Software critical for Home Inspection Pack [HIP]

Copyright: David Lawson - first published Property Week October 2006

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Are you hip?  This remnant of Sixties-speak has re-emerged among the young as a sign of being fashionable and leading edge. Property is hip. Computers are hip. So it is all the more ironic that electronic appraisal of homes seems to have gone unnoticed by the under-thirties.

  Despite a decline in first buyers, the young still dominate, yet research shows that more than half those under 30 have no clue about that more modern HIP – the home inspection pack.   They can’t even lean on the wisdom of professionals, as there are disturbing signs that agents are just as bemused. Many believe mass protests killed the HIP, although only the compulsory home condition section has been shelved. Title searches and the energy performance certificate [EPC] are still very much alive.

  There is some excuse for confusion. Politicians driving the change have still not explained who will perform this new function. HIPS come into force next June but the government’s housing directorate say qualifications will not be sorted out until early next year. Answers may emerge when a government speaker launches the HIP conference which will run in parallel with this year’s PCS Expo.

     The picture is much clearer behind the scenes. Right Move grabbed headlines when it pulled out of the HIP market but other potential suppliers have kept the faith, continuing to train inspectors and developing the software which will drive the whole process.

   EPCs will not measure how efficiently owners use energy but provide a score of zero to 100 for each property from a computer model of a typical occupier based on information such as the ratio of windows to room size and amount of roof insulation. This will be simplified to labels ranging from A to G like those on washing machines and fridges.   Reports will go on to advise how ratings can be improved through techniques such as extra insulation or a new boiler, as this part of the HIP is based on a European directive on energy saving.

   Some agents are already talking about using the software to pinpoint problems and raise scores in advance of marketing, but that may be more difficult than they realise. The ‘box-ticking’ system is not as simple as it appears. How, for instance, do you work out the insulation value of a wall without being able to take it apart? How do you compare the efficiency of different heating systems? This is why only qualified inspectors will be allowed to sign off reports, says Brian Scannell, managing director of software and training supplier SAVA.

   What about shopping around among different brands of software for a better score? Again unlikely, as government advisers have set tight standards for approval of the various programs being promoted by HIP suppliers. Reports also need to be certified and will be stored in central databases.

  Apart from a few big firms that employ inspectors, most agents are unlikely to become directly involved. Most HIPs will be provided by suppliers already offering packages including conveyancing, local authority searches and Land Registry information. Computers play a central role here as well, as most information will be provided online. Simply HIP, for instance, has spent more than £2m developing software to keep agents in touch, and recently linked with SAVA to offer an integrated service. It is expecting to handle around 40,000 reports a year. 

 Many professionals will be familiar with the techniques, however. Northgate, which has just gained approval for its EPC, has long experience using this kind of software to advise housing associations and local authorities, says director of land and property Russell Osborne. Several thousand of the firm’s staff are being given an early insight by testing their own homes.   SAVA’s associate, the National Energy Research Centre, provides a taste of what to expect from its NHER Surveyor software and energy certificates on its web site [http:\\]. Another HIP supplier, Quest, will be demonstrating its system at PCS Expo.

  The outstanding question, however, is whether there will be enough people to do the job. The government dropped compulsory home condition reports from HIPs after complaints about insufficient time to train an estimated 7,000 inspectors. That backfired when surveyors stopped booking courses, because they felt the much-reduced income from title searches and energy certificates did not justify training costs.  But Scannell insists there has been no shortage of applicants for the pilot study planned in half a dozen areas of HIPs which include voluntary home condition reports.  In any case, energy inspectors can be trained in only a few months.

  Reluctant surveyors may find themselves elbowed out of HIPs. Ministers have warned that if the voluntary system does not take off, they reserve the right to bring in compulsory condition reports. By that time an assortment of plumbers, electricians and buildings could have qualified as inspectors and grabbed contracts with HIP suppliers.   They will certainly get a foot in the door with energy certificates and that could have huge repercussions when the system is extended to commercial buildings in 2008/9.