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

Dog-Gone Landlord Makes Moldy Excuse

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: A few weeks ago, my landlord installed an old, unvented gas heater in my apartment. Whenever I use it, the place becomes as humid as a steam room, and mold has appeared on some of the walls. I’ve complained, but my landlord says the mold is caused by my dogs. Does that seem plausible, or is the mold caused by the heater?  Elizabeth

Dear Elizabeth: Mold is caused by excessive moisture. The exhaust from a gas-burning fixture is mainly carbon dioxide and steam. Most gas heaters are vented to the outside, but an unvented heater expels exhaust, including steam, inside the building. If the mold began after the heater was installed, then the cause is obviously moisture condensation from the steam that is emitted by the heater.

As for your landlord’s canine excuse, that’s a dogged ploy if I ever heard one. Who ever heard of mold being caused by dogs? The unvented heater is a health and safety hazard and should not be used. Furthermore, if combustion problems ever occur with that kind of heater, you could have carbon monoxide instead of carbon dioxide, and that could be deadly. Your landlord should address this matter immediately. First, the gas heater should be replaced with a vented heater, and the replacement should be done by a license heating contractor. Then, the mold should be mitigated by a qualified expert.

Did Sellers Commit Insurance Fraud?

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We are buying a home and have received the sellers’ disclosure statement. The sellers say they received an insurance payment for hail damage on the roof, but they admit that the repairs were never done. We have two questions about this: Did the sellers commit insurance fraud by receiving payment for roof damages, without completing the repairs?  And, are the sellers obligated now to repair the roof?  Jen

Dear Jen: The sellers would only be guilty of insurance fraud if the claim for hail damage had been false. If the insurance company paid for actual damages, then the sellers had the choice to spend the money on repairs or to accept the money as compensation for the loss. What matters in this case is that the sellers honestly disclosed that there are unrepaired roof damages.

The sellers are currently under no obligation to repair the roof, although you can request repairs as part of your negotiations with them. What is needed now is a professional evaluation of the roof by a qualified home inspector or roofing contractor. Once you know the extent of the damages, you can decide whether repair or replacement of the roof is needed. With this information, you’ll be better prepared to negotiate with the sellers.

Seller Worried About Fire Disclosure

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I bought a small commercial building about 4 years ago. Recently, I discovered evidence that there was once a fire in the basement. This was never disclosed by the seller. Now the seller says that the tenant in the building had the fire, but the seller provided no details. I have just listed the property for sale and don’t know what I should disclose to buyers. What do you recommend?  Mary

Dear Mary: If the fire was a substantial one, the fire department was probably called, and an insurance claim may have been filed. In that case, the fire department would have an official report of the event. Therefore, you should check with the local fire authorities to see what their records show.  If they have a fire report on file, it may indicate whether the owner of the building was aware of the situation. You should also ask the seller to provide the name and policy number of the insurance company so that you can learn what claims may have been made.

If the fire department and the insurance company were never notified, then the fire may have been small and the damages cosmetic in nature. In that case, you should disclose to future buyers of the property as much as you know about the situation and about your unsuccessful attempts to learn more. You should also hire a professional inspector to evaluate the condition of the property, including the fire evidence in the basement.

Who Is Liable For Nondisclosure?

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our house, our home inspector said that everything was in good condition. Since then, our basement has leaked, some of our circuit breakers became so hot they had to be replaced, and a chimney sweep told us that the fireplace is not usable. All of these issues should have been disclosed to us, and now we are saddled with one expense after the other. Who do we blame for these problems, the home inspector, the Realtor who recommended the inspector, or the previous owner?  Rena

Dear Rena: All three share some blame for the unfortunate lack of disclosure. The home inspector apparently did not do a thorough job. When a basement is prone to leaking, there are usually some signs of past leakage. If breakers are prone to overheating, there are usually some observable symptoms or evidence of faulty installation. When a fireplace is not usable, it is either because of substandard construction or material deterioration. Such conditions are typically identified qualified home inspectors.

If the Realtor recommended your home inspector, there could be some liability on the basis of “negligent referral.” Agents usually know which home inspectors are more or less qualified and thorough. Unfortunately, some agents are not inclined to recommend the best home inspectors. In some real estate offices, the best inspectors are labeled as “deal killers” or “deal breakers” and summarily dismissed from referral lists.

The sellers may or may not have known about the problems with the electrical panel and fireplace. Evidence of such conditions is not always apparent to homeowners. However, they probably knew about the leaking basement and should have disclosed that condition.

To hold a home inspector liable, you should give notice of the problems before they are repaired. Once the defects are altered from the way they were at the time of the inspection, it is difficult to raise issues of liability. Some home inspection contracts specifically require that you notify the inspector before making repairs.

At this point, you should give notice to the inspector, the agent, and the seller that these problems have been discovered. If no one is willing to address the matter, you can seek legal advice regarding disclosure liability.