How to Choose the Right Structural Engineer to Inspect Your Flips

Posted by Dahna Chandler on April 28, 2016

Some of the biggest challenges real estate investors have in flipping homes are unexpected surprises during renovations. Because you can’t see behind walls, getting the right residential structural engineer to inspect your flips can help you avoid expensive problems from the beginning, which can in turn lead to the right flip offer – and maximum profits!

But how do you choose the right structural engineer to inspect your properties? Here are a few things to consider when choosing an engineer for your flips.

Key Differences Between a Structural Engineer and Conventional Home Inspector

“In the context of home inspections,” says Kyle Alfriend of The Alfriend Group in Dublin, OH, “a structural engineer is a licensed engineer who specializes in [inspecting] the major structural aspects of a home or building.”

Conversely, a conventional home inspector “will spend most of his or her time inspecting items that are easy for the buyer to inspect,” explains Alfriend, who has bought and sold 126 homes and represented buyers and investors in more than 1,500 home-buying transactions in the past 26 years. “They come with a standard inspection checklist and look at only those things, regardless of the home.”

Conventional home inspectors will be most concerned with whether windows and doors open and close correctly, if sink drains and outlets work, and if appliances and mechanicals function well for where they are in their normal lifespan. “It’s easy for flippers to find a list online and check those items themselves,” says Alfriend.

“On the contrary, a residential structural engineer inspects for serious structural defects that are not easy to spot, or for which it’s not easy to identify the solution,” he explains. “Even if traditional inspectors were to find these items, they would normally only note them as ‘areas of possible concern’ and recommend you hire a structural engineer.”

Consider the Pros and Cons When Choosing Which Professional to Hire

 One benefit of hiring a home inspector, says Alfriend, is that “it’s another set of eyes on the house, which is especially relevant if you’re inexperienced with typical home maintenance.”

But there are some downsides to using a conventional inspector, he says, the first being cost. “You’re paying someone to do work that you can do,” he says. “They are not necessarily structural experts, and the structure is where the major risks of unknown costs lie.” If your flip includes renovations, conventional home inspectors don’t necessarily have the expertise to alert you to potential roadblocks.

Conversely, there are several advantages to working with a structural engineer. “These engineers are experts at identifying structural problems, the biggest hidden pitfall of flips,” explains Alfriend. Better yet, if your flip includes renovations, they can also advise you on improvements. (If a home inspector finds a structural defect, he or she will advise you to hire a structural engineer anyway.) Having the right professional from the start can save you time and money, he says.

There are disadvantages to choosing a structural engineer, however. “They are more expensive than home inspectors and will not look at the little details that home inspectors check,” says Alfriend.

Choose the Right Structural Engineer for Your Flip’s Issues

Structural engineers typically specialize in inspecting different issues, such as the structures of floors, walls, building frames, and foundations, so you’ll need the right one to inspect each major area of concern in your flip. “That’s why it’s important to know why you’re calling them,” says Alfriend. “Start by inspecting the home yourself and [then make] a list of specific concerns.”

Determine why you need a structural engineer by asking questions like, “Is a floor settling or sagging, or is a wall bowing? Are you looking to move a structural support?” suggests Alfriend. Let him or her know of any issues in advance. “If the engineer doesn’t have a specialty in an area, he or she can recommend someone else,” he says. And, while engineers don’t usually do the structural repair work, they can refer you to someone who can.

“Home inspectors are jacks-of-all-trades,” says Alfriend. On the other hand, “structural engineers are specialists.” Just keep in mind that “while structural engineers can advise on the feasibility of renovations, they cannot advise you on return on investment.”

Even so, you want to make sure you have the right engineer so you can eventually see that ROI. “You may even need multiple structural engineers, depending on the home,” adds Alfriend.

Know How to Work with a Structural Engineer

Working with a structural engineer is different than working with a traditional home inspector. “Because structural inspectors are specialists, you’ll want to give them direction on what they are inspecting, [as well as] what your plans are for the home,” says Alfriend.

Above all, “get an engineer who is willing to be brutally honest about your project. You want the worst-case scenario,” he stresses. “As a flipper, it is your responsibility to determine risk and reward.” To get that, you need just the right combination of honesty and knowledge.

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