We interview Reuben’s dad, Neil Saltzman, on this episode. Neil talks about doing home inspections in a suit and tie, and Reuben and Neil talk about the early history of home inspections. Reuben also shares the best advice that Neil ever gave him related to doing a good home inspection.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Neil Saltzman: I took a whole bunch of classes, went to school, started in the business just winging it because there wasn’t any training. There were no schools back then to tell people how to do home inspections.
Bill Oelrich: Welcome, everybody, to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murray, and Reuben Saltzman, the wonderful duo that is out inspecting houses and saving everybody from the world, right?
Reuben Saltzman: Yeah, we’ll go with that. Alright. Wonderful. That’s our new slogan.
BO: Yes, yes. Welcome to the podcast. On today’s episode we’re gonna talk to Neil Saltzman, Rubens father, about the early years of home inspection. Neil was a pioneer in this industry, up here in Minnesota, where you were number one or two or five or six or something like that in the business. Neil, go ahead and introduce yourself. You’re quiet back there, smiling.
NS: Sure. What I’m guessing you want me to do is talk about my history.
BO: Yeah, a little bit. Yeah, yeah.
NS: Yeah, so I got into the whole construction world early on when my father was a carpenter. So I had that background, but I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do in life. So I went to college, I got a degree in forestry, and I thought I was gonna go out in the woods and just hang out and look at the trees, and that didn’t work out. So I picked up a hammer and started pounding nails in wood instead, and one thing led to another and eventually some guy turned me on to the home inspection business.
BO: Do you remember that gentleman’s name?
NS: Boy you’re testing the memory.
BO: That’s what we do here.
NS: Yeah I know, sorry. We were doing construction together, and he said, “I listened to this tape about home inspection.” So I listened to the tape, and we sat through…
Tessa Murray: Wait, wait, wait. Sorry to interrupt. What tape? A tape like a…
BO: Tessa doesn’t know what a tape is, you gotta explain this to her…
NS: A cassette tape.
TM: Oh cassette tape. I thought you meant a videotape.
NS: No, they were cassettes. Those little plastic things that we used to put in a machine. So I listened to this guy talk about doing business, and I thought that was interesting, and I took a whole bunch of classes, went to school. Started in the business just kind of winging it, because there wasn’t any training. There was no schools back then to tell people how to do home inspections.
BO: What kind of classes did you take?
NS: They were BIT classes which were code classes. So if you’re gonna be…
BO: Yeah, we really don’t do acronyms here Neil.
RS: I looked right over at Bill.
BO: What does that stand for? You remember?
RS: Building inspection technology.
NS: Thank you son. I always rely on Reuben to fill in the blanks here.
RS: Whatever he forgets he looks over at me.
NS: Help me out here. They were very technical classes. This is people who wanted to work for cities. Who wanted to be a building inspector.
BO: Like a municipal inspector.
NS: It wasn’t like I was going in that direction, but I knew that would be good training to get. That was kind of the background of what I did.
BO: Was that real code heavy?
NS: It was total code heavy.
RS: It was only code.
NS: That’s it.
RS: There was no such thing as home inspector training.
NS: No there wasn’t.
TM: What year was this?
NS: Okay. That’s in ’91 you did the classes?
BO: I know we’re gonna get some email from some home inspection schools like, “We started in ’89.”
NS: I’m sure there was something out there but this is…
BO: But there wasn’t much.
NS: That’s when I got into it. I was wearing two hats. I was still doing construction ’cause I had a construction company and that was what I did. Instead of being a forester I was swinging the hammer, and so then I was wearing the two hats. I was doing construction and I was doing home inspections. But when I did the home inspections, I was wearing a nice little tie and a suit coat and I was driving a Lincoln Town Car.
TM: We need a picture.
NS: Yes, I know.
TM: We need a picture of that.
NS: It’s crazy. Can you picture that?
BO: Yeah, yeah. What kind of shoes did you wear?
NS: Don’t. They were probably dress shoes. I was trying to present this image of Mr. Home inspector. This professional image of being a professional. It’s changed over the years. We’re now technicians is how I would describe it.
BO: Okay, so that first day you got out of your car and you met clients and a real estate agent on site.
BO: Or did you ask them to come to the home inspection?
NS: Oh, I don’t recall.
BO: Okay. Do you remember the first real estate agent who you did business with?
NS: I remember the first inspection I did.
NS: Because the guy took me to court. That was a memorable one. The first inspection I ever did the guy took me to court on ’cause I didn’t have him sign the legal agreement and something got missed. Can you believe it? First one.
TM: It’s amazing you kept going Neil. That would have been…
BO: I would have just been like yeah, I’m not cut out for this…
TM: Yeah, I know. Me too.
NS: But I persevered and here we are.
NS: Years later.
RS: I’m glad you did.
NS: I am too.
BO: Alright, so that’s interesting. The first one was a great experience.
BO: What are you gonna do?
NS: It just went up from there. But I had my ladder, and those old Town Cars were huge and the trunks were huge. You could put bodies in there.
TM: I was gonna ask you where you put your ladder.
NS: The ladder is in the back.
TM: In the trunk.
TM: A full sized ladder.
NS: I didn’t need an extension ladder.
BO: There weren’t Little Giants at that time so you didn’t have these…
NS: Oh yeah.
BO: Oh, there were.
NS: Yeah, we had a Little Giant.
TM: In the trunk.
NS: It was a yellow one, and it would fit in the trunk of that Lincoln Town Car.
TM: Oh man.
NS: That was the beginning of the home inspection world built. So that was 91′. Then I did it on my own for a number of years. I was involved in business networking. I was in a network group for a long time, maybe 10 years. During that course of time, one of the guys in the business network group sold businesses and he happened to say, “Hey, I got this home inspection business for sale. Anybody interested?” Well, gee, guess what I was doing. One thing led to another, we got together with Rick and Brett who were the owners of Structure Tech at that time, that was in 97′.
NS: Yeah. I bought Structure Tech from Rick and Brett.
BO: Today on the episode we’re talking with Neil, Neil Saltzman the second owner of Structure Tech and we’re just getting to this. In 1997, Neil steps into the ownership position at Structure Tech, buys it from a couple of gentlemen. So walk us through this.
NS: What it was like back then, totally different. You can remember taking pictures with 35-millimeter cameras. That’s what… That’s one thing we did and then we’d send the film out to be developed. There, somebody would come in and get all these rolls of film they’d take it in, develop it, they’d bring it back.
RS: The same day. We’d have my dad and Dwayne, would drop off their film in the afternoon, after they do their inspections, they come back to the office, they drop off their film, then in the morning, we’d have a courier pick it up from the photo lab. They’d pick up the film and then they deliver the photographs in the afternoon.
TM: Oh my gosh.
NS: So, I had Reuben. We would assemble the reports by hand.
RS: Yeah. I’d take glue sticks.
TM: Oh my gosh.
NS: We had these huge tables that we would grab different brochures and information that we put in the report, along with the photos and the typed report on a DOS program or something.
BO: So it was on a computer, not a typewriter?
NS: We did a DOS program. Yeah, some generic software.
RS: Delrina FormFlow was the name of the product.
TM: Okay, rain man. [laughter]
NS: Well even before, even before we did that, I started out just doing it by hand.
RS: Yeah, he did do a triplicate form for…
NS: I had triplicate forms that I’d sit at the house when I was done it and I would just check the box and I’d write in notes and I’d give the people their report with a little homeowners, manual, and I was done.
RS: I remember when he first bought structure tech and I started then, and he was trying to do those and I’m like dad, “We gotta step it up, it’s gotta be professional. We need computer reports.” And he was like, “There’s nothing wrong with these, people like these,” and I’m like, “No.”
NS: It was quick and easy, I was done and out of there. So I thought it was great…
TM: There’s some companies that still do that. With the report as the check boxes.
RS: Stop, Stop.
BO: Really? Oh my.
NS: So if that gives you a little picture of what it was like. It was very labor-intensive, putting together a report.
TM: And it would take a couple of days.
NS: Took a long time, and then we’d have to put them in envelopes, and mail them out, and…
BO: You mailed them?
NS: Yes. Stamp was $5, $6 for the stamps.
RS: Those were $5 stamps.
NS: Yeah, it was…
TM: How many inspections would you do a week?
RS: Bout what we’re doing now.
NS: Probably two a day at least.
TM: That would be hard to remember. Like if you’ve done another inspection, then you go back and you see the old pictures from the one or two before, and then you’re writing a report. I’d think you’d get stuff…
RS: Oh, no, no, no, you’d write the report without photos.
TM: Oh, and then you’d wait for the photos to come back and then add them in?
NS: Yeah. Right.
RS: And they wouldn’t take a lot of photos. It’d be like, we could get rolls of film that it was a 12 exposure roll, 12 pictures on a role because on a nice house, you might wanna take like five pictures.
TM: That blows my mind, ask me how many pictures I take, on average.
BO: Tessa, how many pictures do you take on average?
TM: I’d say it’s always over 100. And the worse the house, the more pictures I will take. I think the worst house I ever had was like 400 pictures.
BO: Houses are not good or bad. Tessa, they just are…
TM: That’s true the houses that need the most love and attention take up more more space on my memory card for sure.
BO: So Neil, what time did your day start, in 1997?
NS: Probably at the same time I do today, 8 AM.
BO: Your day doesn’t start at 8 AM…
NS: Oh, you mean what time I wake up?
BO: I know you better than that.
NS: 4 o’clock.
BO: So what time did your day end in 1997?
NS: Well, see, I was using those booklets back then, so I was done, I didn’t have to go home and type a report, I gave them the thing on site.
BO: And so, 5 o’clock you’re done. Okay, and then these pictures, got developed the next day. Would you write like page two on the back of the pictures.
NS: I kind of digress a little here. I did the books, initially, and the reports on site, then we transitioned to the computer, putting the reports together, with Reuben’s help. I can’t remember exactly the year when we’d change.
RS: It was in ’97.
NS: Oh it was? Alright.
RS: It was like a month after Structure Tech.
NS: So after you talked me into it.
RS: I talked you into doing computerized reports, made your life more difficult.
NS: Yeah, God bless you son.
RS: Yeah, yeah.
BO: So you had a full head of hair until 1997?
RS: That’s about it.
NS: Thank you.
RS: Yeah, but we were charging like… It was about 300 bucks for a home inspection at that time, right?
NS: Probably. Yeah, it hasn’t gone up enough, darn it.
TM: Seriously, back in 97 it was still $300?
NS: It might have been 250.
TM: That was a lot of money.
BO: Do you think you had the same amount of people hours into a single inspection in a report? Because…
NS: No, a lot more today… Today we’re doing a lot more technical testing than I ever did. I walked around with a flash light and a clipboard and that was about it. Today, we’ve got infrared camera, moisture meters, got gas sniffers. We get a lot of good technical equipment that really helps identify issues and confirm things, and just great tools.
BO: Did you dig in the furnaces at that time?
NS: Very little, it was more observational.
BO: Okay, so you were looking for certain things and if they had certain things, good enough.
NS: Pretty much.
BO: Did you try to figure out how old these units were?
NS: I’d identify the age. Sure.
BO: Was there some way, like some reference guide? ‘Cause a lot of things are coded now. We go back in on the internet and actually look this stuff up. But you didn’t have that.
NS: Oh, I suppose the same way, serial numbers, you’d look at that…
RS: Well, and you’d have a paper guide. Wasn’t it like Preston’s? Wasn’t that the book we used to have?
TM: ‘Cause this is before Google?
RS: Yeah, this is before the internet, basically. Yeah, there was a guide. You’d look it up and they’d tell you how to decode it.
BO: Alright so things have changed a little bit.
RS: A little bit.
BO: We’re talking with Neil Saltzman. One of the first owners of structure tech after he bought the company from Rick and Brett, Rick Norling, Rick’s still with us to this day.
RS: Heck yeah.
TM: Shout out to Rick!
BO: And I’m sure when he hears this he’s gonna be giggling and just be so bubbling with happiness about this conversation. When we left off I kind of teased about customer expectations and how things have changed over the years. So it sounded like in 1991, expectations were pretty high, the guy was not happy with the product, and you ended up in court. But let’s just call that a blip on the radar. ’96 to now, are things different? Do people expect more of us? Do they want more of us? More technical? Tell me how it’s different.
NS: My sense as a whole, that people today do expect more from the home inspection. I think they’re looking to us to answer all of the questions. Anything that could be wrong with a house they want us to tell them. For instance, we never used to test appliances, it just wasn’t part of it and ASHI, American Society of Home Inspectors, now has that as part of the guidelines of what we do inspect. So that’s one example. And so I think just people’s expectations have increased in terms of what they want us to look at and what they want us to find.
BO: Nobody is happy when they move into house and something doesn’t work.
BO: But it seems nowadays they’re not happy if the slightest thing is off. So you gotta be really, really thorough, and Tessa and Reuben you guys are in the… You’re in the trenches, you know what this is all about, right?
TM: Yeah, for sure. Well would you get phone calls from people that would ask you questions about the report you mailed out to them, would they follow up and be like on page seven, this picture you sent… Would they ever ask you questions or would they called to complain about something that you had missed later, did that happen?
NS: You know Tessa, I don’t recall a whole lot of complaints, but just…
BO: Just because of who you are.
NS: I did such a… I did such a great job.
TM: It was a perfect inspection every time. Well, nowadays, we write reports that are 30, 40, 50 pages, and you get people that call and complain about a cracked cover plate on a light switch that you didn’t report on. And you know, it’s like, well maybe we should go back to these… How long were your reports back in 1997?
NS: Boy, do you recall?
RS: 12 pages. It was one page for each component.
NS: Very good, thank you for that.
TM: Maybe we’re giving people too much information.
BO: Well, that’s possible. And we’re not picking on people. It’s you’re kind of… This is insideritis a little bit, a lot of this is tongue in cheek. It’s a very stressful situation buying a house.
BO: We do not think that, that it’s not what it is, it’s crazy stressful. And when people are telling you that the very thing you want, this very expensive box has all these problems or whatever, the emotions can get really ramped up. Do you feel like this is a more emotional thing now than it used to be?
NS: I don’t think the emotions have changed. The price of the house has changed.
NS: That’s gone up a lot.
TM: Yeah, a little bit more stressful for people.
BO: What did you pay for your first house?
NS: Oh, I actually bought a lot and built the house myself, total, for $80,000.
TM: With the lot?
NS: With the lot.
TM: Oh my Gosh.
NS: And the house.
TM: That is crazy.
NS: That was back in 1979. ’79, I completed it.
TM: Were there a lot of empty lots in that area?
NS: Reuben was just a little boy on a ladder.
BO: In 1979 my dad built a house about 1100-1200 square feet, 28 by 32 or something like that, attached garage. I think it was $30,000 total price tag.
TM: Your dad built a house?
BO: No, God my dad didn’t build the house. He just had a piece of property and he had someone build a house. Yeah, it was 30s. And his first house he built and this is up in Central Minnesota, so a different market, $13,000. 13 or 17,000, don’t quote me about this.
NS: That’s what my father paid for his house. $17,000 on 35th and Humboldt.
TM: Oh my gosh.
BO: So you grew up on 35th and Humboldt?
NS: Yes. Right by lake Calhoun.
BO: Oh nice. Alright, so you’re another guy from the city. You and I, we’re a lot alike, right?
TM: The sustainable urban part.
NS: No you’re St. Paul, I’m Minneapolis.
NS: A big difference. There is a river in between us, Bill. That’s true.
BO: I couldn’t let you get away with that. Alright. I’m always grasping for straws, commonality, right? We speak a common language, not like these guys, they’re outside of what we’re…
NS: We both wear a beard.
BO: Well that’s true.
NS: How’s that?
BO: And we’re highly intelligent.
NS: There you go. Thank you.
BO: Alright, so you got into business with Reuben in 1997.
BO: At what point did you say, “Alright, I get to step back and I’m gonna let him step into the driver’s seat of this whole thing.”
NS: That was one year ago.
BO: Well, technically, yes. Is that when you were willing to let go of the reins.
NS: Two years ago.
RS: Time flies.
TM: It’s like when you ask someone, “How old’s your furnace?” They say like, “Oh, five years old.” And you look at the data plate and it’s like 15.
NS: Yeah, I’d say a couple of years ago. Was when I felt like okay.
BO: He earned your trust at that point.
NS: Oh, yes. Long before that.
BO: Okay. [laughter]
RS: That’s just when we made it official on paper, right?
BO: So what are you doing now?
NS: I’m still inspecting.
BO: I know.
NS: Still having a good time.
RS: No, that’s a great question, because people ask me that all the time. It’s the most common question I get. The two questions: So who’s that other guy? Is that your brother? People say that all the time.
RS: And I’m not making that up.
NS: And I get that. And I smile. And I say, “Thank you.” Well, you made my day.
RS: And then, “Does he still inspect houses?” They say that too.
TM: I get real estate agents that come up to me all the time when I’m teaching the CE classes and they say, “Hey, Neal is the company that you work for, right? With Neil Saltzman.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah.” And they’re like, “Oh, he’s such a great guy.” And I just… Almost every class, someone will come up and be like, “Oh, Neil, tell him I said hi.”
NS: Oh, that’s cool. Very nice. Thank you. Yeah, you know Bill, as long as the body is working, I’m gonna keep working.
NS: Bottom line.
BO: How many inspections have you done, total?
BO: If you had to…
NS: Probably close to 10,000, I would guess.
BO: Would that include home inspections and then time of sale inspections too?
NS: Yeah. Probably over 30 years it’s been now.
BO: Alright. You’ve been in a lot of houses.
NS: A lot of houses.
BO: What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever seen?
TM: I was just gonna ask that. [laughter]
NS: It’s a bad picture, visually, if you walk into a house, and you see a lot of gross things. That’s probably the worst. When I say gross, it’s the people things.
RS: Living conditions…
NS: Living conditions, stuff…
TM: Animal things.
NS: Yeah, and we can picture what the animal things are like. And then the smell, the leaky toilet dripping through the floor onto the basement, and the people sitting there with an oxygen. And it just wasn’t a good situation.
BO: Have you ever fallen through a floor or a roof?
NS: No, that I have not.
NS: I’m pretty careful about that.
NS: Although, Tessa was up on a roof with me when she was in training, and it was kind of sketchy getting back down, wasn’t it?
NS: Remember that one?
TM: Well, that was a good learning experience too. I would never do that again.
NS: No, I know.
TM: I would never go on a roof like that again.
NS: I don’t know why.
BO: Was it really steep or was it really…
NS: It was steep.
TM: It was two-stories off the ground.
NS: It was.
TM: So we… Full extension ladder. It was probably, what? 30 feet up in the air.
NS: Yeah. Yeah, it was.
TM: And my hands are getting sweaty just thinking about it, Neil. [laughter] But the roof, it was like a three tab shingle and all the granules were coming off. And you couldn’t really tell until you got on it that it was bad. And so once you got on it, and it was like maybe… Was it a 6:12? 4:12.
NS: It was steep.
TM: 4:12, 6:12 pitch, and really high up, granule’s falling off. And I think there was a tree limb that was kinda hanging over it, so it was still wet and dewy. It was… Yeah, the perfect condition. We don’t do that anymore, if our insurance company is listening. We don’t do that anymore. [laughter] I don’t do roofs like that anymore.
BO: I’ve always been struck by your confidence, like shimmying up a ladder, and then you just jump on things and you go… You seem to have no fear high in the air. That is a thing for me. I have a lot of fear being high in the air. And I’ve always felt that getting on roofs was very easy, getting off was a whole different situation. The perception was way different. But I wanna put Reuben on the spot here. So, Reuben, what was the one single most important thing you learned from your dad in this business?
RS: As soon as you get lazy, you’re gonna miss something. Whatever it is, if it’s going to the farthest reach of a crawl space or an attic, whatever it is, don’t crawl halfway across and go, “This all looks good from here. We’re good,” take a picture and leave. Get all the way to the end, every single time. Cause again, as soon as you get lazy, you’re gonna miss something. That’s gonna be the attic where there’s a hole in the roof or something’s leaking, and you couldn’t see it from where you were. So that’s the single biggest piece of advice I got from my pops. It’s good advice.
NS: I gave you that?
RS: You did. And I repeat that to everybody I train now too.
RS: So it’s good stuff.
BO: What do you always kinda tell people who start with the company? What’s your little trick that you do in the attic to kinda prove yourself?
RS: If there’s a really tough attic to crawl to the other side of or a really tough crawl space, you leave your business card at that end once you’re there to prove that you were there. And someone’s gonna find that in 50 years, 20 years, whatever it is, they’re gonna be like, “Yeah. Who’s this company?” No, they’re gonna know who we are.
RS: They’re gonna be like, “Oh, Structure Tech was here. Who’s this young person?”
BO: Well, thank you, Neil. Thank you very much for spending some time with us today. It’s always fun to kinda catch up with you, ’cause I don’t see you as often as I’d like to. So now, for everybody who’s listening to this podcast, you’re not gonna see the warm embrace that’s gonna happen between father and son, here, as they are each shedding a tear. The baton’s officially been passed and it’s really cool to kinda be in the same room with the guys and kinda talk about the past. So you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation, and we will catch you next time.