A home inspection can be unnerving under typical circumstances, considering the apprehension about any unexpected maintenance issues. But add worries about the coronavirus, and sellers are doubly nervous about whether a home inspection is even safe right now. Real estate agents and home inspectors share those concerns — and are adapting new protocols to ensure this necessary part of the home sale process is as safe as possible for everyone.
Matt Steinhausen, an independent home inspector since 1999 in Lincoln, Nebraska, shifted in March to inspecting only homes that have been vacant for 24 hours or more. Steinhausen, who holds an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, says he wants to prevent transmitting the virus to two family members whose health makes them more vulnerable.
“I’m not meeting with any real estate agents or homeowners, and I am not doing any face-to-face walk-throughs with homebuyers,” he says.
Let’s look at some adaptations for conducting safe home inspections during the coronavirus.
Offer a pre-listing inspection
A home inspection is “an essential part of a real estate sale,” according to the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), a not-for-profit professional association for home inspectors that compiles standards of practice for home inspections. In fact, not obtaining a home inspection could expose homeowners and buyers to safety hazards, such as defective mechanical systems, and financial risks.
“It would lead to uncertainty for the buyer purchasing the home… as if there were something they didn’t want the buyer to be aware of,” says Katie Lechner, a top real estate agent in the Cocoa, Florida, area.
However, stay-at-home orders vary by municipality as far as whether real estate sales and home inspections are considered “essential services” during the coronavirus pandemic. Lechner has known sellers in the past who have declined a home inspection and says it’s usually not wise to refuse this common contract contingency.
“The buyer could absolutely cancel the contract, and the escrow would be due back to the buyer,” Lechner says.
With sellers worried about having enough time to complete any necessary repairs, Lechner has suggested a pre-listing inspection — essentially, a home inspection that the seller arranges before putting the home on the market.
This costs an average of $315 nationwide, and the buyer isn’t required to use the findings, even if everything checks out OK. But it does allow for some peace of mind and can make a sale go more smoothly if buyers see that you’re on top of any maintenance.
What if inspections are canceled or delayed right now?
Some inspections may be delayed or canceled because of municipal restrictions or people’s health. ASHI recommends that inspectors and homeowners reschedule inspections if anyone feels sick or exhibits any symptoms of a respiratory illness, such as a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
“I have had some cancellations or postponements due to the inability of other parties to vacate homes,” Steinhausen says. “I don’t charge my clients for inconveniencing me in circumstances beyond their control.”
Buyers and sellers at the moment understand that timelines, even for lending, might be delayed, agents say. In fact, agents are adding a coronavirus addendum to new and existing contracts to allow for some breathing room for repairs and other steps that typically must be completed within certain time frames.
Regardless, if you’re unable to accommodate a home inspection right now, you can offer buyers a home warranty instead, says Suzanne Damon, a top-selling agent in Manchester, New Hampshire. Also known as home-repair insurance, this covers any structural or roofing damage not found during a home inspection, as well as breakdowns in appliances, such as the refrigerator or furnace.
Most warranties cost about $300 to $500 and last about a year after the closing date.
How can I protect myself and my home during a home inspection right now?
For starters, be assured that everyone is on the same page, and that any discomfort won’t sound unusual. Talk with your agent as well as the inspector or inspection company about any precautions, such as:
- Can you bundle the inspections to limit the number of people entering your home?
Some inspectors in Florida, for instance, are certified for regular home inspections as well as checking for “wood-destroying organisms,” such as termites. “If there’s not one inspector who can do both, we’re asking that they happen at the same time,” Lechner says.
- What protective gear will the inspector wear?
Some agents often have shoe covers on hand because clients don’t want visitors wearing shoes or trekking dirt into their homes. They’ll also provide inspectors with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. “We don’t ever want someone to feel like they’re being put in a vulnerable situation so we’ll provide all materials necessary,” Lechner notes.
- Can you set up a handwashing station for the inspector, or specify who should touch specific items?
Some homeowners and agents have done this, as well as posted signs not to touch anything unnecessarily, Damon says.
Expect not to be home during the inspection
Inspectors and agents agree that the fewer people around during a home inspection at this time, the better. In fact, the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors has drafted a “coronavirus release and hold-harmless agreement” that specifies no minors shall be present during an inspection, and that anyone attending must “keep a safe distance,” or the inspector can terminate the inspection.
Damon says this varies based on the inspector’s comfort level. Some will allow only those people on the deed to be present; others have asked that only the agents be there or for them to be accessible only through video chat or an app such as FaceTime, Google Duo, or Facebook Messenger.
“I was involved in a home inspection today — I’m the seller’s agent — and I was asked not to be there,” she says. She, the homeowner, and the inspector were in contact through FaceTime in case the inspector couldn’t access anything, such as an attic or crawlspace. Had there been a problem, they would have discussed when the inspector could have returned.
If you’re not present for the inspection or watching on a video chat, drive around for a bit, like home sellers Sonya and John (who asked that their last name not be used) did with their dogs when selling their two-bedroom Portland, Oregon, house.
You also could ask any understanding neighbors if you can hang out in their backyard during the inspection (or a showing, for that matter, as Rebecca R., a Tampa, Florida, mom did with her three children once the parks were closed).
Review the photos, video, and inspection report
Because of social distancing and other safety precautions, home inspectors are providing more photographs and videos to accompany their reports, as they would when inspecting a home for a seller who lives out-of-state. They then schedule a conference with the client afterward.
Steinhausen says if a client hadn’t been able to meet him in person at a home in the past, he’d gladly ask them to review his photos along with his report, then discuss it by phone. “That way they can digest the information and prepare questions for me to answer,” he says.
Damon says the post-inspection conferences are helpful. “When you’re there in person, everything’s very overwhelming to a buyer because there’s so much coming at them at once,” she says. “Once the inspection gets done and you sit down through remote means and go through a slide show, you’re able to ask questions along the way and think of things. I think there’s better digestion of the information.”
How should sellers handle repair requests?
Naturally, this depends on what the inspector finds and what a repair might entail. Steinhausen says that social distancing should have no effect on exterior repairs — roofing, gutters, siding, concrete, landscaping, and so on.
He advised that clients and contractors postpone any elective interior repairs until a later date. “If there are required repairs such as the need to replace a water heater or furnace, I recommend maintaining distancing and not entering rooms or areas of the home where others have been for at least 24 hours, which can usually be accommodated,” he says.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, sellers offered buyers credit at closing to cover the costs of certain repairs that buyers might want to arrange to their tastes or timetables.
Because of current safety concerns, Lechner says she’s preparing sellers that if repairs are necessary, this means another person entering the home. Aside from any potential delays because of scheduling, this involves contacting vendors and asking about their safety protocols, as well as “what we can do on our end — the seller’s end — to limit the amount of exposure to get the work done.”
Although servicing a furnace or a boiler may be necessary before closing, it’s not vital for the seller to be home at the time, adds Damon. Your agent can work with a vendor to grant them access to the property, whether through a lockbox or simply opening the door for them. “Normally, if they weren’t home, we would go to the property and work with the vendor on their schedule to remedy the problem,” she says.
‘We’re in it together’
Dealing with the coronavirus is uncharted territory for everyone, so these professionals say they’re being more flexible and understanding, whatever misgivings or hiccups arise. “Everybody’s world has changed, and I keep saying, ‘We’re in this together; we’ll get through it together,’” Damon says.
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