Above: an overloaded outlet with no cover
It’s a Visual Inspection
A “visual” inspection means that a home inspection report is limited to describing conditions in those parts of a home that an inspector can see during the inspection. Obviously, parts of the home that are permanently hidden by wall, ceiling and floor coverings are excluded, but so are parts of the home that were inaccessible during the inspection for some other reason. Some reasons might include lack of an access point, such as a door or hatch, or a locked access point, or because an occupant’s belongings blocked access, or because of dangerous or unsanitary conditions.
There can be many more reasons. The point is that if an inspector can’t see a portion of the home, the inspector can’t assume responsibility for ensuring that a safe and proper condition exists or that systems are operating properly in that hidden space.
Safety can be a matter of perception. Some conditions, such as exposed electrical wiring, are obviously unsafe. Other conditions, such as the presence of mold, aren’t as clear-cut.
In the example of the possible existence of mold, it's difficult to accurately call it out during a general home inspection because mold sometimes grows in places where it can’t be readily seen, such as inside walls, making its discovery beyond the scope of the inspection. Also, the dangers to human health are from the inhalation of spores from indoor air.
Above: the cutting torch and gutter system of roof drainage management
Inspectors will also examine the major accessible components of certain systems as required by the Standards of Practice. Furnace air filters are one example.
A home inspection is not technically exhaustive, meaning that systems or components will not be disassembled as part of the inspection. For example, an inspector will not partially disassemble a furnace to more accurately check the condition of the heat exchanger. Inspectors typically disclaim heat exchangers.
Asbestos, mold, lead, water purity, and other environmental issues or potential hazards typically require a specialist inspection, and may additionally require laboratory analysis.
Home Inspectors are Generalists
Above: the result of subfloor movement
Very few home inspectors have been in the inspection industry for their entire working lives. According to an InterNACHI poll, about half the home inspectors have a background in the building trades. Those with a construction background started with a general idea of the systems and components that they might find installed, as well as how those systems age and fail.
This doesn’t mean that inspectors with a background in something other than the building trades are not qualified -- only that they started in the inspection industry at a relative disadvantage. Building the skills and developing the judgment to consistently recognize and interpret evidence correctly and make appropriate recommendations are things that can be improved with practice and continuing education.
Part of a home inspector’s job is to manage the expectations of their client. This is especially true when a client has never dealt with a home inspector before. Explaining the limitations of a home inspection to a client will help them develop realistic expectations concerning what to expect from a home inspection report, and what lies beyond the scope of the inspection.
When a home buyer is interviewing inspectors, the buyer should ask about how the inspector handles special safety concerns.
Disclaimers are portions of an inspection agreement or report in which an inspector notifies the client that the inspector will not accept the responsibility for confirming the condition of a portion of the home or of a particular system or component.