Plot Checker

Paul Lyman gives homeowners a heads up on looming disaster

by Heleigh Bostwick

AdvPropLEAD_0073In 1986, Paul and Julie Lyman had a problem: The home they had just bought was full of holes inside and out, and the heating system died that first year. By 1987, they had launched Advanced Property Investigation LLC, operating from their home in Essex Junction.

He might be known as “The Radon Man” around town, but Paul Lyman, a certified building inspector and owner of Advanced Property Investigation in Essex Junction, does a whole lot more than test for and mitigate radon gas in people’s homes.

“Paul’s probably Chittenden County’s leading expert in radon and radon mitigation, but he’s also knowledgeable about all facets of home inspection and a pleasure to work with,” says Mike Gannet, a real estate agent with Hickok & Boardman Realty. “No matter what the question, you can’t stump him!”

Says Paul, “I have to be an expert at almost everything — a roofing contractor, structural engineer, plumber, HVAC guy, you name it. It’s those skills that help me figure out what’s really going on behind the scenes.”

Lyman likens himself to a private eye. His home inspections, which typically last about three to four hours, are carefully documented. “I search for visual clues that might signal a problem,” he says.

Armed with flashlights and sophisticated testing equipment — hygrometers to gauge relative humidity, anemometers to detect air movement, combustible gas detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and deep wall probes to detect moisture — Lyman gives home buyers the inside scoop on a property they’re about to purchase.

The good, the bad, and the ugly are written in a 40- to 70-page, computer-generated report complete with 50 to 60 photographs documenting his findings.

Lyman runs his business out of a basement office in the home that he and his wife, Julie, bought in 1986. It’s the home that Lyman says was the reason he started his home inspection business nearly 25 years ago in 1987.

“One night we woke up and water was leaking everywhere,” Paul recalls. “It was winter and there was a full load of snow on the roof. Only then did we find out that the roof was ‘Swiss cheese’ and full of holes. And the heating system died that same year.”

Julie, the office manager, has her own horror stories. “The previous owners had wallpapered over huge holes in the walls. I remember after we bought the house leaning on the wall and my hand went right through.”

“The light went off in my head,” says Paul. “At that time I was working as a site superintendent on a condominium project. I decided that it was time for me to break away and start a business to inform people about the houses they are buying,” he says.

Back then, Paul recalls, there was no training, no certification, and no schools to teach anyone about home inspection — just his own experience.

“At that time home inspections were not widely known,” he says. “I had to practically go door-to-door to the real estate agencies to promote my business and convince brokers that it was in their best interest to use my service.

“We’ve provided the public with a valuable service over the years. Now homebuyers can go into the purchase knowing what they are buying.”

Paul and Julie are native Vermonters and grew up together. “He was my boyfriend in first grade,” Julie says with a chuckle. “That’s no joke.” They graduated from Burlington High School in 1970 and were married in 1972.

Paul spent six years in the Army after graduation, and back home, he used the GI Bill to earn an architectural engineering degree from Vermont Technical College.

“We were living in Montpelier,” he says. “She was traveling to Burlington to work and I was traveling to Randolph, and we had our daughter, Jessica.

He found work with a contractor who was building condominiums in South Burlington, and in the early 1980s, he was hired by Pizzagalli Construction.

“I was honing my skills. You can’t go into this business as a baker! You’ve got to have hands-on experience.”

During off hours the couple enjoy taking walks and riding their bicycles, taking turns towing their miniature schnauzer, Sascha Belle, in a trailer behind them. Sascha Belle goes just about everywhere with them except to the grocery store and out to eat. “Let’s put it this way,” Julie says with a laugh. “At Home Depot they know her name, but not ours.”

The real joy in their lives is spending time with family. “We take that ‘big box’ sitting in the yard and go RV camping,” says Julie. “We just got back from a trip to the coast of Maine with our daughter, her husband, and our 19-month-old grandson.”

On a typical day, Julie handles the phones and talks to potential clients. Before she became involved in the business, Paul says, he’d come home to 15 calls on the answering machine and have to deal with them while writing up his reports at night. At the time, Julie, who was trained as a cosmetology instructor, managed a beauty salon. When she suffered an injury on the job, the two of them decided that the time was right to bring her into the business.

There was a huge learning curve going from hair to home inspections, but Julie took it in stride and quickly put her people skills to good use. “When you stand behind a chair in a salon you have to know how to talk to people and put them at ease,” she says.

It was the right move. That’s when the business really started to take off, says Paul. “People like a live person at the end of the phone.” Within a few years business had doubled.

“The challenge that we face every day is educating the public because they don’t know much about our service,” says Paul. “We have to sell ourselves over the phone and Julie knows how to talk to people. The decisions people make are largely driven by cost, not quality, but cost should be the last thing to consider. That $50 you save now might cost you $10,000 later on.”

“Home buyers are overwhelmed, especially when buying a first home,” says Julie. “You have to have a good rapport and make people feel comfortable. They need to know that they’re getting a very good service once they hire us.

“When I ask about the square footage of the home or what kind of home it is — cape, ranch, colonial — all I hear is papers rustling,” she continues. “When they speak, I can hear the angst in their voice as they’re trying to do this and that all at the same time.”

In addition to putting potential clients at ease, Julie sets up the schedule, which Paul checks every morning before heading out into the field to do his inspections. He spends most of his time meeting with clients, real estate brokers, and contractors, working on-site and educating them about the pros and cons of the property.

“At the end of the inspection we do a review with the client and ask if there are questions or concerns,” he says. “The biggest question I get now is about energy efficiency. People want to know whether they should put in better insulation or change their fuel system from oil to gas.”

At the end of the day Paul goes home, writes up his report, and sends it to his client electronically. In most cases the client is a potential buyer for that property, but Paul is trying to change that mind-set. He believes that the home inspections he conducts for homebuyers would be equally beneficial to home sellers. “It’s common out west to do inspections for sellers, but not here in the Northeast,” Paul says.

That’s a challenge he has faced before. “It’s still about educating the public about the pros and cons of service. It’s going to take a while.”

Paul notes that one advantage is if sellers know upfront what’s wrong and fix it, it’s less likely for buyers to back out of a sale because they aren’t overwhelmed by problems with the house.

“The Radon Man” is not just a clever marketing strategy; there’s a story behind it. One day he was visiting a home that had tested for high levels of radon gas. One of the family members was a little girl who asked Paul, “Are you the radon man who is going to fix our house and make us healthy?”

Some time later at another home, a little girl asked the same question. He decided to adopt the name to promote awareness of radon gas.

Although the Lymans offer a number of services, Paul is most passionate about radon testing and mitigation. “You can’t smell, taste, or see radon gas. You can only test for it,” he says. “If there’s only one thing you do today, go online and order a free radon test kit from the Vermont Department of Health.”

“We are just a family helping other families,” Paul says. “I’m proud of the business we’ve built. Someone has to be out there protecting the buyer.” •

Paul adopted the sobriquet “The Radon Man” after hearing the phrase applied to him by children of clients.