June 11, 2007
Special to The Seattle Times
MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Carpenter ants, leaky roofs and dry rot are Don McFeron's bread and butter.
Scouring houses for such hazards and preparing inspection reports for potential homebuyers is part of his work as a building inspector – a profession several labor studies say is one of the hottest jobs in the country.
But it's no job for people whose blood runs cold at the idea of running into spiders while squeezing into a small crawl space.
"Claustrophobia is not a good thing in this business," said McFeron, co-owner of Seattle-based Scout Building Inspections. "You're frequently on your hands and knees doing army crawls through tight spaces. Then you need to climb ladders to get up and inspect the roof.
"Every square inch of a house needs to be reviewed, so it's hard on the knees, the neck and the back," McFeron said.
But it keeps him and his wife, Joey, hopping. Since launching their business seven years ago, the couple often log 12- to 16-hour days, six days a week.
The median wage for building/construction inspectors in the Seattle/Bellevue/Everett area is $28.16 an hour, with most earning $19.27 to $37.48. Nationwide, the median salary is about $43,670 a year, most earning $27,760 to $67,380.*
To learn more about the field of building/construction inspection, go to the following sites:
• American Construction Inspectors Association: www.acia.com
• American Society of Home Inspectors: www.ashi.org
• International Code Council: www.iccsafe.org
• National Institute of Building Inspectors: www.nibi.com
*These wages do not include salaries earned by inspectors who run their own businesses or work for franchise inspection services.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; Washington State Employment Security
The real-estate market has been so demanding that they took their first vacation in six years last summer.
"Right now, we're running between seven and nine inspections a week – plus all the hours spent in the evening preparing reports," said Joey McFeron, an engineer who handles the company's administrative duties.
"We couldn't handle more. We know some people who set boundaries and limit their inspections to five days a week. Right now, we're busier than we want to be, and that's just through word-of-mouth."
And job growth in this line of work isn't expected to slow. In King County alone, hiring for construction and building inspectors is expected to surge almost 15 percent in the next seven years.
Nationwide, inspection jobs could climb as much as 26 percent by 2014, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show.
Around here, the high-speed real-estate market is fueling part of this employment engine.
In this region, inspection jobs are split fairly evenly between those who, like the McFerons, focus on real-estate pre-sale inspections, and the 1,023 building/construction inspectors who work for King County or local cities looking for code compliancy in new and remodeled construction.
"We're both looking for health and safety issues," said Joey McFeron, "but they're going through the progression of construction to meet requirements for permitting, while we're hired by someone who's making an offer on a house."
Home inspections are invaluable for homebuyers, according to Sutton Real Estate agent Brian Shields of Mill Creek. "A homebuyer might absolutely love a house, but hiring an inspector takes away the fear of the unknown," he said. "Inspectors are an integral part of the home-buying and -selling process."
For Don McFeron, that means knowing something about everything from "critters to soils" while reviewing the 1,184-point checklist for a typical 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath house.
Add up time spent for the on-site review, travel and report preparation, and Joey McFeron says each inspection takes six to eight hours.
It helps to be active in the local chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), the oldest and largest professional group of its kind in the country, says Don McFeron. The group provides him with a system that works for many of its 6,000 active North American members.
Evaluating items on this lengthy checklist requires "a well-rounded construction background," says Don.
"People think we're specialists, but Don is a generalist in everything from electrical and plumbing and framing, to site work, earthquake issues and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning)," said his wife.
Though ASHI certifies three different levels of building inspectors, based on experience and quality, Washington is one of several states that does not require a general inspector's license.
However, the state does require inspectors to hold a structural pest-inspector license, so that they can recognize everything from termites to biting ants. It's one reason why this job is not for the faint of heart.
McFeron has learned to handle "scary days on wet roofs, snakes crawling over your leg and lifting an attic hatch only to have rat poop" land on his head.
Working in Seattle has its own, sometimes unexpected, challenges.
"This area is more difficult than other parts of the country because of all the rain and potential water intrusion," he said. The
The job doesn't get any easier when he's atop a roof and comes face to face with a snarling raccoon nesting with newborn cubs in a chimney, like he did two weeks ago.
When it comes to surprises like that, "we don't bat an eye," said Joey McFeron. "We want our clients to be protected, so we call in the experts" – professionals in electrical, geotechnical, structural engineering or other specialties.
"We don't have an ax to grind with anybody," said Don McFeron. "I don't try to make it worse. I don't try to make it better. I'm neutral, like Switzerland."
If that's the case, then municipal inspectors may be the United Nations.
At King County Department of Development and Environmental Services, for example, building-inspection supervisor Bernard Moore works with a team of 18 inspectors who handle another aspect of building and construction inspection, specializing in code enforcement. Within the county, each city has its own inspectors.
While the workload occasionally demands overtime, most of Moore's county team works 40-hour weeks while averaging eight inspections a day in unincorporated parts of the county – often logging more than 150 miles per day.
"Our job is to enforce the life-safety issues required by code not only for houses but for churches, schools, apartment complexes," Moore said. "Some contractors may see us as the roadblock to what they're doing, but we're not the enemy. We're here to help."
That is why "good communication is very important in this job," Moore says. "You have to know how to deal with difficult or antagonistic people in a positive manner. And you need both strong oral and written communication skills because 50 percent of the job is in the writing process."
Inspectors who handle code compliancy may be specialists in electrical, mechanical, plumbing and public works-related construction features. Some have degrees in engineering and architecture; others are experienced in a building trade.
"We have people with construction-management degrees, engineering degrees and a good portion of them have built homes," Moore said. "But our most recent hires include a carpenter and a geologist."
Building-codes classes available at Edmonds Community College can prepare candidates for a four-hour exam that qualifies them for the International Code Council, sometimes a requirement for job qualification.
"Sure, the nastiest part of the job is crawling in tight crawl spaces," Moore said, "but when you're out driving and you see a nicely finished house or building, you get a sense of accomplishment knowing 'I inspected that.' "
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