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

Revisiting the Question of Inspecting New Homes

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: Is it necessary to get my own home inspection on a newly constructed home, or should the inspection by the city inspector be accepted as adequate? Dean

Dear Dean: Some readers may wonder why this subject, in varying forms, is recurrent in this column. It is because questions about inspecting new homes are asked so frequently and because the answer is vital to anyone who plans to buy a new home.

Experienced home inspectors have learned that all new homes have defects of one kind or another, regardless of the quality of construction or the integrity of the builder. This is because human imperfection prevents anything as large and as complex as a home from being constructed flawlessly.

A commonly held fallacy is that all construction defects will be discovered by municipal building inspectors. This view is highly mistaken, but not because of professional shortcomings on the part of those inspectors. The purpose, scope, time allotment, and procedures for municipal inspections is not the same as for home inspections.

Municipal inspectors inspect primarily for code compliance, not for quality of workmanship. They can cite a builder for improper structural framing or for noncomplying drain connections, but a poorly fitted door, an uneven tile countertop, and slipshod finish work are not included in the list of concerns.

Municipal inspectors rarely inspect an attic or a sub-area crawlspace. They come to the job site with a clipboard and a codebook, not with a ladder and overalls. Construction defects in such areas can escape discovery.

Municipal inspectors typically inspect a roof from the ground or possibly from the builder’s ladder. From these perspectives, roof defects are not always apparent. And final inspections are performed before the utilities are turned on, so municipal inspectors cannot determine if or how well the appliances and fixtures truly work. They don’t test outlets for ground and polarity because this can only be done after the power supply is turned on. Nor, without power, can they test the performance of GFCI or AFCI safety breakers.

The lack of utilities also prevents the testing of plumbing fixtures such as sinks, showers, tubs, and dishwashers, and of gas fixtures such as furnaces, fireplaces, and water heaters.

As repeatedly expressed in this column, those who buy new homes should not forego the benefits of a thorough home inspection. Just be sure to find an inspector with years of experience and a reputation for thoroughness.

Feeding a Septic System

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’m a “city boy” who moved to the country about four years ago. My new home has a septic system, something unknown where I previously lived. Can you please give me some information on the care and feeding of a septic system. John

Dear John: Maintaining a septic system is not difficult. The main thing is to protect the bacterial environment inside the tank. This is essential to the decomposition of solid waste. You should avoid draining your laundry into the septic system because some detergents can kill the essential bacteria. You should also minimize wastes that could clog the system, such as garbage disposal effluent or flushed baby wipes.

It is also a good idea to add some bacterial culture about once a year. This is sold in most hardware stores and can simply be flushed down the toilet. And be sure to have the system professionally inspected about every 3-5 years.
A Google search of septic system maintenance will provide much additional information.

To Permit or Not to Permit

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: What would be the consequences of improving our home without a building permit? The work to be done would include altered plumbing, new siding, new roofing, removing the electric water heater from the outside, installation of a propane water heater on the inside, repairing a sagging ceiling, replacing some windows, and adding an air conditioning system. We’re presently in disagreement as to whether permits are even required for this work and are wondering what we should disclose to buyers when the house is eventually sold. What do you advise? Gaye

Dear Gaye: Your list of proposed improvements and alterations is formidable and, according to the building code, most would require permits. Conducting work of this kind without permits exposes you to legal and financial consequences of several kinds, and these could be magnified by allowing the work to be done by someone who is not a licensed contractor.
If a qualified contractor were to perform the construction without a permit, the majority of the work could be expected to comply with code requirements, even though it would not be legal. But the lack of permits would have to be disclosed to future buyers, and this could significantly affect the marketability of the home. Some buyers would see this situation as a “red flag” and might demand that an as-built permit be obtained from the building department.

With an as-built permit, the municipal inspector could demand removal of drywall to enable inspection of the framing, wiring, plumbing, etc. Costly repairs could be mandated by the inspector, and this might include restoration of the building to its original state.

If a buyer agrees to take the property as-is, even with full disclosure of the nonpermitted work, future discovery of faulty conditions could lead to legal problems, possibly even a lawsuit.

If the proposed work is done by a handyman, rather than a contractor, the likelihood for any or all of the above consequences could be significantly increased. For these reasons, it is strongly recommend that the proposed work be done by licensed contractors and with all of the permits required by law.

Flooding of Home not Revealed in Home Inspection

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: Two months after we bought our home, rain runoff from the street drained into our garage and the downstairs floor of the house. Our home inspector made no mention of past flooding, but the neighbors tell us that flooding has occurred during every rainy season for the past several years. Are the home inspector and the sellers liable for nondisclosure? Fred

Dear Fred: If flooding of the house and garage occurred during the time that the sellers owned the property, as stated by the neighbors, then they were obligated to disclose that problem and are liable for failure to do so. The inspector, however, is only liable if there was visible evidence that he failed to notice at the time of the inspection. In most cases, such evidence exists, but there are exceptions, including situations where sellers may have cosmetically masked the evidence.

You should ask the home inspector to take a second look at the property. The seller should be notified of your concerns by certified mail.

Problems With Ventless Fireplaces

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We built a new home and installed a ventless gas log fireplace. As we look back, this seems to have been a stupid mistake. Since using the fireplace, a film has been forming on our windows. Our suspicion is that it is caused by exhaust from the ventless fireplace. What must it be doing to the air we breathe? It is too late to add a vent? Deborah

Dear Deborah: Installing a ventless gas log fireplace may have been an “unfortunate mistake,” not a “stupid” one. Most homebuyers, having limited esoteric knowledge of gas fixtures, would have no reason to suspect that a fully approved gas fixture such as this could be problematic or potentially unsafe.

The film on your windows may in fact be a combustion byproduct, and this, as you suspect, could be unsafe to breathe. Until this can be evaluated by a licensed expert or by the gas company, use of the fixture should be suspended, and the pilot (if there is one) should be turned off.

Ventless gas fireplaces operate without a chimney to the exterior of the building. They are designed to produce combustion products that are safe to breathe and can thus be vented directly into the home. The guaranteed safety of these fireplaces has been a subject of ongoing debate between product manufacturers and other experts in the fireplace profession.

The general claim of manufacturers is that ventless gas fireplaces have been designed in such a way that they will automatically shut down in the event of any combustion or venting problem. The opposing view is that regardless of built-in safeguards, there is no such thing in the realm of human invention as a 100% failsafe device. Failure may be extremely unlikely, but it can never be deemed as impossible. When one considers the potential consequences of venting partially burned gas into a home (i.e. carbon monoxide), nothing less than “impossible” should suffice as an acceptable criterion.

Adding a vent to the existing ventless system is probably not possible. Therefore, replacement with a different type of system (such as a pellet stove) may be a prudent alternative.