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

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our home, our home inspector said the water heater was OK. But when we moved in, the hot water was orange at all of the faucets. So we called a service company. They said the inside of the tank was completely rusted, and we paid them $1000.00 to replace the fixture. When we called our home inspector about this, he said that he had operated all of the faucets, and the water had been clear at that time. He also stated that he is not responsible if something is now wrong. Is he really not liable? Tammi

Dear Tammi: Many of the questions I receive from readers are pointed complaints against home inspectors. Some of these involve professional negligence by inspectors, while others reflect basic misunderstandings about the scope of a home inspection or the nature of various home defects. To fairly address your water heater situation, there are some issues that need to be clarified regarding rusted plumbing and what may or may not have been apparent on the day of the inspection.

The rust-colored water at your faucets can come from a rusted water heater of from from old rusted water pipes. In either case, discolored water may not always be apparent. For example, if the house was occupied on the day of the home inspection, then the occupants were using water on a daily basis. With regular use, the water would be clear because there would be no build-up of loose rust particles. But several days or weeks of vacancy would allow loosened rust debris to settle in the water heater, the pipes, or both. If that were the case, when you moved in and turned on the various faucets, the settled rust would have flowed with the water, and the rusty color would then have been apparent. This may or may not have been what occurred in your home, but it is one possibility to be considered in addressing your concerns.

Another variable is the seeming certainty of the “service company” (or was that a plumber?) regarding the interior condition of the water heater tank. The inside of a water heater is not exposed and cannot be inspected. A further concern as to the credibility of the service company is the cost of replacing the water heater. A typical water heater replacement costs approximately $600. The fixture itself should have cost about $250. So what was the hourly rate for labor?

As for the home inspector, it is surprising that he found no problems with the water heater, since most water heaters are not installed in full compliance with plumbing code requirements. Also, if the water heater was badly rusted, then it was old. A thorough inspection of a water heater includes an age estimate of the fixture. If the unit was old, this should have been noted in the inspection report as an indication that the water heater may have had limited remaining life.

The home inspector’s statement that he is “not responsible if something is now wrong,” needs some clarification. As often stated in this column, home inspectors are liable for conditions that are visible and accessible at the time of the inspection. If something was visible, accessible, and “wrong,” then the inspector would be liable, unless the defect involved a component that was not within the scope of a home inspection.