Managing Expectations

Home inspectors need to be very attentive to home buyers, sellers, agents and anyone else attending an inspection. They all have expectations concerning how you conduct yourself, how you report your observations and opinions, etc.

The problem with expectations

It comes down to people. An expectation is always necessarily the expectation of a person and different people have different expectations about just about everything. Some of those expectations are highly unrealistic. In some cases, they are based on magical thinking about, for instance, foundation repair.     

Why this is critical to your success

Foundation repair company advertisements are your biggest obstacle to managing client expectations. The ads they run create expectations that are clearly unrealistic. Here is one of the most used phrases:

Fix it right, fix it for good: This is one popular sales slogan. It seems to promise that if your foundation is repaired, it will stay fixed for good. That is highly unrealistic.

Here is another variant: Fix it with (insert company name), fix it for good.

A more recent marketing ploy is to tell homeowners that, if they see signs of foundation movement, they should take action now and not wait. The pitch is: waiting will only make foundation repair more costly – so you should spend your money now to save money in the long run.

This is pretty close to nonsense for several reasons. First, while it may be true that the situation might get worse with time, that does not mean that the distress will ever be great enough to warrant foundation repair. Second, it is rare for foundation repair to be needed on an emergency basis. You should never let a pier salesman pressure you into making a quick decision. Third, any time you underpin a foundation, there is a risk that the process will damage the foundation, the house or both. The repair contractors are well aware of this risk. They write their contracts to make sure the homeowner bears that risk.

The result is that buyers, sellers and agents often have very unrealistic expectations concerning foundation repair. If you are going to be successful in the home inspection business, you must earn how to manage expectations, especially unrealistic expectations to the extent that you can. 

If you are going to be successful in the home inspection business you must learn how to manage expectations to the extent that you can. 

Buyer expectations

There is always some degree of risk in owning a home. Some ownership risk can be transferred to another party via insurance. That is what homeowner’s insurance does. Licensed Real Estate Management companies sell policies that provide some protection against certain specific types of ownership risk, especially that pertaining to appliances and mechanical equipment. Regardless, there always remains some residual risk that cannot be negotiated away or absorbed by insurance.

The risk of the house having foundation issues is one such residual risk. You cannot get foundation insurance for expansive soil movement. It is true that, for new homes, there are companies that provide a warranty on the foundation called a 10-year major structural defect warranty. At first glance, this might appear to be a way to transfer foundation risk from the owner to a corporation, but, in reality, the terms and conditions are written so that the chance of a homeowner being protected is virtually nil.

Seller expectations

Sellers usually do not think there is anything seriously wrong with their house. There may be a few drywall cracks, some doors that do not latch, some floors that slope enough to notice and some brick veneer cracks, but they either do not make the connection to their foundation or they have gone outside and could not find a visible crack in the slab. Regardless, they see no reason for concern, especially if nothing has gotten significantly worse for several years.

The bottom line is that sellers need to do their best to see the house through the eyes of a buyer. An engineering report can be a real help selling some properties.

A story about how irrational people can be regarding foundation repair

The following is a true story. It is an extreme illustration of how buyers, or in this case a buyer’s boyfriend, can make bad decisions based on false, but widely believed information.

The house in question was almost 50 years old. Located in Kingwood, Texas, it was a three bedroom, two and half bath one story Village Builder home. The home had been rented for 15 to 20 years. It had never been updated. It was obvious it had not even been painted for many years.

The buyer was a single lady with two young children. She wanted to get out of an apartment and into a house and a better school for her kids. The house was close to her work. Her kids could walk to school. She could afford the house. In short, it was a good fit for her needs.

The home inspection revealed no unanticipated major repairs including no foundation repairs. After the option period had expired, the buyer returned to the house so she could show it to her boyfriend. He raised questions about the foundation. Those concerns were taken to the selling agent and then relayed to the listing agent. The owner charitably agreed to have an engineer look into it.

The listing agent retained me to write a report. I reported that it was just an older house that had a foundation that have performed better than average considering the age, type of construction and location. There was nothing observed in the house that indicated a need for foundation repair. The elevation measurements were consistent with a foundation that has experienced little or no movement. The fact that there were clearly no recent repairs buttressed my view that the foundation was performing as expected or better.

After I submitted my report, the listing agent called me to tell me that the buyer’s boyfriend wanted to meet me at the house to show me himself why the foundation had failed. The agent told me that the seller was fine with the report. I would not normally have agreed to meet with him, but the listing agent was an old family friend and I was curious as to why the boyfriend thought the foundation was in such bad trouble.

As soon as we met, he informed me that it was “obvious” that the foundation needed to be repaired. He insisted that since every Houston area slab foundation would eventually be repaired, that alone was reason enough why it should be repaired now. I told him that the statement there are two kinds of slab foundations, those that have been repaired and those that will have to be repaired in the future was a falsehood based on pure speculation. The only question I could address was whether foundation repair was needed now. If he thought the answer should be “yes,” then he needed to show me why.

At this point, he confidently told me that the owner was covering things up. He then took me to the end of the driveway and pointed out that the section of the driveway adjacent to the curb had been replaced recently. I pointed out that the driveway was not part of the foundation and I was not concerned at all that a section of the driveway had been replaced. He insisted that the replacement was proof that he was covering things up. I said this was not an unusual repair and that most homeowners make repairs to get their houses ready to go on the market.

I asked if there was anything else. He said yes and proceeded to show me a brick veneer wall at the left side of the garage. I looked over the entire wall and saw nothing indicating a foundation issue: no cracks or separations, straight courses of brick with no obvious unlevelness, no mismatched mortar or any other indication of repairs.

When I pointed that out, he told that the lack of any distress or signs of repair was precisely why he was concerned. He told me that, given the condition of the driveway before it was repaired, it was obvious that there had been cracks in the brick veneer. The fact that there were no such cracks and no evidence of repair proved, in his mind, that the owner had rebuilt the entire brick veneer wall.

In other words:

in the mind of this genius, if there were signs of distress, foundation repair was warranted and if there were no signs of distress, that means the owner was covering the distress up and hiding the problem. The logical conclusion is that foundation repair is warranted today, tomorrow, the next day and forever into the future.

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