A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

An Engineer by Any Other Name

I was with a group of other inspectors yesterday, where we were discussing things that we have seen out in the field. Since I do not work new construction sites, I was interested to here what was happening there. To my surprise, I discovered a practice by some engineers which is quite disturbing.

Foundations need to be signed off on by an engineer. This is to ensure that they have been designed to meet the performance needs of the home on that location. Soils and home design can present problems for a foundation when they are not properly taken into consideration. Building codes specify that this engineer has to be a structural engineer. However, since may people simply use the term engineer when referring to any specific type of engineer, new home builders, buyers, and Realtors have used any engineer who they can find.  Since the engineer is being paid a fee, he is happy to oblige. What was worse in my mind is the fact that engineers from other fields thought that they had the knowledge necessary to provide this assessment.

Let me give you an analogy. I have used the idea of a doctor examining you to compare what a home inspector does in my other writings, and this frame of reference is apt here. When we go for our yearly check-up, we see a general practitioner, but when we have a specific specialist. For example, if I know that I have problems with the bone structure in my feet, I will go to a podiatrist. They would know exactly what was happening to my foot. But I could end up in the office of a neurologist. He still would be a doctor, and I am sure that his training had covered some aspects of my foot, but he would not have the best understanding of the issue to help me. I guess if he was being paid well by me, the neurologist would go ahead and look at my foot. This is what is now occurring in some markets in Texas with engineers.

Engineers do work by a code of ethics; however, there is no state law in Texas which forbids them from making an analysis of a system which is out of their field of expertise. For that matter, there is no state law forbidding doctors from the same action. I cannot imagine what would posses an electrical engineer to feel that he is qualified for examining a foundation, other than the price that he can charge. My own experience is that structural engineering associations do not list their membership list, so the consumer would have to go to the phone book. At this point, the consumer would have to look for the term “structural”, when looking for an engineer. The practice of a few Realtors and home builders (and it is a few) to suggest a certain engineer who is not qualified is either done out of a lack of knowledge or concern.

If you are buying a newly built home, check to see that a structural engineer looked into your foundation; otherwise, you may be having foundation work needed soon after you have moved in.

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