Both real estate agents and home inspectors are going to eventually have an unhappy client. The most practical advice we can give you is to try to be patient and helpful. Especially try to be helpful.
Encourage the owners to retain an engineer
I strongly recommend that you offer to provide them with some names of competent trustworthy engineers. If they are upset, the first thing they need is an independent, unbiased assessment of the situation. If they are angry, you need to be the calm, rational person in the room. The sooner you can get them to retain an engineer, the better off everyone will be.
It is best that the client, usually the new homeowner, be the one who selects and retains the engineer. That way it is clear to everyone that the engineer works for the homeowner.
Discourage them from consulting with a repair contractor
They may want to bring in a foundation repair contractor. The fact that they provide a “free inspection” is very attractive to many people. Remind them that repair contractors are not licensed or regulated in any way. Anyone can call themselves a foundation contractor. Ask them if they want an unlicensed person, who may have never been through a criminal background check, wandering through their house? An unbiased, independent, licensed professional engineer is the better choice. They are more credible and can honestly say they are independent.
Meet with the buyer and the engineer
Ideally, it is better for everyone if you stand back and observe. Don’t try to guide the engineer. If you are seen as trying to influence the engineer, you detract from his or her credibility.
Beware of an owner who has solicited bids from repair contractors
Some owners will contact one or more foundation repair contractors before they even discuss the situation with you. Once they contact their real estate agent or home inspector, they may confront you with the repair proposals that, in their mind, prove that foundation work needs to be done.
If you consider that far-fetched, consider this following true story:
Rather than bore you with the details, I will cut right to the chase. A lady demands that I pay for underpinning her house because she had a stack of reports that said that she had to underpin the foundation. She thought she had an open and shut case because she had a stack of paper, reportedly reports.
I asked to see them. She refused. I asked who made the reports, engineers, home inspectors or repair contractors? She said repair contractors, real experts. I knew right there that she had nothing that would back up her claim that she had to repair the foundation. Repair contractors do not and cannot provide an unbiased, independent assessment of the need for foundation repair. They recommend and propose. They do not and, in my opinion, cannot legally tell people that they have to repair their foundation.
I asked that she show me one, just one, report that said she had to underpin the foundation. She went through several before slamming them down saying she knew it was in there but was too upset to find it.
Another true story
In this case, I was asked by a real estate agent to accompany her to a house where several people were to meet to examine the house relative to a claim by the owner that the agents had failed to disclose that the foundation was “cracked.”
Here is the short version of a longer story. When the house was being built, a crack appeared in the slab that ran from the rear to the front approximately in the middle of the slab. The crack appeared before the cables were tensioned. After the cables were tensioned, the crack did close some but not completely. This is a very common situation.
The buyers were nervous about it and the builder had the Structural Engineer of Record go out to the house and write a report. His report stated that it was a restraint to shortening (RTS) crack and that this was common and that it was not a structural issue.
The buyers were still nervous and wanted out of the sale. The builder offered to let them out if they bought a house with the same floor plan about a block away. The buyers agreed.
Soon a new buyer shows up and buys the house with the crack in the slab after they were shown the engineering report. The lived in the house for 5 years and never have an issue.
After 5 years the buyer sells the house. The engineer’s report has been filed away and is forgotten. Since the report was over four years old, there was no requirement to disclose it anyway.
After the new people move in, they begin to meet the neighbors. The new owners are referred to as: “the couple who bought the house with the cracked slab.”
Both agents and the previous owner were sued on the basis that there was a known defect (the crack) and they had failed to disclose it. I was asked to go to the house and make a report. Here is the interesting part. The crack was not visible to the owners when they bought the house because is was covered with ceramic floor tile.
When I went to the house, the owners had removed some of the tiles so the crack could be seen. There was a crack that looked like it ran from front to back across the middle of the slab: a classic RTS crack that was structurally benign.
From my perspective, the most interesting aspect of the situation was that the crack was visible in the slab but there was no in the ceramic floor tiles. This was very strong evidence that the foundation was stable. The crack in the slab was structurally irrelevant.
What was more important was that the neighbors expressed the belief that the homeowners had bought a defective home with a defective foundation. The owners felt like idiots who had been taken advantage of. They were determined to get revenge and it did not matter who the target was. Any target would do. Their attorney went after the agents and the previous owner.
The attorney argued that the new owners were not treated fairly because they should have been informed about what was in the engineering report that was made over five years earlier.