What’s the Difference Between a Home Inspection and an Engineering Evaluation

A common reason for a homeowner to need an engineer is to evaluate a foundation crack or other distress in a home. Sometimes this need can arise during pre-purchase due diligence at the recommendation of a home inspector. The experience of working with a home inspector may anchor a homebuyer’s or homeowner’s expectations about obtaining an engineering evaluation. It can come as quite a surprise that an engineering evaluation for a single issue could cost more than an inspection of a whole house by a home inspector. The home-buyer may also be confused as to why they need to pay to have someone else look at their prospective purchase. However, home inspections and engineering evaluations are two very different services.

Much of the difference between a typical home inspection and an engineering evaluation stem form the difference is qualifications between home inspectors and engineers. While the rules vary widely from state to state, one can usually become a home inspector by completing a training program and passing an exam. Engineers typically must complete an accredited bachelor’s degree, work under a licensed engineer for a number of years and pass multiple days of examination. In addition, engineers are typically educated and experienced in a particular engineering discipline like civil engineering or structural engineering and often specialize within their discipline.

Because home inspectors and engineers have different qualifications, their services are different in scope. Home inspectors are trained to recognize abnormal conditions that may indicate problems in a house. Their services are therefore observational in nature. Within their specialty, an engineer has the depth of knowledge to understand whether a condition is problematic and the likely cause of the problem. An engineer can make recommendations and devise solutions to problems. Engineering services are more technical, employing theory and professional judgment gained from education and experience. This difference in scope is reflected in licensing. Engineers are generally permitted to perform home inspections, but home inspectors are usually not permitted to provide recommendations and design services requiring engineering theory and judgment. The difference in qualifications is also reflected in the higher fees of engineers.

The difference in scope between a home inspection and engineering evaluation is reflected in the reports they prepare for the client. Home inspection reports are generally factual, often including many photographs accompanied by brief text. Some inspectors use automation to standardize their reports, saving time and cost. Engineering reports can be highly specific to a particular property or condition of concern. In addition to field observations, the engineering report may be based on a review of documents and reference material, as well as calculations. The findings and recommendations of an engineering report are derived from the exercise of professional judgment.  Since the level of detail is higher, more time may go into a relatively short report. Since the cost is a function of time and rates, an engineering evaluation of very limited scope will often cost more than a home inspection report.

The roles of a home inspector and an engineer in a typical residential real estate transaction are different. Relatively speaking, the home inspector is a generalist, while the engineer is a specialist. The home inspector identifies anomalous conditions while the engineer evaluates the cause and significance and provides recommendations. The home inspection report is factual while the engineering report is analytical. In most cases, the home inspector’s report will provide sufficient information and an engineering consultation can be sought if conditions warrant. Consequently, the most cost-effective approach is usually to engage a home inspector first and obtain an engineering evaluation only if a concern is identified.

The information and statements in this document are for information purposes only and do not comprise the professional advice of the author or create a professional relationship between reader and author.