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

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.