The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: I recently purchased a home from an investor who renovates and then resells old houses. Everything was going well until our main circuit breaker started tripping. An electrician told us that our new 100 amp service panel is connected on a 60 amp service line. He speculated that the seller installed the new panel himself, without a permit and without hiring an electrician. None of this was reported by our home inspector. In fact, he didn’t even remove the panel cover during the inspection, and now he claims that anything that was not visible is not within the scope of the inspection. Who is liable, the home inspector, the spec seller, or both? Chris
Dear Chris: Your home inspector should have removed the panel cover to inspect the breakers and wiring within. This is standard procedure for a competent home inspector. Inspection of the electrical system, if the inspector does a thorough job, should also consider the relative capacities of the service lines and the service panel. For the inspector to dismiss these oversights as conditions that were “not visible” is baseless denial.
When home inspectors correctly disclaim electrical defects that are not visible, they are referring to conditions that are concealed within the construction, hidden by personal property, or buried underground. But this disclaimer does not excuse blatant failure to remove the cover from a breaker panel. Inspectors who overlook this essential part of an inspection are professionally negligent.
The seller, of course, was also negligent, but this may have been a matter of electrical ignorance, rather than ill intent. On the other hand, replacing a breaker panel without a building permit is illegal, and a professional real estate investor should have known this. If a permit had been obtained, the municipal inspector would have required an upgrade of the service line, consistent with the capacity of the new panel. To address this issue now, an as-built permit should be obtained from the local building authority, and the power company should be notified that the service line needs upgrade.
But before you commence any repairs or upgrades, the home inspector and seller should be notified of the problem and given an opportunity to respond. Both are individually liable for lack of disclosure. If neither will take responsibility, you can provide them with formal invitations to small claims court. If you do this, be sure to have plenty of photos of faulty conditions and some written reports from electricians and other professionals.
As a final thought, a home inspector who did not remove a panel cover probably missed other issues in the course of his inspection. Therefore, a second inspection of the property is warranted. Find out who is the most thorough inspector in your area and get a second opinion on everything. You may find that additional defects should be addressed with the seller and with the first home inspector. If it becomes necessary to take legal action, consult an attorney for procedural advice.