issues with the plumbing and HVAC system that the seller wanted to argue about until I established my authority for the second time, at which point he seem to tolerate my presence and glare at me like a sullen child. Regardless, the only visible imperfections were a crack in an old and original patio slab outside a new slider in the rear of the house, and a mismatched piece of fascia board where a newer piece of 1X6 imperfectly met an original 2X6. I noted both, but was not overly concerned. Now, bear in mind that I wasn’t too fond of the seller and, although I’m a trusting person, I had recommended that my clients request or obtain all the necessary permits for the renovation. In addition, and this is important, I knew that there were expansive soils in the area, and had taken the extra caution of shooting laser levels across the length and breadth of the house, and found it to be level. So how could a lawsuit result on what to all intents and purposes appeared to be a totally renovated house?
Apparently, about a year later, a window in the master bedroom at the corner of the house started to leak. When the stucco surrounding the window was chipped away, it was discovered that the window, and probably all of the others, had been installed without any flashing. Furthermore, when the carpet was pulled back from beneath the window and all the way to the corner of the room, it was discovered that a triangular section of slab had fractured and settled several inches. Obviously, this fracture and settled slab would have deformed the walls and windows in the area, but this was no longer apparent for several reasons: the stucco and windows were new; a strip of five-inch baseboard had been installed perfectly level, and the sunken area of the floor had been custom-fitted with several layers of padding before the carpet was laid over it, and covered by furniture. The facts were indisputable and had been video-documented by structural expert witnesses for the plaintiffs, who acknowledged deliberate concealment. But, here’s the rub. I had arrived on-site in the company of an attorney and an expert witness who is a senior inspector that I respected, and who I hoped respected me. And, together, we were forced to witness the plaintiffs’ attorney struggling to open the front door, which was unquestionably out of square. But, the view inside was even more astounding: there were cracks everywhere. Until that moment, I had only an intellectual understanding of expansive soils, and had never actually witnessed its awesome power, which can quite literally move structures with relative ease and send cracks radiating in every direction, like lightening flickering across a sky. I found myself stammering incredulously: “Oh, my God, I swear it didn’t look like this a year ago when I inspected it: it was pristine, perfect, in fact; and you’d have to be blind to miss this sort of damage.”
It goes without saying that there could be no denying the obvious, and that my insurance company happily paid to get me out of a very expensive lawsuit. However, it also goes without saying that I was not at fault, and could not possibly have known that the nasty seller/agent had failed to disclose knowledge of structural movement, and had deliberately concealed the evidence of movement. And, furthermore, he had completed the entire renovation without applying for even a single permit. Knowing what I know now about the expansive soils in this particular area, I am not likely to be victimized again, but let me tell you this was a very expensive lawsuit, which resulted in an even more expensive renovation. I drive by the house every once in awhile, knowing that it not only looks very elegant but that it has been structurally stabilized by caissons.