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The Inspector’s Secret: Sit Down and Look By MATT CANTOR

Friday March 31, 2006

Over the years I’ve probably been asked how I inspect a house or what am I looking for at least a thousand times. It’s a valid question. I guess it’s like saying “How do you inspect a square kilometer of desert?” 

How do you decide what to look at and what to disregard and how, in a fixed frame of time do you arrive at the end and say anything of substance. Again, a valid question and sometimes troubling because no matter how much you see or what you have learned, there is bound to be more that you do not know. Therefore, one needs a methodology, a series of habits, some set protocols and perhaps a set of tools with which to carry those protocols out. 

Although there is great truth in what I have just said, there is a missing piece as is often true for mysterious trades like medicine and lawnmower repair. For me, the truth to my job is that I have to find a place where I can see a whole bunch of stuff and sit down and look. That’s right. I find a spot where I can see a wall or the underside of the house, or maybe the whole house and I look. 

If you sit in the woods very quietly in one place for a long time, you are going to begin to notice all sorts of things that would surely escape your notice when tromping along from one fiefdom to another. After a while you might start to notice the many sounds and perhaps eventually identify some of them. You might start to see that a line of ants were working their way from their hill to a tree-stump and back again. 

Inspecting a house, when done properly is a bit like this. It creates problems too because people sometimes come up to me and say, “How much longer is this going to take?” and I have to say, “When is the grasshopper going to lay its eggs in the tall grass?” my epicanthic folds hidden beneath the shadow of my muslin hood. 

This thing is mysterious, goshdarnit, and I refuse to be deterred by things like efficiency. Actually, this sort of unprejudiced seeing is very efficient, especially when I’ve seen something of importance that would have been missed in a hurried examination of the premises. 

The reason this works is that there is a great deal of “noise” when looking at houses. There’s so much raw data that you have to let your mind sit and filter out all the extraneous stuff at its own pace. 

Invariably, within a short while, the naturally curious mind will begin to weed out all the obvious stuff and start to notice that there are tiny holes in the joists under the floor (beetles?) or the fact that the cripple studs (the ones that hold up the joists) are all hanging off the edge of the foundation sill on one side. 

The best place to show this to people is from across the street from the house we’re looking at. 

If your vision is fair, you can probably make out relatively small cracks and all sorts of irregularities from this sort of distance but better, you can see things that are almost certainly missed when one is close to the house. I’ve often done this with clients when I noticed something that requires this distance and want to give them a treat. 

I invite them to cross the street with me and look back at the house. I ask them to look at everything and tell me what they see. They start with the color (that they HATE), the cultured stone veneer that they also hate (cultured, my inverse perspective!), the rocks on the roof (rocks on the roof?!) and then they say it. “Hey, the whole house is … sort of ... tilted to one side.” 

That’s when I hand out the junior inspector badge, the decoder ring and teach them the secret handshake. 

It didn’t take a professional to figure out that the house was wracked or tilted. It just took a few minutes of attentive seeing (which we all know is not the same as looking). 

Even the seller of the house may have been unaware. I swear to Joshua when I say that I saw a house about a month ago that had this very condition and the owner was completely unaware until I showed it to her. She recently left me a message saying that she is now seeing it and seeing it and seeing it. 

She walks by a doorway and sees that it’s a parallelogram but certainly not a rectangle. She notices the cracks and separations that had previously been filtered out by the busy brain (and this is a very bright woman). 

What it takes is a little extra time to stop and look. Now there is clearly more to it than that but this is my rule number one. The other part is to get your inverse perspective over to all the places where important things can be seen. 

So crawling under the house is important (if it’s a house you want to inspect), Getting into the attic and bringing your lunch, climbing on the roof and spending some special moments with the clouds and the shingle. This really works. Believe me. 

After a while you’ll start to learn all the other stuff but if you don’t get a look at every facet of the house from every perspective, you are destined to miss something and, conversely, if you don’t, it doesn’t matter how many gadgets you have or how sharp your visual acuity, you’re going to miss something. 

Another thing about this process is that it provides a lot of great raw data for the back-of-the-head, long-range, subconscious thinking stuff. After you’ve looking a lot at every angle and in every place around the house, lights tend to come on (yes, in your head). 

The illusory elements start to coalesce if you’ve given them enough material around which to form their germs. 

It has often been the case for me that it was only in the third hour (or later) of an inspection that some really important aspect began to come together. This might be a general issue regarding the manner of construction or it might be the fact that there had been a fire in the house some years ago and it took seeing a lot of little facts to bring it out. 

Again, the important thing is that one simply looks slowly and attentively to many aspects and lets the information slowly emerge. 

Now you’ll have to add some construction experience in order to use this method professionally but the next time you’re working with someone like me (or your auto mechanic) you can do what attentive clients have been doing to me for years.  

Just as I’m fully saddled upon my high horse pontificating about the dangers of dryer lint, my attentive client will point over my horse’s left ear and say “We’ll yes, but what about that hole in the side of the house?” 

Thank goodness, I’ve trained myself to control that blush response.