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

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.