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The following bolded comments were taken from reports submitted to me by intrepid TIJ inspectors. I was disappointed because overall, the reports were pretty good. I was really hoping to complete this series with some outstanding examples of horrific writing, but I suppose I should have known better.
There were sharp handrail ends at the stairways, which should be serviced to help prevent injury.
We know what the writer intended, but a buyer or a contractor might not. How, exactly, does one ‘service’ a sharp railing end? I think this is better, more clearly stated thusly:
The end of the handrails on the stairs are sharp, which is a hazard. They should be rounded (or ‘returns should be installed’ or whatever the situation calls for) for safety.
An extension cord was being used to power the condensate pump, but it should be plugged directly into its own outlet for safety. Have an outlet installed.
The condensate pump is powered by an extension cord, which is hazardous. An electrician should be hired to hard-wire an electrical receptacle next to the sump pump so it can be safely plugged in directly.
The stairs leading to the apartment are not level. They drop from east to west at a rate that well exceeds the allowed ratio of 1:48. The condition can be construed as a trip hazard.
OK, we’ve all seen something like this hundreds of times. This was in an apartment attached to a 137-year-old commercial bakery. These places often have dozens of non-compliant features, some meaningful, some not. If it is important enough to put in the report, I think you owe it to your readers to use complete sentences and follow the OAR rule. This inspector nailed the observation, but the final sentence (analysis) is squishy and there is no recommendation. The phrase ‘can be construed as a trip hazard’ forces the reader to interpret it. I presume what the inspector was thinking was something along the lines of ‘I need to tell my client about this potential risk, but the only way to fix it is to rip the stairs out and rebuild them and I know he’s not going to do that and I don’t blame him. I have to write something, so I’ll just throw the criticism out there with a light warning.”
I think replacing the final sentence with something like the following would be much better.
“This is a tripping hazard. The stairs should be properly rebuilt for safety, which will be expensive.”
That communicates the risk to the buyer, lets them know fixing it is a big deal, and that they should fix it.
This is a very nicely built example of 1960’s construction. The floor joists and roof sheathing are slight by today’s standards but very typical for the era.
This strikes me as unnecessarily confusing. It’s nicely built, but slight? Personally, I would ditch the first sentence altogether. If there was ever a major problem in this house, I can imagine the plaintiff’s attorney’s pupils turning into little dollar signs after reading that sentence. I almost never wrote anything complimentary in a report. Your client knows the house is nice; that’s why they’re buying it. I recommend restraining your focus on what you’re required to report and what’s wrong with the house.
The toilet in the main bath is loose. It moves a lot. Repair will require removing the toilet and replacing the wax ring. This is a $6-8 project that should take about 20 minutes, maybe an hour if you have never done it before. Do not put it off. The wax ring could leak destroying the flooring and damaging the structure, the toilet could break, or both – costing hundreds or even thousands to repair.
Can we save the author a bit of time and trouble?
The toilet in the main bathroom is loose and moves when sat upon. Loose toilets leak, which will cause damage. This toilet should be properly reinstalled now. (This next line is optional:) It’s a fairly simple project that some handy people can take on themselves or you can have a plumber do it.
That's it, friends. Thanks for reading. I hope some of it was helpful.
Jim Morrison used to inspect homes in Greater Boston. Today he covers residential real estate for a trade publication in Boston. You can reach him at JamesAndrewMorrison@gmail.com
When Someone Asks What Time It Is, Don’t Tell Them How to Build a Watch
Even useful information gets lost in a sea of words. Your task is to tell the reader everything they need to know -and no more- clearly and concisely. If you want to include your personal treatise on how to maintain perfectly even heat in a Queen Anne Victorian with no storm windows using an oil-fired steam boiler, then include that as a separate handout; people who are interested can read it. Don’t make the other 99 percent of your clients suffer through it unnecessarily.
It makes sense to think of a home inspection as the rough equivalent of a prospective homebuyer asking you the questions, “What do I need to know about this house before I buy it? And, “What significant risks should I anticipate?”
New to a rural community, I was talking to a great old neighbor and a WWII vet. I asked him what the best route to the interstate was. He told me, “Go down to the main road and turn left, when you get to the end of the stone wall there’s a road on your left that’ll take you past Wilson’s farm, there’ll be a Gulf (used to be a Shell) gas station on the right, then some condos and in 2 miles you’ll see the general store. Don’t take that left. Instead, keep going down the main road and you’ll see another left just before the drug store. That’ll bring you past the library, the middle school and after you pass South Meadow Pond you can take the right that’ll bring you to Town Hall. You don’t want that left either. “
He went on this way for a while like so many HI reports do, too.
If your report isn’t straightforward and easy to understand, there’s a good chance people won’t read it and miss something important. Let’s remember the goal: Your goal isn’t to win lawsuits, that’s what attorneys do. You’re in business to help clients and avoid lawsuits.
Do yourself a favor and make it easy for your clients to recognize and retain the important information in your report.
Learn To Recognize Inspector-Speak. Resolve to stop using It.
Marc Cramer used to teach a report writing class. If he still does, I recommend you take it. He wrote the best example of truly heinous HI report-writing I’ve seen to date. He asked attendees what an inspector should report, if anything, if they encountered a tiger in the master bedroom. The multiple choices included something along the lines of (I’m sure I’m not doing it justice):
“A large, carnivorous feline -possibly resembling Panthera tigris- in the southwest corner of the master bedroom. Adult tigers lead largely solitary lives. They establish and maintain territories but have much wider home ranges within which they roam. Resident adults of either sex generally confine their movements to their home ranges, within which they satisfy their needs and those of their growing cubs. Individuals sharing the same area are aware of each other's movements and activities. The size of the home range mainly depends on prey abundance, and, in the case of males, on access to females. It was not determined how the animal entered the bedroom, but it poses a likely hazard for persons wishing to enter. For this reason, the master bedroom was excluded from the scope of the inspection. Further investigation by a licensed professional is suggested.”
(The italicized sentences above were excerpted from Wikipedia.)
Using the fewest and best possible words, you need to put the relevant information neatly and gently in your client’s hands in a way that is impossible for them to misunderstand. Don’t try to sound smart. It inevitably has the opposite effect. Clear, concise writing makes the writer sound smart. If you inspect a home with a worn-out asphalt roof, write:
The asphalt shingle roof on this house is worn past the standard for replacement. It should be stripped and replaced now by a qualified professional. The process will be expensive.
You can quibble about a particular word or phrase, but that pretty much nails it. You don’t have to explain how important a roof is, how shingles are made, what the cost range could be, or anything else.
Somewhere on this site or one of its predecessors, Jim Katen (the best HI report writer I know of) recommended people buy and read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Most HI’s probably won’t, but I guarantee if you do, it’ll point out at least one bad habit you can correct. Probably more than one.
Observation, Analysis, Recommendation
Every comment in your report should include your observation (what you found), your analysis (what it means) and your recommendation (what your client should do about it). I learned this from recently-retired Mass. home inspector Bob Mulloy and it stands the test of time.
I am a slow typist. After organizing my thoughts and writing around this principal, I only rarely spent more than 45 minutes writing a report.
Example: At least 12' of the structural sill along the east wall has been damaged by termites. This significant structural damage must be replaced by a licensed builder now which will be expensive.
A few of you have sent me sample reports, but unfortunately for me, there was no truly cringe-worthy writing in any of them.
My next installment in this series will address some specifics.
Better Writing Is Worth Some Effort
When I was in the inspection business and the topic of report-writing would come up, I noticed a certain percentage of inspectors would react as if they were above improving their writing skills. They didn't consider it important. They'd been writing they way they'd been writing for their entire adult life and they thought they wrote just fine.
Maybe they were right, maybe not. What those inspectors don't know is how many people are turned off by the way they write. How many people stop reading when they run head-first into some of their bad habits? How many of your clients never get your meaning because your writing obscures it?
What are your bad writing habits costing you? Which busy real estate attorneys don't refer clients to you because your reports are difficult to read?
The newspaper business is in a lot of trouble. It's fighting for survival and no outlet can afford to lose a single reader. Newspapers study what draws people in and what turns people off the way I study a restaurant's beer list on a menu before I agree to eat there.
There are lots of ways a reporter or an inspector can shoot themself in the foot when writing something they want people to read. Whoever is teaching these methods in home inspector schools is doing a great job because as near as I can tell they've got near-total market penetration.
Newspapers have discovered what you might have guessed: Humans are lazy readers. We scan newspapers and websites for headlines that might interest us. In doing so, we probably pass by important stories that might well inform or entertain us, but we don?t care. We're busy people.
When we start reading a story, we often stop after just a few lines. If the story isn't what we're looking for, or the writing is hard to understand, we move on.
The people reading your reports are no different, so every comment in your report should be interesting or at the very least, relevant. We also have limits to how long we want a story to be. Get to the point in a reasonable period of time or we're gone. We're also sensitive. If you offend or bore us, we're gone.
A well-written report complements a great inspection and a poorly-written one muddles it. In addition to your clients, their attorneys are going to read your work. It's worth putting a little effort into writing the most impressive reports you can. (Editor's note: complement and compliment are different words)
You bust your ass to find the defects, you should put some effort into presenting them clearly and professionally. It will bring you more and better referrals than dropping doughnuts off at a real estate agent's office.
Here are a few easy, general tips you can use to improve your writing:
The last thing an inspector should do before printing or sending a report off to a client is spellcheck it. It's a fast, easy, free way to improve your work. Everyone should be doing this every time. Misspellings make you look bad and avoiding them is easy.
Your and you're (and yore), its and it's
These words mean very different things. Learn to use them correctly. Your friends may not care if you mix them up in emails, but people are paying you good money and you owe them a good report. Misusing common words gives readers the impression you are too lazy/sloppy/dumb to know the difference. You can do better. It's not difficult.
I vs. We
This hardly deserves discussion, but it's a pet peeve of mine. One inspector, one author, singular pronoun (I): no debate. I've yet to hear a reasonable argument against this. Using "we" doesn't make you sound smarter or more professional.
Active vs. Passive
This one has been talked about for as long as I can remember, but it's always worth revisiting briefly for those who forgot or are new to the profession. Always avoid the passive voice (e.g. Corrosion was observed on the bottom of the water heater). It makes you sound unsure and vague and is considered a weak construction. Active, declarative sentences are always better in an HI report (e.g. The bottom of the water heater is corroding).
I only used them a few times and I realize that puts me in the minority. By and large, I think photos are way overdone in reports. My opinion is that they should be used somewhat sparingly. Focus on quality over quantity. When they are essential or helpful to get your point across, use them. If you include 60 photos in a report, the important ones are likely to get lost among the less important ones.
Use complete sentences
If it's worth telling your client about, it's worth a whole sentence. That's how professionals communicate.
Don't Write Like You Speak
There are loads of phrases I might use in conversation with a client that I wouldn't use in a report. Things like: The deck looks like it was built by Uncle Meanswell and Cousin Thirtypack (credit: Gary Blum). Write better (more clearly and precisely) than you speak.
That'll do for now. More to come.
Email Jimmy questions, comments or send him some of the worst HI writing you've seen at: JamesAndrewMorrison@gmail.com
TIJ is very pleased to announce the first in a series of articles by our own Jim Morrison. He's a reporter for the Banker and Tradesman in Boston and a former home inspector. Buckle up, put your ego in check and learn from the very best.
On Improving Your Reports
Consider this advice from a close friend, though we've likely never met. For about 25 years, I was a home inspector. Five years or so ago, I left the field to write for newspapers and magazines in a time when most outlets are laying people off. I know a bit about both inspecting and about writing.
Most of what follows are my own thoughts, but some of it I've learned from others. Where memory serves, I've attributed those thoughts that aren't mine.
I've known hundreds of home inspectors and -like many of you- have read HI reports numbering in the hundreds. There are no more than two inspectors I'm aware of that the following does not apply to (and one of them is dead): Your report is much, much worse than you think and it may be your biggest liability.
Your report isn't worth much if your client doesn't read and understand it. Newspaper writers are arguably under more pressure than anyone to attract, inform and keep readers' eyes on the page/screen until the very last word (and that's what you ought to be doing, too).
Writing Reports Is The Single Most Important Part of Your Job
If the greatest inspector ever born finds a serious defect in a property and explains it eloquently on-site, but fails to get her message across in writing, she has failed her duty and put herself at great risk. If something goes wrong and she gets a call from her client's attorney, the report will be the bulk of her defense. It had better be good.
A clear, complete, concise report is the best product you can offer. It's also your best defense in a lawsuit. Best of all, it might even discourage lawyers from filing suit against you in the same way that bad reports encourage them.
It's not what you meant, but what you wrote that will protect (or sink) you. Words have meanings and those meanings matter. Hell, even commas have meaning, but don't take my word for it. Read this. It's far from the only case of its kind.
Look, you want your report to be an easy, informative read and as they say: easy reading is damned hard writing. You don't have to be a gifted novelist to write a decent HI report; it's a skill that can be taught and honed.
Your Report Is Awful
I wasn't a very good report writer. To get good, you need practice (which most of you have) and good coaching (which most of you don't). A good editor/coach will bring anyone's game up. Way up. Now that I've had a lot of brutal, ego-smashing coaching, I can see just how bad some of my work was. Luckily, I've forgiven myself and managed to avoid the inside of a courtroom. You may not be as lucky, but there's still time to save yourself.
It's really important for HIs to understand that -like it or not- you are professional writers. You may be a brilliant inspector who has never missed a defect. You may even charm the socks off every client you've ever had. But if you aren't writing reports that clearly and concisely put what you saw on-site into your clients' heads through your reports, then you are a liability to your firm.
Writing Is Like Playing Catch
One of the reasons my reports weren't that good is because I thought like a home inspector and not like a professional writer. The first big concept you have to accept is that writing is like playing catch. It's not enough to be a good thrower (writer). For a game of catch to be successful, you need a decent catcher (reader) as well.
But you don't control who's catching (reading). You'll have different readers every day, so home inspectors need to be the best writers they can possibly be. The information you're trying to get across has to land gently and squarely in the reader's heads, in a way that is impossible to misunderstand. If you make a reader work for it, many of them won't get your meaning and you will have failed at your job and put yourself at risk.
Some Good Role Models
Ernest Hemingway is widely considered one of the greatest American writers. He got his training as a journalist. He avoided big words and always used the right words. His prose was stark, short, punchy, easy to understand and packed with meaning. He didn't dumb his writing down; he made it crystal clear. He's a great example to follow. Mark Twain, too.
Closer to home, search the TIJ forum for reports that Jim Katen has posted. He is the best report writer in the business. His reports are remarkably clear and free of major flaws. If you find yourself thinking, this is very different from most of the HI reports I've read; Good! Don't write like most home inspectors.
Want to dramatically improve your writing and reduce your liability in 15 minutes? Google up Orwell's six rules for writing, print them out and tape them to your computer monitor. Read them often and follow them always.
That'll do for now. More later.
Email Jimmy questions, comments or send him some of the worst HI writing you've seen at: JamesAndrewMorrison@gmail.com