COVID-19: Q and A’s. Can a Buyer do a Home Inspection?

A Twitter pal, John,  asks: “Given COVID-19, can buyers have home inspections?”

Great question, John, because it touches on a bunch of things: rights of the buyer, seller, and home inspectors during the sales process in challenging times. Let’s deal with each one in turn.

When the Ottawa real estate market was red-hot, a lot of buyers were waiving home inspections. That’s always risky. Now that the pandemic is underway, sales are still brisk — for the moment — but the number of showings are dropping. Open Houses have been banned altogether by our governing body, RECO.

Understandably, sellers are fearful of having strangers going through their homes and as a former lawyer, I worry about liability as well, if we’re not careful in how we conduct our business. But as the market slows down (which I believe is inevitable: I can’t see how Ottawa can be immune from a global recession and the layoffs  associated with businesses shutting down), buyers will no doubt start to put home inspection conditions back in their offers.

If the buyer’s offer containing such a condition is accepted by the seller, there will be a time limit within which the inspection has to be completed to the satisfaction of the buyer  or the deal will be null and void.

The problem that may arise, and is already starting to pop up anecdotally, is finding a home inspector to do one.  Normally, that’s not a problem: there are lots of home inspectors. But given the virus, some home inspectors are limiting their inspections to vacant properties only. Others are closing their business for a while.

But there are some that are still doing inspections while taking precautions. I received an email this week from Pillar to Post home inspectors, for example, that reads as follows:

At Pillar To Post, the health and safety of your customers and our realtor partners is our highest priority.  In response to the public health situation related to coronavirus (COVID-19), we are diligently monitoring updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and medical professionals to ensure we are taking the necessary precautions to ensure  health and safety is at the forefront of how we serve you.

Practicing Good Hygiene Etiquette:

  1. Your Pillar To Post professionals are following recommended preventative safety measures.
  2. We are cleaning our hands often and at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water.
  3. We are using hand sanitizer when product is locally available.
  4. We are keeping a safe distance (6 feet) from people who are sneezing/coughing.
  5. We are cleaning frequently touched surfaces with disinfectant wipes when locally available.

Keeping Our Customers, the Homeowners and Realtors Safe:

  1. Before entering a customer’s home or property, we will communicate that we’re healthy and ask if our customer is as well.
  2. We won’t shake hands or elbow tap but we will give a friendly greeting from a safe distance.
  3. We will utilize shoe covers to prevent tracking in contaminants.
  4. We use hand sanitizer throughout our inspection process if we are able to obtain it locally.
  5. We conduct our inspections according to the most recent company update and procedures.

What Can You Do To Help?

  1. Let us know in advance of your appointment if you have any concerns or want us to communicate anything directly with your clients.
  2. Let us know if you would like us to take any special precautions.
  3. Inform us if anyone attending the Inspection has health issues, like the flu or a cold.
  4. Let us know if you would like us to limit the amount of information we provide. We can make necessary adjustments or email information instead, if requested.

All of these seem like good ideas and definitely best practices.

I think, as a seller, before accepting an offer conditional on a home inspection, I would want to know (through my listing agent) whether the buyer had already booked a home inspector, who it is, and what kinds of precautions they will take to keep my home safe. I would also want to be sure that no-one entering my property has been travelling in the previous 14 days.

When it comes to the buyer’s right to be present during the inspection, that’s been the practice, but it’s not actually specified in the condition. The current home inspection clauses is worded as follows:

home inspection clause

Normally, we have buyers  following the home inspector around asking questions, but I don’t know that that will be possible, or even acceptable, when we are being told to maintain a six foot distance from each other in social distancing. So I think we may see sellers restricting access to home inspectors but asking the buyers to stay away. The buyer’s agent, of course, would be present because they have to arrange access and are supposed to be there during the inspection. I think it could be handled like when we have overseas buyers, and do Facetime or video walk throughs of the inspection, so there are ways to handle that for sure.

What about the seller?Do they have a right to be present?

Well, the buyer has never had a right to exclude the seller from being at home during a home inspection. We discourage it so that the inspector can speak freely to the buyers, but as long as they don’t interfere, it’s their right to stay in their own home as long as they don’t interfere with the inspector.

I can see how in this situation, the home owner may want to be nearby to wipe down surfaces as the home inspector moves from room to room. Also,  with people exercising social distancing, it may  not easy for home owners to leave the premises. If the sellers are self-isolating because they have travelled recently, I think that would be something the sellers would need to disclose to the buyer in the same way that latent defects must be disclosed to sellers. There is no way for a buyer to know otherwise.

Timelines might need to be adjusted to allow periods of self-isolation or quarantine to expire: no home inspector can do home inspections if there are parts of the home that are off limits because there is someone in the home who is in isolation or quarantine.

The concern I have currently is that if virus numbers ramp up, all non-essential services could be shut down. And so even if a seller accepts a home inspection clause, in a rapidly changing situation, the buyers may not be able to do them at all.

So while the answer to the question “Can buyers do home inspections during Covid-19?”  is “yes, buyers can do home inspections,” the caveat is “For now.” The situation could change quickly in the next few weeks. But if you are going to proceed with a home inspection, whether buyer or seller or realtor, be sure to ensure that best practices are followed.

Thanks for the question, John – I hope this helps answer it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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