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

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We bought our house about 8 months ago and just learned that we have asbestos insulation on the air ducts in our attic. The sellers must have known about it because they purchased a new forced air furnace last year, so their heating contractor must have told them about the asbestos. We hired a home inspector before buying the house, but he also said nothing about asbestos, even though he inspected the heating system and the attic. We know that asbestos removal is very expensive. Besides that, we have two young children and are concerned about the effect this could have on their health. What should we do? Are the sellers and home inspector liable for nondisclosure? Scott and Jody

Dear Scott and Jody: You raise a number of issues, so let’s take them in order:

  1. The sellers may or may not have known about the asbestos duct insulation, depending on whether someone told them about it. It is natural to assume that the contractor who installed the new furnace let them know about the asbestos insulation, but it is possible, as well, that the contractor was negligent and never mentioned it. You should find out who installed the system and ask that person if the sellers were told about asbestos insulation.
  2. If the sellers knew about the asbestos but said nothing, they may have violated the real estate disclosure requirements, depending on the state where you live. If so they could be liable for removal.
  3. Asbestos disclosure is not within the general scope of a home inspection. Therefore, many home inspectors say nothing about it in their reports. However, it is common knowledge among home inspectors that old cardboard duct insulation contains asbestos; so why not share this information with buyers as a common courtesy, as well as to limit inspector liability. One reason for nondisclosure is that some inspectors fear that mentioning one kind of asbestos makes them liable for other types of asbestos not mentioned in their reports. To balance this dilemma, a home inspector can simply state that the duct insulation “may” contain asbestos and that further evaluation by a qualified specialist is recommended.
  4. Asbestos duct insulation is not a friable material (does not crumble on contact) and is therefore not regarded by the EPA as a significant health hazard. It should only be handled by duly licensed professionals when alteration, repair, or removal is necessary, but this material does not pose a health risk to occupants of the home if it is simply left as-is. It does not release particles into the air unless roughly disturbed, and it is installed on the outer surfaces of the air ducts, not in contact with the air stream itself. Therefore, concerns about health risks to children are largely unwarranted.

Although the sellers may be guilty of nondisclosure, and although the home inspector may have been negligent for having said nothing about the asbestos insulation, you should not be unduly alarmed about this material. If it is damaged, removal or repair is advised. Otherwise, it is not a cause for major concern.