Q&A with Mike Gabbert

Starline Real Estate Inspections

Mike “Gabby” Gabbert is president of Starline Real Estate Inspections and a multiple-licensed real estate inspector in the State of Illinois. Growing up in a family of electricians, carpenters, plumbers and engineers, rental property was big business, and there were always repairs to be made. Having worked with his brother, Chuck Gabbert of C. T. Gabbert Remodeling and Construction, on and off for years performing all aspects of building, remodeling and property maintenance, he eventually began to manage larger facilities and schools, which “always seemed to be under one kind of inspection or another.” Throughout this process, he found that some inspectors were quite knowledgeable, with good intentions, while others “made up the rules as they went, with no one to hold them accountable,” inspiring him to become an inspector himself. Today, the family tradition continues on through Gabbert’s 11-year-old daughter Veruka, who is set to become “the next big renovation reality star,” and four-year-old son Cash, who “always has a tool belt on and is fixing something.”

What services do you offer through Starline Property Inspections?
I’m not just a run-of-the-mill home inspector, although I enjoy home inspections and it is probably the biggest part of my business at this point. I also act as the general inspector on commercial and industrial inspections, leading a team of engineers, architects, electricians, HVAC specialists, mold specialists, radon specialists and pest specialists. We offer the most comprehensive inspections available, including thermal imaging, ultrasound testing and motor phase vibration testing. We also specialize in life safety inspections and fire marshal inspections, and we can help you prepare for upcoming inspections. We can also assist in asbestos plans, testing and abatement, and we consult on all aspects of facility management.

Describe the process of becoming licensed as a real estate inspector in Illinois.
You must be at least 21 years old and have a high school diploma or equivalent course of study, and you must complete 60 hours of pre-license education from a provider licensed by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. After completing the pre-license course, you must do five live inspections with a licensed Illinois home inspector, then take and pass the Illinois Home Inspector License Exam.

This only sets a minimum standard—much like being up to code, any less would be illegal. I wasn’t satisfied with this, so I decided to train with Jeff Lisse, an inspector out of Chicago. Chicago code is much stricter than code in the Peoria area, and you must base your inspection from the jurisdiction you are inspecting. I also discovered InterNACHI and the Gromicko brothers—this is where my true obsession with inspections comes from. The Gromickos run InterNACHI, an international inspection organization of which I am a member, which trains and holds us to the highest standards in the business. They push us to become Master Inspectors, which involves thousands of hours of training and hundreds of live inspections. We inspect everything—all components and systems in the house or building—and we are expected to become certified as infrared thermal imagers, deck specialists, roof specialists, radon specialists… and the list goes on. Each year, we are expected to become more educated.

How much commercial work do you do, versus residential?
I book myself pretty even across the board, so I stay well-versed in all fields. Most of my commercial inspections come out of the Chicago area. There is more work than I could ever want, so I’m lucky to be able to cherry-pick the jobs that interest me and fit my schedule. I have some great relationships with Realtors who only want my reports—they know the difference between a good inspector and a bad one. They want the best for their clients and take their fiduciary responsibility seriously. These are the people I want to work for: people with integrity and ethics.

What is the biggest difference between the two?
You just have to put things in perspective. The components in a house are similar to the components in a warehouse. A boiler that heats a home might be the size of a mini-refrigerator, while a boiler that heats a warehouse is the size of an Army tank; but both units work basically the same. So really, the biggest difference is the size and length of my report. Describe how you work with engineers, architects, electricians and other specialists for larger commercial and industrial jobs.

These are my favorite projects, mainly because I have this group of like-minded individuals—all obsessive, all specialists in their fields—each one turning in beautiful, narrative reports which I get to compile and deliver to the stakeholders. I pride myself in being a good “general” and mediator among all involved so that everyone has good comprehension and understanding. What good is a report if the people paying for it don’t understand it?

What are some of the most common issues you see as an inspector?
Over the past 30 years, home inspection reports have changed to accommodate increased consumer expectations, and to provide more extensive information and protection to both inspectors and their clients. Most inspections will involve maintenance recommendations, life expectancies for various systems and components, and minor imperfections. These are useful to know about. However, the issues that really matter will fall into four categories:

  • Major defects. An example of this would be a structural failure;
  • Things that lead to major defects, such as a small, roof-flashing leak;
  • Things that may hinder your ability to finance, legally occupy or insure the home; and
  • Safety hazards, such as an exposed, live buss bar at the electrical panel.

Anything in these categories should be addressed. A serious problem can often be corrected inexpensively to protect both life and property. My goal, whether residential or commercial, is to make you aware of any defects, but keep you in a professional mindset—and eliminate what I call the “freak-out factor.”

What tips do you have for homeowners preparing for an inspection?
Just be up front and disclose any problems that you know about. If you’re selling the property “as is,” let them know: this is why I am asking a little less than market value… I do not want to take care of this problem.

What about prospective homebuyers?
Hire a professional InterNACHI inspector. It may cost a bit more, but we are better trained than anyone and generally pay for ourselves many times over. Many clients, after our inspections, are able to renegotiate a deal to fix or replace failing systems, or even terminate a contract when major defects are found. We have saved many prospective buyers from “the money pit situation.” We can be unpopular with some Realtors—they sometimes call us “deal killers”—but in no way are we trying to kill anyone’s deal. We are trying to protect our client, ourselves and the lender. I try to make people realize that a lot of these defects are easy, inexpensive fixes.

Talk about some of the latest technologies in your industry.
Infrared thermography is a relatively economical building diagnostic technique, used to perform surveys of the thermal and moisture envelope of a home, and for examining the structural components of buildings. The building inspection industry is quickly evolving to demand more in-depth inspection information, such as energy efficiency and construction inadequacies. I offer thermal image testing, which can detect moisture around toilets and tubs that you may never have noticed. It can show hot spots in electrical wiring and breakers, as well as lack of insulation and areas that need weatherproofing. It is also invaluable for detecting leaks in flat roofs.

Ultrasound testing detects leaks in refrigerant, compressed air, natural gas, propane, gear and bearing wear, electrical discharge, seal and gasket integrity, etc. One of the best uses of ultrasound that I have found is for the testing of steam traps. With motor phase vibration testing, you can identify sources of trouble early on to take corrective action, saving money and down time. A good phase vibration tester can predict motor life expectancy.

What are the biggest trends you see ahead for your industry?
I think we will see more inspections coming from the “front end”—sellers asking for inspections to head off any surprises during the sale. They can then make repairs and better prepare for the showing instead of scrambling for a quick fix before closing. Things can get pretty expensive at that point.

What is the biggest misconception that people have about your work?
The biggest misconception is that we are all the same. We are proud to be fanatical and obsessive about our work. InterNACHI-certified inspectors perform the best inspections, by far. The organization turns down more than half of the inspectors who want to join because they can't fulfill the membership requirements. They do more, they deserve more, and yes, they generally charge a little more. Do yourself a favor and pay a little more for the quality inspection you deserve.

Buying a home is probably the most expensive purchase you will ever make—this is no time to shop for a cheap inspection. The cost is small relative to the value of the home being inspected, and the additional cost of hiring a certified inspector is practically insignificant by comparison. As a homebuyer, you have been crunching the numbers, negotiating offers, adding up closing costs, shopping for mortgages and trying to get the best deals. Don't stop now! Don't let your real estate agent or anyone else talk you into skimping here. iBi

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