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Mon, Feb. 24

Commercial buildings need inspections, too

Question: I am a Realtor who specializes in commercial real estate. I have always recommended to my buyers that they get a building inspected by a state certified home inspector. Recently, some Realtors told me that they do not recommend a "home" inspection on commercial buildings. Instead, they tell their buyers to get an inspection by a roofing company, heating/air conditioning contractor, electrician, etc. They say that home inspectors are not qualified to inspect commercial buildings and that there are no standards for commercial building inspections. So my questions are: Do you recommend a "home" inspection on commercial buildings, are Arizona state certified home inspectors qualified to inspect commercial buildings, are there standards for commercial inspections, and do you have any other advice regarding commercial inspections?

Good questions. Let me answer them in order: Yes, sometimes, yes and no, yes. Our next question this week is from a home seller who wants to know about attic insulation. Only kidding. I'll give you better answers than that!

Answer: Do I recommend a "home" inspection on a commercial building? That's kind of a trick question. I recommend an inspection by a "home" inspector. There are a couple major concerns with just having roofing, plumbing, electrical (etc.) contractors inspect a building:

First, will they be objective? If a heating contractor tells you that you need a new furnace, how can you question him if you're not sure? If you had a building inspection, you would know the size, age, location, etc. of the furnace. I'm not picking on heating contractors. Recently, a roofing contractor (not in Prescott) was hired to check a leaking roof on a low-sloped roof on a commercial building. They told the clients they needed a new roof at a cost of over $20,000. Fortunately, these buyers had a building inspection (by a "home" inspector). The inspection report stated there were problems in just one area of the roof. When the clients asked the roofing contractor about this, the contractor explained his bid by saying he assumed the clients wanted a five-year guarantee, which he would only provide if he replaced the entire roof. This $2,000 "home" inspection saved someone $20,000.

Second, will contractors be thorough? All inspectors have found multiple problems and returned to find a contractor did not find or repair every one. Again, I am not trying to pick on contractors. But their job description is "contracting, building, or installing," rather than "inspecting." Here's a good example. Inspectors frequently find gas appliance vents touching wood framing in attics. These vent pipes are required to have one-inch clearance from combustible materials, so this is a fire hazard (and usually very easy to correct). If you hire a plumbing contractor and he checks the gas water heater located in a closet, will he go into the attic? Maybe some will, but I know some won't. Especially if the water heater is in the right side of the building and the attic access is in the left side of the building. Most plumbers will not slither through fiberglass insulation in a 140-degree attic to check one vent pipe.

Hiring multiple contractors will be very expensive, take a lot of time, and could be very inconvenient to the current owners or tenants. And not everything will get inspected unless you hire every possible contractor. For example, you would likely hire a plumbing and electrical contractor, but would you hire a carpenter? If not, who's going to check the framing in the crawlspace, attic, deck, porch cover, etc? Who will inspect the window installation, soffit and fascia, crawlspace and attic vents? Who's going to check the condition of the windows and screens, and the operation of every door and window? You get the idea.

Your second question was whether "home" inspectors are qualified to perform building inspections. Most are. I tell clients I don't inspect specialty equipment, such as beauty salon or restaurant equipment. Therefore, there's not much in a commercial building that I have not found in a single-family dwelling. There may be larger furnaces, or more of them. But this is still a heating system and most qualified "home" inspectors can perform general testing and inspecting.

To answer question three, there are no official Arizona standards for commercial inspections. There are some national Standards for commercial inspections, but I don't use them. My Commercial Building Inspection Contract refers to the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors. I explain that these Standards are for single-family dwellings or multi-family dwellings up to four units, but I will still comply with them because I feel they're good Standards. These Standards require that I inspect the roof, enter attics and crawlspaces, open electrical panels, etc.

But let's apply this "Standards" question to hiring multiple contractors in lieu of a building inspector. They will not have any inspection Standards at all, and may have little inspection experience. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors state we will enter attics and crawlspaces, operate furnaces and air conditioners, provide a written report telling the client what kind of roofing, insulation, plumbing lines, electrical wiring, etc. are installed. A Plumber or electrician will not be required to enter the attic or crawlspace, and may not even think of it, although these are the locations where inspectors frequently find plumbing and electrical problems. (Which only makes sense- if you find a plumbing leak in a visible area you have it fixed right away. But most normal people do not enter their attics or crawlspaces, so problems in these areas often go unnoticed.)

Your last question was "any other advice?" I would suggest you or your client interview the inspector carefully. In addition to the "normal" questions, ask how much commercial experience they have, and ask to see a copy of the commercial inspection contract which should explain the scope of their inspection and what (if any) Standards they are following.

Randy West owns Professional Building Consultants in Prescott. He is a state-certified home inspector, and has performed more than 4,000 home inspections in the Prescott area. of the Arizona Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), and currently serves on the Enforcement Advisory Committee for the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. Contact him at editorial@prescottaz.com.

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