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

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’ve been a Realtor for less than a year. As a new agent, my biggest concern is liability and lawsuits for undisclosed property defects. When I studied for my real estate license, much was said about the risks of nondisclosure. They taught us about disclosure forms, the kinds of things we should disclose, the importance of home inspections, and much more. What advice would you give a new agent regarding disclosure? Bob

Dear Bob: As they told you in real estate school, disclosure has become the central aspect of the realty profession. As you apply those teachings, remember that defect disclosure has two essential components; reducing liability (the legal component) and representing the interests of clients (the ethical component). Unfortunately, there is too much emphasis on the first of these principles, at the expense of the other. Many agents cover the legal bases and perform the recommended procedures for avoiding liability, but without a full commitment to the basic idea of maximizing disclosure to homebuyers.

Articles in Realtor magazines often address this important subject, but they focus primarily on the legal approach, rather than the ethical one. For example, articles encourage agents to recommend home inspections in general, but warn them not to suggest a particular inspector. The gist of this advice is to avoid liability for a faulty home inspection. Instead of choosing an inspector for their clients, agents are advised to provide a list of inspectors from which clients can make their own choice. In theory, this relieves the agent of liability if the inspector does a poor job. If a major defect is overlooked, it is the client, not the agent, who chose the inspector. From a legal perspective, there is some wisdom in this prescription, but an essential element is missing.

Absent from this approach is the suggestion that referral lists should contain only the most qualified, most experienced, most thorough home inspectors available. The emphasis is on the legal aspect of liability, rather than the ethics of promoting top-level disclosure. This is why novice home inspectors, regardless of inexperience, are often named on these referral lists.

Most agents are familiar with local home inspectors and know who among them are the most qualified and thorough. Agents who are truly ethical and prudent gravitate to the best home inspectors and bravely recommend them to their clients. Agents who are fearful of detailed inspections often mislabel the best home inspectors as “deal breakers” or “deal killers.” This is a grave ethical error. By withholding the names of those inspectors from their clients, they are as guilty of nondisclosure as someone who hides a cracked foundation or a leaky roof.

The full answer to disclosure liability is not contained in legal forms and procedures. It resides in a total commitment to inform homebuyers of every significant issue. Every known defect should be disclosed in writing, and the most thorough home inspectors should be seen as allies, not threats, in the disclosure process.

As you continue your real estate career, remember that the only property defects that create liability are the ones that are not disclosed. So be a proactive discloser, and affirm that commitment by recommending the best home inspectors to all of your clients.