Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

Are Home Inspectors Picking Your Pockets?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’m writing to shred an article on your website that deals with home inspector liability. In it you say, “One way that home inspectors have addressed liability is to limit the scope of an inspection to defects that are visible and readily accessible.” This seems to be a blanket justification for the failure of home inspectors to report defects. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, inspection is defined as: “View or examine closely and critically especially in order to assess quality for shortcomings….” Given that definition, home inspectors don’t inspect: they express personal opinions. One solution would be for buyers and sellers to conduct their own inspections for obvious defects, instead of allowing home inspectors to pick their pockets. This would help to reduce the escalating costs of buying a home, typically caused by attorneys and others who ride the lucrative real estate gravy train. Edward

Dear Edward: The home inspection process is well defined by the Oxford Dictionary. But shouldn’t that definition be limited to conditions that are apparent to the five senses? Or should home inspectors be liable for conditions that are concealed within construction, beneath the ground, or behind personal property? To be consistent with your blanket condemnation of the home inspection profession, the Oxford definition could be modified to read, “View or examine closely and critically those conditions that are visible and accessible, as well as those that are not.”

The suggestion that buyers and sellers should conduct their own inspections invites an answer that is longer than the space of this column. To summarize, we should consider the following questions: How many buyers and sellers would be able to evaluate the wiring in an electric service panel? Would they recognize conditions involving over-fusing, improper grounding, or the use of a breaker panel as a raceway? How many would be willing to crawl through the dank web-infested recesses beneath a house or the dusty darkness of an attic? And if they did so, how many would recognize a significant defect in the foundations or framing? How many could identify faulty plumbing and electrical installations; or evidence of seasonal flooding after the soil below the building had become dry; or noncomplying gas piping, gas unions, or gas valves; or a flue pipe that is too close to combustible materials; or the lack of required ventilation; or inadequate clearance at a chimney? How many could evaluate the functional and safety aspects of a water heater or a furnace? How many could determine the quality, condition, and proper installation of a roof, regardless of the type of roof being inspected?

The answers here are obvious. Someone with professional knowledge and experience is needed to provide adequate and reliable information about the conditions in, on, under, and around a home. This, of course, does not mean that everyone who assumes the title of Home Inspector is sufficiently qualified. But among those home inspectors who are qualified, the services they provide are valuable, substantial, and not to be compared with the pilfery of a pickpocket.

When Is a Basement a Legal Bedroom?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We just learned that the county tax assessor is counting our basement as an additional bedroom. This increases the appraised value of our home and requires us to pay higher taxes. We’ve never regarded the basement as a legal bedroom because the window is very small and the sill is more than five feet above the floor. Also, the basement has no clothes closet, as one would expect in a bedroom. What are the applicable requirements that would qualify our basement as a legal bedroom? Leslie

Dear Leslie: Your basement does not qualify as a bedroom unless it has window dimensions that meet a list of particular requirements. These standards can vary in their specifics, depending on which building code is used in your area, but the general intent is the same regardless of the code that is in force. Basically, bedroom windows must be large enough and low enough to enable emergency escape, and the window size must meet minimum standards to privide natural light and adequate ventilation.

For emergency escape, the following standards apply: The openable portion of a bedroom window must have a minimum dimension of 5.7 square feet, unless the sill is lower than the outside grade level. In that case, the overall dimension must be at least 9 square feet. The width of window openings must be no less than 24 inches and the height no less than 20 inches. If the windowsill in a basement bedroom is lower than the outside grade level, there must be an exterior window well that meets an additional list of minimum size requirements.

Windowsills in any bedroom must be no higher than 44 inches above the floor, although lower sills were often allowed in older homes. In a basement bedroom, sill heights can exceed 44 inches if there is a permanently installed ladder or stairway to the window opening.

As a source for natural light, the area of the window, according to the Uniform Building Code (UBC), must be no less than one-tenth of the room’s floor area. In municipalities subject to the International Residential Code (IRC), this requirement is only 8% of the floor area.

As a source of exterior ventilation, the UBC requires the area of the window opening to be no less than one-twentieth of the room’s floor area. According to the IRC, only 4% of the floor area is required.

As for storage, there is a common belief that closets are required in bedrooms. The fact is, no such standards can be found in any of the building codes. Closets are included in the construction of homes as a standard of practice, not as a legal requirement.

If you believe that your home has been incorrectly evaluated by your local tax assessor, you can request a review of their assessment. If they are unwilling to cooperate, you can complain, in person, to your local elected representative (i.e. city counsel-person or county supervisor).

Effects of Scraping Acoustic Cottage Cheese Ceiling

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: Our home was built in 1978 and, until recently, had acoustic “cottage cheese” ceilings. My friend helped to scrape off the ceiling texture and a week later developed a sore throat. Now he fears that he has been adversely affected by breathing asbestos. Is this a valid concern? Amy

Dear Amy: Scraping a 1978 ceiling without having it tested for asbestos was not a wise course of action. However, there are no short-term health effects associated with asbestos exposure. The only documented cases of asbestos related disease involve people who were subject to repeated, long-term exposure. The damaging effects attributed to asbestos are lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.

Your friend’s recent sore throat is not likely to be asbestos-related.