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

Buying the home I’ve been renting

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: My landlord has offered to sell me the house I’ve been renting. But the central heating system has broken down, and I’ve just learned that the air ducts are covered with asbestos. My landlord knows about this but refuses to lower the price of the home. What do you think I should do? Michele

Dear Michele: Unless the laws in your area require a seller to make such repairs, what you have is a negotiable issue. If the landlord remains firm in his position, you should decide if the property — plus the cost of furnace repair and asbestos removal — is acceptable to you. To help with this decision, get some bids from local contractors who service heating equipment and who handle asbestos removal. Be aware, however, that asbestos duct insulation is not necessarily hazardous or problematic. If the material is intact, it can be encapsulated by overlaying it with fiberglass insulation. The cost of encapsulation is far less than for removing asbestos.

If you decide to purchase the home, be sure to hire a qualified home inspector to conduct a thorough evaluation of the property. In all likelihood, there are other issues that should be addressed and that might be negotiated with the seller. If the heating ducts have asbestos, this is probably a very old home and is likely to have other significant issues.

Faulty Furnace Was Not Disclosed

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our home, the sellers said that everything was functional, which included the central heating and air conditioning system. On the day of our home inspection, the summer temperature was over 90 degrees outside, so the inspector tested the air conditioning but not the heat. Yet his inspection report said that the entire HVAC system was functional. Well, it turned out when winter came that the furnace would not work. The heating contractor we called found several problems, including a cracked heat exchanger. So now the furnace has to be replaced. Who is responsible to pay for this? George

Dear George: The sellers could be liable if the furnace was inoperative or had obvious defects while they owned the property. But that may not be provable. The sellers may in fact have been unaware of any furnace problems, even though it was defective at the time. The home inspector, however, is clearly liable for approving the condition of a furnace without testing it and without recommending further evaluation.

Operating and inspecting a furnace is standard procedure for home inspectors. If an inspector does not operate a heating system, because of hot weather or for any other reason, the report should clearly state that the system was not tested. The condition of the furnace should then be regarded as an unresolved issue, and the inspector should recommend further evaluation prior to close of escrow. A home inspector who discloses a system as functional when it has not even been operated is grossly negligent and should be held to account for that professional breach.

You should notify the sellers and the home inspector of this situation and insist that they take some responsibility for replacing your furnace.

What to do about fireplace backdraft

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: Back-drafting has been occurring in our fireplace. What can we do to make the fireplace usable? Ray

Dear Ray: When you refer to “back-drafting”, I assume that you mean your house becomes smoky. This can be caused by a poorly designed firebox or by a chimney that is too short. A qualified fireplace contractor or chimney sweep can often recommend upgrades that will correct this kind of problem. For example, the chimney height can be extended at the roof, or the lintel can be lowered at the firebox. Just be sure to find someone who is qualified to make this kind of evaluation.

Avoiding Needless Septic Maintenance

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We received a letter from the company that pumped our septic tank when we bought our home last year. They recommended that a household of two people should pump the septic tank every 1 ½ to 2 years. They also recommended a septic additive that they sell for $30 per gallon. It’s supposed to break up the solids in the tank, and they claim it’s better than the kind you buy at the hardware store. According to my neighbor, the tank should be pumped every five years. What’s the best advice for maintaining our septic system? Larry

Dear Larry: The septic company’s maintenance advice is better for them than for you. It improves their bank balance and does nothing to benefit your septic system.

On average, septic tanks should be pumped every 3 to 5 years, depending on the size of the tank, the number of family members contributing waste to the system, and the kinds of solids that go down the drain. Most solids that enter the system are decomposed by the bacteria in the tank. Eventually, non-organic junk, such as sand and bits of plastic, accumulate on the bottom of the tank, while a layer of floating grease and scum accumulates on top. These solids reduce the efficiency of the system and make pumping necessary.

Larger septic tanks need pumping less frequently than smaller ones because they have a larger capacity for junk and scum. Likewise, the fewer people who use a system, the less often pumping will be needed. For example, a 1,500-gallon system being used by a family of four might need pumping every five years, while a smaller tank would require pumping twice as often. After the kids have grown and flown, a 1,500-gallon used by empty-nest parents might only need pumping every 10 years.

Garbage disposals can also affect the frequency of septic pumping because they increase the volume of solids in the system. And undigested solids, such as those from a garbage disposal, take longer to decompose.

Additives to septic systems are widely recommended, but their benefits are doubtful. Controlled studies have not shown them to improve the performance of septic systems in any significant way. Added enzymes and bacteria cannot break down non-organic sediment. And added bacteria must compete with the bacteria already in the tank. In most cases, the established bacteria simply eat the added ones.

So don’t let contractors sell you on needless septic maintenance. Their advice will simply add wasted money to the solid waste already in your system.

Questions about roof leakage in condo (HOA)

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I own several condos in a large building. Recent roof leakage caused $4,100 in damages to my unit. The homeowners association (HOA) has agreed to repair the roof but will not repair the damage to my unit. Part of the problem is their neglect of normal roof maintenance. They allowed pine needles to accumulate on the roof and in the gutters, and this affected roof drainage. Is there any way to make them repair my unit? Tom

Dear Tom: If the HOA has not maintained the roof in a responsible manner, that weighs against their disclaimer of liability for consequential damages. You should check the documents that govern your condo complex to see how HOA responsibilities are spelled out. If the HOA is required to maintain the roof, that increases their liability for damages to your unit. If they remain firm in their refusal to make interior repairs, you might test the issue in small claims court. For a nominal filing fee and a few hours of inconvenience, you might be able to enforce your position.