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

Sellers Accused of Not Disclosing Mold

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: My parents just sold their home, and they disclosed in writing that the basement becomes wet during rainy weather. The buyers chose not to have a home inspection, and now they accuse my parents of hiding a mold problem in the basement. They’ve even hired an attorney. Shouldn’t the buyers have hired a home inspector, and if they chose not to have an inspection, weren’t they saying, in effect, that they weren’t particularly concerned about disclosure of defects? Dan

Dear Dan: Buying a home without a home inspection and then complaining about undisclosed defects is like buying a pair of shoes without trying them on and then complaining that they cause blisters. Only a naive, ill-advised buyer would forego a home inspection in today’s real estate market. The people who bought your parent’s home did not exercise due diligence. That’s their fault. Now that the deal is closed, the proverbial milk is spilt, and they are looking for someone to blame.

It is not unusual or surprising that your parents were unaware of the mold in the basement. Most basements are dimly lit, and mold on basement walls can easily go unnoticed by homeowners. When mold is discovered by an inspector, sellers are usually surprised. If the discovery occurs after the close of escrow, a disgruntled buyer with the aid of an attorney can raise a lot of grief and trouble. Unfortunately, there is always an attorney ready and willing to take such cases, regardless of merit. And once an opponent hires an attorney, there is little choice but to engage an attorney of your own.

Hopefully, some reason can be brought to bear in the matter. The buyers should be informed that not all mold infections are dangerous. Instead of jumping to conclusions about the severity of the problem, and instead of making unfounded accusations of nondisclosure, a qualified mold specialist should be hired to evaluate the condition. However, the mold inspector should not be a “hired gun” to validate the position of either the buyers or the sellers. Instead, the inspector should render an unbiased opinion about the nature and extent of the mold. And if possible, the dispute should be settled by mediation, not by litigation.

Buyers Find Undisclosed Electrical Problem

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We bought a triplex about a year ago and hired a home inspector to find the defects. But he missed something that could cost us a lot of money. Recently, we re-rented one of the units, and the new tenant discovered that the laundry room for the building is wired to her electrical system. So she refuses to pay rent until we pay for the added charges on her electric bill. Is this something that our home inspector should have found? And what about the sellers and listing agent? Shouldn’t they have said something, as well? Tina

Dear Tina: Assigning liability in a situation of this kind depends on a number of variables. So let’s look at the possibilities.

The first thing a home inspector should notice when inspecting the electrical system for an apartment building is the number of service meters and panels for the property. In a triplex, there should be four meters, one for each apartment and one for common areas such as exterior lighting, utility rooms, and the laundry facility. If there is no separate service for common areas, that should be noted in an inspection report. It’s something a buyer would want to know. On the other hand, when a separate service for common areas is provided, home inspectors do not verify which portions of the building are wired to that system. Turning off each breaker to see which fixtures and outlets are served would be a very time-consuming process, and that type of evaluation is not within the scope of a home inspection. The inspector’s liability, therefore, depends on whether there is a separate electrical service for common areas.

The sellers’ liability also has variables. If the property has no separate electrical service for common areas, the sellers should have realized that one of the tenants was paying for electrical use in the laundry room, and that fact should have been disclosed to potential buyers of the property. On the other hand, what if there is a separate service for common areas but the laundry room is not wired to that service. That could have been a wiring defect from the time the building was constructed. As long as the sellers were paying an electric bill each month for other portions of the building, they might have been unaware that the laundry room was not charged to that bill.

As for the listing agent, it is highly unlikely that a Realtor would be aware of this kind of problem.

Finally, there is the disgruntled new tenant who discovered the problem. It might be a good idea to pay her entire electric bill for the disputed time period, as a way of relieving tensions. But electrical alterations will be needed to prevent ongoing disagreements over electrical usage. If there is no separate service for common areas, you can have one installed by a licensed electrician, or you can have the laundry room circuits separately metered so that adjustments in the tenant’s electric bills can be computed. To get this process started, have the building checked by a licensed electrical contractor to see which would be a more practical and cost-effective approach.

Two Buyers With Hot Water Problems

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I purchased a brand new home — a bank-owned, “as-is” property. On the day of the home inspection, there was no hot water because the bank refused to turn on the gas service. Because of this, the home inspector did not discover that the upstairs bathrooms were piped with hot water only. So now I can’t use the tubs or showers because the water is scalding hot. Our plumber says there is a cross-connection of the hot and cold water lines somewhere in the building and that it will be difficult to find where the problem is. I can’t afford to repipe the house and don’t know what else to do. What do you advise? Andrea

Dear Andrea: Your house probably does not need to be repiped, but some investigative work will be needed to determine where the faulty pipe connections are located. To do this, some of the drywall will need to be removed to enable inspection and evaluation of the pipe layout. You should consult with your plumber to determine the least intrusive way to approach this process.

At the time of the home inspection, this problem could have been discovered, even without gas service or hot water. Your home inspector could have turned off the supply valve at the water heater. This is how home inspectors verify that faucets have cold on the right side and hot on the left when the gas service is off. Had your home inspector done this, he would have discovered the lack of cold water plumbing in the upstairs bathrooms.

Buyer Steps Into Cracked Bathtub

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The home I just bought has a cracked bathtub. The sellers tried to fix the crack, but the patch cracked the first time I stepped into the tub. Do the sellers have to repair the tub, or is it up to me to have it fixed? Belle

Dear Belle: If the sellers did not disclose that the tub is damaged, or if they disclosed that repairs were completed, then they should repair the tub in a manner that will render it usable. However, forcing the issue after the sale is often more trouble than attending to the repairs yourself. You can notify the sellers of the problem to see what they are willing to do, but you may or may not get a favorable response.

If the sellers are willing to repair the tub, you should have them pay a professional to do the work, rather than allowing them to do it themselves. If they are not willing to pay for repairs, you can pursue the matter in small claims court or simply write off the issue as a learning experience.

Patching a cracked fiberglass tub is not always easy because the tub is flexible and bends when someone steps into it. This is why the patch itself can become cracked. To affect a permanent repair, mortar should be packed into the space beneath the tub to provide solid support. To access that area, you’ll need to cut one or two holes in the wall. Mortar packing will make the bottom of the tub rigid, preventing further cracking after it is patched.

As for repairing the crack: Try to find someone who does professional fiberglass repair work. You might contact a person who does boat repairs and ask about having a bathtub patched.

Dear Barry: Our forced air heating system heats every room in our home, except the master bedroom. For some reason, that room stays cold, in spite of the warm air register above the window. We’ve installed insulated drapes and plastic storm windows, but the room remains frigid. What can we do about this? Victor

Dear Victor: The first thing to check is the air output at the master bedroom air register. Set a ladder under it and feel the airflow with your hand. Then compare this with the heat output at other registers in your home. If the airflow is minimal, you should have it evaluated by a licensed heating contractor. The problem could be a faulty duct in the attic — either disconnected, crushed, or poorly configured. If the airflow seems normal at the bedroom register, you might need a second air register in that room.

You should also have the room checked for insulation. First, take a look in the attic, then the subfloor (if your home is on a raised foundation), and finally, try to verify insulation in the exterior walls. One way to spot-check for wall insulation is to remove some of the electrical outlet covers and try to look past the edges of the outlet boxes to verify insulation in the wall cavities.

Finally, check for air leakage at the windows, wall outlets, and switches. Sealing areas where cold air intrusion occurs can minimize heat loss in the room.

Buyers Find Undisclosed Mold in Basement

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We purchased our first home about two months ago, and we hired a home inspector to check it out. But two months after moving in we discovered black mold in the basement. The inspection report says there were no visible problems in the basement, but the mold is clearly visible. My concern is that there may be additional mold inside the walls. If the home inspector had simply alerted us to the problem, we could have resolved the issue with the sellers. Do we have any recourse against the inspection company for nondisclosure? Jim

Dear Jim: Recourse against the home inspection company depends on the inspection contract you signed and the laws that govern inspector liability in your state. The contract, for example, may specifically exclude mold from the inspection process. Mold is usually disclaimed in home inspection contracts because there is so much legal and financial liability associated with mold issues and because it takes special expertise to evaluate the severity of mold infection.

On the other hand, the basic imperative of a home inspection is to disclose conditions that are visible and accessible. If black mold is visible in a home, how can it serve the liability concerns of a home inspector to say nothing about it? There is more liability for the inspector who ignores visible mold than the one whose report says, “Black stains were noted on the basement walls. Further evaluation of this home by a qualified mold specialist is recommended.”

There are many home inspectors who firmly debate this position, who believe that home inspectors should make no mention of mold for fear of being held to a higher standard with regard to mold disclosure. But home inspectors are hired to provide pertinent information regarding property defects, not merely to dodge liability exposure. The avoidance of unreasonable liability is important to every inspector because many frivolous claims and lawsuits have been filed against good home inspectors. But regardless of such threats, home inspectors should remain focused on the essential reason they were hired: to serve the interest of the clients who hire them by disclosing apparent defects.

As for the mold in your basement: Keep in mind that mold is not always a serious problem. Mold is not always toxic, and mold removal is not always expensive. Before assuming the worst, notify the home inspection company of your concerns and request that they conduct a reinspection of the basement. Then, have a professional mold specialist evaluate and test the mold. Samples should be tested by an environmental lab to determine which kinds of mold are present, and bids from local mold removal contractors should be obtained. Again, not all forms of mold have adverse health effects, and the mold in your home may be limited to a small area. If the mold infection is small, mitigation may not be costly or involved. If it is large or involves hazardous mold, you can weigh the pros and cons of liability with the home inspector.