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

Agents Complain to Editor

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: As editor of a paper that publishes your column, I’ve received complaints from real estate advertisers who find the tone of your articles to be anti-Realtor. After reviewing some recent columns, I tend to agree with them. When recurrent articles deal with unscrupulous real estate agents, a negative theme and negative perceptions can form. The tone of such articles creates an “us vs. them” mentality that isn’t good for anyone involved. I realize there are bad agents out there, just as there are bad inspectors, and you have written about both. But I think you should touch on other topics for variety. Readers would be better served if, for example, you would address the item-by-item details of a home inspection.  Mark

Dear Mark: Let me begin by praising the numerous first class real estate agents with whom I am personally acquainted. There are many outstanding Realtors who bring credit and good repute to the real estate profession — hard working agents who truly represent the best interests of their clients; who conduct their work with the highest ethical standards; who truly deserve every dollar of the commissions they earn.

The intent of this column has never been “us-versus-them”; nor has it been to paint real estate professionals with a broad brush, either positive or negative. As you say, there are good and bad agents out there, just as there are good and bad home inspectors; just as there are good and bad members of every profession.

The content of this column is largely dictated by questions and comments from readers, and many of these involve grievances against Realtors and home inspectors. If human nature tended toward praise rather than complaint, I would probably hear from more people who were satisfied with the top-notch agents and inspectors who have served them. Instead, I receive consumer complaints involving very real problems. The purpose of this column is to address those issues from an honest and unbiased perspective; to educate buyers, sellers, agents, and others about the pitfalls of real estate disclosure and best ways to deal with property defects.

In the years from 1996 through 2005, the real estate market thrived throughout most of the United States, and this booming activity caused many people to enter the real estate and home inspection professions. As a result, there were many inexperienced home inspectors, with little ability to provide homebuyers with adequate disclosure. Unfortunately, these novice inspectors obtained referrals from misguided real estate agents, and unsuspecting homebuyers made bad purchase decisions on the basis of faulty inspection reports.

Some of the agents who referred those inspectors were novices themselves, unaware of the vast quality differences among home inspectors. At the same time, there were experienced agents who should have known better, but who failed to exercise ethical discretion when referring home inspectors to their clients.

So what is the solution?

Leaders in the real estate profession, including brokers and Realtor associations, need to provide agents with better clarity regarding disclosure. This emphasis should be two-fold. First is the matter of ethics: Buyers should be fully informed of property defects because total disclosure is the only honest way to do business. It is the way that everyone wants to be treated. Second is the matter of legal liability: Faulty disclosure exposes agents and sellers to potential lawsuits. If the altruism of ethical disclosure is not sufficient cause, then the need to avoid litigation should be. For either reason or for both reasons, disclosure of property defects is good for everyone.

Agents should become familiar with the best home inspectors in their areas of business and should only recommend those inspectors. Many good agents have made this a practice throughout their careers. When other agents follow that good example, consumer complaints will cease to fill my inbox, and articles that offend agents will no longer be necessary.

Buyers Find Mold Behind Wallpaper

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We purchased our home about a year ago. After moving in, we noticed a dark spot on the bathroom wallpaper. When we peeled up an edge, there was mold and lots of it! It turned out there was a slow leak in the wall, caused by the seller who did his own plumbing repairs. A plumber fixed the leak, and the sellers’ real estate agent sent a handyman to get rid of the mold. He removed the base of the cabinet, sprayed some stuff on the wood and drywall, and then closed it back up. But my daughter and I are allergic to mold and have been having symptoms ever since. With the sellers’ agent having knowledge of this mold problem, do we have any recourse?  Shelly

Dear Shelly: Mold cannot be fully remedied by any kind of spray. Professional expertise is necessary to address mold in a responsible and effective manner. No handyman should be doing this kind of work, and a professional agent should know this. The proper solution for mold infection is total removal of all affected materials: drywall, wood, etc. The sellers and their agent need to arrange for a mold survey by a Registered Environmental Assessor. Mold samples should be sent to a lab to determine the types of mold that are present. Air testing should also be done to determine the types and amounts of mold spores that are airborne in your home. Once a mold report has been issued, the contamination should be eliminated by a qualified, professional expert.

Buyers Concerned About Asbestos Floor Tiles

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We just purchased a 1920’s colonial style home that we are renovating. During the basement work, we removed the carpet and discovered tiles that we fear may contain asbestos. A few were cracked, and most were covered with a rough layer of mastic that secured the carpet. If we cover these tiles with new carpet, would that be a health hazard? If not, is there a way to test the air for asbestos particles?  Catherine

Dear Catherine: Vinyl floor tiles may or may not contain asbestos. The only way to confirm asbestos content is to have a small sample tested by an environmental laboratory. The cost of this test is nominal, usually less than $20. If you send a tile sample, be sure to include some of the adhesive mastic that secured the tiles, as well as some of the mastic that secured the carpet. Adhesive mastics often contain asbestos fibers.

On the optimistic side, asbestos tiles and mastic are not regarded as significant health hazards because they are not friable. This means that they do not crumble easily and, therefore, are unlikely to release asbestos fibers into the air. Covering asbestos floor tiles with carpet does not pose a significant health hazard. However, when you eventually sell the home, be sure to disclose that the tiles under the carpet may contain asbestos.

If you want to test the air for asbestos fibers, check for asbestos inspectors in your phone book. Not all asbestos inspectors perform air tests of this kind, so be sure to ask when you call these inspectors.

Weather Conditions Can Affect Home Inspection

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: Home inspectors are often accused of negligence when excessive weather conditions prevent them from inspecting some areas of a home. For example, a home inspector might not inspect an attic when the outside temperature is over 100 degrees. If problems in the attic are discovered at a later date, is it unfair to hold the inspector liable?  Gloria

Dear Gloria: Weather conditions often prevent home inspectors from completing portions of an inspection, and liability can be a problem in some of these instances if undisclosed defects are discovered at a later date. Rain, for example, can prevent a home inspector from walking on a roof. Snow can prevent an inspector from even seeing a roof. And hot weather, as you suggest, can prevent inspection of an attic. However, in each of these instances, the need for disclosure does not end with a disclaimer in the inspection report.

In the case of an overheated attic, the inspection report should recommend further evaluation of the attic prior to close of escrow. If the attic is too hot in the afternoon, it will probably be much cooler the following morning. A home inspector who is concerned about the interests of customers will make that kind of recommendation. This applies to other situations, as well. Wet weather, cold weather, storage of personal property, inaccessibility, or other issues can prevent the completion of an inspection. Home inspectors should always recommend further evaluation when conditions that prevent a full inspection have been eliminated. This approach serves the disclosure needs of homebuyers and reduces the liability of home inspectors.

Domestic Dispute Over Termites

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: My husband and I disagree over how to treat the termites in our home. For the past 27 years, he has sprayed poison wherever we’ve seen frass particles. I’ve heard that termites must be professionally exterminated, but he says that termites are a permanent problem in our area and that they will always return after extermination. What is your advice?  Ninel

Dear Ninel: Here are some vital termite facts to help settle your domestic debate:

1)  Termite colonies continually increase in population. The older a termite colony is, the more mouths it has to feed. A five-year-old colony may contain a few thousand termites. A colony that is 27 years old could have a census of millions. Consider how much wood that many termites could eat on a daily basis.

2)  Termites live deep within the recesses of the wood members of a structure. They eat tunnels in the wood framing until all that is left of a stud, joist, or rafter is the outer veneer.

3)  When termite tunnels become clogged with frass (termite poop), the little “wood-munchers” make small holes to expel these particles from their domain. The frass that you see in your home is a small sample, compared with what could be found in the attic or inside the walls.

4)  Insect sprays cannot penetrate into the structural framing members where termites live, eat, and multiply. The only way to eliminate them it to have your home professionally exterminated. Postponing this process ensures the continued consumption of the wood components of your home.