Hidden Damages and Visual Home Inspections


One of the first questions I ask clients when I meet them is if they have ever had a home inspection before. I ask this question to learn if I'm dealing with first time buyers, who may need extra help understanding the home, or to learn if my clients may have past experiences which will have an impact how my report is perceived by them. It is not uncommon when I start this chat with clients to learn that a past home inspection or home inspector let them down, which is why they called me rather than their previous inspector.

When clients think of the home inspection industry, there is often an unrealistic expectation placed on what inspectors can do. For many clients, home inspectors should be able to see through walls, forecast future roof leaks, and be experts in every discipline of home construction and maintenance eliminating all risks of home buying. In fairness to clients, this unrealistic expectation is a common myth held even by many real estate agents who often recommend an 'expert' inspector to their clients.

Home inspectors need to be careful to correctly set expectations early with clients that a home inspection will reduce risks, but not eliminate them. Clients should also be aware that a home inspection is a visual inspection of 'readily visible' systems. What does 'readily visible' mean in reality? Here are a few examples:

  • The inspection uses the unaided human eye to see deficiencies (no x-ray vision possible)
  • No destructive testing will be done (we can't lift the carpet or pull up tiles)
  • No tools are used to gain access to hidden areas (we can't take apart the furnace to look at the heat exchanger)
  • Occupant belongings, vegetation, inaccessible areas, or unsafe areas may not be well observed (inspectors should note in the report the presence of limitations during normal observations)

Home inspectors practicing a professional home inspection under the standards of any of the major home inspection associations, will be doing a visual inspection. Now that we have established that a professional home inspection is a visual inspection, clients need to know a visual inspection cannot find hidden damages.

What do Lung Tumours and Hidden Home Damages Have in Common?

When a patient takes a trip to the Doctor for an office checkup, the Doctor can see your skin, he can check your blood pressure and your heart beat, and he can make some recommendations based on your age but he cannot 'see' a tumour growing on your lung even though it is only inches from his face. Similarly, when a home inspector looks at a home, they can see the readily visible 'skin' of the home, they can test the taps, hot water, and furnace, and they can make some recommendations and precautions based on age, but they cannot see if there is hidden damage behind the surface, even if it is only inches away.

Home Inspectors Can't Win When Damages are Discovered

Even if a home inspector has set the correct expectations for a client about their visual inspection and has performed a 'perfect' home inspection, hidden damages may still be present. In time, these damages may be discovered and it is inevitable clients will feel that 'somehow' their home inspector should have been able to tell them about these damages. For home inspectors, this is a rough ride to go on as past clients are often emotionally charged and now that the damages have been discovered, it is difficult to remember or accept that they were not readily visible during the 3-hour inspection many months (or years) ago.

We include this limitations of a home inspection document in our inspection materials to try and help explain 'why' something may not be discovered in a home inspection.

Final Thoughts

Good home inspectors are doing the best they can to protect their clients from unexpected costs. Unfortunately, the nature of hidden damages is that they are hidden and cannot be observed during a visual home inspection inevitably leaving a disappointed client. 

Even if home inspections cannot eliminate all the risk in the buying process, home inspectors are very often the first to discover major damages on homes or condos. Without the home inspection industry, many property damages would not be discovered until damages were potentially much worse and the savings to clients home inspectors typically discover are well worth the costs of the inspection.

By James Bell - Owner Solid State Inspections Inc.