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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.
Actually Phrases From Actual Reports 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