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Ethnographic Diary of a Property Inspector 3: Rules of the Game

Previous installments introduced the property-liability business, its insurance inspectors, and getting employed in this sub-industry. I continue here by describing the context and pathways through iterations of training that inspectors undertake as they start their contract with residential insurance-inspection aggregators…

Rules: the outer game

After one is hired and scheduled for training one is asked to collect tools and to get acquainted with inspection methods. Here is an illustration supported by a glossary intended to portray many of the loose parts of one's "outer game"...

Above: sadly, one's appearance cannot be very hip, in my case having the look-feel of a rejected auditioner from the film Cowboys & Aliens.

1.  attire (a, b, c, d): professional, golf shirts?, yes, hoodies?, no; boots are best, especially useful in backyards; cap in summer, gloves in winter

2.  badge: you supply photo, aggregator then sends back an ID badge

3.  camera: trainers suggest 10x zoom, resolution requirements are quite low

4.  [not shown] car: best if it gets good gas mileage, I did my inspections in my all-wheel-drive vehicle

5-6-7:  checklist, above which is a job-ticket: this is what inspection dispatchers aim you way, one per case – mine were all a rather dense one-pagers that I printed and clipped to my board, onto which I logged field notes and plan-sketches; clipboard: to hold paperwork, I use an oversized artist's version that has a decent-sized grabbing handle

8.  gaiters in winter

9.  [not shown] job filing system: for back in the office – as much as "paperless" might be an ideal goal, inspectors end up swimming in paperwork, so systematizing that is important

10.  measuring wheel: this is what technical surveyors use to  capture property dimensions in a precise fashion; in the case of property inspections you run a wheel quickly along the footprint of a home then log the measurement onto your sketch (never enough time for survey-level precision)

11.  monopod, that sits in a hammer holster: some trainers want you to attach a monopod to your camera in order to photograph roofs that you cannot quite see from eye level; I attached a monopod to my camera, bought a carpenter's hammer holster that I strapped on, and used all three in concert

12.  [not shown] PC with DSL or cable Internet: for back in the office; for the most part an aggregator's web portal demands an Internet Explorer browser, so that requires a PC

13.  [not shown] personal navigation device (PND) or smartphone: a PND has a GPS chip (GPS is an abbreviation for Global Position Systems satellite navigation); later I bought a smartphone (high-end phones now have GLONASS-assisted GPS) because your snapshots can be swiftly sent to a software portal (e.g., via DropBox or other software) at the end of a day

14.  safety-vest, also [not shown] an orange road cone: helps visibility since you are in and out of a car constantly; I put a cone atop my roof to alert drivers and also the property owner (who may by puzzled by a car in front of her/his home)

15.  [not shown] sun lotion, last, but not least

The inner game

Essentially this game is about what needs to happen with – and between – your ears. Some aggregators will train you completely online (by way of webinars and quizzes) while others want you present in person near their closest zone office. I asked my aggregator's recruiter for a local Minnesota venue but she said that was too expensive for them, so I drove 400 miles to Chicago, their regional center. Bright and early one summer morning I walked into a mini-conference room inside a hotel of a Chicago suburb.       

A dozen attendees and two instructors were present. When I put my "ethnographic researcher" glasses on and looked around I saw a well-balanced cross-section of America, i.e., a varied mix of ages, gender, and color. I was the only trainee from out of town. It turned out that none were absolute "newbees" like I was. In fact one attendee ran her own company of inspection subcontractors that she supervised, I could never figure out why an expert like her was there (and she was gone for the afternoon session.) It was a day of Powerpoints peppered with industry buzzwords and photographs, with Q & A interludes that were the real nuggets of interest due to both trainers' and participants' storytelling. Even better was schmoozing at snacks and lunch: one attendee said he had 20 years of professional home inspection experience. Having just retired he was looking for part-time work. His 5-10 minutes of "think-aloud" narrative turned out to be priceless for tips.

I received lots of printed information at training, other matter was sent later as digital files. The latter I printed and put into binders. Bookmatter was a bit harder to gather, as there weren't mass-market textbooks on the subject. If our instructors couldn't offer answers to our hyper-focused questions then they, like many teachers in the new millennium, responded with the adage "just Google it."

We were done at 5:00, just in time for me to hit the wall of Windy City rush-hour traffic.

E's and Q's

Emotional quotient (EQ) is a zeitgiest term for "people-skills." Every career requires some, and property inspection is no different. The two sorts of EQ are extra EQ, with customers, i.e., homeowners, and intra EQ, between contractors and employees within the inspection company itself. What surprised me was these two needs were not equally balanced: inspectors had to have "genius-level" intra EQ. Regrettably, none of this was covered at training, I discovered it later (on the job – enrolled in "the school of hard knocks").

Training staff suggested that newbees like me, upon returning home, test their new skills by inspecting and wheeling one's own home – and those of neighbors. I did that (figure below) then was assigned a day's worth of test cases to complete that were to be judged successful (or not) by the aggregator's quality assurance (QA) staff.

Inner and outer games joined: my first day

It turned out that on my first day I saw homes at both ends of the "inspection" criterion, i.e., the best and worst homes of my first entire month of cases. I did not know that at the time of course, so my skills (which, as a newbee, were a bit "iffy") were doubly tested. But I passed the muster.

Above: what comes to the busy mind of a newbee property inspector

My first full month

As no textbooks exist the challenge those first weeks for me was to noodle or invent pathways to personal "best practices." Some knowledge of construction principles is useful; I had unofficially minored in architecture in college, so that helped me. Having owned a condo (and serving on the board) – and later a home – gave me some basic insights. Due to the clipboard and other clutter that an inspector has to constantly juggle I ended up dropping two cameras my first month before I got that down (remember that carpenter's holster in my illustration?). Let's not forget those EQ challenges mentioned earlier. I learned inner city inspections required different approaches: it works best to get in early and finish by noon. Nobody warned me in training about a key fact pertaining to snarling dogs: barking dogs behind a fence are not a problem, it's the dog you can't see or don't hear (the ones sneaking up on you without a fence between the two of you) that require scrambling and add extra heartbeats. It wasn't all tricky. I decided a fringe benefit to property inspection might be that is a really good path to buying one's next home. More on all this in my next installment.

After two months of field service I boiled my skills down to ten basic words that became a hybrid of my mission and motto, one that I added to the bottom of my email messages: I look, I snap, I draw. (Accurately, professionally, on time.)

Illustrations by Taylor Baldry


Sidebar: shadowing a master inspector

During my third month I was offered an opportunity by my aggregator to shadow a master inspector who was coming to town for a few days. I had added rather little to my "best practices" list for a month so I jumped at the opportunity.

He and I conversed by phone and we arranged to meet in the lobby of a local hotel on an early summer morning. The plan was for me to shadow him through the lunch hour. Once seated in his car…

  • Q: "How many inspections do you have on your docket today?"
  • A: "75, though, I may lop off a few since I want to see a Twins' game"
  • etc. – later, the Q & A moved to rarified topics, e.g., "Where were the most troublesome inspections you ever experienced"?; answer was not the Twin Cities (whew!), rather a city in New Jersey I won't mention.

On and on we went. He had blue-tooth routed to his cellphone and the whole morning was talk: he conversing in the car with his field manager at the home office and with inspectors elsewhere, interspersed by Q & A with me, then back again to the field. By noon we had inspected 40 properties. As I chatted with a neighbor while we watched my mentor inspecting number 41 we were both slightly astounded by a master at work: car left running, camera on his chest, wheel in one hand, and clipboard in the other, he was like the Bugs Bunny cartoon Tasmanian devil or a 'bot from the film Wall-e.

If I had done time-lapse photography or had pencil-sketched the plan view of his path around that target property it would have looked like an raggedy-abstract Picasso painting that I could have hung on my wall! At property number 55 I was exhausted from just watching and talking. He too had decided that he was done for the day, "Well, I'm off to the ball game now."  But first, he wanted advice for a late lunch, thus was the last Q & A: "So what is the best steak house in the area?" I think he was just being social, as his high-end PND of course offered him of all restaurants in the vicinity!