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

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: In one of your articles, you painted an inaccurate picture of FHA appraisers. I agree that home inspectors are more qualified than appraisers to identify defects in a home, but FHA appraisers also have a role in identifying some of these problems. According to HUD standards, an FHA appraiser must look in the attic for signs of leakage, poor construction, and fire damage, inspect the foundation crawlspace for various defects, operate the heating, electrical, and plumbing systems, review the site drainage, and check many other issues. Our inspections are not nearly as thorough as a home inspection, but when we find evidence of a significant problem, we recommend that buyers hire a home inspector. I suggest you review the HUD Valuation Analysis of Single Family One to Four Unit Dwellings. David

Dear David: My comments about FHA appraisers were not intended to negate the importance or validity of your profession. Many homebuyers, however, are unclear about the difference between an appraisal and a home inspection. When they see an appraiser inspect the attic, the furnace, the electrical panels, etc., they sometimes assume that a home inspection would be redundant; that the FHA appraiser has fully evaluated the physical condition of the property. Then they’re surprised when problems are discovered after the close of escrow.

When buyers see their appraiser check the furnace, they may assume that the heating system has been evaluated and approved. Later, they’re surprised to find safety violations involving fire clearances, gas supply connections, and combustion air requirements.

When buyers see their appraiser check the attic, they may assume that pertinent conditions have been checked and signed off. Later, they’re surprised that the rafters need reinforcement, that the chimney is too close to combustible material, that the attic wiring is improperly spliced, that some of the water lines are substandard, or that the vapor barrier is on the wrong side of the insulation.

When buyers see their appraiser open the breaker panel, they may assume that electrical compliance has been verified. Later, they’re surprised to learn that circuits are over-fused, that breakers are double-tapped, that ground wires are not bonded, or that some wires have burnt insulation.

When buyers see their appraiser check the fireplace, they may assume that fire safety compliance was confirmed. Later, they’re surprised to know that the chimney liner is cracked, that the gas connector is substandard, that there is a gap between the mantle and the firebox lintel, or that the hearth is too close to combustible flooring.

When buyers see their appraiser check bathroom fixtures, they may assume that conditions are acceptable. Later, they’re surprised that bathtub windows are not safety glass, that hot and cold connections are reversed at the sink, that the toilet is loose on the floor, or that the shower pan leaks under the house.

And speaking of under the house: Since when do appraisers don a suit of overalls and crawl the length and breadth of a sub-area? When buyers see their appraiser peek into the access opening, they may assume that conditions in that area have been evaluated. Later, they’re surprised about faulty ground drainage, about pipes that are corroded or leaking, about piers that are displaced, or air ducts that are disconnected.

HUD should set realistic standards for FHA appraisers. Instead, this federal agency has required FHA appraisers to perform tasks that are beyond the scope of their expertise. This increases professional liability for appraisers, while giving a false sense of security to uninformed homebuyers. Bureaucracies should allow appraisers do what they do best: determine the market value of property; not evaluate building systems. Instead of inspecting for defects, FHA appraisers should advise homebuyers to hire qualified home inspectors; not merely when defects are observed, but in every case. This will better serve the interests of the home-buying public, while reducing the liability of FHA appraisers.