I have done it again.

One year in every three

I manage it—–

A sort of walking disaster,

my eyes dull as a real estate disclosure form,

my two feet, a mudsill

My face a featureless fine-grade drywall.

Peel off the plaster,

O my inspector. Am I rotten?

Here’s my bad real estate rewrite of “Lady Lazarus,” Sylvia Plath’s paean to her multiple suicide attempts. Silly, I know. The real poem is about the place between life and the unknown that Plath found herself in again and again. But in my case, it’s not death déjà vu, but real estate limbo, something that seems, if not as final, then certainly almost as scary.

That’s right – I’m in that murky netherworld known as escrow. Every three years, it seems, I get myself into this situation, and it’s always confusing.

It is here that I stumble about in the dark in search of the holy path of wood-boring beetles. It is here that I try to understand how to correct past misdeeds, how to predict future failings (structural, not spiritual). And leading me to the light of heavenly home ownership are the inspection saints.

Unfortunately, I find these St. Peters of real estate a little difficult to understand.

“You got a faulty grade on the front,” said my contractor/inspector, “but if you elevate the foundation, you can correct the grade condition and replace the mudsills at the same time. They have excessive moisture, and some of the piers are embedded in the cement, which is nonconforming.”

The inspection has just begun and he’s speaking a mile a minute in fluent inspector-ese. Already, I’m begging for translation: “What does that mean?” “What’s that word again?” And, most of all, “Is this important, and, if so, for God’s sake, how much will it cost me?”

Real estate inspections have evolved to respond to our increasingly litigious and paranoid culture. In the old days, you bought a house and, gradually, you found out what was wrong with it as the roof began to leak and the foundation settled. There could be nasty surprises, especially if the sellers tried to cover up the defects, which they were allowed to do. Many lawsuits and broken deals later, most real estate transactions now begin with a contingency period – usually 7 to 15 days, during which time the potential buyers throw hundreds of dollars in all directions to find out about the home’s dark side now rather than later.

The new buyers’ modus operandi: Tell us the bad news first.

As time goes on and environmental science improves and lawyers continue to discover niche markets in our domestic disasters, sellers are required to make more and more kinds of disclosures. These are like the scriptures that you, the faithful buyer, must interpret with the help of the holy experts.

The most multifarious of these is the Real Estate Transfer Disclosure Statement, wherein the owners are asked to reveal all sorts of venal details about the house’s condition, its history of remodeling and problems with appliances, as well as a record of neighborhood nuisances. Along with this document, the sellers must furnish little state-mandated brochures on cheery topics such as lead poisoning and living near a fault line. There is also the Natural Hazard Disclosure Statement, as well as laws requiring disclosures about deaths on the property, as well as the presence of military ordnance and, more likely, mold.

Once sellers have divulged their home’s problems (insofar as it’s legally mandated), the buyers begin inspections. From radon, mold, lead, asbestos and electromagnetic fields to plumbing, sewer lateral, foundation, electrical, energy, roofing and subsoil, if you can imagine a system or a problem with a house, it probably has its own specialized inspector. I’ve even heard of feng shui inspections.

How do you know what kinds of inspections to get? Well, it’s here the average Jan and Joe Buyer need a real estate agent to make informed recommendations. If the sellers have already done any inspections, you can use them as guidelines, but it’s also nice to have a real estate agent who knows something about construction. Between the pressure of buying a house and the jargon-heavy reports, it helps to have a representative who can ask pertinent questions while inspectors are present and explain things after they’ve sped away.

Usually, the most important of these reports are the pest inspection and the contractor’s inspection. The former name is a bit of a misnomer, in that it covers many issues beyond your average mouse, rat, roach, termite and wood-boring beetle infestations. It also covers fungus, dry rot, water damage and many matters involving the foundation. Technically, the specialty is “wood decay and wood-damaging organisms,” but as soon as you read a pest inspection, you know this is not as narrow a realm as it seems. As a result of almost all our homes being made primarily of wood, wood-damaging organisms are the primary agents of a building’s structural deterioration.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where homes are often old and the market is usually overheated, it’s common for agents to recommend that buyers skip the pest-inspection contingency. Why? According to state law, the pest report becomes part of the public documents on the house for two years so that lenders can view them. If the results are especially bad, a bank may be reluctant to approve a loan. But even if you don’t choose to have a pest-inspection contingency, you almost always want a pest inspection anyway so you’ll know what you’re getting into. If, to pave the way to a smooth, quick sale, the sellers have already done a pest report – which costs about $300 locally – depending on circumstances, you may or may not want to rely on their report.

The contractor’s inspection, which runs about $500, is even more comprehensive, offering an assessment of the building as a whole.

“We cover all the five main systems of the house: roof, plumbing, electricity, structure and foundation,” said Alec Lambie, owner of General Contractors Inspection Services, the biggest inspection company in San Francisco.

With 25 years in the business, Lambie’s company has conducted 30,000 inspections and has seven inspectors, many of whom worked as contractors for years or are engineers and architects. Lambie claims that at least half of the independent inspectors in town once worked for him, so he seems the ideal person to identify the traits of a good inspector.

“It’s important that they have time in the trades – as contractors, engineers or architects,” he said, adding that most of his inspectors are former contractors who were tired of being “beaten up” by clients and architects. “Too many inspectors nowadays have no technical background at all,” he adds.

But being a master carpenter doesn’t necessarily translate to being a good inspector. “Looking at a house, making notes and talking to clients at the same time is like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time,” Lambie said. “So it’s important that they are people who can speak simply and eloquently. You want them to be thorough enough, but not so thorough that you have to take an anti-boredom suppository to understand what they’re saying.”

Because there’s no state licensing program for inspectors, it’s easy for anyone to go out, hang a shingle and begin practicing the dark arts of inspection. The one sign of qualification is being certified by the American Society of Housing Inspectors (ASHI), which won’t license anyone who doesn’t have sufficient experience. More important, without ASHI certification, inspectors can’t get “errors and omissions” insurance to cover them for their mistakes.

“We are in a high-liability profession,” Lambie said. “Everyone gets hit. There are six law schools in the Bay Area, and they turn out lawyers like termites. Sometimes, it’s our fault. You can’t inspect 30,000 houses and not miss something.”

What are the signs of a bad inspector? Lambie said they may err on the side of laziness, but more common is the fault of being overzealous: They make a big deal about something buyers shouldn’t worry about. What’s the red flag that an inspector is actually unethical? “If they ever try get you to hire them to do the work,” Lambie said, “that’s a total conflict of interest.”

And herein lies the political hornet’s nest of home inspections.

It’s illegal for an inspection company to do a contractor’s inspection, since there is a law that deems this dual role a conflict of interest. The law came about in response to inspectors inflating repair costs and then using their authority to clear reports in order to nab overpriced construction jobs.

By contrast, pest-inspection companies can bid on jobs they inspect, so there’s an incentive to overinflate the price. Why? One of the best ways to show you’ve gotten the work done properly is to get the inspecting company to issue a certification of clearance approving the job. If you hire another pest company to do it more cheaply, there’s always a chance the inspecting company won’t like it and will refuse to clear the report. How do you know whether your pest company is overcharging you? You don’t, but one of the things you’re paying for is getting an easy clearance at the end. (My real estate agent, who spent 18 years as a contractor, recommends telling the pest inspector that you’re hiring another company but you want approval, so the inspector needs to be specific about what should be seen.)

Things get more complicated still if your inspection company, like the one we used, does both pest reports and contractor’s inspections.

Lambie regards such multitasking with skepticism. “There’s a lot of funny money in the business,” he said. “As contractor’s inspectors, we’re not allowed to bid on projects, but the pest report and the contracting inspection overlap. Who’s to say where one ends and other begins? There’s lots of gray area there.”

As I walk through the house, trailing the fast-talking inspector, I try to listen for the meaning behind his method. My real estate agent has assured me that our inspector is one of the best. I don’t dispute this, though the Nolo Press book “How to Buy a House in California” suggests investigating any inspectors your real estate agent recommends. Why? Real estate agents get paid only if the sale goes through, so – though most agents probably don’t succumb to such unscrupulousness – it’s in their best interest not to have an inspector who picks everything apart and scares buyers off.

In an off-the-record interview with my agent about this potential conflict of interest, he agreed it could be a problem. Either way, you must read between the inspector’s lines: Is he a lazy fly-by-night who is likely to allow serious problems to go undiscovered? Or is she so paranoid about being sued for an “omission and error” that her report reads like the disclosure of a Superfund site?

Like many novice home buyers, I don’t have my own set of inspectors on hand. Plus, we had only a seven-day inspection contingency period and, with a three-day weekend, that period was cut nearly in half. So it made sense to use the same inspector and have him explain a document that is about as accessible to my feeble brain as an Esperanto translation of “Finnegan’s Wake.”

We were near the end of our walk-through when I felt construction fatigue assaulting my brain. The inspector seemed very knowledgeable, a good talker and nice enough to indulge my on-the-spot demands for estimates on breaking down a wall here and ripping out carpet there. The contractor began chipping away at the mudsill and making his moisture meter light up like a little Nintendo. “This is not good, but it can be remedied,” he said. “All you need to do is…”

I must confess that, even though I was about to make the biggest investment of my lifetime and I knew I would be writing a column on inspections for this week, my attention lapsed, and I can’t recall a darn thing except the unencouraging phrase “replace the whole thing.”

The neighborhood cat was clawing at my leg, begging for attention. A good omen, since the cat is sweet – or maybe bad, since it is black. My stomach was growling from skipping lunch. I think I decided then and there to buy the house, if only so I could escape this crew and eat a sandwich and get back to rewriting the works of Sylvia Plath reborn as a manic-depressive real estate agent in 2004.

Carol Lloyd’s Surreal Estate column appears every Tuesday on sfgate.com. She can be contacted at carol@creatingalifeworthliving.com.


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