We are frequently asked if we utilize ZIPLEVELs for providing foundation elevations as part of the inspection. We have spent a good deal of time researching their use, and this is what we learned about the usefulness of this tool and why we choose not to offer this service:
It’s important to start by discussing what is required of a home inspector regarding the reporting on the performance of the foundation.
All home inspectors in Texas are licensed and regulated by the Texas Real Estate Commission (TREC) and are required to follow the TREC Standards of Practice (Standards). In accordance with the Standards, the inspector is required to “render an opinion as to the performance of the foundation” and “generally report present and visible indications used to render the opinion of adverse performance such as: binding, out-of-square, non-latching doors; framing or frieze board separations; sloping floors; window, wall, floor, or ceiling cracks or separations; and rotating, buckling, cracking, or deflecting masonry cladding.”
The following is specifically NOT REQUIRED in the Standards:
The TREC requires inspectors to base their opinion of performance on the visible condition of the structure, specifically regarding the indicators of adverse performance noted above using their knowledge and experience in understanding the movement of foundations.
While inspectors are not prohibited from going beyond the Standards and using “specialized equipment”, and there are times when it is prudent to exceed them, the problem arises when the inspection process is exposed to legal issues when the home inspectors’ actions may be infringing on the practice of engineering for which they may not be licensed.
The Texas Board of Professional Engineers (TBPE) issued a Policy Advisory stating that so long as the TREC inspector stayed within the TREC Standards, they would not be in violation of the Texas Engineering Practice Act. Here is the Analysis and Conclusion of the Policy Advisory:
“Analyzing the cause of a condition, recommendations for repair, or providing any other expert engineering opinion associated with a foundation, including the foundations systems and components, would be considered the practice of engineering per the Act §1001.003(c)(1) and could warrant disciplinary action from the Texas Board of Professional Engineers if conducted by an individual unlicensed as a Professional Engineer (PE). We conclude that a TREC licensed inspector who conducts a visual real estate inspection in conformance with the TREC Standards of Practice does not engage in the practice of engineering.”
For this reason alone, the foundation inspection may not be a time where it is prudent to exceed the Standards of a visual inspection.
Home inspectors that offer foundation elevations often advertise that this type of inspection will provide more information than other inspectors are able to. Here a few samples of the claims made:
The problem with these claims is that:
Besides the fact that there are no required certifications or training needed to use a ZIPLEVEL, our greatest concern is that rather than providing peace of mind, foundation elevations might create unrealistic or uninformed expectations from the inspection while not providing any additional risk reduction.
We also found that when home inspectors offer ZIPLEVEL foundation elevations they often include disclaimers that state something like the following:
These disclaimers are in stark contrast to the claims made and it could be argued that if the elevation measurements should not be relied upon, what’s the point of using the ZIPLEVEL?
A one-time reading of the elevations of a foundation cannot determine if the foundation has moved differentially. “Movement” is a function of time. Taking the elevations of the foundation during a home inspection can only define the configuration of the foundation at the time of the inspection. Documenting foundation “movement” is not possible without the “as built” elevations to compare with because errors in original construction may indicate movement where movement did not occur.
Without comparable measurements taken at the same locations at different points in time to determine movement, the performance of a foundation can only be determined during a home inspection by observing the performance of the structure. A foundation that is performing adversely will negatively affect the structural integrity of the home thus allowing the inspector to see the indicators. If a foundation is performing as expected, there will be no indications of adverse performance regardless of what the elevation readings are.
Unless you’re willing to pay the price, built into the inspection fee or otherwise, to have a benchmark for future elevation comparisons then real estate transactions are not the time to perform foundation elevations.