The Subpoena From Heaven?
It is not often that one gains business and a local advocate from that queasy Sunday morning adrenalin rush when some guy in a fuel-efficient vehicle shows up at your house to deliver a subpoena. Needless to say, I did not rejoice the arrival of this summons on that day, but like many of the strange twists and turns that I have come to expect from this business, it proved to be an opportunity in disguise and a great learning experience.
Luckily for me, the subpoena was not for me to show up in court; it was a request for documents regarding an inspection I had performed several years ago. I remembered the house instantly – it was one of those inspections where I thought I had killed the deal. This was a homeowner built house on an amazing waterfront location but it had unmistakably serious problems including structural issues resulting from one-off construction on a critical slope and complete envelope failure. As I learned later, my clients apparently returned to the house after the inspection, with my inspection report in hand and the owner of the property convinced them that my findings were inaccurate and so they proceeded with the purchase anyway.
I know! Right? That was how I felt when I heard what had happened. So as it turned out, my client was suing the seller and the seller’s attorney was after my inspection report to show that the buyer, my client, knew what they were getting into….. The defense was going to use my report against my client. This was the bizarre situation I found myself in on this Sunday morning and I was very uncertain about how to proceed.
As I have learned many times before, home inspectors can get thrown into situations that are beyond our control. By hanging up the “Home Inspector,” sign on our front porch, we seem to invite the unpredictable. Each day that we go to work we must grapple with the knowledge that we might be unwittingly walking into a trap. The art of managing this chaos is quite possibly at the core of our job description.
The first thing I did, after calling a few of my mentors for advice, was to reach out to my client. When she answered the phone, the first thing she said to me was, “you’ve been subpoenaed right?” It turned out she was very nice to me and she expressed to me how grateful she was that I was reaching out to her to keep her informed. She agreed to send me an email giving me written permission to disclose her inspection and comply with the subpoena.
Wow. I was amazed. That was easy. My client’s happy. I’m happy. And the sellers’ attorney reimbursed my printing and postage fees. End of story, right?
Was it Yogi Berra who said, “nothing simple is ever easy.”
Into the Lions’ Den
A few months later it was a motorcycle that materialized on a Sunday morning. The new subpoena was demanding that I show up at a certain time in a certain place for the privilege of being deposed privately by the two opposing attorneys.
Now before I proceed I need to get a few disclaimers out of the way. I don’t believe that I am the greatest inspector in the world and I do not believe I know everything there is to know about houses. I approach this job with humility because I am smart enough to know that if you don’t the job will humiliate you.
I did decide years ago that if I was going to stay in this business, I would build my reputation by writing great reports. I did this out of a single unwavering principal: marketing was my least favorite thing to do. I disliked marketing even more than I disliked report writing. So I figured: if I take my time and write clear reports that are easy to read for my clients and packed with useful information….. then these reports will act as my marketing material and grow my business for me. And a funny thing happened…… it worked.
Not only did my business grow like crazy but I did not get so many calls asking questions about inspections I had performed. I also stopped needing to put in endless disclaimers about all the stuff I don’t do – that boilerplate stuff that comes packaged into most inspection software systems that makes it difficult to even read the report.
So here I am in court, with two attorneys, picking apart my inspection report and at the end of the deposition, they both said it was the best home inspection report they had ever read. I have since received multiple referrals to other home inspections from these attorneys.
The moral of this story for home inspectors is: write great reports. The time spent doing so is not fun….. but if you are like me, you will find it much more pleasant than making a sales pitch in a real estate office. Great reports keep you out of trouble and keep your clients coming back for more. They help you earn the respect of your community because your reports are the one thing that survives long past the inspection day.