Inspectors develop niche specialties to compete
Most people probably wouldn’t say that Robert Stockmann qualifies for the show Dirty Jobs as a home inspector. But try telling him that, as he slips on his Tyvek hooded suit and respirator before heading into a crawl space for a routine home inspection.
“I won’t go down there without my suit,” he said. “Crawl spaces are the worst invention of mankind. It can be a hazardous waste zone if they’re not done correctly. The conditions down there can create mold and mildew and attract rodents and insects.”
Stockmann is one of several local home inspectors who have survived the ups and downs of the housing market by developing a niche for himself.
Generally, home inspectors are hired by a potential buyer to examine a house inside and out, top to bottom. Stockmann said he starts an inspection by walking around the house looking at siding and gutters, then he heads to the roof, and finishes with the interior. The crawl space is always last. In all, the inspection takes two to three hours.
Since home inspections are usually done in the event of a purchase or sale, the industry is reliant on a steady housing market. One would expect that as housing sales locally slipped last year, home inspectors would be hit in the pocketbooks.
But for home inspector Dennis Flaherty, owner of Inside N Out Inspection Services, business is on par with last year.
“It was slow in the winter, but I’m doing about the same as what I was doing last year at this time,” Flaherty said, adding that he averages about five inspections per week.
Now in his third year, Flaherty said his business has grown by about 20 percent each year. Given the current market, though, he said he isn’t expecting to grow his business as much this year.
“The fact that I haven’t seen growth in my business this year means I’m probably doing OK, since it hasn’t declined,” he said.
Developing a niche
In order to stand out among the rest, some home inspectors have developed a niche in the industry by offering something above and beyond the standard inspection. For Stockmann, that niche is energy audits.
“Not many inspectors report on energy efficiency along with the standard home inspection,” he said.
Stockmann, who used to build custom homes, is one of two people in the state licensed to rate homes based on their overall energy efficiency. As such, he stood out to Suzanne Blais, who is producing the reality TV show called The Greenest House.
The show pits two families against each other to see who can reduce their carbon footprint the most in three months. One of the factors that the show will examine is the efficiency of each home, and in order to better understand each home, Blais brought in Stockmann to do a baseline energy audit and a follow-up audit of each house.
“He can give you a sense of your whole house as a system,” Blais said of Stockmann. “He’s on the cutting edge. We are so lucky to have him in our community.”
The whole process takes about four hours of onsite testing and data collecting, Stockmann said. He then takes that data home and plugs it into a computer program that helps determine the final energy-efficiency rating.
After determining the rating, Stockmann said most clients choose to make green upgrades to the systems in their house.
“I talked to a previous client the other day with a 1980s style home,” he said. “They made the improvements and they’re now saving 50 percent on their energy and the house is more comfortable.”
Not every niche follows the “green” trend, though. For Flaherty, his niche arose out of his experience as a licensed general contractor. Combined with home inspection, Flaherty now specializes in working with sellers, rather than buyers, to prepare a house for resale. He is also certified to identify structural pests, such as carpenter ants, that can cause serious problems for the safety of a home.
Kirk Juneau of Juneau’s Residential Home Inspection has developed a niche around his infrared camera, which allows him to see things that are not visible to the naked eye, such as a toilet that is hooked up to hot water rather than cold water.
“It’s a bonus for me because I can get a more complete picture of the house,” he said. “And I can give the client a more detailed report as to what’s going on in the house.”
Old homes versus new homes
Oftentimes there is more going on inside the walls than one would expect — even in new homes.
“People are surprised when Realtors recommend a home inspection on a new house,” Flaherty said.
Juneau said new homes represent about 20 percent to 30 percent of his business these days. Back when new construction was booming, he was making a living doing 60 percent of his inspections on new homes.
New homes aren’t always in pristine condition, Flaherty said. Sometimes a few minor details were forgotten in the wiring, or the plumbing was rushed as the builder hurried to finish the project.
“The discrepancies I find [in new homes] are usually not catastrophic, just an inconvenience for the buyer,” Flaherty said.
With a slowdown in new construction, more prospective buyers are looking at old homes. And every time Flaherty inspects an older home, he said he feels like he is doing his part to preserve a piece of neighborhood character and community history.
“If all the recommendations in the inspection are made, the quality and life span of that house are going to be far beyond what it would be if it was never inspected,” he said.
It’s just like your car, he continued. If you take your car to a mechanic and get all the necessary maintenance done, your car will last longer.
Telling the story
Basically, a home inspector’s job is to finish the old adage “If these walls could talk …”
And talk they do.
For this reason, Stockmann presents his findings in a narrative format rather than a simple checklist. This gives the client more information, he said, and allows them to understand the root cause of any problems a house may have.
Sometimes telling the story isn’t always popular, Juneau said. Home inspectors often work closely with real estate agents, who will refer clients to them. Real estate agents are interested in making the sale, he said, and sometimes an inspection will lead a potential buyer away from a house.
But the best home inspectors — and the best real estate agents, Juneau adds — are the ones who recognize this dichotomy and yet still accept the facts.
“The house tells the story. I just write it down.”
The Greenest House
This reality TV show being shot in Bellingham will pit two average families against each other to see which can reduce their overall carbon footprint the most in three months. The winner will receive an electric car. The show will air locally in the fall, said producer Suzanne Blais.