The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: : We just closed escrow on a home, and the day we moved in we found a flooded basement because the water heater had failed. But four weeks ago, our home inspector said the water heater would be good for many more years. Our plumber disagreed. He said the fixture was 10 years old, was rusted at the bottom, and was well past its normal lifespan. We paid our inspector $450 to let us know what was wrong with the house and then had to spend twice as much for repairs on moving day. Is our home inspector liable for this mistake? Faith
Dear Faith: Experienced home inspectors know better than to predict the remaining life of an old water heater. Those who break that rule expose themselves to needless liability.
Home inspectors routinely determine the age of a water heater by reading the serial number on the label. If your inspector had done this, he might not have predicted years of continued use for the fixture. In fact, most home inspectors typically report that an older unit may soon fail.
Aside from the age of the fixture, your home inspector should have noticed the rust at the bottom of the tank, a clear indication of age and of past leakage. It appears, therefore, that he did not conduct a thorough inspection of the fixture.
Before you replaced the water heater, you should have notified your home inspector of the problem and given him the opportunity to review the damage. Some home inspection contracts require that the inspector see the defects in question, otherwise the inspector is absolved of liability. On the other hand, a written statement from the plumber who replaced the water heater will provide evidence in your favor. But first you must contact the inspector and let him know that this problem has occurred.