Inspectors save buyers a bundle by pointing out problems

Thursday, July 28th, 2005

Houses can be full of horror stories

Peter Wilson

CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun Schiffer talks things over with Scott Meixner, a first-time buyer.

The 5,000-square-foot Shaughnessy mansion had rats running everywhere.

“The place was just filled with them — the garage, the attic, the basement area” said Vancouver house inspector John Schiffer, who was looking the place over earlier this year for a prospective buyer. “I could see the rats walking down the wall when I opened the garage door.”

Bad news for the seller. If there’s one thing that puts people off buying a place, especially women, Schiffer said, it’s rodents.

“People get nervous and start walking around the room instead of sitting down,” said Schiffer, of Quality Home Inspections.

In today’s hot real estate market, Schiffer is one of more than 300 British Columbia home and property inspectors constantly on the go, usually working for prospective buyers who don’t want to face a horror story after purchasing a house.

A pre-purchase inspection, at an average cost of $350 in the Lower Mainland, can mean anything from simple peace of mind for a buyer — when no problems are found — to savings of as much as $25,000.

Vince Burnett of Superior Home Inspections — who writes some 500 reports a year — was examining a $900,000 house in Surrey recently when he found that concrete porches had been built so they sloped toward the house. Water was flowing into the walls.

“All the exterior framing on that side was just rotted right out,” said Burnett. “And there were ants living in there and they were just loving it.”

The likely repair bill? About $20,000, said Burnett.

In another Surrey house, with three suites, Burnett found that four stoves, two or three dryers and a suite with electrical heat were all being run from a 60-amp service.

“And there were four or five things double-plugged into the mains as well,” said Burnett. “It was just a dog’s breakfast.”

Burnett estimated a $4,000 to $5,000 repair bill.

In a house in East Vancouver, Rose Marie Moore found a huge infestation of carpenter ants.

“They were in the walls and all over the place,” said Moore, of RMC Insight Building Consultants Inc. “The house was very damp. Then you know a lot of damage has been done.”

A second East Vancouver house held a far more dangerous problem, Moore said.

“It had a front balcony off the second or third floor and the railing was so loose that if anybody had leaned on it they would have fallen off,” said Moore. “The door was open, so people could go on this deck easily. This was a major safety hazard.”

And, added Moore, increasingly inspectors are seeing homes that have been used for grow-ops or have mould problems.

In the Okanagan, there are different problems, such as termites and unstable soil, said Owen Dickie of Oyama-based HomePro Inspection, who writes some 300 reports a year.

“Simple things such as cutting down a tree can change the moisture content of the soil and affect the structure of the house,” Dickie said. “It’s not the roots that have done that, it’s just that the tree was absorbing moisture.”

A thorough house inspection, Moore said, can take an average of 3.5 to four hours, including client consultation time and an inspector can do two a day comfortably.

Houses can be full of horror stories

CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

He also looks for problems with exterior drainage.


In today’s market, some inspections are done during the open house, so a knowledgeable offer can be made quickly if a bidding war breaks out.

Dickie cautions that inspectors screen for the signs and symptoms of major problems and concerns. If they’ve been hidden, or disguised, home inspectors alone will not be able to find them.

“We often liken a home inspection to an examination by your family doctor — the inspection will reduce the possibility of problems, but sometimes only deeper, more invasive examination can eliminate them completely.”

Dickie said his company policy is to have clients accompany him on the inspection, so they know what they’re facing.

“They’re standing there and they’re looking straight at it,” he said.

Moore said buyers have four choices. They can swallow the extra expenses if they really want the house; try to negotiate a reduced price; ask the vendor to make the repairs; opt to look for another house.

In rarer cases, particularly when there’s a bidding war and the owner can stipulate no subjects in the offer, purchasers may hire an inspector after the fact.

And, of course, sellers often have inspections, so they know what they have to do, or how much to lower the asking price of the house.

As well as doing these types of reports, inspectors like Peter Link of Surrey-based Peter Link and Associates, will act as a consultant to home owners who want to know what is wrong with their house so they can fix it.

“Because we have disciplines right across the whole gamut, we’re the natural people to call in.”

As well, said Link, he could also supervise contractors doing repair work to make sure its done properly.

“I speak [the contractor’s] language, I know where he’s coming from and it’s a lot easier for me to deal with him than you,” said Link, who adds that consumers are not necessarily protected by the fact that a contractor takes out permits to do the job.

“The code requirements are a minimum standard. If you’re paying premium dollar, you deserve much more than minimum.”

Most of the horror stories Schiffer encounters are caused, he said, by amateurs doing their own work without permits.

“I’d say that a good 90 per cent of amateur renovation work is substandard and its a real problem, because most of it has been done without inspections.

“It starts off as a tiny little deck and then they decide, well, let’s put walls up, he said. “And then they put a roof on and, before you know it, it becomes part of the house. It’s totally enclosed and it’s structurally inadequate.

“Sometimes you have to tell people that it’s actually better to build this again from scratch.”

He added that people get a false sense of confidence from home improvement stores that claim they can provide you with all the information you need to do a renovation.

“They have the materials, but you still have to put it together and that’s a problem for a lot of people,” Schiffer said. “They like to do this stuff, but they really don’t understand it.”

CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

John Schiffer checks out a fence, which seems to need support.


Both Schiffer and Burnett agree that the most expensive repairs, by and large, have to be made in the case of poor electrical work, again usually done by amateurs.

“All they do is pull a few wires and hook up here and hook it up over there and if it works then you’ve done it right,” said Burnett. “They don’t even realize that the electrical box could get overheated if you have too much stuff in it.”

Schiffer said that if he discovers a safety hazard he not only has to tell his client, usually the buyer, but also the listing agent of the property as well, otherwise he could be liable if the house burns down.

Burnett said that redoing wiring — including removing drywall and then replacing it — can very quickly become a major expense.

Another problem, particularly in the Lower Mainland, is old knob and tube wiring, which insurance companies want replaced.

“And that can get really expensive,” said Schiffer. “Depending on the size of the house, I’ve seen it be anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 to rewire.”

The worst room in the house is generally agreed to be the bathroom.

“In 80 per cent of the homes I inspect, I find moisture in the bathroom,” said Moore. “People don’t maintain a proper level of caulking, they don’t seal the grout in the shower stalls — and a crack in the grout or broken grout can let water seep in behind the tile and cause a lot of moisture damage.

Burnett said that he was in a Bridgeview home where a shower stall had leaked.

“The paint was bubbled on the outside of the house where the shower stall was and I was poking holes in it and the water was running out,” said Burnett. “And that whole wall was just completely rotted right out.”

Peeking into attics can be dangerous for home inspectors. They can encounter everything from wasps nests to bat and rodent droppings.

“On Bowen Island, I opened an attic access lid and it just rained droppings,” said Burnett. “I looked up and there must have been 30 bats, little tiny guys, right above my head and they’re hard to get rid of.”

Schiffer said clients are always worried that he will find structural problems in the house.

“In reality, that’s the least likely to cost them money,” he said. “Most problems are not structural problems. Most of the money is in all of the interior stuff — the plumbing wearing out, the electrical, worn floorings, outdated windows.

“People will ask me, ‘Are there any structural problems?’ and I’ll say ‘No, but there’s $150,000 worth of work to bring it back up.'”

The big misconception, added Schiffer, is that a new house is the best to buy because there are no problems.

“I do a lot of new places and there is always a page of deficiencies,” he said, adding that some contractors just build too quickly to do a proper job.

Schiffer said he has seen huge decks with joist hangers that should have had a dozen nails but had just two or three.

Recently, he saw a new, $2-million house where the work was so bad the client just walked away. The tubs in all the bathrooms, for example, would have leaked the second they were used.

CREDIT: Peter Battistoni, Vancouver Sun

Vince Burnett, owner of Superior Home Inspections checks out a crawl space in a home in Fort Langley.

CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

Building inspector John Schiffer checks out the plumbing and mechanical system in a house on Steveston Highway in Richmond.


“Superficially, just taking a quick walk through the house, it looked fine. But when you spent more than five seconds looking at each item you’d realize how badly it was done.”

Such houses, he added, eventually sell to buyers who don’t bother to get an inspection done.

Schiffer said he enjoys sitting down with clients and helping them to figure out how they could get their prospective home back into shape.

“I know they like the house, so I try to find solutions to make it possible for them to buy the place. Usually, there’s simple solutions to a lot of problems.”

While clients have tough decisions to make, property inspectors in B.C. also have their own concerns. One of these is that there is no provincial standard as to who can and cannot call themselves an inspector.

There are, at present, two professional groups headquartered in B.C. with their own standards.

The Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors (BC), with some 200 members, uses the designation Registered Home Inspector (RHI). The BC Institute of Property Inspectors, with 90 members, uses the designations Certified Property Inspector (CPI) or Certified House Inspector (CHI).

Both groups have their own sets of exams and standards.

And both groups have asked the provincial government to set a universal standard because, at the moment, anyone who wants to can set up in business as a home or property inspector, no matter what their level of knowledge or professional experience.

Dickie, CAHPI (BC)’s treasurer said his organization gets many complaints about non-members.

“So many in fact, that we’ve asked the B.C. government to take action to bring standards to the BC home and property inspection industry.”

If CAHPI (B.C.) gets a complaint it can be reviewed by members and representatives of the general public who serve on its committee.

Dickie said his group has been meeting with the provincial government for the past four years, but hasn’t had a response that it thinks protects the consumer.

“They said that consumers were already adequately protected under the Consumer Protection Act,” said Dickie. “But that act only allows for means for recourse. It allows you to begin to sue your home inspector afterwards, as opposed to being somewhat preemptive and trying to ensure that people have the opportunity to have a qualified inspector.”

Dickie added that those people who bought a house and then have had trouble with their homes now have to go through a backlogged court system.

“And that’s not really much of a protection at all.”

The BCIPI — part of the 8,000-member Applied Science Technologists and Technicians of B.C. (ASTTBC) — is also concerned.

“ASTTBC has been advocating for many years that we find some way to confirm one standard and one regulatory approach in B.C., said John Leech, executive-director and registrar with ASTTBC. “Consumers in BC will be better served with one-stop shopping when it comes to finding a qualified inspector.

“The public is in jeopardy when purchasing a home if they do not engage the services of a registered professional house inspector to carry out an inspection,” Leech said.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

Comments are closed.