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

Safety Concerns in Electrical Panel

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We recently purchased a home. During the negotiations, we asked the sellers to replace the electrical panel due to safety concerns disclosed by our home inspector. The sellers agreed to have this work done. On the day that the escrow closed, the escrow officer told us that the new panel had been installed without a permit. After moving in, we applied for our own permit at the building department. But the new panel did not pass inspection. We emailed copies of the failed inspection notice to the sellers, their agent, and our agent, but no one has responded. What should we do? Niki

Dear Niki: According to the National Electrical Code and the International Residential Code, it is illegal to perform electrical installations without a permit. It was the responsibility of the sellers to have this work done according to safety code requirements and with the approval of the local building department. Likewise, it was the responsibility of the agents to inform you of the status of the work before the close of escrow, not after.

If the sellers and agents are unwilling to address your concerns, a wake-up letter from a real estate attorney may be needed. Certified mail on legal stationary tends to be more stimulating than common email. Of similar effect would an ethics complaint at the local Board of Realtors office.

Does Window Replacement Require a Permit?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I recently bought a 1944 home that needed many repairs. Before buying it, I hired a home inspector, but he missed many of the problems, including windows that won’t open. I’m planning to replace all the windows in the house and have three questions: 1) Shouldn’t my home inspector have reported the faulty windows? 2) Is a building permit required for window replacement? 3) Can they really deny my right to occupy the house until the window replacement is approved? According to the permit application form from the building department, a Certificate of Occupancy cannot be issued until the permit is signed off. Delbert

Dear Delbert: Here are three answers to your three questions:

  1. Home inspectors typically test a random sample of windows to ensure that they function properly. When windows are not tested, it is usually because furniture or window coverings restrict access. Ensuring that windows are functional is particularly important in bedrooms and bathrooms. Bedroom windows must be openable and must meet minimum dimension requirements to enable emergency escape by occupants. Bathroom windows must be openable in order to provide ventilation, unless an operable exhaust fan in installed.
  2. The building code does not specifically require a permit for window replacements, but it does require permits if you “alter” a building. Some building departments interpret this code to include window replacements, while others do not. However, when window replacements include changes in the wall framing, a permit is more likely to be required.
  3. The requirement for a Certificate of Occupancy typically applies to buildings that are under construction, not homes where windows are being replaced.

Before commencing work on your home, check with the local building department for clarification of their requirements.

Buyer Beware in Virginia

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: You often stress the importance of defect disclosure for sellers. But here in the commonwealth of Virginia, sellers do not have to disclose. They can simply disclaim or disclose defects in their homes, as they choose. Most sellers sign disclaimers stating that they are selling their house “as is” without having to divulge anything they know to be defective. It’s “buyer beware” in this state, and only the foolish buyers forego home inspections! Diana

Dear Diana: Thanks for calling attention to this legal circumstance in your state. Something should be done in Virginia to rectify an inexcusably out-of-date position with regard to real estate disclosure. Setting aside the opposing legal arguments, it is a matter of common decency and honest ethical behavior to inform a buyer of defects before selling a costly commodity. This is particularly true with a home because of the financial hardship that can result from undisclosed defects. Those who support limited disclosure could use some basic instruction in the differences between right and wrong. Until then, the absence of seller disclosure increases the need for qualified home inspectors in Virginia.

Should I Buy a Red-Tagged Home?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’ve made an offer on an unpermitted home that was red-tagged in 2001 by the county building department. The property is located in the mountains, surrounded by other unpermitted homes, and the real estate agent says the building department is not likely to require demolition, as long as property taxes continue to be paid. But this seems risky. The price for this property is tempting, but I don’t want to get stuck with a vacant lot. When a home has been red-tagged, can the building department eventually order its removal? Mark

Dear Mark: In most cases, municipal building departments don’t require demolition of unpermitted buildings. This, however, does not mean they can’t or never will do so. Building departments are empowered to enforce the letter of the law. If future policy changes should incline them toward rigid enforcement, they could order the removal of substandard structures that have been red-tagged. Conditions that could prompt such a decision might be major construction defects in the building, zoning violations, noncompliance with water and septic requirements, or the capricious imposition of authority by an over-zealous bureaucrat.

Demolition, however, would be a worst-case scenario. A more likely enforcement position would be to prohibit occupancy of the dwelling until it is permitted, inspected, and approved.

A prudent approach, before you sign a purchase contract, would be to visit the county building department and to discuss the situation and possible options with the chief building official. What you need is clarification of their policy toward properties of this kind. Ask the building official about an as-built permit. Find out how much the permit process might cost and what the chances are of obtaining approval for the building. You’ll also need a list of defective conditions likely to be cited by the building department. So be sure to hire an experienced home inspector for an evaluation of the building.

Buying a red-tagged home has it’s risks, but the greatest of these is to proceed without a full knowledge of the situation.

Ventless gas heater causing sickness

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: My son lives in our back yard guest house with a ventless gas heater. Twice this past week, he has gotten sick at night. Both times, he became congested and got chills even when it wasn’t that cold. Could this be caused by the heater? Darrell

Hello Darrell: If your son’s sickness coincides with nighttime use of a ventless gas heater, you should have your doctor examine him immediately for symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure. You should also have the gas company test the furnace for carbon monoxide emission. And regardless of their findings, you should replace the heater with one that is vented to the exterior. And be sure to install a carbon monoxide detector in the room where your son sleeps.