Dismantling the Mike Holmes Media Monster – A Home Inspector’s Response

Andrew Christie of Safe Homes Canada debunks some misinformation about the home inspection industry from a high-profile source.

In October of 2006 The Globe and Mail published an article by Mike Holmes in which he blatantly slammed home inspectors and real estate sales reps, and exhibited a shocking lack of knowledge relating to old houses and the home inspection industry.

I questioned Darcy McGovern, the Globe’s real estate editor at the time, as to why he would publish something that includes sweeping generalization and multiple inaccuracies. Mr. McGovern told me, “I had a really bad home inspection experience.” Mr. McGovern refused to publish my following response:

After reading Mike Holmes’ recent newspaper article – in which he accuses real estate sales reps and home inspectors of collusion – I believe Mike may be at risk of personifying the old engineer’s joke: knowing less-and-less about more-and-more, until pretty soon he will know almost nothing about practically everything.

Speaking of engineers, I’m not sure who Mike thinks all these home inspector people are; many of the home inspectors in places like Barrie, Orillia and Collingwood are Professional Engineers, Civil Engineering Technologists and Architectural Technologists, in addition to being Registered Home Inspectors. In other words, there are a whole bunch of really qualified – possibly reasonably intelligent – building sciences professionals out there performing home inspections.

Obviously some home inspectors – and any other service providers – are less qualified or less thorough than others. No profession is excluded.

As a collector of books about engineering and architecture, I asked my mother for a book for Christmas. The tough-guy countenance of Mike Holmes sneered at me as I unwrapped my gift. I have never watched his show, I don’t watch much T.V., but my buyers have often spoken of Mike Holmes over the years. Based upon a brief examination of the book, a couple of Mike’s statements are worth addressing.

Regarding the heating contractors who work in crawlspaces, Mike says, “…we can feel sorry for the people who have to crawl in there and install it.”, and on his brief crawlspace experience, “There were spiders galore and pretty well every other creature that lives in the earth – not an area you want to be in!”

That’s right Mike. It’s not an area you want to be in. But many home inspectors – most notably the really thorough ones who work in non-urban locales – crawl through crawlspaces every day, or almost every day, checking the entire structure and all elements of the home. It’s really quite an adventure.

Here’s a bomb Mike dropped in his Globe and Mail article about home inspectors: “It’s not impossible to imagine some home inspectors turning a blind eye to certain problems, in order to keep the selling price up and a good relationship with the realtors who give them referrals.”

Beyond the awkward sentence structure, Mike goes on to say, “…you need to have independent, unbiased advice. Hiring a licensed contractor (to inspect your home when buying) maximizes your chance of getting a fair and unbiased evaluation.”

His contention that contractors are unbiased when guiding homeowners and home buyers inspires the kind of laughter that causes significant medical problems, like hernias. Home inspectors get paid (usually) regardless of the condition of a home’s various elements.

Contractors – on the other hand – make more money when they do more stuff. It’s difficult for the buying public to know who to believe. The work required, for example, to eliminate water infiltration into a basement is usually inexpensive, even if water is infiltrating through a stress crack at a foundation wall. A crack repair normally costs about $400.00. Unfortunately, many contractors try to turn a minor project into a major one to make more money.

I recently coached a very sharp lady in her seventies how to eliminate the water in her basement. She called a contractor that I had recommended. I thought he was one of the good guys. She later called me because the contractor had tried to convince her to dig all the way along her north wall, which he said would cost about $3000.00. I was quite certain the water was entering through an obvious, decisive crack. I phoned the contractor and asked why he had recommended sealing along the entire wall. He said it was the best way to be sure to stop the water entry. After a brief discussion he agreed to seal the crack only. The cost was minimal. No more water entry.

Mike Holmes does say buyers should “spend time looking for your own certified home inspector”, and that’s sound advice. Buyers should ask home inspectors about their education and work experience, and about the thoroughness of their process. Do they have a Building Sciences education? Do they go all the way through crawlspaces and attics? Do they travel onto – or at least up against – roofs? Beware inspectors who inspect with binoculars or make excuses. Beware the statement: “I’m a contractor.” That could mean a lot of different things, and while many home inspectors are or were contractors, the nature of their experiences is quite diverse, and will likely relate to only part of the home.

Real estate sales reps are the people who have the most insight into how home inspectors work, and how they communicate, since they are usually on site for the inspections. Some real estate sales reps have literally thousands of inspections worth of experience! They are like quality control specialists at a home inspection, demanding accuracy from the inspector, tactfully asking useful questions to promote thoroughness and bridging possible communication gaps between inspectors and buyers. That doesn’t mean the interaction between home inspectors and real estate sales reps excludes disagreements; but we work through it.

The notion that a real estate sales professional would team up with a shady home inspector to prevent an inspection-related price reduction sounds well-suited to reality T.V., but not reality reality.

In his newspaper article, Mike Holmes says, “If the problem with the home is a leaking roof or a leaking foundation, the repairs can be tens of thousands of dollars.”

Stop the press! That’s the kind of irresponsible and inaccurate statement that confuses homeowners (and readers). After about five thousand home inspections – performing only two per day, maximum – I have seen – quite literally – only a handful of houses that needed significant structural work to keep water out. Even at century homes – which are houses that are 100+ years old – water entry can often be eliminated through relatively inexpensive means, by controlling surface water and eliminating obvious entry points. Most century homes are magnificent structures; that’s why they are still standing.

I popped open Mike Holmes’ book to see what he had to say about stone foundation walls. He says, “If you need to repair a fieldstone foundation, it may make more sense to jack up your house and replace the foundation”.

Wow, so if I buy this big structure that has been sound, stable and reasonably plumb for 150 years, and I notice a failure point, I should dig up the giant, amazing walls and pour concrete? I just finished healing from my last hernia, and now this. I think I ripped my paradoxical gland!

Here’s a news flash about the purchase of real estate: most home buyers don’t have a bunch of extra money kicking around after their house deal closes, like $50,000 to needlessly remove a castle’s worth of stone foundation wall. Most home buyers don’t own bulldozers, cranes, flame-throwers or construction-applicable shaped nuclear charges. That’s why home inspectors try to suggest simple, practical, economical solutions like repairing foundation cracks or other failure points – even at old walls – or cutting out a little soft wood at a window. Ironically, the cover of Mike’s book says “Canada’s Most Trusted Contractor.”

While he steers his Cadillac pickup truck through the eye of a hot air hurricane, many home inspectors are crawling through the muck and detritus under cottages and old houses – the world of spiders, snakes, rats, bats, mold and asbestos, putting our health at risk in an attempt to do a thorough job for people.

Our speed-of-digital, media-driven culture readily transports all the tools and fasteners necessary to support the construction of a media monster. As a home inspector, whom buyers depend upon while their life savings balance on the edge of the abyss, choosing one’s words carelessly is unacceptable. Inaccurate or ungrounded statements are unacceptable. Perhaps some of my real estate friends could be invited to demand accuracy and accountability, and to provide some much-needed quality control for the ‘reality T.V.’ world, and the monsters it creates.