When we were younger we were all taught to look for who, what, when, where, why, and how in everything we read. By being able to answer these six questions, we were told we would better understand what we read and then be able to explain it to someone else. Today, the same is true and especially so if you are a home inspector or an appraiser. Your report needs to provide simple, clear, and direct information to your client so the client can answer all of these questions once they finish reading your report. If they cannot, you have what is called a failure to communicate. As a professional, you may slip into using jargon specific to your work which your client may not understand or you may assume certain key pieces of information which you know and understand, but which your client does not. In many cases this failure to communicate is how a claim against you comes about.
Does your report pass the Jeff Foxworthy Test?
A well-written report must meet what we call the “Jeff Foxworthy Test”. This means a fifth grader must be able to read your report and understand it well enough to answer these questions and then explain the report to someone else. Any report failing the Foxworthy test may come back and haunt you later if there ever is a question about anything in the report. To find out if your standard report format meets this test, find someone with a fifth grader and ask the child to read your report and then explain what they read to you. If they cannot, then you have a problem and need to look at your writing style and content carefully.
Does the reader know what to do next?
If you are a home inspector, ask yourself if the client really can decipher who, what, when, where, why, and how from a report that tells the client “there is some evidence the water seal around the bay window may be failing”. From this can the client determine who is supposed to do what, when they are supposed to do it, where the problem is, why it needs to be done, and how it should be done? Instead, what if the report said, “the window seal around the bay window is old and may fail soon. A seal failure almost always results in a leak and additional damage. You should have a licensed contractor look at the seal before closing to determine if repair or replacement is necessary”? It’s pretty easy to see why the second statement is easier to understand.
Have you explained the numbers in your report?
If you are an appraiser, you already know your report is highly technical and difficult for homeowners, lenders, and sometimes even review appraisers to understand. A big part of this is due to the fact most appraisal reports are full of numbers, but lacking in detail the reader can easily understand. When you are writing to explain why you used comps that were not in close proximity to the subject, be sure your explanation answers who, what, when, where, why, and how. For example, “The comps selected are more than one mile from the subject and were selected because the subject is built on a double lot surrounded by an otherwise standard subdivision and no other sales nearby were of homes of comparable size. The subject was built prior to the rest of the subdivision and the only comps of similar age and size are located more than one mile away.” Similarly when you are making adjustments be sure your explanation passes the “Jeff Foxworthy Test”, especially any adjustments that are considered excessive under USPAP standards.
Of course, at the end of the day, the client must actually read what you write and you know what they say about leading a horse to water… If it’s any consolation, your E&O carrier will be happy you put answers to these simple questions in your report because it will save you and the carrier time and money if your report is ever challenged.
Now it's your turn
What's one way you've simplified the language in your standard report so it passes the Jeff Foxworthy test? Leave a comment and let us know.