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

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.