City Paper is not for tourists
J.D. Grewell has been inspecting homes since 1972, so he’s seen every variety of electrical, plumbing, and structural malfunction. But with all that experience, he’s still not prepared for those rare occasions when it’s the clients that go haywire.
Several years back, Grewell had come to inspect the basement and foundation of a town house in Gaithersburg, Md. He was working at the behest of an interior designer, who was putting in some cosmetic touches for the new owner. But having recently undergone a Grewell inspection himself, the decorator thought that the home needed more than wallpaper and throw pillows.
“He saw some things that didn’t make logical sense to him,” Grewell says. “So he called me.”
Grewell learned that the homeowner had opted not to undergo a home inspection at the time of purchase. “The builder had sold the rest of the development,” he says. “This was the last unit.”
The builder had done a nice job with the blinds and the countertops. The foundation, though, needed some work.
“I went into the basement and freaked out,” says the normally unexcitable inspector. “I found a block foundationnot unusual, but there were no mortar joints between the blocks. The foundation moved, was starting to buckle. The steel girders that hold houses up were on top of the concrete blocks, and the blocks were cracking because the girders were crushing them. And concrete gives no warning when it failsit just explodes.”
The structure of the house was no more stable than an overloaded dorm-room bookcase built from cinder blocks and boards. The attic trusses had been sliced up to make space for a pull-down staircase, leaving a weak roof. The basement floor was nothing more than plywood sitting on top of earth, with two sump pumps thrown in to keep the mud below from seeping through.
After concluding that the house was essentially a local Leaning Tower of Pisa, Grewell went to approach the owner.
“I relayed all of this to the young ladyshe just started crying,” he says. “She said, ‘How much to fix it?’ I said, “It can’t be fixed. This is a demolition100 percent.’ She collapsed and folded herself into a fetal position. The decorator and I look at each other like, ‘Oh dear.’”
The two men tried to comfort the woman, telling her that it wasn’t that bad. But they were forced to call 911 when she failed to respond after several minutes. Grewell would later learn that the woman had borrowed cash from a relative to buy the house outright and avoid having a mortgage. She had just lost $150,000.
Grewell says he never heard from the client again but found out three weeks later from the decorator that the woman had been institutionalized and the relative she had borrowed the cash from was seeking legal action against all parties involved. “They went after everyonethe realtor, the builderand won,” Grewell says. “They paid for her hospital bills, rehabilitationmade amends to the end of the Earth.”
Most home inspectors want to inform their clients of whatever they didn’t know about their homes, but sending them into psychiatric treatment isn’t exactly in the handbook. The idea, instead, is to arm the client with useful information for home-purchase negotiations. Diagnosing problems with an HVAC system or electrical wiring, for example, can help buyers shave thousands of dollars off a sale price or steer them toward a more viable property. As Grewell has learned, the process doesn’t always work that way.
“You try to read your customers,” Grewell says. “Are they going to be overwhelmed by what you tell them? Will they be devastated? But how do you ever break bad news to someone?”
Grewell looks more like Indiana Jones than a home inspector. A large straw hat from the Discovery Store that allows his gray/blond ponytail to stick out of the back is always atop his head. Every shirt he owns has a chest pocket large enough to hold a pack of Salemsone of which is constantly dangling from his lips or standing lit in a pile of mulch for safekeeping until he can dart outside to grab a quick puff.
A muttered “J.D. Grewell” and a quick handshake, if the mood strikes him, are the extent of the personal interaction he gives his clients until he spots a problem that requires him to speak.
Perhaps if Grewell simply presented his clients with his written inspection reports, they would take the information in stride. But Grewell narrates the troubles to them, and the delivery usually suggests doom. When he spots something, he reports it in a deep, flat tone that makes whatever it is sound like a horrible, dangerous flaw. To judge from tone alone, a poorly grounded outlet is no different from a crumbling foundation.
“It’s funny, because he wears this cowboy hat, and you always think he’s mad at you, and he’s never smiling,” says attorney Peter Grenier, of the Bode & Grenier law firm in the District.
“Some of the best brain surgeons in the world have zero bedside manner,” Grenier continues. “But they’re who you want operating on your son’s brain tumor. I’d rather opt for a person who is the best of the best, regardless of bedside manner, than someone who laughs and tells jokes.”
Grenier’s first encounter with Grewell came five years ago, when a pair of the lawyer’s clients contacted the inspector to evaluate an expansive home they were considering buying, where he uncovered what turned out to be an extremely costly irregularity. In this instance, the inspector’s chilly demeanor couldn’t even begin to convey the extent of the problems found.
“I do a ton of synthetic-stucco cases, and I had a case in Maryland where I first met [Grewell]a house on Spring Ridge Road in Potomac,” says Grenier. “It was clad in this fake-stucco garbage, this EIFS.”
Synthetic stucco, or Exterior Insulation and Finish System (EIFS), is a building material crafted from foam, sand, and plastica cheap alternative to traditional stucco that yields a similar look. Grewell likens it to Styrofoam. “It’s almost painted on,” he says. “It’s mixed with sand, which makes it look like stucco.” But EIFS makes water drainage a tricky propositionif it’s not installed properly, it can cause homes sheathed in it to rot.
Because the house was so large, both Grewell and his one other inspector currently on staffErwyn “Matt” Matthews, who has been with the company for 17 yearswent to the property. Grewell took the exterior, and Matthews tackled the interior. “We were there a half-hour,” says Grewell. “I don’t know what Matt was doing in that half-hour, but I had seen enough on the outside. Then Matt comes out and says, ‘You have to see the inside.’”
Grewell says the grand house had numerous problems in nearly every major system he checksincluding plumbing, roof, foundationand all of its woes were enclosed in a dank, leaky fake-stucco wrapper.
“He took one look at it and said, and I quote, ‘Run, don’t walk, away from this property,’” says Grenier. His clients bought the house anywayand paid a steep price for ignoring Grewell’s advice.
“My clients purchased it, moved in, and they spent hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of thousands of dollarsI almost want to say it got up to a million, but I’m not sure,” Grenier says. “They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to have the exterior torn off and to have it structurally shored up. It was in danger of collapsing.”
Inspectors don’t usually get the opportunity to spot things such as faulty EIFS. Their job is often a mundane grind of routine checks for swollen doors, low water pressure, and undercharged electrical outlets. But if you know enough about the intricacies of a house, you can always come up with something interesting.
“See that black stuff in there? That’s mold,” Grewell says, pointing to floating bits in a jetted tub during another Maryland inspection, in Rockville. “There are little pipes in there with standing water. That’s why you fill the tub, add a cup of bleach, and drain it once a week. This tells me that they haven’t been cleaning it. Not good,” he says, shaking his head and furiously scribbling on his metal clipboard.
Grewell’s grim observations, coupled with the stony silence with which he carries out his work, make it difficult to imagine him standing at the front of a classroom teaching students about the nuances of home construction. But working as a shop and art teacher at a Montgomery County high school gave him his entree into the home-inspection profession in the early ’70s.
“I was teaching industrial arts, and one of my courses was mechanical drawing,” he says. “It includedwell, I includedfloor plans and house design. My students were going home and telling their parents what was wrong with their houses.
“It started with them,” he continues. “My students’ parents would come to me and say, ‘We’re building a new house. Will you look at it?’ I didn’t charge. It was a favorit was a compliment. I finally built up the nerve to tell them, ‘Pay me $35.’”
Grewell says that the school wanted to fast-track him into an administrative position because of his reputation as a “monster” disciplinarian in the wood shop, but he wasn’t interested. So he decided to take a gamble and enter the home-inspection field. He never went back to teaching, and, in 1979, after a stint working for a national firm, he decided to branch out on his own.
“There weren’t a lot of calls at first, as you can imagine,” says Chris Davenport, Grewell’s wife and office manager. The former government employee is the voice on the other end of the phone when anyone calls J.D. Grewell and Associates Inc.’s Silver Spring, Md., office.
Davenport says business picked up after Grewell performed an inspection for Washington Post Book World Senior Editor Michael Dirda in the early ’80s. “J.D. did an inspection for him and he asked him to review some booksa series from Bob Vila and one from Time-Life. The Time-Life books had a little blurb on the cover: ‘Outstanding, says J.D. Grewell of the Washington Post.’ That was really the start of things.”
He repays the local paper of record for the endorsement with a plug of his ownhe never travels anywhere without a supply of Washington Post newspaper bags. He puts them over his shoes when he goes into a home with wall-to-wall carpeting so as not to track in mud.
Big-time publicity notwithstanding, Grewell has cultivated business over the years the way most small contractors do: via word of mouth. Old-fashioned networking snared him big-name clients, including members of Congress, newscasters, and sports figures. Still, the majority of Grewell’s inspections involve ordinary area residents.
Law clerk Colette Pumphrey has called the inspector to her family home in D.C.’s Spring Valley because she wants to know if it’s livablean unusual motive for a call to Grewell. Normally, the people calling him are prospective home buyers. But after falling through the attic floor down to her bedroom a year and a half ago, Pumphrey wants to be certain the structure is safe.
“I was referred to [Grewell] by a broker who is a friend of someone I went to college with,” says Pumphrey. “He said he was very thorough in his reports. I said, ‘He could probably write a book about this house if he’s thorough with the average home.’”
Inspecting the old, dilapidated home requires Grewell to use the full range of tools at his disposal. He employs the help of everyday items, such as a flashlight and a pocket knife, as well as more hi-tech gadgetsincluding an infrared digital temperature gauge and a red pen-like gauge that makes a noise when it detects unsafe levels of electricity. When Grewell finds himself in a standing pool of water in the basement while trying to inspect the fuse box, the gizmo chirps.
“Water and electricity never mix,” he says, sounding like a PEPCO public-service commercial. “This makes sure that I don’t get fried.”
Grewell discovers three major hazards at the Spring Valley location that concern him: A portion of the home’s footing, which holds the house up, is exposed; a power wire is anchored to the home with nothing more than nylon rope; and extensive wood damage in the basement calls for a professional termite inspection.
After the inspection, Grewell follows his
ritualthat is, retreating to his car to write the report on the spot, chain-smoking all the while. After an hour, he comes back inside and discusses his findings with Pumphreyalmost every one of the home’s major systems needs some sort of upgrade. All told, Grewell estimates that Pumphrey will need to spend at least $30,000 to get the house in good, solid shape.
Pumphrey later says she’s pleased with Grewell’s inspection. Because her grandfather built the house, it has deep sentimental value for her, so she is glad to learn that the property can be salvaged.
“I thought it was going to be much more,” she says. “I thought he might recommend possibly even razing the house, but he had practical solutions and approached it from the point that all of these things are fixable and it doesn’t need to be torn down. He even gave recommendations of people who could do the work.”
Grewell, used to more emotional responses when someone is told that her house needs such extensive work, is just as pleased with Pumphrey’s reaction as she is with his performance.
“That went really well,” he says while loading up the car to leave her house. “She didn’t cry.”
At every single home inspection, Grewell pulls up in his maroon Ford Escort wagon packed with plastic buckets of tools, report forms, and various other inspection accouterments. The vanity tags on his vehicle read: “ASHI 193.” They notify clients of his membership in the American Society of Home Inspectors, a not-for-profit membership organization established in 1976 to enhance professionalism within the inspection industry and build consumer awareness. The 193 is Grewell’s membership number.
Grewell has been a member of the organization since 1979. As one of the elder statesmen of the 6,000-person association, he is working to ensure that the next generation of home inspectors will be just as ethical and diligent as he iswhether they like it or not.
Currently, only 27 states have legislation governing home inspectors. Locally, Maryland and Virginia both have laws in place; the District does not. ASHI Director of Compliance Jim Vykopal says that there was no state licensing or regulation of any form as recently as 18 years ago, because home inspection was an inchoate line of work. “The profession has grown, and as more consumers use it, there is more of a demand to control it,” he says. “But in a lot of states, if you hang a shingle, you can be a home inspector, so a lot of home inspectors are not qualified.”
And that’s where Grewell comes in. He became chair of the ASHI’s Standards of Practice committee this year and sees himself as the profession’s conscience. In that capacity, Grewell has helped guide the organization through disputes between older and younger home inspectors. One key issue is real-estate-agent referrals. Although the old guard is not outright opposed to agent recommendations, it is concerned that a home inspector working from a referral may withhold damning information about a house.
“The only avenue for new home inspectors is through realtorsthey are the gatekeepers,” Grewell says. “I won’t say [those who use referrals] don’t meet our standards, but there is an inherent conflict of interest when you get realtor referrals. They get no money if there’s no sale.”
Home inspector Jim Delgado, of Delgado and Associates LLC, says that the new generation of inspectors is being intentionally steered toward serving agents rather than buyers. “When I went to home-inspection school, one of the things they pounded into our heads was ‘Don’t piss off the realtorthey’re your bread and butter,’” says Delgado. “So you have these brand-new inspectors out of the gate and what is their focus? The realtor.”
Nick Gromicko, a realtor and executive director of the Pennsylvania-based National Association of Certified Home Inspectors (NACHI), says that while the practice of kickbacks is illegal, the notion that home inspectors and real-estate agents should be at odds is an old one.
“Older home inspectors think there is a conflict, and that was true for eons,” Gromicko says. “Home inspectors who say, ‘I only want to work with the client’ are usually older inspectors who don’t realize that home inspection has changed.”
The relationship between agent and inspector shifted when the real-estate industry began to embrace the concept of buyer agency. Rather than employing the services of an agent affiliated with a home’s seller, most buyers are now represented by a separate agent who serves only their needs.
Gromicko says that the concept of an agent’s exclusively working for the interests of the client goes back thousands of years. “If ASHI wants to go back and argue with the Romans, they can, but it’s set in stone,” he says.
Jim Warkentin, owner/broker for Warkentin Co. Realtors of McLean, Va., contends that whatever changes the industry has undergone, Grewell stands for a different epoch. “You have to start with what the job is,” he says. “Some agents feel that the job is to protect the buyer from catastrophic problems and do the dog-and-pony show. There’s nothing wrong with that definition, but [Grewell’s] not a good fit for that definition.”
Rebecca Brown, of the Accokeek, Md., home-inspection firm SAMBECK Inc., a NACHI member business established in 1992, says that most real-estate agents want a competent home inspector who is not going to obscure a home’s problems.
“Many years ago I was a realtorin the late ’80s, when home inspection really started to pop up,” she says. “Realtors thought of it as troubleone more thing to mess up a deal. That’s not so now. Everyone has the same goal; no one is saying that home inspectors are trying to ruin deals. Consciousness has been raised all around.”
Despite changes in the industry, Grewell is still wary of the profession, but he does recognize that for inspectors who are just starting out, building relationships with real-estate agents can often be their only way in.
“I talked to a guy who wants to get into the business a couple weeks ago. He wants to go to school, take classeswhich is admirablebut how will you survive? Your only avenue is realtors.”
Even if younger inspectors find themselves at the mercy of the real-estate industry and travel a different path from inspectors of another generation, Grewell still believes that gaining ASHI membership is crucial to becoming an established inspector in the field. And the process is no easy task.
At a minimum, those seeking membership must perform 250 fee-paid inspections according to standards, and take two testsone of which is the formidable National Home Inspector Examination. To make sure those just looking to make a quick buck are weeded out, Grewell sits on the national examination board.
“Every now and then, someone taking the test has to take it three times before they pass,” he says. “They’re getting ticked off, because it’s their livelihood. Our only answer to them is: You need to learn more.”
In Grewell’s worldview, real-estate agents are as practiced at the art of spin as they are at spotting good values and understanding the needs of their clients. Although he concedes that there are many good agents, he sees their bottom line as moving houses, whereas his goal is to broadcast houses’ shortcomings.
“Most people, realtors recommend their inspector. Most realtors do not recommend me, because I tell the truth,” he says. “Well, my reports are factual and accurateI won’t say it’s the truth.”
Although bowled over by the good fortune of finding his dream house, Silver Spring accountant Tahir Qureshi has hired Grewell because he wants the truth. He was referred to the inspector by his father, who credits Grewell for saving him from buying a beautiful, yet treacherous, house on New Hampshire Avenue.
“Home inspection is importantnever buy a home without one,” says Qureshi, who, along with his wife, mother, and father, is present during the inspection of the town house he intends to buy. “We like the house, but it’s the inspector’s job to look past the cosmetic. Looks can be deceiving.”
Qureshi’s agent, Tony Mraihi, an associate with Weichert Realtors, seems less enthusiastic about the inspection. After all, he has fulfilled his part of the bargain. He found his client a town home on a corner lot with a deck, a rear-facing kitchen filled with windows, and a wooded area directly behind the property for privacy. Although Mraihi is full of jokes and smiles, Grewell threatens to put him back to Square One.
And the inspector takes his timehe opens and closes doors, checks every single electrical outlet, and whistles a tune as he crawls through the home’s attic examining its insulation.
When the radon inspector comes to the door, he asks Mraihi, “How are you doing on the inspection? Almost done?” Mraihi replies, “I don’t knowwe might have to take a nap while he finishes!” Qureshi continues to follow Grewell upstairs and down, taking his own notes in a leather-bound notebook, but everyone else looks tired. Qureshi’s wife and mother pull out lawn chairs and take seats outside on the deck, tired of monitoring Grewell’s every move.
Creeping up on Hour 3, Mraihi comes downstairs to check on Grewell’s progress. “J-ay Deee!” he yells, throwing his hands in the air. “Ya done?”
“Yes.” Grewell replies without looking up, as he packs up his briefcase and lifts up his orange metal ladder.
“There are some good realtors,” Grewell says later. “But most of them, their attitude towards inspection is it should take as little time as possible and create no problems that can’t be negotiated easilythat’s still the rule.”
After Grewell spends another 45 minutes sitting in his station wagon writing up his findings, he, Qureshi, and Mraihi lean up against a car to discuss the work that needs to be done on the town homemostly minor changes that he estimates shouldn’t cost more than $6,000. After the briefing is over, Mraihi turns to Grewell and asks the question the inspector dreads most.
“So…” Mraihi says. “Does this house pass inspection?”
“I don’t make that decision,” Grewell answers, cutting him off.
“I do,” says Qureshi, who shakes the inspector’s hand and departs.
As he walks to the car, Grewell says, “That’s why realtors don’t like me. They want me to bless the house.”
Mraihi later insists that Grewell’s spiel on the Silver Spring house lacked context. “It was my first contact with him. I thought he was thorough and did his job,” Mraihi says. “But I think that as a home inspector, you should always try to emphasize to the buyer that they’re not buying a brand-new houseit’s used.”
Mraihi has plenty of company when it comes to that characterization. Dale Mattison, an associate broker with Long and Foster Realtors in D.C., says that the two things he looks for in a home inspector are thoroughness and the ability to communicate. While Grewell is second to none on the first count, Mattison says, he falls slightly short of standard on the latter.
“Having done this for 30 years, I’ve seen him in action at least half a dozen times,” Mattison says. “He is thoroughhe knows what he’s doingbut his communication skill is not as strong as it could be. That is, helping a person determine how they want to react to what they tell us.”
Indeed, clients may need a few transactions to decode Grewell’s gruffness. Royan Miller, a local actress and doula, underwent three inspections with Grewell in finding her dream home. “He’s a man of few words,” she says. “But when he talks, you listen.”
Grewell’s disregard for the feelings of real-estate agents in all likelihood has saddled him with his regional reputation as a deal-killer. Wherever he goes, he hears the same accountthat he torpedoes sales over piddly problems. Sometimes the gripes make it back to the office to Davenport.
“One fellow built a ‘grotto’ in his backyarda Hugh Hefner thing with a swimming pooland it was an abomination,” says Davenport. “It was what we call a Harry Homeowner specialno permits. That was reflected in the report, and he went ballistic. I let him scream and told him I’d have J.D. return his call.”
A few years ago, Grewell and Davenport decided to gauge the accuracy of their firm’s reputation. So they polled local realtors they had worked with to see if, in fact, Grewell’s inspections had resulted in a significant number of sunken deals.
“We wanted to track how many of my inspections went to settlement,” Grewell says. “I kept hearing, ‘You’re Dr. Death,’ so I wanted to know. Ninety percent went to closing; 10 percent did not. How many were due to financing? No idea. How many due to cold feet? Don’t know. How many because of my report? Don’t know. Do I make it easier? Probably not. But the idea of the deal-killer is overrated. Every house sells.”
The ultimate home inspector’s house isn’t as impressive as one might imagine. It’s a single-family home on a corner of a busy stretch of 16th Street in Silver Spring, and it looks like nearly every other house in the areasquare, stately, and brick. Grewell says he bought it 30 years ago not because of how it looked on the outside, but because of the craftsmanship he saw within.
“It’s the only one I’ve ever owned. The realtor had taken me to see 25 homesmost of them were disgusting,” says Grewell. “Finally, I said ‘Enough. I’m not gonna play your game.’ Every Tuesday the new listings came out, and every Tuesday I went into the office and flipped through the books. I saw my house and said to the realtor, ‘I know that house, that location. I want to see it.’ She was freaked out.”
Grewell says that he knew it was the house for him almost immediately. “I walked in the doorit was vacantI looked around, and said, ‘Put in a bid.’ She said ‘Why?’ So I explained to her what I had seen in those 20 minutes I had looked around.”
There was a fire hydrant in the front yard, the house sat high on a hill, and it had solid masonry and copper pipes. The agent told him it would be a great starter house, to which he replied: “This is not a starter house. You don’t understandthey don’t make these anymore.”
Grewell says his house was built in 1954in an era he considers to be the height of quality home building in this country. It was built by a builder for himself. The basement has never leakedwhich is a rarity in this areaand the living-room ceiling is one of a kind. “My first father-in-law was a master plasterer,” he says. “The living-room ceiling isn’t flatit curves. He said there were only five guys in the U.S. who know how to do a ceiling like that. He figured out that he knew the guy who did it.”
Despite the amazing structure of his home, Grewell isn’t open to having visitors tromp through it. Davenport likens the state of the house, which is used as both a residence for the couple and their three kids and an office, to “a grandma’s attic.”
“It’s not pristine. It has all kinds of frustrations,” says Grewell. “We’ve not remodeled our kitchen greatly. We considered an addition, but it got ridiculous. We’ve replaced the hot water heater twice, replaced the furnace, central air. Changed the roof two times. Had it painted, enclosed the side porch, had the foundation re-braced beneath the porch….”
Grewell says his next big home project is rewiring the house and adding some more electrical outlets. “We budget for things to go wrong,” he says. “Because they will.”
Keeping a home-improvement nest egg, he says, is something that most people don’t doincluding his next-door neighbors, who live in a house that is nearly identical to his own, save for a host of small problems.
“Two kids bought the house next door to mine. They had a home inspection. I watched the whole process from my kitchen window,” he says. “An hour and a halfthe guy was gone. Probably told them they had a newer roof. That roof is 30 years old. They just bought a new car, and I’m going ‘Oh no.’ Pretty soon they’re going to wake up and hear drip, drip, drip. I don’t want to go over there and knock on the door and say, ‘Do you know what you’ve got?’ But…”
Being too preoccupied with the exterior is a mistake most home buyers who aren’t inspectors make. “I’m concerned about structure, systemsI don’t look at cosmetics,” Grewell says. “It’s nice to see an attractive house, but it’s all candy. It has nothing to do with habitability. My house is very habitable.”
Grewell says that although his home might lack some of the modern frills he spots in the houses he inspects every day, he’s not looking to upgrade. “Most home inspectors don’t move,” he says.
Still, Davenport, who has essentially lost her living room to the files and paperwork that keep J.D. Grewell and Associates going, gets an itch to move every once in a while. Grewell says: “Ten years ago, Chris said, ‘We need to move, but I want to stay in the same neighborhood.’ I said, ‘OK. Feel free to look.’ She spent about a yearactually considered bidding on a couple.”
“But just from the street, I could see enough wrong with them to say no,” he continues. “Why would we want to buy someone else’s headache?” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.