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

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The home inspector I hired never mentioned that the floor tiles and air duct insulation contain asbestos. Shouldn’t he have pointed this out?  Robert

Dear Robert: Asbestos is generally regarded as “outside the scope” of a home inspection and is typically not mentioned by most home inspectors. For homebuyers, this leaves a gap in the disclosure process. For home inspectors, the issue is one of legal liability. If any material is disclosed as a potential source of asbestos, the inspector may be held liable for other possible asbestos materials that were not mentioned in the inspection report. For this reason, the home inspection industry has excluded asbestos as a consideration during home inspections.

If asbestos disclosure was included in home inspections, complications could ensue because there are so many common building materials that might contain asbestos. Examples include sheet vinyl flooring, asphalt and vinyl floor tiles, adhesive mastics, acoustic ceiling texture, old heat duct insulation, asphalt composition roofing materials, plaster, stucco, drywall, joint compound, and more. In most cases, these do not contain asbestos, although with some materials, such as acoustic ceilings, asbestos content is common. Those materials that contain asbestos are usually not hazardous if they are undamaged and allowed to remain as-is.

It could be argued, however, that home inspectors should point out potential asbestos in some cases. For example, many homebuyers plan to remodel and renovate the homes they buy. Interior renovations often involve, for example, the removal of acoustic ceiling texture or of sheet vinyl flooring. Unless alerted by their home inspector, the new homeowners could remove the material without consideration of the potential for asbestos exposure. Ceiling texture that is scraped off or vinyl flooring that is torn off could release asbestos fibers into the air of the home if proper removal procedures were not used.

Another example would be old insulation on warm air ducts installed prior to 1973. Duct insulation that appears as gray cardboard, sometimes with a foil veneer, it is certain to contain asbestos. If the material is undamaged, it can be left as-is. But it is common for such material to be torn in places or to be detached from the air ducts. Home inspectors in those instances would do well to recommend further evaluation and repair by a licensed asbestos contractor.

The pros and cons of asbestos disclosure have been debated among home inspectors for many years. On one hand, there is the need to provide vital information to home-buying customers. That argument weighs in favor of measured and limited asbestos disclosure. On the other hand is the fear of liability and lawsuits if asbestos disclosure is not comprehensive and thorough. That consideration favors a total avoidance of asbestos disclosures of any kind. The controversy is an outgrowth of the freewheeling practice of litigation, an ongoing threat to businesses and professions throughout the nation. The proliferation of cases, whether frivolous or justified, has taken its toll on home inspectors everywhere. In the end, each home inspector must decide whether to confront or avoid the practice of asbestos disclosure.