Should a home inspector turn on utilities?
I've been questioned recently by Realtors and home inspectors if a home inspector is required to turn on the utilities if they are off, or perform the inspection at all. This has become more of a problem with all the bank-owned properties we're inspecting.
The home inspector may not be able to turn on the utilities. If the water, gas or electric providers shut off the utilities, they will lock the meters. No home inspector can turn on the utilities if the provider has a lock on a meter or valve.
So if the utilities are off, should the inspector perform the inspection? This is up to the individual inspector. My policy is to perform the inspection if the water or gas is turned off. This is frustrating for me, but I want to do the best job I can for my client. It takes longer to write a report when you have to keep stating something couldn't be inspected because the water was off. And then there's the time it takes to return to the home and write up a re-inspection.
I won't do the inspection if the electricity is off. With no power I cannot test the outlets, lights, appliances, furnace, air conditioner, etc. When I enter the attic I have the exhaust fans and furnace blower on so I can check the ducts. If the power is off I will have to re-enter the attic to check these components. I don't want to go in the attic once, and especially not twice. If the electricity is off, the re-inspection and follow-up report can take longer than the original inspection and report.
But what if the power is on but the main breaker is turned off? What if the gas supply is on but the gas water heater is not lit? What if the water is on but the main valve is turned off? Is a home inspector required to turn on breakers, open valves, light gas appliances, etc?
The answer to that is no. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors state a home inspector is not required to "operate any system or component that is shut down or otherwise inoperable." The glossary in the Standards defines "shut down" as equipment whose safety switch or circuit breaker is off, or cannot be operated by the control that a home owner would normally use.
But here's the harder question: although it's not required, should a home inspector turn on breakers, open valves or light gas appliances? This is up to the individual inspector. The Standards do not prohibit inspectors from doing this; they just state an inspector is not required to.
There are many inspectors I respect who will not turn on a breaker or light a water heater. They have good arguments for this. That water heater or circuit breaker may be turned off for a reason; they may cause damage to the home or a component by turning something on. There is some personal safety risk as well. Some inspectors that are franchisees have told me their company does not allow them to light appliances or turn on main water valves.
There are other inspectors who will open valves and light gas appliances. I fall into this category. I have several reasons for this. First, of course, is doing the best job I can for my client. Second, I don't want to take the time to return to the home and write a follow-up inspection report. Third, I feel I'm qualified to do this. For example, before I turn on a main water valve, I make sure all faucets are off and visually inspect all the supply lines (under the sinks, etc.) for any damage. When I open the main valve I literally run through the home to make sure there is not water leaking onto a floor somewhere. And don't forget the laundry faucets - years ago I forgot to check these and, when I entered the home, the water was shooting across the laundry room onto the opposite wall.
I will also light a furnace or water heater. Again, this is mostly to give a client a complete report and to save me having to return to the home. But I admit that I wonder what a client might say if I didn't light a water heater. "My 78-year-old grandma can light a water heater; why can't a professional home inspector?"
Now let met qualify these statements. I'm still alive, so I do have some common sense. If there are wires hanging out of the walls I won't turn on the circuit breakers. If the water heater looks unsafe I may choose not to light it. I feel that is why our Standards state we are not required to light a water heater, so we can use our own discretion. Of course, in my report I don't say I did not light the water heater because our Standards say we don't have to. I say I did not light the water heater because it's older than me and leaning over more than me.
I take issue with inspectors who don't check something and their only argument is the Standards don't require it. The Standards are minimum requirements, so to me this argument says, "I did the crappiest home inspection I can legally get away with." I've seen incredibly poor inspection reports that comply with the Standards. Most inspection reports exceed the Standards in some areas. For example, for some reason the Standards state we don't have to test smoke detectors. But every inspector I know tests them, or would report if there weren't any.
Randy West owns Professional Building Consultants in Prescott. He is a state-certified home inspector and has performed almost 5,000 home inspections in the Prescott area. West is president of the Arizona Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), and currently serves on the Home Inspector Rules and Standards Committee for the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.