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

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.