Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

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Why municipal inspectors wear blinders

 

I've taken many building code classes that were taught by the Building Official for the City of New Hope, Roger Axel.  He's a fantastic teacher.  In his classes, I remember him repeatedly telling us to take off the blinders; what he meant by this was to not miss the forest for the trees.  Sure, the deck ledgerboard has lag screws every six inches... but if the house was built with floor trusses, what are those lag screws going in to? The wall sheathing? Look at the big picture, keep an open mind, don't make assumptions, question everything.

Deck Lag Screw In To Nothing

Despite this sage advice, municipal inspectors often have to wear blinders.  This blog post isn't about deck construction.  This post is about why municipal inspectors have to wear blinders.

Here's a common scenario: I inspect a home for a buyer, and I come up with a list of electrical defects that are potential fire hazards.  The buyer asks the seller to fix the stuff.  Two days later the seller calls me, and she's not happy.

Seller: "Hello Mr. Saltzman, you told my buyer a lot of bad information about my electric service.  I just had the Minnesota State Electrical Inspector out at my house last year, and they said everything was fine."

Me: "Why did you have the state inspector at your house?"

Seller:  "I had my basement finished off, and they approved all the work.  They wouldn't have signed off on it if there were problems!"

Ah, but that's not true.  When a permit gets pulled for work being done at a property, the permit fee covers the cost of the inspections to make sure the work being done is correct.  Again, the work being done... not all the work that was ever done at the house.  A $50 electrical permit for some wiring in the basement doesn't cover the inspection of the entire electric service at the house.  The electrical inspector is being paid to look at the work that's being done, and that's it.  If there is a glaring electrical defect that has nothing to do with the work being done, will the electrical inspector require repair?  It depends.

On one hand, the electrical inspector may not have the right to require repair.  If the municipal inspector is being hired to inspect the work that's being done, they have an obligation to the homeowner to approve the work if it's done properly, regardless of whatever else is going on at the house.  If an owner is replacing an electric panel, should the municipal inspector go through the entire house to make sure all the lights are wired properly, all the outlets grounded, and GFCI outlets installed to today's current code?  Probably not.

On the other hand, does the inspector have a moral obligation to report the other defects they see?  Maybe, but these defects shouldn't have any effect on the permit approval process.  If a municipal inspections department begins requiring repair of defects that aren't directly related to the work being done, what are homeowners and contractors going to start doing?  They might decide that it's too much of a hassle to pull permits, because some 'a-hole inspector' is going to start poking around for other problems as soon as he or she sets foot in the house.

Municipal inspectors need to have a delicate balance of what they look at and enforce; if they miss defects, they get labeled incompetent or lazy.  If they start requiring more repairs than what they're hired to look at, people think they're being jerks, and people stop pulling permits.  To a certain degree, municipal inspectors have to wear blinders.  I don't envy the job of the municipal inspector.

If a municipal inspector signs off on a permit, they're signing off on the work that's being done; not the entire house.

 

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

        

Comment balloon 29 commentsReuben Saltzman • June 14 2011 05:58AM

Comments

Hi Reuben,

Nice to see you back posting. Unlike our inspectors here they tend to drive by and say "the fee will be"....

Or "I know the contractor, the work is fine". It's a shame but it still happens.

Thanks for the post.

Clint

Posted by Clint Mckie, Desert Sun Home, Comm. Inspection 1-575-706-5586 (Desert Sun Home, commercial Inspections) over 7 years ago

I see your point. .having passed inspection is not an assurance that everything is ok and it brings a false sense of security.

Posted by Fernando Herboso - Broker for Maxus Realty Group, 301-246-0001 Serving Maryland, DC and Northern VA (Maxus Realty Group - Broker 301-246-0001) over 7 years ago

Clint - I ran in to one of those "I know the contractor" deals about a year and a half ago - double tapped GE circuit breakers on a new construction house.  I called the BO and asked why he signed off on it, and he said "I'm gonna make that electrician get his ass back out there to fix it."  :)

Fernando - Pretty much.  

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 7 years ago

Very good post. I have never looked at it from that perspective. Thank you.

Posted by Ellen Dittman, #1 Stop for NE FLA-JAX/OP 904.535.1199 (TEXT OK) r (Watson Realty Corp.) over 7 years ago

Great post, Reuben.  Yes, I can see that dilemma playing out.  This makes perfect sense.  Congrats on the feature.

Posted by Debbie Gartner, The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers (The Flooring Girl) over 7 years ago

I went to suggest this and it had already been featured!  Snooze and lose...

You hit a nail on the head!  There is so much going on here.  Each jurisdiction is different, but I assure you my county would not have approved that.  They actually go into the house to see the connections inside.  And lags are not permitted here.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 7 years ago

Fundamentally this is all supposed to be about health and safety in the long term.  The lawsuit over an injury for a collapsed deck, an electrocution, or a burned down house may identify everyone in reach - including both state and municipal inspectors as well as their employers and the contractors.  And the insurance company lawyers will hunt everyone down.

 

Posted by Jim Gilbert, The Gold Homes Team (Keller Williams Fairfax Gateway) over 7 years ago

I think you hit all pertinent points. I would also venture since home inspectors aren't licensed in your state, this cast further doubt on what you call out in your reports. Honestly I very rarely get calls where what I have written up as defective is questioned because of a recent city inspection. In fact more often than not I have called on the state inspector to back up what I have said in the instance of new construction.

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) over 7 years ago

Rueben,

Very good post. I have the building inspector/AHJ discussion very often with clients and pretty much point out what you detailed in this post. I also know people who will not pull permits for many of the reason you stated, people who should know better.

 

Posted by Donald Hester, NCW Home Inspections, LLC (NCW Home Inspections, LLC) over 7 years ago

Rueben, good points.  Homeowners don't realize that the permit they bought only covers the work they had done.  I have a brokerage, but I also have an electrical contracting company.  It's amazing how many issues we see when taking care of a different problem.  We often go ahead and repair both, but not always.  I may point it out, and if the homeowner wants to make a change, we make it.  Good post!

Posted by Mike Cooper, Your Winchester, VA Real Estate Sales Pro (Cornerstone Business Group Inc) over 7 years ago

You've made a very good point there Reuben, thats exactly the way it works. There is a huge disconnect between what people think is the case and what actually is. The photo is a bit small to really see the detail though.

Posted by Robert Butler, Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection (Aspect Inspection) over 7 years ago

Building inspectors usually enter a structure assuming that all prior work requiring permits DID have permits pulled and that at the time, all work was compliant.  They inspect for current work, but if they see flagrant safety issues other work in progress being done without a permit, they can and do comment.

Home inspections are great for catching components of a system has worn out and not been replaced or replaced incorrectly or done without a permit and not re-inspected.  Inspections are also good for catching code violations.

For example, Mecklenburg County, NC codes require an operating CO detector in residential structures at time of sale.  If there is no carbon monoxide detector, it is a code violation regardless of when a home was built and even if all prior permit inspections were passed.

Posted by Daniel H. Fisher, MCRP - Charlotte Real Estate, NC or SC (www.FisherHermanRealty.com (704) 617-3544) over 7 years ago

I remain open on inspections but at some point we have to find HAPPY.... I remember a situation where a banister on a new home was off ever so slightly because of the angle of the staircase. To this buyer, it was a deal breaker..to the contractor and the guy who built the staircase, it was nit picking...time to move on

Posted by Richie Alan Naggar, agent & author (people first...then business Ran Right Realty ) over 7 years ago

You make a great point Reuben, I will definitely keep this in mind in the future.

Posted by Chris Smith, South Simcoe, Caledon, King, Orangeville Real Esta (Re/Max Chay Realty Inc., Brokerage) over 7 years ago

Good points. I would not like to have your job because in every inspection you do there are probably one party that loves you and the other party hates you.  And all you are doing is telling the truth.  Go figure.

Posted by Cliff Keith, Redwood City Real Estate (Today Sotheby's International Realty) over 7 years ago

I tell people all the time, that any municipal inspector could walk into any property and find code violations, if they wanted to.  (Whether that property is old, new, borrowed, or blue.)  You make great points about the difference in scope of a professional home inspection, and that of a municipal inspection.

Posted by Roger Roberge, MA/CT Broker, e-Pro (RR and Company Realty, LLC / www.rrandcompany.com) over 7 years ago

Reuben, I very rarely get these calls and you are certainly correct that the jurisdictional inspectors have to wear blinders---they only look at what was listed on the permit. However if they see new work that was done "under that permit" but was not paid for with that permit, they will surely ding you :)  This happens a lot where people get pemits to run a couple of circuits or change a service----and then just have a few "other things" done while the electrician is there---figuring that they will be covered by the permit.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 7 years ago

Ellen - thanks.

Debbie - it happens quite a bit.

Jay - thanks friend.  I'm glad to hear your county is on top of those deck attachments.

Gold team - I've heard the same thing about lawsuits.  Thankfully, I haven't been involved in one yet.

James - that's an interesting perspective about why I might get questioned more often.  You might be right about that.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 7 years ago

Donald - You explain this too?  Good stuff :)  I finally wrote this post after explaining this for about the fifth time in the last month to someone.

Robert - thanks for the tip on the photo; I normally include links to full size photos on every one of my photos, but I guess this one didn't work.   Update: I just fixed it.  

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 7 years ago

Daniel - we have that same requirement for CO alarms here in Minnesota, but it's not something that gets enforced by the building inspectors.  They tell everyone it's required, and people do it, but it's actually not a part of the building code.

Richie - the angle of a banister a DEAL BREAKER?  Sheesh...

Chris - thanks.

Cliff - boy, you got it.  The ones I love are when the sellers get mad, but then hire me when they buy a house :)

Roger - yeah, I'm sure you're right.  I find plenty of defects on new construction houses.

 

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 7 years ago

Charles - you don't get challenged?  James neither.  Hmm... maybe I need to take my photo off my business cards, or airbrush some grey hair on to my photo.  They're probably thinking "this kid doesn't know what he's talking about!"  Thanks for the tip on adding more stuff on to the permit you pull.  I'll have to try that next time I pull a permit ;)

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 7 years ago

This is a tough one. We see municipal inspectors butt heads with home inspectors and other professionals all the time. 

Posted by Erica Ramus, MRE, Schuylkill County PA Real Estate (Erica Ramus - Ramus Realty Group - Pottsville, PA ) over 7 years ago

Hello reuben

Absolutely true.  Here in Indy I have been doing IHCDA inspections - form says need a source of light in every room.  New owners and previous owners don't want a light in their room with the fireplace...what to do?

Posted by Kim Carnes, Carnes Home Inspections - Indianapolis Metro Area and beyond - (Licensed - Certified Home Inspectors (317) 753-7098) over 7 years ago

I would also like to add that the work load of a municipal inspector is different. Whereas the Home Inspector looks at an entire structure; one at at time, and should have nothing else on his/her mind, the municipal inspectors (depending upon location) usually have a number of sites to inspect, and have to keep up with their work load otherwise the construction process will get bogged down.

Posted by Steven Turetsky, Building Moisture Analyst (Comprehensive Building Inspections & Consultants) over 7 years ago

Erica - the thing about this is that the municipal inspectors are always right.  They're the authority.

Kim - how about a floor lamp?

Steven - absolutely.  Municipal inspectors usually don't have enough time, so what's the solution?  Raise permit fees?   Ha!

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 7 years ago

Good Morning Reuben,

The only solution I can think of that works... somewhat,  is that folks that are having homes built, hire a private inspector to oversee the work being done. This is done presently in rare cases.

or

Raise permit fees, have the muni's do thorough inspections, shut down the job, require a hearing (court), before the builder can restart, correct and reinspect. I'm sure if this happens a few times the builder will be more careful.  OOPS, the price of housing just went up.

Posted by Steven Turetsky, Building Moisture Analyst (Comprehensive Building Inspections & Consultants) over 7 years ago

Thanks, Reuben.  Great post as always -- I appreciate all the info. you provide.  We learn a lot from your blog posts.

Posted by Eric Crane -- Your Full Service, Discount Fee Realtor®, Greater Metro Phoenix Arizona (DPR Realty LLC) over 7 years ago

Wowa there, I just got to see the enlarged photo. That looks like tentest that lag screw is emerging from. The stuff was originally sold as insulation (before World War 2). It was called tentest because that stood for 'ten-pound-test". You can crumble it in you hands. That screw is effectively attached to nothing.

Posted by Robert Butler, Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection (Aspect Inspection) over 7 years ago

Steven - some people do hire us private home inspectors for new construction, but it sure doesn't happen too often.  As for raising permit fees... can you imagine?  

Eric - thanks!

Robert - I'm glad you got to see the full photo, and thanks for the definition of 'tentest'.  I haven't heard that term before.  

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 7 years ago

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