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Here Alan Carson describes how to write a home inspection report. A properly prepared home inspection report serves the client by providing accurate, clear, useful information about the condition of a property. A good home inspection report also benefits the home inspector by providing a superior service to his/her clients.
Readers should also see Carson Dunlop's web-based inspection business management and reporting system described at Horizon: Web-Based Home Inspection & Commercial Inspection Writing & Business Management Software from Carson Dunlop. Along with good inspection report practices, the characteristics of web-based inspection reporting are discussed below.
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Alan Carson, Carson Dunlop
But, let's be honest; most of us don't get the same high from writing reports. Why is that? Well, there are several reasons:
These issues have been carefully researched and developed since 1978 along with our overall definition of a home inspection, based on doing thousands of reports every year. we have worked hard to come up with a definition of home inspection that includes appropriate reference to the report writing process. The definition is as follows:
A business with illogically high liability, slim profit margins and limited economies of scale. An incredibly diverse, multi-disciplined consulting service, delivered under difficult in-field circumstances, before a hostile audience in an impossibly short time frame, requiring the production of an extraordinarily detailed technical report, almost instantly, without benefit of research facilities or resources.
To sum it up, writing a report is a challenging process that provides an excellent opportunity to look foolish and to get sued. But we have to do it to help our clients (since they'll only remember 10 to 15% of what was said), to meet inspection standards or licensing requirements, and to compete in the market place. So, how do we minimize the pain and maximize the gain? Let's start by looking at what we are trying to accomplish, and move on to some ways to succeed. We'll discuss report writing in general, and touch on various report formats.
What Are We Trying To Accomplish?
What Do Clients Want In An Inspection Report?
What Would We Want When Reading To Make A Decision?
we have asked hundreds of inspectors what they are looking for. These are the top answers we have received.
What Would The Ideal Report Look Like?
And they'd like a summary at the beginning that lists in chronological order everything they'll have to do in the home with dates and costs.
What is useful information?
So, we're pretty sure we can't write the reports we want or the reports clients want. Life is full of compromises isn't it? So what can we do? Well, We can meet them in the middle. We can take responsibility for our work, within our scope of work. It's fine to make it clear that we don't go beyond our scope. It's also important for our business success that we provide useful information to clients on issues within our expertise.
How would you define useful information?
If this all sounds trivial, let's spend a moment talking about reports that provide little or no useful information. For example -
In the first statement, the client picks up no valuable information. In the rest, there is not enough information for the client to know if there is a problem, let alone whether it is a serious, expensive, safety or priority item. When we don't answer the "So what?" question for clients, we aren't doing our job.
Stop Guessing And Start Asking
So far in this article, we have given you our perspective based on our experience and beliefs. Is that authoritative? Maybe, because we've been in the home inspection business since 1978, have worked with many reporting systems - electronic and paper, trained and spoken to many, many inspectors, and written some pretty comprehensive training materials. But is that enough? Some would say no, especially in a customer-centric business model.
There is a rule of customer service that says, "Give the customer what they want, the way they want it." Every home inspector has an opinion as to what customers want, but few have asked. And some would say that customers don't know what they should want. But while we spend a lot of time adjusting client expectations to fit the limitations of a home inspection, we spend very little time adjusting our service to fit what clients want.
We at Carson Dunlop have certainly been guilty of this, until we discovered an easy and inexpensive way to survey our customers and ask them what they wanted in an inspection report. We surveyed recent home inspection customers and received 350 responses. The percents below indicate the number who agreed or strongly agreed with the following statements:
- 96% - Reports should include a short executive summary.
We may decide to respond to some or all of these, but at least we now know what clients are looking for. We'll spend the rest of the paper addressing some of the key report writing questions, and close with what we think are some key tips for successful report writing.
Report Formats - Electronic Or Paper?
Input - Electronic or paper
Now let's look at report outputs.
Output - Electronic or paper
Clearly there are pros and cons to each. A recent survey showed almost 80% of inspectors use electronic reporting systems. Our conclusion is that electronic reports offer some advantages over paper-based reports, but we understand that paper works best for some people. Many systems can also provide both electronic and paper outputs.
Make Or Buy?
In our opinion, report writing systems have improved significantly over the years and it would take a talented and dedicated home inspector a great deal of time to build a better mousetrap. We think it makes sense to look at the reporting systems available, to see if there is one that will suit your needs.
Building The Knowledge Base
Some also have authoritative technical reference articles in addition to the standard database comments. The ability to direct clients to additional resource material with no research, writing, drawing, or sorting is a tremendous benefit. This helps establish your credibility as the home expert, without spending years building the library.
If you are considering building your own system, determine whether you want to be able to offer this added information, and consider the time and research required to create it.
How Much Information Is Enough?
Some inspectors provide a lot of detail about issues; others do not. Why would there be different approaches? One of the challenges in home inspection is that we don't know how much clients know. Worse still, clients are problematic because many know a lot about some things and little about others.
And, some clients want to know a lot, and others don't. Some don't want to know much when they buy the house. "Just give me the Bottom Line." But then they want all kinds of detail when they move into the house. "What did you say we should do about that torn valley flashing? When? Where? Why?"
So how can we write a report that will satisfy everyone? We think there is a solution
The layering approach works with both paper and electronic reports, and can be particularly elegant in an electronic report. Remember how we talked about giving people what they want the way they want it?
Include A Summary?
Summaries offer significant advantages for clients and we know that clients want them, because we asked. The argument against summaries is that our liability is increased because people will rely on the summary and not read the entire report. We are comfortable that we can provide wording in the summary to make it clear to any reasonable person that, The summary is provided as a courtesy and is not a substitute for the entire report. The complete report must be read and considered before making decisions related to the home inspection.
Summaries are easy to build with most electronic reporting software, taking almost no time or effort. They can also include other valuable comments such as these: "All conditions noted in the report should be further investigated by a qualified specialist for related or additional conditions." Some would add, PRIOR to the close of escrow."
Reporting On Site
We said earlier that clients behave differently at different times. When they are trying to decide whether to buy the home, they need to know just the Bottom Line, focusing on the significant items. After they move in, they want to know chapter and verse, so they can look after the home. That's when they get into the body of the report in detail.
How Can A Reporting System Reduce My Liability?
We think there are several ways:
We look to minimize risk, without compromising customer service. Good systems help you accomplish these goals.
Is My Report A Marketing Tool?
We think it should be. It should create a positive image of your company and you should assume your report will be shared with others - friends and family, real estate sales professionals, lawyers, lenders, insurers and so on. It would be a wasted opportunity not to make your company look really good every chance you get.
Imagine the leverage you create when people read your report and say, "Wow that was easier than I thought it was going to be. I really understand my house now. Thank you!" or, "That was the best technical report I have ever read, on any subject! It was clear, easy to read and easy to understand."
We should be clear; a great reporting system will not save a bad home inspection or a bad home inspector, but it can make a good one look great.
What Should Reports Cost?
Over the years a number of surveys have indicated that inspectors consistently spend an average of roughly 4 to 4.5% of their sales on report writing. If your fee is $300, that is $12.00 to $13.20 per report. You can spend almost nothing on reports or more than $40 per report.
The hard cost of the report is not the only factor to consider. Let's look at some of the soft or hidden costs of report writing. If you spend 1 to 2 hours writing every report, and you could use a system that would cut that time by an hour, what would that be worth? Well, if you do 300 inspections a year, that's 150 hours, or 4 working weeks! If you do two inspections a day, you'll save (20 days x 2 inspections/day x $300/inspection) $12,000 in lost opportunity! And if you could save a full hour per report, you'll save 300 hours (8 weeks) or $24,000!
Some systems allow you to book inspections electronically, and the client data moves automatically into your reports. The savings in time and reduced transcription mistakes are certainly worth something. Some report writing software makes it very easy to email confirmations to clients and agents. This improved communication reduces confusion and missed appointments, saving time and money.
Some systems help track your receivables, so you can contact people who owe you money. Some also help you track your sales, and see how your business is growing and where it comes from. There are even reporting systems that archive your records for you, so you have no storage or retrieval costs, and more importantly, you can always find an old report instantly when you need it.
One of the other soft costs is how much time you spend customizing and updating your reporting system. Some of the new web-based systems are updated automatically for you, minimizing time spent keeping current, and reducing mistakes made because your system is not up to date.
A Peek Into The Future - Web Based Home Inspection or Commercial Inspection Reporting
Looking ahead, software will move onto the web and away from the conventional installed packages we are used to seeing. The benefits are clear:
NOTE added by D Friedman, 10/7/08 - the web-based home inspection reporting projected by Mr. Carson is currently available from that firm. See:
Our Top 10 (or so) Report Writing Tips
So, reports are a necessary evil that are not going away any time soon. The goal is to find a way to write reports quickly that will delight customers while protecting yourself. The better the system, the more easily you will be able to meet this goal.
After 30 years' experience, asking lots of customers and lots of home inspectors, and after making most of the mistakes possible, we have finally found a reporting solution that allows us to achieve all of these goals.
©2010 - 2005 Alan Carson Carson Dunlop, All Rights Reserved. Used with permission of the author, 23 January 2008.
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