Writing Report Narratives

by Nick Gromicko and Kenton Shepard

 

THE THREE FUNCTIONS OF A REPORT NARRATIVE


1. Accurate Condition Identification

Inaccurate descriptions of conditions result in:

  • financial damage.  The buyer or seller spends money needlessly;
  • inspector liability.  The inspector may be liable for financial damages, including those stemming from injury or death, if he describes the condition in a way in which the narrative fails to protect;
  • harm to the inspector’s reputation (and business); and 
  • continued existence of dangerous conditions.

Narratives are read by people with different interests, including:

  • buyers;
  • sellers;
  • buyer’s agents;
  • seller’s agents;
  • structural engineers;
  • contractors;
  • inspector’s attorney;
  • opposition’s attorney; and 
  • judges or arbitrators.
Narratives must be designed in such a way that people with different motivations and perspectives come to the same conclusion after reading it.

2. Assessment of Condition's Severity

Clearly describing a defective condition may not tell the narrative reader how serious that condition is. As an inspector, you may find a serious defect which you know could be very expensive to correct, or which might be very dangerous. The reader may not know enough about homes to understand the gravity of the problem by the description alone. The narrative should make clear how urgent the problem is.

Consider this narrative:
“Flashing of the walkways was improperly installed and should be corrected by a qualified contractor.”
This narrative cost the property owners almost $100,000.  They bought a 14-unit, 35-year-old hotel in California. Three buildings formed a courtyard.  Rooms on the second floor were accessed by wood exterior stairs and walkways. The owners had the hotel inspected, and the above narrative was the inspector’s sole comment on the walkway's condition.

Flashing had been installed incorrectly, and it remained in place for a long time because the inspector hadn’t made it clear that the improperly installed flashing might cause serious, widespread decay that could destroy the walkway and stair structure.  Based on the narrative, the owners thought it was a minor issue and ignored it.  About four years later, they spent around $100,000 to replace all the exterior stairs and walkways.

3. Transfer of Liability

When an inspector performs an inspection, that inspector assumes liability, meaning that the inspector assumes responsibility for the accuracy of the information provided, and for actions, events or conditions which may result from the condition about which the inspector is commenting. The third function of a narrative is to pass on this liability to the client. This won’t be necessary with a narrative which describes a condition requiring no action by the client, such as the ampacity of a service:
“The label of the main electrical service panel listed the panel’s amperage rating at 200 amps.”
But if an inspector finds a defect which requires action, such as conductors at the service drop in contact with tree branches, liability would be passed on by transferring responsibility for action to the client.
 
A better way to render this example is this narrative:
“The overhead service-drop conductors had inadequate clearance from tree branches. This condition may result in abrasion and damage to the wires.
 
The Inspector recommends correction by a qualified contractor.
 
Work around service conductors should be performed by a qualified contractor only. Injury or death may result from attempts at correction by those without proper qualifications.”
After reading this, the client should understand that contacting a “qualified electrical contractor” is the action that's required. The action may be taken by the seller or the buyer, according to the results of negotiation, but by notifying the client of the action required, the inspector has transferred the liability to the client.

Using the same example, let's identify the three parts of the narrative's function.
Part 1:
“The overhead service-drop conductors had inadequate clearance from tree branches.”

Part 2:
“...to avoid abrasion and damage to the wires...” and “Injury or death may result from attempts at correction by those without proper qualifications.”

Part 3:
“This condition should be corrected by a qualified contractor.”

SIMPLE OR COMPREHENSIVE NARRATIVES?

Are longer narratives better, or should you keep it simple?
 
It’s usually better to keep narratives simple, as long as sufficient information is provided. It’s always a mistake to leave important information out in order to make the narrative shorter, and you should be sure that narratives which describe defective conditions perform the three functions described above.

The rule of thumb is related to liability, and has to do with the level of assumption you can make about what the reader knows.

Level of Assumption
 
The more liability in the subject covered by the narrative, the less you should assume the reader will understand, and the more comprehensive the narrative should be. “Comprehensive” means that you try to cover all the bases and make your meaning as clear as possible, not that you should make the narrative complex or complicated.

Although you can sometimes simplify or shorten a narrative by substituting one word for three or four, try to use words you’re sure the reader will understand. The purpose of a narrative is to transfer information clearly and accurately, not to impress the reader with your sophisticated vocabulary.

In a way, the codes written by the International Code Council (ICC) are similar to narratives. They describe conditions and make statements concerning what’s acceptable and what’s not. In looking through codes for the various home systems, you’ll see that they follow the “Level of Assumption” rule.

Compare the language used to describe roof codes with the language used to describe electrical codes. Dangerous conditions can exist in roofing, such as the danger of collapse from installing heavy roof-covering materials on roof framing which is structurally inadequate, but, generally, they don’t carry as much liability as electrical conditions.  Electricity can cause electrocution or can burn down a home. Many defective conditions are possible. Much electrical wiring is hidden behind wall, floor and ceiling coverings, which raises the potential for hidden defects to escape detection during an inspection. Electrical codes are written in very specific language. Although this language may be difficult for a layman to understand (remember, it’s not a narrative, but a code), electrical codes are very defendable in court because they’re specific and comprehensive, and don’t leave room for assumption.
 
Quoting Code
 

Inspectors should follow the same rules as building codes by providing more information about conditions or situations which carry high liability, but quoting building codes in a narrative is not a good idea. Home inspections are not code inspections -- they are inspections for safety and system defects. For reasons related to liability, it’s important to keep the two separate. If an inspector quotes a code in a narrative, an attorney may argue that the inspector was performing a code inspection and was responsible for finding all code violations.

Because building codes were developed to address safety in buildings, it’s difficult to avoid referring to them occasionally. When a narrative refers to building codes, it’s better to use a different term, such as “modern safety standards” or “generally accepted current standards.”
 
Should Inspectors Write Their Own Narratives?
 
Because of the differences in climate and jurisdictional requirements across North America, inspectors are almost forced to write at least some of their own narratives. Custom narrative libraries are available, but they won’t be able to cover all situations encountered by inspectors everywhere.
 

It’s always a good idea to have an attorney review narratives, but review is especially important for those inspectors who lack confidence in their writing or verbal skills.

In writing narratives, inspectors will face choices in selecting terms which may be similar but which may offer differing degrees of protection. In making decisions, in addition to seeking advice from an attorney, inspectors may discover different approaches to wording a narrative by reading the InterNACHI message boards, which have an entire forum dedicated to report-writing. It’s sometimes helpful to see how other inspectors have solved problems, and an inspector may find that a good solution has already been invented.
 
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