The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

No Time for a Full Inspection? Consider a Walk-and-Talk

Nothing is more important in the sale of a house than an examination of the structure by an independent home inspector.

The inspector will go over the property from stem to stern, checking out the foundation, roof, heating and air conditioning systems, plumbing, electrical and appliances, among numerous other items. They then will produce a report, often with photos, detailing their findings. The whole enterprise is paid for by the buyer.

With the report, the buyer will know the working condition of the property and what issues to expect after moving in. As long as they don’t nitpick over little cosmetic items, the inspection report normally puts buyers in a strong bargaining position as they try to persuade the seller to either fix major items or come down on the price.

But in today’s overheated selling frenzy, many buyers facing competition are crossing out the inspection clauses in their contracts.

They’re waiving other contingencies, too, like the one that requires the house to appraise for a certain amount or another that allows them to back out if they are unable to secure financing. The idea is to present as “clean” a contract as possible so their offers will stand out from the rest.

Giving up any of these is dangerous, to be sure. But the inspection is especially so. Without one, you are buying a proverbial pig in a poke.

Many buyers are relying on the so-called home warranties most sellers offer these days to protect them once they move in. But these are really service contracts -- not a substitute for a full-house exam. And they come with deductibles and limits from companies that often are difficult to deal with.

For a better stand-in, consider what’s known in the trade as a “walk-and-talk,” in which you and the inspector hoof it through the house while they give you a verbal assessment of what they see. It’s a shorthand service some inspectors are offering to keep their doors open at a time when many buyers are passing on full-blown examinations. It is a quicker, lower-cost alternative to a complete home inspection.

With a walk-and-talk, you won’t get a written report or photos, so you’ll have to carry a notepad and camera to record the inspector’s musings as they point out potential issues and answer your questions. But it’s better than nothing, and could be enough to give you the confidence to move ahead with your offer -- or to change gears and train your sights on another house.

“I can often find about 80% of the problems in the first 20% of the time I’m on the property,” said an Oregon inspector.

Walk-and-talks are somewhat controversial. Some inspectors won’t do them, believing that they violate standards of practice in their states. Others say they’re bad for business.

“I’d lose money, as it would take time away from doing full-priced inspections,” said a Minnesota inspector.

A Tennessee inspector agreed, saying that walk-and-talks are “just throwing business money out the window.”

There are other issues, too. The seller would probably have to grant permission to the abbreviated exam, which is doubtful without a contract. The inspector’s insurance may not cover it. And the buyer sometimes expects more than he or she is paying for.

“Clients who want the (quick) inspections are the same ones who only read summary pages,” said a Pennsylvania inspector. “It is the reason I don’t do these inspections and I don’t include summary pages in my reports. ... These clients will want to blame someone for their lack of due diligence.”

Still, there are plenty of inspectors who will perform a quickie. “Don’t have time for an extensive home inspection?” advertises a firm that works in Maryland and Pennsylvania. “Schedule a one-hour consultation with one of our licensed inspectors to point out any major problems. Or if you are facing a competitive bidding process, consider this quick check for any potential show-stoppers.”

“You only get one chance to look at the house. I’d rather buyers know a little bit about the house so they can decide whether to move forward,” says Jim Johnston of All Around Inspections in Rockville, Maryland. He says he’d also rather make “a little bit of money than nothing at all.”

Some sellers also are using walk-and-talks in place of full exams. Figuring their buyers are going to obtain an inspection anyway, they use them as less-expensive “pre-listing” tests to identify items that need their attention before putting their homes on the market. Then they can eliminate any quick-fix items, like leaky faucets or busted GFI outlets, that might turn off potential buyers.

The truncated exam usually takes one to two hours, or about half the time it takes for a full inspection, and costs about half the normal fee. Some charge a flat fee; others, by the hour. Some inspectors will first take a hard look at any areas or components you are particularly concerned about. After that, they may prioritize the most expensive items (the roof, HVAC system and the like). Others will make a cursory exam of everything.

By the way, a walk-and-talk is not the same as a pre-settlement inspection. The former occurs before or just after making an offer, while the latter takes place just prior to closing, giving buyers one last chance to spot unacceptable problems -- foundations cracks, roof leaks or anything else purposely hidden by the seller -- that can be used to cancel the deal, or at least renegotiate.