Joe – Could we get a legal view on the use of thermal imaging devices during home inspections.  A number of guys are touting the relative blindness of those not using them in an effort to promote their new “x-ray vision.”

“My opinion? As with any extra-sensory equipment, from electronic induction moisture meters to gas sensors, this technology is subject to many variables such as quality, on-site conditions and, last but not least, the ability of the inspector to accurately interpret the data.  Further, I know of no precedent that requires a seller to act on these findings by allowing invasive follow up deconstruction to verify inside walls what was inferred by the inspector’s report.

“Lastly, what added dimension of legal liability does the use of these devices open up to the home inspector?”

Many home inspectors have added thermal imaging to their menu of services in recent years in an effort to increase revenue in the wake of an inspection market devastated by the implosion of the underlying residential real estate market.  This development has been fueled by the precipitous decline in the price of thermal imaging cameras, a circumstance that has, itself, engendered a technological arms race among home inspectors that has tended to undermine the advantage and market hegemony of the early adopters and will, almost certainly, through increased supply and competition, erode the ability of practitioners to maintain pricing discipline.

In the Law and Disorder Seminar, one of the skills that I encourage home inspectors to acquire is the ability to manage the expectations of their clients as to what they can reasonably expect to learn about a property from a limited, non-invasive, visual inspection.  Most home buyers have absolutely no idea what a home inspection entails and to the extent that they do have an idea, it is generally unrealistic.  I sometimes think that some of them believe that you are not only going to be able to detect everything that is currently wrong with the property but also everything that has ever been wrong with it and everything that ever will be wrong with it.

And that is one problem that I anticipate that the widespread adoption of thermal imaging by home inspectors is going to exacerbate.  People’s already unrealistic expectations will become more so, especially if they have read some of the wildly exaggerated claims made about thermal imaging on many inspectors’ websites.

I do not believe that thermal imaging, in and of itself, will increase an inspector’s liability to a buyer, however.  It is still, after all, a limited, non-invasive, visual inspection that is being conducted.  If the thermal imaging reveals a reportable issue, take a photo of it and report it.

I can, however, foresee potential issues with a seller if an inaccurate interpretation of the data were to induce a buyer to abrogate an Agreement of Sale.  Or if the seller does do verification deconstruction on the basis of a false positive.

The real problem that I foresee with a widespread adoption of thermal imaging by home inspectors is mission creep.  Is thermal imaging going to become the new normal in home inspections?  And are you going to be able to charge more for it, if everyone is doing it? This is a valuable piece of home inspector training.

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