How to report a structural concern

Over in General Inspection Topics, I started a thread about our role as inspectors, but the thread took a direction into how we report structural issues. I am introducing that part here where others may find it interesting here.

This all started with a newbie’s question about how we report. Do we just “Observe and report” or offer recommendations?
Here’s how it began:
So, to circle back to your question. Foundations and structural components provide some of the best examples of what I am describing.

  • As an example, let’s say that the foundation we are observing has several hairline and small cracks. Some cracks are vertical and not continuous. Others are approximately on 45 degree angles going through windows in the foundation walls. We report, “Concrete foundation has cracks that are hairline to approx. 1/32” gapped. Six cracks are vertical and not continuous. Three cracks are approximately at 45 degree angles and go through openings in the wall."

What is our client to make of this? Our client will ask us, “What does that mean?” If we answer, “Sorry, I can only observe and report,” then our client could reasonably wonder what good are we? And frankly, how have we benefited our client? Heck, our client could probably have said the same thing.

Or we could report,
Foundation appears serviceable (common cracks) No structural concerns were observed"
Concrete shrinks and cracks during curing process. Settling is common and resulting minor cracks are normal and rarely require remedial action unless noted otherwise by inspector. Not all major cracks require remedial action.

I will argue that the later commentary keeps it simple and provides the information that our client needs.

Then later in that thread, Matt Fellman says this:
“we aren’t free to give our honest opinion for fear of the ambulance chasing foundation contractor coming behind us.”

I have not had a problem with that in my business. But I know what Matt is saying. I find that the national foundation companies have a “one fix for every problem.” That fix is a major and expensive one.
I do not recommend evaluation by a structural engineer on every crack. So far, it hasn’t bit me in the rear. Like all aspects of our business, experience makes a difference. Areas that we are weak in, we will be more prone to recommending further evaluation, but we should work at getting better in those areas so we can make more educated recommendations.

However, I sometimes see conditions where I feel that the foundation is sound even though there are cracks and/or other conditions that I know from 23 years in this biz, some other inspectors will automatically recommend evaluation by a structural engineer or contractor. In those instances, (I had one 3 weeks ago), I’ll tell my client, “Look, I don’t think this foundation is failing or in need of correction, but what we see here is likely to be called out by another home inspector five years or whenever from now when you are selling this place. I recommend that you have a structural engineer take a look at this. Their opinion is the one that will carry weight in the future. If he/she agrees with me, then take that report and stick in your file to show a future buyer. Of course, if he/she disagrees with me, then you can take that report to the seller to negotiate repairs.”

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The very best thing you can do for your client is refer them to an engineer, and not a contractor. That is one thing that foundation contractors can’t talk their way out of: a report by a structural engineer. If the engineer says it’s sound, or it needs Solution A that should cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $X, then there’s no way the contractor can upsell the client for some crazy foundation scheme that costs $30k. An engineer will recommend the minimum requirement to return the component to a stable, functional condition. A contractor, on the other hand, has a dog in the fight: he either wants billable work, or he wants the client to buy the solution that his company sells, which is not necessarily the best or least expensive.

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