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Post-Surfside, Building Inspections Industry Seen As Essential, But Understaffed

A few months ago, Kim Diemer, a residential and commercial building inspector based in Portland, Oregon, was examining a warehouse in nearby suburban Beaverton, and something didn’t feel right about the roof. He had a scissor lift with him during the inspection, so he took a closer look at rafters and the areas where the roof was bolted into the supporting walls. Or was supposed to be bolted in; he discovered the entire top of the building lacked weld joints and bolts, it simply sat there on top of the structure. 

“It just shocked you,” he said of his discovery, which led to some quick repairs. 

Diemer, who runs the Building Analyst Group, which does property and environmental inspections for clients across the country, said it’s all part of being a building inspector. He loves the puzzle-solving aspect of the role, identifying problems, figuring out how to fix buildings, and learning about the history and evolution of the building trade, including structures dating back to the 19th century. 

It’s also a role that’s increasingly in demand.

There is currently a Covid-driven shortage of commercial property inspectors because sales are up.

As the tragic building collapse in Surfside, Florida, showed, aging buildings and infrastructure rely on inspectors for evaluations and security. Even relatively new construction should be evaluated before sales; the pre-Great Recession building boom led to rushed construction and reportedly double the number of defects between 2000 and 2005 and the previous six-year period. 

Add the needs of nearly half-century-old structures and an increasing volume of real estate transactions, and the profession, especially Diemer’s company, is seeing increased business. In 2020, Diemer and his team inspected about 140 buildings, double what he did in 2019, and 2021 seems poised to maintain the current year’s fast pace. 

Nick Gromicko, an industry expert and founder of the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, or InterNACH, a trade group that represents more than 22,000 residential and commercial inspectors, said there is currently a Covid-driven shortage of commercial property inspectors because sales are up.

“Many companies learned to work from home and aren't renewing their commercial leases,” he said. 

The growth in commercial transactions, and the growing need for inspectors, comes at a time when the industry is in the midst of many transitions. Like many skilled trades in the construction industry, building inspectors have seen more and more technology enter the workplace, such as drones to survey roofs, changing the way they work. Additionally, the workforce has aged, as fewer young professionals enter the building inspection trade.  

The profession is also multifaceted and a bit decentralized. Many states require inspectors to be licensed, while others, like Idaho, do not. The jobs can also vary, from complete inspections of strip malls or warehouses, to simply examining the foundations and supports of an apartment building, to coordinating with larger construction teams to make sure a project is progressing correctly.

Diemer said a constant challenge is working with what he calls “briefcase contractors,” general contractors who outsource the entire project to different teams, with one group doing cladding, another roofing, and still another HVAC, a process meant to save time that often leads to costly mistakes. 

The changing nature of commercial buildings, which tend to evolve faster than residential construction, also presents a challenge. Materials and building techniques, including sustainability features like solar panels or upgraded HVAC systems, are constantly changing. 

“Residential homes haven't changed much in 50 years, but technologies that go into commercial buildings are changing all the time,” said Gromicko, who helps run the Certified Commercial Property Inspectors Association, a nonprofit trade group for commercial property inspectors.

Dan Kessler, president of the Phoenix and Las Vegas offices of Criterium-Kessler Engineers, said technology is also changing how inspectors themselves do their work, including using iPads on-site and using the aforementioned drones and other tools to explore large structures and high-rises. He thinks technology is helpful, but it’s important not to lose the human touch. 

“You can get high-resolution drones that can see a penny sitting on the roof,” he said. “But [they] can’t determine if part of the roof feels soft or stable, if there are areas of concern from a structural perspective. That’s where tech can have limitations. People want technology, but there are just things that you need to touch, feel and shake.” 

Inspectors for commercial spaces currently face a growing workload and trouble finding new workers. As Surfside illustrated, there’s a generation of structures nearing the half-century mark that will need increased attention; Diemer said he sees many owners wanting to sell now, to avoid paying costly repair bills later. But finding workers hasn’t been easy in recent years.

Kessler suggested it’s a combination of finding talent with STEM knowledge who also want to go out into the field. A white-collar profession that requires one to get in the field, climb ladders, and get your hands dirty can be a tough sell, though Gromicko sees hope as the trades and non-collegiate career routes get more attention. 

“It's getting easier as there is a movement in our nation to rethink whether or not kids out of high school should borrow so much money to get professional degrees that don't pay very well,” he said. “So more and more kids out of high school are gravitating to the trades, thank goodness.”