Building Inspections: What are they, what to look out for, and how to save money. As a nation of savvy renovators and sharp handymen, we are fairly on the ball when it comes to building know-how. Rare will be the times when we don’t at least have an opinion on our immediate built environment.
But despite the readily available wealth of information on building and the fact that we are well prepared to give it a go ourselves, we will always need the impartial opinion of a building consultant. Whether you need to ascertain and document that cause of cracked brickwork or you simply want on-site building advice, building inspectors are the industry consultants who represent fair and ethical advice and knowledge of building rules and regulations.
A large slice of the building inspection industry is founded on pre-purchase property inspections. And with good reason—the purchase of real estate is a major decision for most that needs to be considered with the full knowledge of all matters concerning a particular property. For this life-altering decision to be an informed one, it is often necessary to seek the independent and objective advice of a consultant.
Rules and regulations applied to pre-purchase inspections also form the basis for other types of visual inspections of residential property. If you need expert advice on a building matter or you’re about to invest in bricks and mortar but are unsure about the real estate agent’s description of the property, you need the impartial opinion of a building inspector.
At some point in our lives for most of us, real estate auctions may become as much a ritual on Saturday mornings as shopping at the supermarket. Let’s face it, it is not for the faint-hearted to fall in love with a property only to submit to the auction-day crescendo of activity that heralds the impending showdown of bids. Interested couples having last-minute inspections carried out by friends of builders, invariably seen casting judgement via ominous index finger toward creaky floors and dismissing whole rooms with a mere flick of a tape measure, is not the ideal way to carry out a building inspection. This is when interested parties can make costly mistakes by not allowing adequate investigative time.
Everyone knows someone who has gone through all the precautions of establishing that a potential dream home was in top-notch condition and has spent money in the process, only to have been outbid on auction day. However, gambling one’s life savings on 30 seconds of glorious bravado before a crowd of bidders is better left to those reckless enough to chance fate.
For the rest of us, money spent on a building inspection report is a very wise investment indeed.
It is human nature to become emotionally attached to a property on open day—despite our best intentions and rendition of a poker face before the estate agent and other bidders. We subconsciously imagine ourselves living within the walls. As in most situations, it can be a recipe for much heartache when we allow these emotionally charged images to influence decisions and bidding, leaving little room for the technicalities, the nuts and bolts of a property and proper standards and regulations.
It is a phenomenon more remarkable than Ian Thorpe’s feet. During the week, most of us collate a shopping list of groceries and make our Saturday morning pilgrimage to a packed supermarket with our inventory of goodies. Despite our noblest efforts we still come out with the wrong stuff. Somewhere along the line we become inebriated with fancy words and bright packaging without a second thought as to what’s inside or what we truly need to buy.
There will always be those whose job it is to separate us from our hard-earned cash, whether it be marketers or real-estate agents. However, being adequately informed before committing to a property can make the difference between years spent basking in its enjoyment and years spent regretting an auction date. More succinctly, information prevents us from buying the wrong stuff whether it is a new stronghold in a well-heeled suburb or a packet of jelly beans.
There are many valid reasons to commission a building inspection. One of the more important ones when purchasing a property is to find out whether there are any significant defects. These may not be so evident at face value considering that a vendor may have spruced up a property for a quick sale.
New paint work may be camouflaging rising damp in walls or stains in water-soaked ceilings from roof leaks. Puttied walls may disguise unsightly cracks and unreasonable movement in footings and so on and so forth. A knowledgeable building consultant should be able to see past the makeover and find defects that a potential owner may not have factored into his purchase price.
A leading reason for anyone considering a building inspection prior to signing on the dotted line is being able to underpin your negotiation skills on the final price. There is nothing like a report exposing defects to make a real estate agent readjust his price and take notice of what you have to offer.
Construction-in-progress building inspections are usually necessary during the construction of a new property. It is often simpler and far more cost-effective to address defects during construction than after a property is handed over to a client. For example, timber wall frames can be straightened or replaced quite cheaply before internal linings are affixed and painted. Three inspections during the construction of a dwelling are generally required.
The construction industry is steeped in products and services that are considered “standard”. However, inspections should be tailored for individual needs and as the client you have the right to expect this of your building inspector. A building inspector who does not mould an inspection to the requirements of his clients is as out of fashion as pleated jeans.
Similarly, the written report should be written in plain English and not obscure building terminology that only a planning consultant can understand. For a more detailed account of what a building inspector can do, read the following article ‘Inspection know-how’.
The low-down on different building inspections, what’s recommended and what to avoid.
There are numerous types of building inspections. Those not commissioned as pre-purchase building inspections are generally lumped together as special purpose property inspections, usually tailor-made for the specific problem at hand.
Special purpose inspections may include dilapidation reports, where the condition of a property is thoroughly documented before and after the construction of a neighbouring property. A dilapidation report is often the most expensive and it’s not unusual for a consultant to take hundreds of high-resolution photos to substantiate the report. However, you should arrange your own dilapidation report and not wholly rely on the one organised by the party next door.
Special purpose inspections may be commissioned to work out the cost of fixing major problems, or to assess minor repairs or maintenance necessary to keep a property in good running order. It is critical you communicate any concerns directly to the inspector to ensure their skills are suitable for the particular building matter at hand.
Important inspections that fall within this category can be those carried out within the three-month defects liability period following completion of a new building. Within this window of time it’s essential for a purchaser to identify any defects immediately evident after the property is sold. The new homeowner may or may not know what constitutes a valid reason to call the builder back again.
Pest inspections also fall within the special purpose umbrella. These complement a pre-purchase building inspection.
To stumble upon an open house where the vendor has arranged a pre-sale building report is refreshing to say the least. It signals an honest vendor who may be prepared to negotiate. Nothing instils confidence more than a vendor who has had a property x-rayed by an inspector and passes this information openly to interested purchasers. However, when large sums of money are at stake it may also be a good idea to get a second opinion and not simply rely on this free information.
Building inspectors need reasonable access to all parts of a property in order to carry out a visual building inspection. These areas will need to be safe, unobstructed and clear. For example, if a manhole exists in the ceiling, it will need to be at least 450mm by 400 mm and accessible from a 3.6m ladder.
For subfloors, there needs to be an access manhole at least 500mm by 400mm wide for it to be accessed reasonably. Underfloor crawl spaces need to be at least 400mm measured to the underside of floor bearers, or 500mm to the underside of a suspended concrete slab. The exterior of a roof needs to be accessed from the same 3.6m ladder. If these clearances are not available, the inspector may report on what is in his unobstructed line of sight and can legitimately use binoculars.
Much rests on the adjective ‘reasonable’ in the construction and legal fields. What is ‘reasonable’ can often be left up to interpretation when it comes to accessing parts of a building. It may mean that a roof structure or underfloor frameworks may not be inspected if the inspector deems access to these areas unreasonable.
Building inspectors at all times should have adequate insurance including public risk and professional indemnity and, where necessary, workers compensation insurance.
Before booking an inspection, ask what the format is of the report you will receive. Don’t be fobbed off by administration staff; if you have a technical question pivotal to your decision on whether to book the inspection, demand to speak to the consultant who will be assigned to your property or at least a building inspector within the company. If they are too busy for you at this stage of the service it may be an indication of how they generally treat their clients and perhaps you should go elsewhere.
Many companies forgo the written report altogether and charge the client a fee for a verbal statement on findings. Beware, however, as a report that isn’t written can be of little value as it is near-impossible to demonstrate liability months or years down the track. It is worth noting that pre-purchase inspections pose great liability to consultants, so what better way to minimise this liability than not providing a written report at all? At face value, this may be an expedient service for the cash-strapped purchaser, but it may be impossible proving liability if things start falling apart.
Do you have a nagging problem which you think is someone else’s fault, such as a creaky floor? Want to find out whether some widget in your home complies with the mountainous number of Australian Standards that can overwhelm tradespeople and builders? You could spend a few hundred dollars on a consultant, but you can also download for free the Office of Fair Trading “Guide to Standards and Tolerances”, or even purchase the relevant Australian Standard. Nothing makes a building inspector sit up and take notice more than an informed client.
Often, the inspector’s report is merely a reflection of your gut feelings. However, a report which comes from a recognised consultant is what is required in order to seek redress if needed through the necessary legal avenues.
If you are organising a pre-purchase building inspection and want to save money, allow your solicitor to contact the inspector. Solicitors will often have links to these professionals and being repeat customers, they should be able to pass savings on to you. Nonetheless, it’s false economy to shop for the cheapest inspection quote and risk inheriting a poor inspection report which does not inform.
In other words, the cheapest quote may not always be the best proposition. Scour through the terms and conditions of any quotation carefully. Establish whether the report will be in a standard format tick-the-box type of format, or in a written form tailor-made for your particular situation.
It may also be practical to invest in some investigative time of your own. Gather as much information about inspection companies by asking them questions. View a sample or template of their reports before even looking at real estate. Don’t simply leave it to chance during the five-day cooling-off period after exchanging contracts. Some inspection companies can have a written report in your hands within 24 hours inclusive of photographic documentation and detailed information. Since this time is hectic and emotionally charged, allow time, where practicable, for the inspection well before the auction date or paying any deposit.
It is my honest opinion that if people could truly assign a monetary value to building materials, construction practices and our built environment in general, our city would not be listed as the 19th most expensive in the world. Unlike real estate agents who have a vested interest in a sale, building inspectors have a lot on their conscience—they need to make certain that a client is fully informed before they make a potentially life-altering decision regarding a property.