by: W. Britt Treece, CMI®, SPM, with Grace Davis Bjork, PM
I. Why Dig?
Have you ever heard anyone say, “We bought our house blindly! We didn’t even hire an inspector – in fact, we never set eyes on it!” Of course not. Who would want to invest 30 years of mortgage payments in something that has not been investigated?
A commercial property is no different. The property must be investigated by a qualified inspector.
According to the International Standards of Practice for Inspecting Commercial Properties, or ComSOP, at item 5.1., reviewing documents and conducting interviews, before, during, and occasionally after visiting the commercial building site is considered “research.” The research supplements the information found during the site visit.
Let’s talk about “digging” for research.
II. Who Does the Digging?
Digging around, underneath, and through a building’s history is necessary, but whose job is it, exactly? The answer is a bit more complicated than it may first appear.
A. The Inspector
Once contracted, the inspector has the responsibility of directing the project at hand. Through conversations and written communication, the inspector would do well to request certain documents ahead of the inspection. ComSOP 5.3.1 lists the following possibilities to give the inspector a solid knowledge base, once on site:
- accessibility surveys;
- building plans;
- Certificates of Occupancy;
- deck age records, plans and construction permits;
- deck and balcony maintenance, power-washing, painting, treating, repair and modification history;
- emergency evacuation plans;
- environmental studies;
- evacuation drill records;
- fire-detection test and maintenance records;
- fire door inspection reports;
- fire-prevention plans;
- fire extinguisher service records;
- fire records;
- flame-resistant certificates;
- floodplain maps;
- flood damage documentation and repair records;
- floor plans;
- kitchen grease-cleaning records;
- kitchen post-fire inspections;
- maintenance records;
- manufacturers’ installation instructions;
- power-washing records;
- previous inspection reports;
- rent records;
- repair estimates and invoices;
- safety inspection records;
- seller disclosures;
- sprinkler head replacement records;
- utility bills; and
B. The Client
After the inspector sends the document request(s), it is the client’s responsibility to produce (print) the requested documents for the inspector to review on site during the site visit. Alternatively, the client may email these documents to the inspector ahead of the site visit. The client must also make available the person with the most knowledge about the building in question.
The client bears these responsibilities because the client is the inspector’s link to the property. Without the client, the inspector has a relationship with neither the property owner nor property management. Thus, the client must ultimately request the needed research.
C. But, Really, the Inspector
Once on site, the inspector reviews both available printed documents and available posted documents. These include building occupancy signs, building plans, fire plans, maintenance records, and safety certificates.
Conversations are important. While on site, the inspector should conduct interviews with the person who has the most knowledge of the property – most often, a property manager or maintenance supervisor. Inspectors can use CCPIA’s Pre-Inspection Questionnaire to conduct interviews.
Prior to the inspection, the inspector will find it helpful to look online for various pieces of property data, such as: county GIS data; county tax records; county building records; and federal and/or state floodplain maps.
While the client is the inspector’s link to the property’s private data, the inspector is responsible for locating the data mentioned above. These are publicly available records that are key to writing an excellent commercial inspection report.
III. “Help! I’m Buried Under All This Information!”
At this point in the process, the inspector has received five to 500 different pieces of information. How do we properly review this abundance of information to help clarify the condition or status of the property?
Here are a few helpful steps:
A. Review at Various Times
Reviewing these various documents at different times and from different perspectives helps the inspector in a number of ways. Before the site visit, the lot size may jump out as an important issue. During the site visit, the lot size may seem insignificant, but the rent rolls may show several vacant or down units. Afterward, during the report-writing phase, the HVAC maintenance records may prove to be the biggest issue.
Time and exposure help develop our attention to what truly matters. We may want to be the best in the business by our fifth inspection, but the only “best” thing we have to offer is the knowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know, and the willingness to keep digging, keep asking, and keep pursuing the truth.
B. Review in Various Ways
Not only must we review documents at different times, but we must use different approaches to each. A fire plan may show the number of pull alarms in a building, but it isn’t helpful when investigating the wall construction plan. Similarly, the as-built drawings may show an excellent overhead map of a complicated building, but theses drawings fail to explain the flashing details on the roof.
A flexible and skilled eye is needed for varied research. If that isn’t yet yours (and whose, infallibly, is?), do not be afraid to ask questions or to ask for help. Often, the best help for an inspector is a kind and caring property manager who is willing to donate their time and expertise.
C. Bringing It All Together
Having reviewed the documents at various times and in various ways, the inspector is ready to triage his findings. Combine your paper observations with your site observations. Which issues now appear to be the most important? Which are secondary? Which are tertiary – interesting but ultimately cosmetic or immaterial?
We may not report the observations in a triage chart (though we may), but the ability to sort through difficult issues is near the top of the list for the excellent commercial inspector.