In the coming weeks or months, home inspectors will be licensed in Tennessee. This will come as a surprise to a lot of people for two reasons: first, most people who think about home inspectors at all assume home inspectors have always been licensed; second, if you call a home inspector today and ask if he’s licensed, he’ll probably say yes. That’s because he either wants you to believe he has a Tennessee home inspector license (which he doesn’t, because it doesn’t exist yet), or he’s talking about his business license, which certifies no expertise in anything.
Anyhow, it’s a good thing that home inspectors are getting licensed, isn’t it? If home inspectors are going to be running around telling people what’s wrong with houses, they need to be educated and ethical people, don’t they? Surely Tennessee’s home inspector licensing law was created by consumer advocates to protect the home-buying public, wasn’t it?
Well, no. It was created by lobbyists for Tennessee’s real estate brokers, so the brokers will have more control over home inspectors and can make more money faster, with less interference.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Well, except that it’s a lot like putting the people who sell caskets in charge of your medical care.
But don’t take my word for it. I’m on sabbatical from the home-inspection business right now. I’m watching the home-inspector licensing game from the bleachers. So I asked some home inspectors from other states what they think about home-inspector licensing laws.
Best I can tell, Tennessee’s proposed home-inspector licensing law is similar to laws passed in other states, in that candidates here will have to pass an easy exam, get some basic continuing education and pay small fines if they get caught screwing up. If you want to be a home inspector in Tennessee, rest assured: if you’ve got a thimbleful of brains and you’re not obviously psychotic, you’re in.
A former president of the American Society of Home Inspectors, Larry Hoytt owns Hoytt Inspection Services in Novato, Calif. Right now, California home inspectors aren’t licensed. Here’s what Hoytt thinks about licensing: “I think the public has an unrealistic expectation that a license…is equated with a qualified person. A license only means that the person was able to pass some sort of lowest-common-denominator exam. The educated public (should) look for a higher form of credentialing.”
Closer to home, Bill Loden, who runs Insight Professional Home Inspection in Madison, Ala., offers this: “If the goal of licensing were to protect the public and create a professional standard of care…licensing could be a good thing. The public expect [licensing], just like they expect seat belts in their cars. They just don’t know that the ‘seat belts’ of home inspector licensing are [no stronger than] crime scene tape.”
Loden says that if he were advising a friend or family member on how to choose a home inspector, he’d tell them not to pick a home inspector just because he has a license. “Look at his education. Look at one of his reports. Ask for references.”
Meanwhile, Nashville attorney Jean Harrison, who has represented many plaintiffs in a lot of house-and-home disputes, says, “Compare licensed home inspectors to licensed contractors. The contractors still manage to get in plenty of trouble.”
Until the dust settles on the field of licensed home inspectors, Harrison offers these warnings to folks who’ll be hiring newly minted home inspectors: “It’s a sea of sharks. The banker, the home inspector and the real estate agents are not your friends. Don’t pick a home inspector out of the phone book, and don’t let anybody else pick your home inspector for you. Make sure you’re doing business with reputable professionals.”
I’m going to agree with Harrison, and offer two little pieces of inside information: nationwide, somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of all home inspector referrals come from real estate agents. That means a typical home inspector can’t stay in business unless he pleases those real estate agents by helping their deals along. If you’re thinking about hiring the real estate agent’s favorite home inspector, ask yourself this question first: “Would I trust this real estate agent with a half-million dollars?” If the answer is yes, take the agent’s recommendation. If the answer is no, find your own home inspector.
One unusual thing about the Tennessee licensing law is that it requires every home inspector to have error-and-omissions (E&O) insurance. That’ll give every disgruntled client a free reach into the inspector’s insurance. If you’re a real estate agent, the good news is that the inspector’s E&O will keep you safe from claims against your insurance. (Golly, I wonder if that’s why the lobbyists wanted the E&O to be mandatory?)
Truth be told, I don’t know how home-inspector licensing will end up. There could be a miracle downtown, and the public servants who mind the home inspectors might seize this opportunity to make Tennessee home inspectors the best and brightest in all the land.
Or this little bit of language from the Tennessee Home Inspector License Act of 2005 might be ironic foreshadowing: “The commissioner may take disciplinary action…when a licensee [engages] in a course of lewd or immoral conduct in connection with the delivery of services to clients….”
I wish I could tell you I made that up. But I can’t. It’s the law, bubba. Somebody’s going to get screwed.