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

Home Inspector Minimized Major Problems

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our home, we hired a home inspector who was recommended by our real estate agent. The inspection report contained what appeared to be two minor disclosures: “minor lean to the home” and “some minor seepage in the basement during heavy rain.” The only recommendation was “monitor for further movement.” After we moved in, the rains came, and none of this turned out to be “minor.” For nearly three months, we had a foot of water in the basement. The contractor we hired found that the house is leaning nearly 9 inches. Leveling the home and fixing the drainage will cost many thousands of dollars. We do not believe our home inspector did a competent job. Instead, he portrayed major defects as no big deal. Who is liable for the repairs, and what can we do about it?  Tim

Dear Tim: There are two problems with the disclosures in the home inspection report: 1) Conditions such as leaning of a building and water intrusion in a basement should not be presumed to be minor; and 2) Such conditions warrant further evaluation by qualified experts. Faulty drainage should have been reviewed by a geotechnical engineer. Leaning of the building called for analysis by a structural engineer. What you needed was someone who is licensed in both fields of engineering.

Instead of recommending that you “monitor for further movement,” the inspection report should have said, “Further evaluation by a qualified, licensed engineer is recommended prior to close of transaction.” Your home inspector’s job was to point out significant defects and to make appropriate recommendations. Building settlement is obviously a major concern, as is water intrusion into the building. Determining the extent of these issues was not something to be done by monitoring movement after you purchased the property. You were in the process of making an important purchase decision. That was why you hired a home inspector. He should have considered this when making his recommendation.

Your home inspector may be liable for faulty disclosure, depending on the inspection contract that you signed and pertinent laws in your state. An attorney should evaluate those issues.

The sellers of the property may also share some liability. If they lived in the home for more than a year, they were probably aware of the drainage problem in the basement and should have disclosed it. And here’s a question for your real estate agent: Was this the most qualified inspector the agent knew? Some agents recommend the best home inspectors; some do not.

Buyers Dismayed By Unsigned Building Permit

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We bought our home about four months ago, and now have a big, undisclosed problem. The house is very old and was completely renovated; not by the person who sold us the property, but two owners previous to them. Our Realtor advised us to check for permits at the city hall, which we did. The city showed us copies of permits for the electrical, plumbing, and mechanical work. But we did not notice the absence of signatures on the permit records. We didn’t know that people could apply for permits and never call for inspections. Our second mistake was buying the property without hiring a home inspector. We’d like to blame someone for this mess, but I suppose the lesson here is “buyer beware”. What should we do to get all of this straightened out?  Alison

Dear Alison: Some home inspectors routinely advise buyers to verify the sign-off on building permits. This is because many people have taken out permits for additions, renovations, remodels, and even new construction, without ever calling for an inspection. Municipal building departments don’t check up on every property that has an outstanding permit because many permits are issued without work ever being done. This makes covert work, without inspections or signoffs, an easy sleight of hand. Unfortunately, the victims are the unsuspecting buyers who are easily fooled by the display of an unsigned permit.

At this point, you need to know what is right or wrong with the work that was done. A qualified home inspector can help you find those answers. This, of course, should have been done before you purchased the property. Unfortunately, too many buyers find reasons not to hire a home inspector.

After you review the findings of the home inspection, arrange for the building department to inspect and approve the renovations. But be prepared for anything. This process could be quick and easy, or it could be complicated and expensive, depending on the style and approach of the municipal inspector. For example, the inspector could order you to remove drywall to expose the piping and wiring within the walls. Hopefully, the corrective work, if any, will not be too costly or involved.

After the corrections are completed and signed off, you’ll know that the renovations are safe and in compliance with code. When you eventually sell the property, you can do so without fear of undisclosed defects.

Sellers Withhold Disclosure of Defects

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The home that I’m buying has been vacant for two years, and the sellers have not been truthful about its condition. Their disclosure statement says the furnace is in perfect working order, and they listed no other defects. Last week, I called the gas company to turn on the service and to light the furnace. They red-tagged the furnace as “inoperable” and said they had previously informed the owners of this problem. They also told the owners that the copper gas piping needs to be replaced. The sellers have now agreed to replace the gas lines, but they want me to replace the furnace at my own expense. What should I do?  Diana

Dear Diana: Aside from the debate about who should pay for a new furnace, there is a larger question that involves trust and credibility. The sellers have demonstrated the intent to misrepresent the condition of the home, to conceal the fact that the furnace is defective and in need of replacement. This opens the door to additional uncertainties. What other disclosures might they also have withheld? Possibly none, but now you have to wonder.

Another consideration is this: A home is not a legal dwelling unless it has a functional heating system that complies with minimum standards, according to code. From that perspective, the sellers should pay a qualified contractor to replace the furnace, to make the home a livable dwelling before they sell it.

If the home is a particularly good deal, you might be willing to accept it in as-is condition, without replacement of the furnace as a precondition. That is an investment decision you will have to make. But before you proceed with the transaction, be sure to hire the most qualified and experienced home inspector you can find. The sellers are clearly not providing disclosure. Therefore, you need an advocate who definitely will.

Broker Angry About Home Inspection Forms

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I am the broker of a large real estate company. In my area, most home inspectors use computerized reports, with photos of the defects they disclose. Very few still use the old fashioned, hand-written forms, and I seldom give my business to those backward dinosaurs. One of those technophobes is the most experienced home inspector in my area. He usually finds defects that are missed by other home inspectors. In fact, he even finds problems that are missed by the termite inspectors. But I can’t stand his lousy 1990 carbon copy reports. They’re hard to read and harder to email. So I never refer this Neanderthal to my clients. But when other agents refer him, his reports make me so mad I could pull out my hair. What is it that keeps these closed-minded idiots from getting with today’s high tech program?  Yuli

Dear Yuli: Sit down and cool off. Businesses today are in technological transition, including home inspection and real estate companies. Most home inspectors have made the change to electronic reporting, but a few remain stuck in their old ways. Some are part-time inspectors, without a major commitment to the business. Others are comfortable in their routines and have little interest in state-of-the-art innovations. And there are some professionals who recognize the need to modernize but have been too busy inspecting homes to invest in change.

Old style reports are not as user-friendly as the new electronic versions that include photographs of defects. On the other hand, not all computer reports are as easy to read as they ought to be.  In some reports, the defect disclosures are obscured by paragraphs of “boiler plate” verbiage. In others, the disclosures are so vague that the defects cannot be readily understood. But all of these issues are eclipsed by the essential purpose of home inspection: to disclose property defects.

You admit that the “Neanderthal”, “dinosaur”, “technophobe”, “idiot” who does not get your business is the most thorough home inspector available; that he finds problems that other home inspectors miss. This means that the “high tech” reports that your clients receive from other home inspectors do not provide complete disclosure of all significant defects. It means that you prefer those incomplete reports to the out-dated, carbon copy reports that contain more actual disclosures. The question, therefore, has shifted. Instead of old report forms vs. new electronic reports, the issue has become partial disclosure vs. full disclosure of property defects. In other words, form vs. substance.

If this is the choice, which do you suppose is more important to your home-buying clients? Would they prefer full disclosure or fancy disclosure? And what about your liability as a broker? How would you defend yourself if sued for incomplete disclosure? Would you tell the jury that you avoid thorough home inspectors who don’t print fancy reports? That would hardly invite a favorable verdict.

So here is the bottom line: Home inspectors who take their business seriously should find a comprehensive electronic report system to maintain viability in the marketplace. Meanwhile, Realtors should recommend the most thorough home inspectors available, regardless of the style of reports they generate. In either business, it’s all about representing the best interests of clients, while limiting liability.

Tenants Held Liable For Cracked Window

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: My daughter lives in a student apartment with a large, double-pane picture-window in the living room. Last month, that window developed a long crack on the inside pane. Neither my daughter nor her roommates have any idea what caused the crack. They just came home one night, and the crack was there. The apartment management replaced the window and the billed the girls $450. The manager said the windows were installed several months ago, just before they moved in, so he holds them responsible for the damage. Couldn’t the crack have been caused by faulty installation or building settlement?  Art

Dear Art: There are several possible causes for the window crack that do not involve liability for your daughter or her roommates. For example, when a sheet of glass is cut, an edge can be slightly chipped, and this flaw can produce a crack at a later time. Sometimes, all that is needed to convert a chip to a crack is a door forcefully closed by the wind or a large cement truck rumbling down the street.

Another possible cause is stress from normal building settlement, particularly in areas that have expansive clay soil. Expansive soil can swell or shrink due to seasonal changes in ground moisture. When this happens, buildings can lift and settle unevenly, causing doors to rub and, sometimes, windows to crack.

If the management company insists on payment for the cracked window, your daughter and her friends could test the strength of their position in small claims court. The judge could decide either way in this case, depending on whose position appears more credible. But win or lose, this could be a beneficial experience for your daughter and her friends. At the very least, they will receive some first-hand education in judicial civics.