Inspection Report Writing: 8 Best Practices
For inspection clients and home inspectors alike, inspection reports are worth their weight in gold. Many inspection clients—often home buyers—rely on the findings inspectors detail in their reports to make important purchasing decisions.
“[The inspection report is] basically a giant list of everything that is wrong with your (potential) home,” explained Kristin Wong in her article “How to Read (and React to!) a Home Inspection Report” for the Architectural Digest. “And while not every issue is a big deal, some are significant enough to have you rethinking your offer, or at least renegotiating with the seller.”
Likewise, the home inspectors themselves find value in the reports they generate. For many inspectors, well-written inspection reports symbolize a level of maturity and expertise in the industry. Furthermore, many state licensing boards, associations, and franchises review inspector-members’ reports annually as a way of measuring the quality of the inspectors’ work.
“There’s almost nothing more important to your reputation and success as a professional home inspector than the quality of the report your client receives after you’ve finished inspecting a home,” argues Inspection Certification Associates (ICA).
As important as inspection reports are to the industry, there’s a wide array of opinions regarding exactly how to write a good report. Sometimes, it feels as though there are just as many ways to generate a report as there are home inspectors.
As a home inspection insurance provider, we’re interested in what techniques home inspectors can employ to create quality reports. So, we interviewed several seasoned inspectors to learn what strategies they suggest other inspectors use to achieve report writing success. We’ve compiled their tips into eight inspection report writing best practices below.
1. Don’t rush it.
Of the home inspectors we interviewed, all of them have completed reports onsite, but none of them still do. Our interviewees argue that finishing reports offsite makes for better final products.
“I wouldn’t put my John Hancock on any report that was completed and generated onsite,” said Mark S. Lodner of LBI Home & Building Inspection in Virginia. “It’s just asking for trouble.”
What exactly did our interviewees find concerning about onsite reports?
After reviewing some of their own onsite inspection reports, our inspectors realized that writing reports in one go made it more likely that they make mistakes—often, minimal misspellings, but sometimes, complete oversights. Thus, our home inspectors believe it’s important to take the time to review reports with fresh eyes before sending them to clients. For many of them, taking a few hours or an evening to complete a report still allows them to deliver reports in a timely manner, thus respecting their clients’ time and deadlines.
“[By writing reports offsite,] I don’t have anybody looking over while I’m typing, rushing me, which can result in sloppy sentence structure, making mistakes, and leaving things out,” said Miki Mertz of Complete Home Inspection in Kansas.
Randy Sipe of Family Home Inspection Services in Kansas and the Board for the National Home Inspector Examination (NHIE) agrees—not just from his own report writing experience, but from reviewing other inspectors’ reports. Additionally, Sipe finds that he’s better able to contextualize defects when he reviews all the inspection photos later on. It also helps him determine the seriousness of the issues when considered as one piece of a larger puzzle.
Mike Burroughs of QED Service in Louisiana, too, has discovered ways to improve his reports post-inspection. In fact, reviewing his reports offsite has helped Burroughs catch significant property defects he would have otherwise missed.
“There have been a number of times [when] I’ve come home, blew up photos, [and] started looking to make sure I put all the right markings on them, indicating what the problems were. And lo and behold, I’ve found another issue that I didn’t notice while I was onsite,” Burroughs said.
In addition to defending the inspection information’s integrity, completing reports offsite can also help with inspectors’ appearances. As a former member of the Louisiana State Board of Home Inspectors, Burroughs has heard clients complain about home inspectors who spend their inspections buried in their phones and tablets. According to Burroughs, these clients wonder if their inspectors are paying more attention to their devices than the inspections themselves.
“As an inspector, you have to remember what the public sees you do and what their opinion of what you do is,” Burroughs said.
2. Know what you’re writing about.
To proficiently report defects, you have to be familiar with that defect. Sipe believes that a lack of knowledge of current changes to building standards contributes to poor reports.
“If you don’t know what you’re looking at, you’re going to have a hard time writing about it,” Sipe said.
To avoid such ignorance, Sipe recommends passing the National Home Inspector Examination (NHIE) and obtaining frequent continuing education from local association chapters. By studying for and passing the NHIE, you can build a foundation of industry understanding. Additionally, by meeting with other inspectors in your region, you can better learn about the standard of care in your area.
“You’re never going to stop learning, from the day you started inspecting until the day you quit,” Sipe said. “Your business grows, you grow as an inspector, and your knowledge base grows.”
According to Mertz, a good understanding of property systems and components will make you more equipped to provide your clients with thorough inspections. While it’s sometimes necessary to refer clients to specialists, Mertz argues that some home inspectors will make unnecessary referrals due to a lack of knowledge or expertise.
“There’s a difference between saying, ‘This is broken. I recommend an expert fix it,’ and ‘I don’t know what I’m looking at. Go have somebody else look at it,'” Mertz said.
3. Know your report writing template.
As a Louisiana State report reviewer, Burroughs audits the majority of Louisiana home inspectors’ reports. In reviewing hundreds of reports, Burroughs has concluded that inspection reporting formats and software are only as good as the home inspectors using them. However, having a report writing template or software can save time and encourage consistency—so long as inspectors are familiar with their templates.
“Templates are wonderful, but you have to know what your [template] says,” Mertz said.
According to Mertz, it’s easy to make mistakes by trying to write the report too quickly and by not checking your own work. For example, you may check the wrong box on your report writing template and say that a property has gas logs in the fireplace when, in reality, the house doesn’t have gas.
To avoid such mistakes, Sipe recommends practicing with your new software to make sure you’re familiar with how it works before performing a paid inspection with that software.
“Remember, when you get a software out of the box, there will always be a learning curve, no matter who’s you choose to purchase,” Sipe said. “You’ve got plenty of friends. Go to their houses. Give them a maintenance inspection and use your software.”
4. Cater each report to the property.
In addition to being familiar with your report writing template or software of choice, it’s important to be prepared to modify your template or software to adapt to your inspection properties.
“No published inspection report, whether it’s a computerized one or a handwritten one, is going to be able to come up with every possible defect and scenario that we see every day. Sometimes, you just have to write what that specific problem is,” Mertz said.
Sipe agrees, which is why his software must allow him to easily edit reports. With the particular software he’s chosen, Sipe enjoys being able to tap a phrase in his template to temporarily or permanently modify that phrase to better communicate the specific conditions of each property.
“Not every house is going to be the same,” Sipe said. “Because all houses are different, there are going to be modifications or changes you need to make to each and every inspection [report].”
5. Stick to the facts
“In report writing, my job is to tell the story and let the reader come to the conclusion that they need to come to [without] me directing them one way or another,” Burroughs said. “The job of the inspector is to relate information to the client in an unbiased manner so the client can make the decision and know whether that’s the house for them.”
Our other interviewees agreed: It’s up to you to deliver the facts. It’s up to the client to decide what to do with those facts.
“My job is just to report,” Sipe said. “I’m not going to make up my mind on what’s important to you, but I’m going to tell you about it.”
To avoid biasing the client, Burroughs first ensures that he himself isn’t biased by doing a full walk-through of the house before beginning his detailed inspection. By taking these additional 15 minutes to get a broad view of the property, Burroughs says he gets his first impressions out of the way, which allows him to better review the site in detail.
For Mertz, it’s important to stay away from prescriptive or predicting language to preserve her clients’ agency.
“I don’t tell them how to fix things, and I don’t tell them that they have to fix things. I’m not the house police,” Mertz said. “I’m not going to throw in a lot of, ‘ It might do this in the future,’ because that’s a prediction; and that’s not a fact.”
6. Be concise and understandable.
As a home inspector, one of your primary goals should be to adequately convey the necessary inspection information in a concise and understandable form. But how can you determine what information is necessary to convey?
Our home inspectors recommend starting with the Standards of Practice, Codes of Ethics, and required descriptions mandated by your state, franchise, and association. Once those needs are met, our interviewees encourage you to include the information you’d want in a report for a property you were about to purchase.
To relay information concisely and understandably, our inspectors recommend using simple but accurate terms.
“I’m a plain-spoken country boy. I’ve never been one to use really big terms in my reports,” Burroughs said. “I don’t want to get into all the $10 words when a 50-cent word will work.”
“Use simple language. Use short sentences,” Mertz said. “Big words shouldn’t be used just to impress people, because if your customer doesn’t know what you’re talking about because you used some techno jargon, then you haven’t communicated.”
How can you know if a term is too difficult to include in your report? Sipe suggests analyzing both your and your client’s familiarity with the word.
“If you can’t spell it, you probably shouldn’t say it [in your report],” Sipe said. “You have to really be acutely aware of who you’re talking to and what they may or may not understand.”
To determine whether his reports are simple and coherent, Burroughs has his wife, an English teacher and a former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent, audit his reports annually.
“A lot of inspectors tend to make a lot of assumptions in their descriptions that people know what certain things are,” Burroughs said. “[My wife] should be able to read a report and envision what I’m saying. If she cannot see that house and envision the issue that I put on paper, I failed in my mission.”
7. Take LOTS of photos.
To support your concise and understandable report writing, our interviewees recommend taking lots of photos.
Using his 360 camera, Sipe takes spherical photos of every room. While Sipe doesn’t include these photos in his reports, he does save them in his archives to provide him an overview of each room’s condition on the day of the inspection.
Mertz, too, takes representative photos of the property to depict a broad overview of components and systems. According to Mertz, representative photos serve to round out the report and document overall conditions on inspection day. Such snapshots in time can protect home inspectors from meritless allegations stemming from deficiencies that arise post-inspection. Taking photos of areas that don’t have issues is a cheap and easy way to avoid frivolous claims in the future.
“How can you prove it wasn’t broken if you don’t have a picture showing it wasn’t broken?” Mertz said.
Additionally, our interviewees capture photos of defects they discover during their inspections, like cracks in the basement walls.
“We document everything with pictures to back up what we’re actually saying,” said Barry Wong of Building Specs Hawaii, LLC in our article “How to write a report that clients understand.” “That makes it easier for the client to understand what’s actually happening, [which]…makes my job much easier, too.”
Moreover, Mertz recommends taking photos at various phases of the inspection to illustrate what she inspected. By documenting her inspection efforts, Mertz can prove that she did, in fact, examine the items she reported on.
“If you don’t have a picture of the inside of the electrical panel, how can you prove you took the cover off?” Mertz said.
8. Manage your risk.
Second only to pre-inspection agreements, reports provide home inspectors with great claims protection. By providing a detailed account of both defects and sufficiencies, inspection reports can provide evidence of the home’s condition and the inspector’s competence at the time of inspection. Inspection reports can support an inspector’s defense and lead to quicker claims resolution. Better yet, a home inspection report that clients understand can stifle claims before they begin.
To manage your risk, our interviewees recommend telling the truth, not making assumptions, and using disclaimers thoughtfully.
Tell the truth.
Burroughs believes that the fear of being sued can lead inspectors to soften their reporting. To Burroughs, focusing too much on not being an alarmist can cloud the truth.
“I’ve heard stories of guys who, for every negative they would put in the report, they’d put in two positives,” Burroughs said. “If there are more negative things about the house, that’s simply the truth, and [the clients] can extrapolate from that.”
Don’t make assumptions.
“I’ve learned from having dealt with enough lawyers over the years that I don’t assume anything. [For example,] if I can’t see [the framing] now, I need to state that, due to the walls being encased or enclosed, that the wall frame is not visible and, therefore, I cannot describe it,” Burroughs said.
Burroughs cautions that home inspectors should not assume the cause, origin, or severity of a deficiency.
“You don’t want to say you know what caused the problem. You just want to state what the problem is and recommend that they consult with a licensed, competent contractor to come in and do the evaluation,” Burroughs said. “[For example,] a crack is a crack until you do more structural analysis to find out whether that’s a structural settlement issue, a curing issue, or installation issue.”
Use disclaimers thoughtfully.
Disclaimers can help you underscore the scope of your home inspection, thus bettering your clients’ expectations and limiting your liability. By describing inspection limitations throughout your report, you can help your clients better understand your findings.
For example, Sipe has statements disclosing the specific risks associated with recently renovated and flipped properties. If Sipe sees signs of recent renovations—like cans of paint, plaster, or tile saws—he takes a picture and explains how renovations can eliminate signs of the property’s history. Furthermore, Sipe suggests clients ask sellers if the recent changes may have concealed staining or unusual conditions.
According to Burroughs, it’s important to explain how your own inspection techniques may impact findings, too.
“The home inspector must describe any limitations to their descriptions. You inspect the roof from the ground with a pair of binoculars. What are your limitations when performing that inspection?” Burroughs said.
Mertz agrees that disclaimers that emphasize inspection limitations and scope are essential. However, Mertz argues that overusing disclaimers can confuse rather than inform clients by drawing less attention to inspection findings.
“One of my pet peeves on a lot of home inspection reports is the overuse of protecting our assets with all the disclaimers,” Mertz said. “I don’t need to say that I can’t see through walls 75 times. I only need to say it once.”
To avoid overusing disclaimers, Mertz puts most of her disclaimers in her pre-inspection agreement. Then, Mertz only repeats the disclaimers in her report that she finds most important for clients to understand her findings, such as her disclaimer on the visual nature of inspections.
Make sure you’re protected.
At the end of the day, your inspection report is not just for the client. It’s for you. Your home inspection reports are risk management tools.
“The essential [thing to consider when writing] your report is making sure everything’s defensible if anything comes up,” said Wong, again in our earlier article “How to write a report that clients understand.” “There’s a lot of information you have to put out there for the customer, but we want to make sure that whatever we say is defensible, so that, if we ever to get into any litigation or loss, then we can actually defend what we put down on the report.”
Thus, the inspectors we interview recommend taking a through look at your inspection report and asking if it properly protects you. Then, the inspectors recommend having protection in case claims do arise.
“Be thorough and, if you have questions, there’s a lot of resources out there,” said Joe Redman of Good Faith Home Inspections in Washington in the same article. “[And] you should be carrying liability insurance and E&O.”