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

Inspector Misses Recalled Furnace

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we purchased our home, the home inspection report listed the furnace as “serviceable.” After moving in, we had problems with heating, so we called a heating contractor. He said we have a Premier furnace that was recalled because of major safety problems. So now we have to buy a new furnace. Our Realtor says the home inspector is responsible. But the home inspector says he can’t be expected to know about every product that’s been recalled. Is the home inspector liable for having approved the furnace, or are we stuck with the expense ourselves? Jessica

Dear Jessica: Home inspectors, in most cases, are not liable for product recall notices. But the Premier furnace matter is not a typical recall. It is probably the most widely publicized, most well known recall to occur in many years. It has been a frequent subject of discussion among home inspectors, and even among Realtors, since 1999, the topic of seminars, trade journals, even newspaper articles.

It would be difficult for a home inspector to have missed the issue, unless he were new to the inspection business. For a qualified home inspector, failure to recognize a Premier furnace as a potential safety hazard constitutes professional negligence.

It should be noted, however, that not all Premier furnaces are subject to the recall. This only applies to models equipped with nox rods in the burner chambers. These fixtures can be identified by the “x” at the end of the model number. On the other hand, Premier models that are not subject to the recall often have problems with the venting of combustion exhaust. A home inspector who carefully examines furnaces while they are in operation would notice this.

Your home inspector should reconsider the matter of his liability and let this be a professional learning experience.

Another Complaint Against Home Inspectors

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: Home inspectors perform an inadequate service, a fact that is overlooked in your column. I hired an inspector not long ago and found his work to be a complete waste of money. All he did was look around and report the obvious. I could have done as much myself instead of paying a so-called “expert.” Homebuyers deserve better than this. For example, why don’t home inspectors look under carpets for asbestos, mold, or signs of vermin? Your interest in promoting home inspectors prevents you from understanding this. Get a clue. William

Dear William: Home inspection can be a waste of money or a valuable benefit, depending on the quality of the home inspector you hire. If your home inspector did little more than “look around,” you have a legitimate grievance, but not a case against an entire profession.

This column frequently identifies negligent home inspectors, but it also recommends inspectors who are qualified and experienced, who provide detailed evaluations of homes, and who disclose defects that could not be found in the course of a simple “look around.” For example, an inspector I know found the following defects in just the past week:

  1. Over-spanned framing in an attic, causing the roof to sag.
  2. Rust damage in the burner chamber of a gas furnace.
  3. A disconnected safety shutoff switch in a forced air furnace.
  4. Circuit breakers that were oversized for the wires in the circuit.
  5. Faulty grounding in an electrical subpanel.
  6. Buried gas piping that lacked rust protection.
  7. A bathtub whirlpool pump that was not grounded.
  8. Lack of tempered safety glass at a staircase landing.
  9. A fireplace chimney that was too short at the roof.
  10. Improper placement of piers under a home.

These are typical examples of defects routinely reported by qualified home inspectors; defects that would not be discovered by homebuyers conducting their own walkthrough inspection or by inspectors with inadequate experience.

As for your suggestion that home inspectors check beneath carpets for asbestos, mold, or vermin:

  1. How much carpet should home inspectors lift? Should they raise a few corners or totally roll back the carpets in each room? If they don’t do it all, how can we be sure they will not miss a serious problem?
  2. How do we explain to sellers that we must move their furniture to enable inspection beneath the carpets? If sellers agree to this intrusive process, how many additional hours will be needed to complete the inspection, and how much should inspectors charge for this additional time?
  3. If furniture or personal items are damaged while being moved (i.e. a broken vase or a scratched table), who should pay for repair or replacement?
  4. Once the carpets have been laid back down, who should pay the carpet layer who refastens the edges to the tack strips?

Practicality imposes reasonable limits on home inspectors. An inspector cannot view everything without creating unacceptable problems. In spite of these restraints, a truly qualified home inspector can find considerable numbers of defects, providing valuable disclosure to home buyers. If you should ever hire another inspector, be sure to find someone who is truly qualified.

Electrician Blows Fuse Over Home Inspectors

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: Some of your answers to electrical questions reveal that you are obviously unschooled. In one article, you talked about what home inspectors look for in a breaker panel, and your ideas were totally wrong. Here are three examples:

1) You said that home inspectors report when circuits are over-fused. I am a licensed master electrician and have been in the trade for nearly 50 years, but I couldn’t tell from looking if a wire was over-fused.

2) You say that home inspectors check for improper grounding in a panel. How do they do this? Do you measure resistance to earth or simply make assumptions by viewing the wire ends?

3) You say that panels should not be used as “raceways.” In all my years in the trade, I’ve never seen an instance where someone wired a panel that way, nor can I think of any reason for doing so.

Perhaps you need to brush up on the National Electrical Code. Furthermore, I’ll bet you don’t have the guts to publish this letter. If you’re not going to be accountable for what you “inspect” and what you publish, stop picking folks’ pockets. Nicholas

Dear Nicholas: Your letter was just published. That aside, let’s review your three points of disagreement regarding inspections of breaker panels by home inspectors.

  1. As a master electrician of 50 years, you say that you “couldn’t tell from looking if a wire was over-fused.” So let’s take a common example: How about a #12 gauge wire (rated at 20 amps) that is connected to a 50 amp circuit breaker. Would you not recognize that as “over-fused?” If that circuit were to have an overload of 40 amps, the breaker would not trip, and the result could be a house fire. Wouldn’t a home inspector be justified in disclosing that condition and recommending repair by a licensed electrician?
  2. You ask how home inspectors check a panel for improper grounding and whether they do so by measuring resistance to earth. Home inspections are limited to visual observations. They do not involve specialized tests such as measuring resistance. However, there are common grounding violations that are routinely reported by home inspectors. For example, ground and neutral wires that are not separated in a subpanel; a ground bus that is not bonded to the panel; a neutral bus that is connected to a bond jumper in a subpanel; bundled ground wires with a single wire used as a bond; the lack of a grounding rod for the system, etc. Conditions such as these are code violations in most instances and warrant disclosure when discovered by a home inspector.
  3. Finally, you say you’ve never seen an instance where a breaker panel was improperly used as a raceway. We can agree that this is not a common occurrence, but there are instances where a full panel is used as a conduit for unidentified wires. In such cases, further evaluation by a licensed electrician is warranted, and a home inspector would be justified in making that recommendation.

Home inspectors, as you suggest, should be accountable for the conditions they inspect and report. And accountability demands full disclosure of conditions that are inherently or potentially hazardous. A qualified home inspector would be remiss in overlooking conditions such as those listed above. Likewise would a master electrician with 50 years of experience.

Homeowner Fearful of Aluminum Wire

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: My home was built around 1970 and the electrical wiring is aluminum. I’ve never noticed any of the danger signs commonly associated with aluminum wire, such as warm face plates on outlets and switches, flickering lights, etc. I may soon be selling the home and am wondering what to do. Since I’ve gone this long without any problems, would you recommend that I upgrade the wire ends? If I do nothing, do you think the aluminum wiring may be a deal breaker? Michael

Dear Michael: You have raised two separate issues: the safety of aluminum wiring and the effects that aluminum wire could have on a real estate sale. Let’s take these in order.

Aluminum wiring has been the cause of numerous house fires. This is because the wire connections at outlets, lights, switches, and breakers can become loose, and these slack fittings are prone to overheating. The recommended upgrade for aluminum wire connections is to add copper wire ends, commonly known as “pigtails,” and to secure these to the aluminum wires with connectors that are specifically designed for this purpose.

Aluminum wire was commonly used for outlets, lights, switches, and other branch circuits from the late 1960s through the early 1970s. When aluminum connections were recognized as a significant fire hazard, this practice was abandoned.

Many homes with aluminum wiring have shown no apparent signs of loose or overheated wires, but it should not be assumed, in such cases, that all is OK. Overheated outlets may not be located where discovery is likely. A hot cover plate behind a bed or refrigerator, for example, might go unnoticed for years, until a wall fire suddenly occurs. In some homes, removal of drywall during a remodel has revealed wire insulation that was charred to a blackened crisp. With aluminum wire, the potential for disaster is always present, and one never knows when a loosened connection could cause a fire.

For these reasons, a retrofit of all aluminum wire ends by a qualified electrician is highly recommended. In matters of electrical safety, it is best to err on the side of caution; to weigh the risks in terms of potential consequences, rather than the seeming unlikelihood of an occurrence. A fire might never happen, but if it did, what are the potential results? From that perspective, it is always wise to play it safe.

As for the effects of aluminum wiring in a real estate transaction: a qualified home inspector will definitely identify aluminum branch wiring as a safety hazard and recommend upgrade. Prudent homebuyers will take such disclosures very seriously. Instead of waiting for “red flags” to disrupt a purchase transaction, have the wiring addressed prior to listing the home for sale.

As a final note: Aluminum wiring is still used for 220 volt circuits and is regarded as safe for that use if the connectors are rated for aluminum wiring and if the wire ends are treated with an antioxidant compound to prevent corrosion.

Agent Disagrees with Home Inspector

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’m a Realtor and have recently found fault with your advice. You often emphasize the importance of hiring a home inspector who is highly experienced and who has a reputation for thoroughness. One of my listings was recently inspected by a very experienced inspector, but some of his findings turned out to be inaccurate. For example, the insulation in the attic was reported to be 5-8 inches deep. The inspector said this appeared inadequate for a relatively new home and he recommended that we check with the building department for insulation requirements. I called the contractor who installed the insulation and he said the insulation had settled but that it still had the same R-value. The other inspection error also occurred in the attic, specifically the work platform at the furnace. According to the home inspector, the platform should be 30 inches wide. But a carpenter I know said that a 24 inch work platform meets code. What good is an experienced home inspector if his disclosures are not reliable? Dennis

Dear Dennis: When differing disclosures arise in a real estate transaction, the wisest approach is to seek a third source of information, rather than to assume that one or the other disclosure is correct. It is also a good idea to weigh the relative credibility of each source. For example, when a home inspector says the attic insulation is not deep enough, this could be regarded as an unbiased opinion, whether or not it is correct, because the inspector has no vested interest in the quality or quantity of the insulation. He is simply expressing a professional opinion. The installer of the insulation, however, has an undeniable interest in the outcome of the disagreement. If the thickness of the insulation is substandard, then the installer is in a position of professional embarrassment and is liable for the cost of correction. Why then would his opinion be given greater weight than that of the home inspector? It should also be noted that there is a factual error in the installer’s response: When insulation settles, the R-value does not stay the same. It is a recognized fact that thickness and R-value are directly proportional. But final judgment between the installer and the home inspector should be determined by consulting the local building authority, as the home inspector suggested.

As for the work platform at the furnace, Section 307.3 of the Uniform Mechanical Code requires that the work platform be 30 inches wide. The 24-inch requirement pertains to the flooring that should extend from the attic access to the furnace. Common sense, in any event, would tend to favor a home inspector over a carpenter in matters of construction standards. As someone who has been both a carpenter and a home inspector, I can attest to this difference. Again, the conflict of opinions should have been settled by consulting the local building authority.

To assume that a home inspector is wrong, without verifying this assumption, allows faulty conditions to remain as is. This could lead to renewed disputes or other consequential damages at a later date.