Virtual Inspection 101: The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Remote Inspections [New for 2023]
A virtual inspection is an inspection that takes place remotely, without the inspector physically being present at the property.
To conduct a virtual inspection, a facilitator physically on site at the property connects virtually with the inspector who is located remotely using a video call platform like Zoom or FaceTime. The person on site then walks the inspector through the property, allowing them to inspect the property without physically being there.
Virtual inspections are also commonly called:
- Remote inspections
- Electronic inspections
In this guide we’ll use all of these phrases interchangeably, since they refer to the same thing—the practice of conducting an inspection remotely using technology, instead of in person.
Virtual inspections were still fairly new when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020. At the time, the sudden need for social distancing required local governments to stop in-person business, making the shift online urgent for business continuity.
Remote inspections were a key part of the transition to online work.
For local governments, the shift to virtual inspections has meant faster turnarounds on inspections, a lower cost for each inspection, and happier stakeholders on all sides of the inspection process, from the inspector doing them, to the builders and residents requesting them, to the various government departments and city leaders involved in development that interact with inspectors and their work.
The goal of this in-depth guide is to provide an overview of what a virtual inspection is, how it works, and how you can actually start doing them today.
Here’s a table of contents to help you navigate this guide:
What Is a Virtual Inspection?
The International Code Council (ICC) defines a remote virtual inspection as a “method of inspection that allows the needed inspections to proceed in a timely manner by the owner or contractor located on the job site and the inspector or inspection teams performing the inspection remotely.”
Let’s take a closer look.
In a traditional inspection, inspectors arrive at the building or home that needs to be inspected and walk through it, taking pictures and inspecting the property as they go.
In a virtual inspection, inspectors do not walk through the property themselves. Instead, they are located remotely and a facilitator on-site—a building manager, construction supervisor, or the property owner—uses a video call platform like Zoom or FaceTime to call the inspector and walk them through the inspection remotely, showing them the property on their smartphone and pausing wherever the inspector asks so they can gather more information.
Other tools that might be used in a virtual inspection include special video conferencing platforms made specifically for inspections, drones, and 360-degree cameras, all of which can be leveraged to capture detailed videos and photos of a site for the inspector to review.
“First thing in the morning, I invite [on-site facilitator] to a Zoom. They don’t have to wait around for me to be there, they know exactly when I’m there. It’s a handy tool. It’s just something that once you start it, and you use it, you kind of grasp for it.”
– Kim Fahrni, Building Inspector, City of Wooster, OH
The Two Types of Virtual Inspections
There are two main types of remote inspections—virtual site inspections and virtual home inspections.
These two types of inspections are governed by different regulations and have different goals.
Keep reading to learn more about each one.
Virtual Site Inspections
A virtual site inspection refers to the inspection of an entire site at a large commercial property, like a mall, grocery store, or hospital using a video call platform like Zoom or FaceTime. In virtual site inspections, the inspector is located off-site and connects with a trusted facilitator physically present on-site, who walks them through the property so they can conduct a virtual inspection.
In a virtual site inspection, inspectors look for the same kinds of things they do during in-person site inspections.
- Safety measures—these will vary depending on the specific building codes being considered by the inspector.
- Accessibility—for people with disabilities.
Fundamental operational facilities—these include elevators, HVAC systems, and other mechanical systems installed throughout the buildings on the site.
Virtual Home Inspections
A virtual home inspection is an inspection of a residential property in which the inspector is located remotely and reviews videos of the property shared with them via a livestream on a video call platform, such as Zoom or FaceTime. A person located at the property walks through it, showing the inspector everything they need to see to do their inspection, and answering questions or providing feedback as needed.
Virtual home inspections are typically conducted of residences, like single family homes or apartments.
In a virtual home inspection, inspectors look for the same kinds of things they do during in-person home inspections.
- Essential fixtures—outlets, light fixtures, smoke alarms, and any other fixtures that may be present.
- Essential systems—HVAC, electrical, and plumbing, and any other systems that may be present.
- Essential structures—foundations, roofs, walls, floor coverings, and any other structures that may be present.
After conducting a virtual home inspection, the inspector will share a report highlighting major issues or concerns found during the virtual tour of the property.
These reports are typically commissioned by a potential homeowner to inform them about the condition of a property prior to buying it.
However, virtual home inspections can also be made for insurance purposes—see the next section to learn more about virtual home inspections for insurance.
Virtual Home Inspections for Insurance
Virtual home inspections for insurance are virtual inspections conducted remotely on a property to identify potential issues that could lead to insurance claims in the future.
Insurance providers will sometimes require homeowners to undergo virtual home inspections for insurance purposes before they provide coverage on a property.
In a virtual home inspection for insurance, inspectors look for the same kinds of things they do during in-person home inspections for insurance.
- Safety hazards—smoke detectors, water heaters, or other types of hazards that could cause harm.
- Risks to the property itself—roof leaks, poor gutter drainage, termite damage, mold, or moving foundation or wall sections.
- Other potential issues that could lead to insurance claims—for example, whether an outdoor pool has a child-proof pool cover in place to prevent non-residents from accessing the pool, presenting potential liability issues.
Eight Benefits of Virtual Inspections
Virtual inspections are making the entire inspection process faster and less expensive, while simultaneously improving the quality of inspections.
Here are eight of the biggest benefits cities are realizing from implementing virtual inspections.
1. Faster Processing
Permit applications can be processed five times faster with features such as virtual inspections—and sometimes even much more than that.
According to Brian Flannery, Director of Building Inspection for the City of Sun Prairie in Wisconsin, moving to OpenGov’s Permitting & Licensing virtual inspection system reduced the time needed to issue a permit from 30 minutes to just 30 seconds.
These time savings come from the fact that there is no need to set up equipment or deal with transportation time, which is especially crucial for inspections in remote locations, which can have spotty internet connections.
“It just makes the inspections easier. We can call in and get an inspection turned around in either the same day or later in that day.”
– Mark Wilson, Field Inspector, City of Wooster, OH
2. Safer Storage
Virtual inspections conducted with cloud-based software result in records that are safely stored in the cloud.
Having them in the cloud means the documents are safe from a cybersecurity perspective, and that a server outage won’t impact the security of your inspection and permitting records.
3. Increased Productivity
Remote inspections combine lower costs, faster processing, and increased flexibility—a combination that can result in a significant increase in productivity for inspectors.
And the result inspection is often of an even higher quality than an in-person inspection, because the inspector has more time to do the actual work of the inspection instead of worrying about driving to the site and hurrying on to the next inspection.
Take a look at the improved workflow enabled by adopting virtual inspections:
4. Improved Quality
As we just mentioned, many inspectors report that remote virtual inspections help them make their inspections better.
By giving them more time to focus on the code and on the inspection itself, inspectors can reduce the exhausting, distracting work of travel and paperwork required by manual inspections, improving the overall quality of their work.
5. Better Collaboration
Paper processes create and maintain silos in the inspection process—between departments, and between residents and the city.
A good virtual inspection platform can remove these silos, allowing everyone involved in an inspection to collaborate effectively toward the same goal.
6. Happy Customers
When things are easy and efficient, everyone is happier.
The residential customer or building contractor who is seeking a permit is happier because the process is smooth and fast. And the inspector—an internal customer of your inspection process—is also happier, because their job is easier and more organized, too.
Virtual inspections level the playing field when it comes to those with mobility issues or disabilities, allowing inspectors and other stakeholders to participate remotely without worrying about accessibility related to uneven terrain, hard-to-reach areas, stairs, or other challenges on a property.
8. Evidence Preservation
It’s always good to have a record of an inspection. By recording the inspection video call, a remote inspection can produce a permanent record of the inspection that can be archived and referred to later in case any discrepancies arise.
This record preserves accurate proof that an inspection happened, as well as recommendations made during the inspection and any steps taken to address issues that arose in a previous inspection.
How to Do a Virtual Inspection
As you can see, virtual inspections have a lot of benefits.
But how do you actually do a virtual inspection?
In this section, we’ll go over the step-by-step process inspectors can follow to conduct successful remote inspections.
There’s more to doing a virtual inspection than the work of the inspection itself.
Since virtual inspections typically require local governments to adopt brand new systems, we’re also going to cover how you can implement virtual inspections in your municipality here. And, to help you get started, we’re including a list of the tools we recommend for you to actually implement virtual inspections.
Here’s a list of the three topics covered in this section:
How to Do a Virtual Inspection—The Step-by-Step Process for Inspectors
So you want to start doing virtual inspections yourself?
Here is a short, action-oriented list of steps to follow and things to keep in mind to help you get started.
Step 1—What To Do Before the Virtual Inspection
- Collect and prepare your tools. Ensure you have all the necessary materials and tools to complete a thorough inspection (see our list of recommended tools below). Don’t forget to charge your tablet, smartphone, or whatever you plan to use for the call. Also, don’t forget your other tools—flashlights, notepad, pen, measuring tape, and any other tools you might need, depending on whether you’re the inspector or you’re the facilitator on-site.
- Start your video call. To make sure you’re ready to go, log in early to the video conferencing app. If the app allows it, make sure to record the call for future reference (but let the person facilitating know you’re recording—it’s just the polite thing to do).
Step 2—What to Do During the Virtual Inspection
- Follow a checklist. Guide facilitators working on-site through the inspection checklist, being sure to note any changes or amendments for the virtual process.
- Ask for more details. As needed, ask your inspection facilitator to show you certain areas more closely, slow down, or use a flashlight to improve the lighting in certain areas.
- Take screenshots. Take screenshots frequently as you see the property, highlighting key areas that you can refer to later when creating your inspection report.
- Move slowly. If you’re the facilitator, make sure to move slowly and follow the remote inspector’s input to make sure they’re getting everything they need. Also, adjust camera angles and lighting as needed based on input from the remote inspector.
Step 3—What to Do After the Virtual Inspection
- Create your report. After you’ve collected your inspection data remotely, the next step is to complete any documentation and reporting expected for the inspection you’ve performed.
- Follow up. Depending on your workflow, follow up with other departments and internal teams with the findings from your inspection.
- Respond to feedback. If you get input or other requests from internal stakeholders related to the virtual inspection, make sure to address them before granting approval for the project to continue.
How to Do a Virtual Inspection—The Step-by-Step Process for City Leaders
Many city leaders are considering adopting virtual inspections, but can be held back by a variety of challenges.
According to survey results shared by the International Code Council (ICC) on April 1, 2020, 61% of building departments were still unable to conduct virtual inspections. (The survey included 1,150 government respondents.)
Respondents said the main roadblocks to taking their inspections virtual were:
- Limited technical capabilities
- Lack of online permitting technology to facilitate the virtual inspection process
- Access to electronic code books (most code books only existed in paper copies)
- An inability to complete an electronic plan review
Of course, the ICC datapoint comes from just before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many municipalities to make the shift online. Taken today, we might see a much higher number of cities capable of conducting remote inspections.
That being said, there are still lots of communities trying to make the switch. If you’re working in one of them, here are the steps you can take to adopt virtual inspections where you live.
Step 1—Research & Planning
- Identify your requirements. Identify the key requirements you have for permitting, licensing, and inspections, including your key requirements for a virtual inspection system.
- Identify your inspection types. List the types of inspections that your city will allow to be conducted virtually—and any that it won’t.
Here are some questions to help with this stage of the process:
- Do existing procedures need to be adapted in any way to accommodate virtual inspections? For example: Do building plans need to be sent farther in advance? Are there video security settings that need to be implemented?
- Who is responsible for sharing this information with public stakeholders?
- What is the best forum to reach the public to let them know?
- How can you ensure residents are also able to access the platform and supporting information?
Step 2—Choose Your Platform
- Find your platform. A successful virtual inspection system will usually take the form of software made specifically for permitting and licensing. Vet the vendors out there to see what will be the best fit for your community’s needs.
- Document and gather data. What data do you need to go virtual? What documents do you need?
- Create a process. At this stage, make sure you’re documenting the standard process for virtual inspections in your local government. Make sure to document everything that will need to be considered. For example, you may decide that the tool inspectors use for video conferencing is up to them, or that they have to use a list of pre-approved apps. Either way, document these choices so everyone can have clarity on the requirements.
Here are some things to look for when selecting a virtual inspection platform:
- No code. So that everyone can use it, you want a system that has automated, no-code workflows and approvals that allow you and your colleagues to do the designing yourself.
- Accounting integration. You want to be able to collect fees within the system itself to keep things simple and streamlined.
- Automated reminders. Look for platforms with triggered prompts for both applicants and staff to help remind those involved in the inspection process about their pending To Dos.
- Dashboards and reports. Does the system let you organize your inspection, permitting, and licensing data in a customized way to meet the various requests for reporting you might get?
- Easy-build forms. You should be able to build and customize forms and form fields yourself, without having to seek support from your IT department.
- Online scheduling. Scheduling for inspections should be easy and intuitive, using features like drag-and-drop that don’t require any coding or IT expertise.
- Offline capabilities. This can be especially useful for jurisdictions with rural areas that might have spotty internet connectivity.
Step 3—Implementing Your New System
- Train key administrators. Establish and execute your training to make sure all stakeholders are up to speed.
- Configuration. Customize your virtual inspection system to your needs and parameters. Remember, the first step is to get up and running—you can always improve it later.
- Working sessions. Train inspectors and their facilitators in the new system to help them get up and running.
- Data load. Move your data to your new virtual inspection system.
When you begin implementing, this could be the perfect moment to revisit your existing template and inspection protocols. You might find there are excess steps that require frequent—perhaps excessive—back-and-forth communication with residents or internal department members.
When you use a good virtual inspection platform, you’ll be able to see all of these steps laid out in a clear user interface that shows you exactly all the steps currently in place.
It may sound simple, but many communities struggle to achieve this level of clarity. And that clarity could help you identify areas for improvement, including opportunities to remove unnecessary steps.
Step 4—Monitor Success and Validate Data
- User acceptance testing. Are inspectors actually using the new system? Is it working for them? Touch base often with users once you have implemented the new system to make sure it’s actually working.
- Data validation. Check to make sure the results from virtual inspections are accurate, and that the new approach is producing the level of quality you expect from any inspection, regardless of whether it’s virtual or in person.
Step 5—Iterate and Improve
- Identify improvements. Now that you’re up and running, continue to collect feedback and look for room to improve the system.
- Iterate, and iterate again. As you go on, you’ll find more and more opportunities to fine tune the way you do remote inspections. The key is to use a system that allows you to implement these improvements nimbly, without having to go through onerous change orders or other parties, whether internal or external. The more you can have the control yourself to make updates and improvements, the better the system will get with time.
How to Do a Virtual Inspection—The Tools You Need to Get Started
Here are all the tools you’ll need to get up and running with virtual inspections in your city.
Video Call Platforms (pick one)
- Google Duo
- Microsoft Teams
- Smartphones, iPad, or other tablet option that can take photos
- Camera accessories
- Holobuilder 360° photos
- Wi-fi (or strong 4G or 5G network signal)
- Portable chargers to make sure your devices don’t die in the middle of an inspection
Physical tools (for the person on-site facilitating the inspection)
- Tape measure
- Step ladder
- Pen and notepad
[Ready to get started? Download our ebook, How to Get Up and Running with Virtual Inspections.]
Get Your Virtual Inspections Up and Running
Governments across the nation have begun modernizing their operations. One of the fastest-growing areas of such modernization is in the realm of virtual inspections.