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A home inspection should take about three or four hours. (iStock)

The home inspection business got a big black eye in November 2009 when a British Columbia judge ordered an inspector, Imre Toth, to pay $192,000 in compensation to some homeowners after they sued him for failing to identify major problems. 

The issues in the Toth case focused on his failure to note extensive rot in part of the house, using a lowball estimate for repairs and rushing his clients to sign a contract limiting his liability. Toth says he will appeal the decision.

'To be a home inspector you only need a business card and a flashlight'—Bill Sutherland

The case caused a buzz right across the country. Homeowners who felt they'd had a faulty home inspection issued a chorus of angry rants about inspectors' incompetence or lack of liability, while the decision sent a chill through the home inspectors.

One thing is clear: The standards for home inspections in Canada are all over the map. 

"To be a home inspector you only need a business card and a flashlight," says Bill Sutherland, the president of the Canadian Association of Property and Home Inspectors (CAPHI), an association that is trying to raise the standards of home inspections.

Sutherland, who lives in Kamloops, B.C., says about half of Canada's home inspectors are members of CAPHI. The rest don't belong to any recognized associations.

Still, even hiring a member who belongs to an association is no guarantee of a trouble-free inspection. Imre Toth is a CAPHI member in B.C., the only province that now regulates the profession. Sutherland said the Toth case was unfortunate, adding that even educated and trained inspectors can make  mistakes, but he says he believes most accredited inspectors do a good job.   

Finding a qualified inspector

Consumers without an extensive knowledge of home construction and maintenance are in a tough position when it comes to hiring an inspector. It's something that's usually done in a hurry, sometimes even after an offer to purchase has been made. Few people have any idea about who they've just hired unless they live in a small community where the inspectors are known.

So how do you find the right one?

  • Don't wait until the last minute.  Start looking for an inspector as you begin to look for a home.
  • Ask around to see if family or friends know an inspector they trust.
  • Your real estate agent may make a recommendation. If you trust your agent, get in touch with them.
  • Check the internet to find an inspector and see if there is any feedback online about them from happy or unhappy clients.
  • Ask the inspectors for their credentials and references. One inspector with 16 years experience and many recognized credentials said no one has ever asked him about his education. The person you're about to hire should be a good communicator. You should ask what they did before they became a home inspector. 

Credentials

B.C. has licensed its inspectors since March 2009, which means they must belong to one of three organizations with a recognized level of education and experience and carry liability insurance.

All the other provinces have self-regulating professional bodies that set the standards for home inspectors, and they are also members of CAPHI national.

The Registered Home Inspector (RHI) designation means an inspector has passed courses that are specific to home inspections and defect recognition classes.  The inspector also performed a minimum of 250 paid inspections. Again, standards vary across the country and only B.C. requires home inspectors to be licensed and carry liability insurance. 

There are a few other building trades organizations, such as the Applied Science Technologists and Technicians (ASTT) which is outside CAPHI but certifies home inspectors.

Another type of accredited inspector is a National Certificate Holder (NCH). They can work in any province, have done 150 paid inspections and have had their work peer reviewed by CAPHI. 

You can verify if someone is certified nationally by checking this website.

Standards of Practice

Before hiring an inspector, check out the standards of practice.

It's the guideline for professional home inspections, although many inspectors go beyond its basic requirements. It also forms the basis of a contract you'll be expected to sign which limits the inspector's liability if problems crop up that weren't identified during the inspection.

Before the inspection begins, read the contract carefully and ask questions. And understand what they mean when they say it is a "visual inspection of readily accessible places." 

Be sure to attend the inspection. It's your chance to learn something about all the systems that make a house run. The home inspector should provide a written report reviewing every major home system and component within 24 hours of the inspection.

If your inspector finds something that worries you, consider hiring a specialist for a second opinion. Inspectors are generalists and you might need a specialist to look at specific concerns about the wiring, the furnace or that damp basement.

The whole home inspection should take about three or four hours and cost about $350 to $500. 

Some critics of the business say that's not enough time to thoroughly inspect such an expensive investment. They suggest paying more and hiring a contractor or even an engineer, but that idea has not yet caught on.