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

Commercial Agents Should Recommend Inspections

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’ve purchased six homes during the past 20 years and have always gotten home inspections. But I recently bought my first commercial property, a four-unit office building, and opted to forego an inspection on the advice of my agent. The agent explained that commercial properties are different from homes and only need to be checked by a structural engineer. I didn’t question this advice and am now lamenting that error. It’s been six months since the close of escrow, and complaints from the tenants are endless. The plumbing is bad, the heating rarely works, and the roof leaks like a screen. Why would a commercial agent advise against an inspection? Larry

Dear Larry: The failure to recommend a property inspection is a common problem with many commercial real estate agents. Fortunately, this is not the case everywhere. In some cities and towns, commercial agents routinely recommend inspections to their buyers, while in other locales, the misguided belief that commercial properties don’t need to be inspected leads to major breaches in defect disclosure.

At the root of the problem is a failure to apply common sense. The kinds of defects that would be reported during a home inspection are just as likely to be found in a commercial building, whether it be offices, stores, a restaurant, a medical clinic, etc. Roofing materials, for example, are subject to the same installation standards and are just as likely to become worn with age. Electrical violations involve the same issues of personal safety and fire prevention, whether the building is a house or an office. Plumbing problems are just as costly and annoying whether they occur in a master bathroom or a janitorial utility room. And the lack of heat on a frigid morning is just as unpleasant where you work as where you live.

Your agent’s advice to hire a structural engineer would have been wise in addition to, not instead of, a full property inspection. After all, what can the engineer tell you about the wiring in the breaker panels, the grounding of wall outlets, the function of the heating and air conditioning systems, the condition of the roofing, the safety of stairs and railings, the functional conditions of toilets and sinks, the water pressure, and so on?

In matters of defect disclosure, the same rules and reasons that motivate the hiring of a home inspector apply to the purchase of commercial property. Failure to recognize this fact can be a costly error for buyers and is a breach in the professionalism of far too many commercial Realtors. The purchase of commercial property involves enormous financial commitments, and the risks inherent to that kind of investment can be reduced by knowing more about the condition of the property being purchased. This should be common knowledge among agents who specialize in commercial property. Those agents who have not yet realized this need to reconsider the matter. Detailed property inspections are financially beneficial to commercial buyers and reduce the disclosure liability of commercial agents and brokers.

Did Home Inspector Compromise Disclosure

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When I bought my home, the seller paid for the home inspection. That was a red flag that I failed to heed. Now that I’ve moved into the home, it’s clear that the inspector, who was recommended by the real estate agent, was working for the seller’s interests, not mine. The fireplace was not even included in the inspection, and a chimney sweep has now discovered loose bricks, requiring $300 of repair. And yesterday, I learned that the debris on the skylights is actually dried tape, used to seal the cracks and to secure the loose frames. The cost to replace the five bad skylights will be nearly $800. I should have hired my own home inspector, someone who would look out for my interests. Is there any recourse for me at this point? Helen

Dear Helen: Complaints about substandard home inspections are among the most common subjects in my email inbox. In most cases, however, faulty inspections occur when inspectors are unqualified and inexperienced; not because of deliberate intentions by inspectors to favor the interests of sellers. Reports of inspectors who compromise disclosure for the sake of agent referrals are often heard, but in my experience such inspectors are rare. Most home inspectors are painfully aware of the legal and financial liability associated with incomplete disclosure and are unwilling to take such risks for fraudulant short-term gains. In fact, there are many home inspectors who would inspect a home with the same degree of thoroughness whether the inspection were being done for the buyer, the seller, or the inspector’s own family.

In your case, the inspector, regardless of motives, appears to have done a very substandard inspection. Fireplaces are included in the Standards of Practice of all recognized home inspector associations, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI). Failure to inspect the fireplace indicates a significant lack of professionalism. Equally problematic is the inspector’s failure to identify the defective skylights. This should have been part of the roof inspection, also specified in the Standards of Practice for the profession.

The responsibility for the inadequate inspection is shared, of course, by the agent who recommended the inspector. Real estate professionals are familiar with the inspectors who work in their areas of business. They know which inspectors perform thorough and comprehensive evaluations of homes. Fortunately, there are agents who routinely recommend the best inspectors. Unfortunately, there are other agents who view such inspectors as “deal killers” and who avoid those inspectors when making referrals to clients.
Before you take action regarding the lack of disclosure, have your home reinspected by someone who is truly qualified. This will probably inform you of additional defects, not yet discovered and not reported by the seller’s inspector. Try to find an inspector with many years of experience and a reputation for comprehensive thoroughness. Once you have a detailed report, you’ll be able to address these issues with the sellers, the agent, and the sellers’ home inspector.

Getting to the Root of Sewer Line Problems

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: For the past several years, we’ve had ongoing problems with our old clay sewer main. The line has to be rooted every few months, and the cost to install a new line would be about $15,000. Why is this problem so persistent, and what, if anything, can be done to solve it without spending a fortune? Gayle

Dear Gayle: Tree roots typically invade older types of sewer mains, where cracks and loose fittings allow roots to enter. Old clay sewer mains are highly susceptible to root intrusion because the mortar that was used to seal the fittings has deteriorated with age and because old clay pipes often have cracks. As roots enter these openings, they grow thicker, causing increasing damage to the pipes and enabling further root invasion. Root growth into sewer pipes may increase during dry weather because seepage from the pipes may be the only available ground moisture. But regardless of wet or dry conditions, roots are attracted to sewer pipes because the effluent contains organic nutrients as well as water, and this provides an enticing meal for hungry trees and shrubs.

Clearing a clogged sewer line with a rooter machine provides a temporary respite at best because rooting merely prunes the root ends that have entered the pipe. Once the plumber’s machine is withdrawn, the roots begin to grow again, and six months later the plumber is back. Chemical products can be flushed down the drain to kill these roots, but such products are not nearly as effective as portrayed in advertisements

The most common long-term solution is to replace the old sewer lines — obviously a very expensive answer to the problem. A less costly solution, offered by some plumbing companies, is the installation of a special synthetic lining in the old sewer main. With this method, the cost of excavation is eliminated and the seepage that attracts tree roots is terminated.

Dear Barry: I’m preparing to remodel my bathroom and am wondering if I should take a permit for the work. Basically, I have two questions: If the bathroom changes are not structural, do I need a permit? And when the city inspector comes to inspect the bathroom work – does he have the right to inspect other portions of my property where work may have been done without a permit? Dave

Dear Dave: If the bathroom remodel involves changes to the plumbing or electrical systems, a permit is definitely required. Alterations do not have to be structural for the building department to have authority over the project.

The building inspector has the right to cite any noncomplying conditions that are observed on the property. However, when the permit involves a limited area, most building inspectors are not this far-reaching in their approach. In most cases, they consider only the work that is currently in progress. But don’t take refuge in that assurance. The inspector has the power to be proactive regarding conditions of noncompliance on your property. In other words, don’t expect the worst, but be prepared for it.

Should Inspector Have Disclosed Asbestos Floor

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I purchased a home several months ago and had it inspected. But the home inspector (in my opinion) missed an important defect. One room has old-looking vinyl flooring which (I recently discovered) has asbestos in the backing. I realize that the asbestos is safety contained as long as the flooring is not disturbed, but homeowners tear up flooring all the time. Based on the age, I feel the inspector should have warned me that the flooring was likely to contain asbestos. Had I known, I would have negotiated with the seller to help cover the cost of having the flooring safely removed. Do you believe the inspector bears any liability? William

Dear William: It is not common practice for home inspectors to list all of the building materials likely to contain asbestos. If they did, the list would include asphalt composition roofing materials, roof mastic, drywall joint compound, old air duct insulation, transite flue pipes, acoustic ceiling texture, adhesive mastics for flooring and other applications, interior plaster, some exterior stucco, asphalt floor tiles, vinyl floor tiles, and of course, sheet vinyl flooring. But because environmental hazards are not within the scope of a general visual home inspection, this kind of disclosure is typically not included in a home inspection report, except where asbestos materials are exposed and friable, such as acoustic sprayed ceilings.

If your inspector had disclosed the possibility of asbestos in the vinyl floor backing, this would not have obligated the seller to pay for removal of the material. Homes are generally sold on an as-is basis. Conditions commonly subject to negotiation would include safety hazards, serious physical damage, active leakage, inoperable fixtures, or significant construction defects. The fact that you wanted to replace the flooring after acquiring the property did not obligate the seller to share in the costs of those upgrades. Most sellers would not agree to pay for asbestos removal in that type of situation. For these reasons, the home inspector is not liable for nondisclosure.

Dear Barry: A heating contractor who inspected our furnace said he found a crack in the firebox. He said that he caulked the crack so we could use the furnace temporarily. We had another contractor take a look, but he said there were no signs of any caulking. The cost to replace the furnace is about $2000. Where can we look to see if caulking has been done? Marion

Dear Marion: Whether or not the caulking was done is irrelevant. No sensible heating contractor would caulk a cracked firebox in a furnace. A cracked heat exchanger is extremely dangerous. Those cracks could allow deadly carbon monoxide to enter your home. The standard recommendation in such cases is to abandon use of the system and to replace the heat exchanger or the furnace without delay. The cost in dollars may be high, but compared to the potential risk, it is incidental. Your best course of action is to find a heating contractor who can definitively evaluate your furnace.

No Water Service During Home Inspection

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The sellers of the house we are buying have turned off the water service. Our home inspector was concerned about this, but dismissed it when the sellers told him they did it because the house was vacant. But this leaves us with lingering doubts. Perhaps there are some plumbing problems, such as leaks, that they’re hiding. What do you think we should do? Yehuda

Dear Yehuda: For a qualified home inspector, the sellers’ reasons for turning off the water service are irrelevant. The inspector’s singular objective is to evaluate pertinent aspects of the property, and that includes the operational condition of the plumbing system. Without water service, a plumbing evaluation is not possible, and the home inspection cannot be completed.

When any utility service is off during a home inspection, the inspection report should state that the inspection could not be completed and that the service should be restored to enable completion of the inspection prior to close of escrow. Without water, it is not possible to evaluate the performance of the sinks, faucets, drains, toilets, tubs, showers, dishwasher, garbage disposal, water heater, etc. Neither is it possible to check the water pressure, to inspect fittings for leaks, or to determine if water volume is reduced when multiple fixtures are in use.

If your home inspector did not stipulate that the water should be turned on to enable a full inspection, then you are not dealing with a qualified inspector. In that case, you should find another inspector and insist that there be functional water service when the inspection is performed.

Dear Barry: When I bought my house, the home inspector found no problem with the fireplace. But now, a chimney maintenance company has reported some issues. First, there is no firebrick on the sides of the firebox — just mortar and stone construction. While these sidewalls are greater than 12 inches thick, I was advised not to use the fireplace until it is verified that these walls are solid masonry, with no cavities. Also, the smoke chamber was built with corbelled walls (stepped) rather than smooth walls. I was told that this encourages creosote build-up, increasing the likelihood of a chimney fire, and was advised not to use the fireplace until a ceramic coating has been applied. Do you think the inspector is liable for repair costs? Bill

Dear Bill: If the sidewalls are as thick as they appear, without cavities, then the fixture is probably safe to use. If the corbelled masonry is intact and does not appear to be causing a build-up of creosote, it may also be safe to use. However, since these conditions indicate noncompliance with current fireplace standards, a home inspector would be prudent in recommending further evaluation by a qualified fireplace expert. If the inspector made no such recommendation, he may be insufficiently familiar with fireplace issues. In that case, he could be liable for failure to report suspect conditions. On the other hand, if these conditions do not manifest any safety-related problems, there may be no cause to take issue with the inspector. Either way, you should notify the inspector regarding your concerns and ask that he take a second look at the fireplace.