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

Electrical Problem Found After Close of Escrow

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  I sold my house five months ago. The buyers hired a home inspector, and I paid for the repairs that they requested. But now they’re complaining about electrical problems that were not reported by their inspector. They say some of the wires in the service panel are too small for the circuit breakers. I disclosed every defect I was aware of and cooperated with the findings of their home inspector. Am I now liable for problems that turned up months after the sale?  Beejay

Dear Beejay: The electrical problem in question is called “over-fusing.” It is a common defect that should have been found by the buyers’ home inspector, and that is whom they should be contacting. They shouldn’t fault you for not disclosing the problem because it is not something that would be recognized by the average homeowner, unless the owner was an electrician or building inspector.

Over-fused circuits can function for years without any adverse consequence. However, in the event of a circuit overload, they can cause a fire. Therefore repair is recommended. The solution is to have an electrician replace some of the circuit breakers.

As for making peace with the buyers, ask yourself if you would have paid to repair the problem if it had been found by the home inspector. If the answer is yes, you might consider paying for the repair just to maintain good relations. Or you could offer to split the cost.  Still, the buyers should call this to the attention of their home inspector.


Air Quality Question

Dear Barry:  We have been renting a home for about one year. During this time we’ve noticed something that worries us. If we leave a glass of water on the table for a few hours, it turns dark in color, and the moisture on the outside of the glass leaves a black ring on the table. Besides this, the return air grills for the heating and air conditioning system are covered with a black, oily soot. This can’t be good for our health, but we don’t know where to turn for help. What do you recommend? Ralph

Dear Ralph: These are serious symptoms that could pose a hazard to you and your family. The first thing that comes to mind is a combustion or venting problem with one or more of the gas-burning fixtures – the furnace, water heater, or the kitchen range. You should have all of your gas fixtures checked by the gas company. If this does not produce an answer, a licensed heating and plumbing contractor should be employed by your landlord. In any event, you should notify the landlord of these conditions as soon as possible.

If no problems are found when the gas fixtures are evaluated, an environmental inspector should be hired to determine what contaminants are in the air. If you use a fireplace or wood-burning stove, have it checked by a certified chimney sweep.

Why Are Municipal Building Inspections Not Enough?

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: You often recommend hiring a home inspector when buying a brand new home. If a home has just been inspected and approved by the building department, what’s the point of hiring a private home inspector?  Jim

Dear Jim: The answer to your question is worth repeating. Here are the five essential differences between a municipal inspection by the local building department and a private inspection by a qualified home inspector:

1.  A building inspection is strictly for building code compliance, but it is possible for a home to be poorly built and still comply with code. Home inspections deal with all kinds of substandard conditions, including those that do not involve code, such as poorly fitted doors, poorly mitered trim, missing tile grout, missing shelves in cabinets, sloped floors, loose toilets and faucets, etc.

2.  A building inspection usually lasts about 15 to 30 minutes, while a home inspection lasts from 2 1/2 to 4 hours. This is because many more things are inspected and tested in the course of a home inspection.

3.  Building inspectors simply look at the completed construction. They do not test the operational condition of fixtures and appliances. Faucets are not turned on, drains are not tested for leaks, appliances are not operated, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are not tested, and so on.

4.  Gas and electrical services to a home are not turned on until the final inspection is completed and the home is signed off. The building inspector can approve the appearance of the wiring and gas piping, but nothing is tested as part of the final inspection because you cannot test fixtures without gas or electricity. Home inspectors arrive when utilities have been turned on. They plug testers into outlets to ensure grounding, correct polarity, and ground fault protection. They operate built-in fixtures and appliances such as dishwashers, garbage disposals, lights, ceiling fans, exhaust fans, electric ovens, garage door openers, and more. They also test the gas-burning fixtures such as forced air furnaces, water heaters, gas-log fireplaces, and cooking appliances.

5.  Building inspectors perform a walk-through inspection only. They do not crawl through subareas or attics, and they do not walk on roofs. Home inspectors do all of these things, enabling them to identify construction defects that routinely go unnoticed during a municipal inspection.

Veteran home inspectors know that all brand new homes have defects of various kinds, usually minor but sometimes major. Examples include broken roof tiles, missing roof flashing, attics without insulation, furnaces improperly installed in attics, congested drainpipes, drains that leak, non-tempered glass next to bathtubs and showers, inoperative GFCI outlets, ungrounded outlets, drain vents that terminate in attics, chimneys in contact with combustible materials in attics, loose safety rails, disconnected air ducts under the house, PVC discharge pipes on water heater relief valves, and this list could go on and on.

These are the reasons why people who buy brand new homes should hire an independent home inspector. A home inspection gives homebuyers the best opportunity to take advantage of the builder’s warranty. Bypassing an inspection leaves undisclosed defects to be discovered at a later date, after the builder’s warranty has expired.

Home Inspector Ignored Plumbing Leak

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We hired a home inspector before buying our home, but he dismissed a defect that has now become a problem. In the room below the master bathroom, there were water stains on the wall around a drain cleanout. We asked the inspector about it, and he said it wasn’t a problem. At the time, the stains were dry because the house had been vacant for months. But he didn’t even run water in the shower or sink and didn’t even mention the stains in his report. After we moved in and began taking showers, the wall surface became wet. The inspector now says that it was not his responsibility to figure out if the leaking would continue in the future. Besides this, the seller says that she never had a leak while she lived in the home. This seems unreasonable and unfair. What can we do?  John

Dear John: If the seller denies having known about the leak, she may or may not be telling the truth. There is probably no way to prove or disprove her position, so that issue may be a stalemate. The problem with the home inspector, however, is another story and involves three main issues:

1)  It is understandable that an inspector might fail to notice a leak or evidence of a past leak, but to dismiss an issue that is specifically pointed out by a buyer is inexcusable. If your inspector didn’t want to test for leaks, he should have recommended in his report “further evaluation by a licensed plumber.”

2)  Testing showers, tubs, and sinks with running water is normal operating procedure for a home inspector. The idea that a home inspection would not include a routine test of the plumbing fixtures is untenable. An inspector who won’t turn on faucets or test for leaks should find another line of work.

3)  Now that the leak has been affirmed, the inspector needs to be accountable for his failure to provide disclosure. All inspectors miss some defects, regardless of their levels of competency. But an inspector who will dismiss this kind of situation, without assuming some degree of responsibility, is not a true professional.

Hopefully, the repair is not an expensive one. Have it evaluated by a licensed plumber. Hopefully, it is a minor repair issue that will not involve great expense.

It would also be wise to hire another home inspector for a second evaluation of the property. Additional defects will most likely be discovered.

New Home Inspector Feels His Oats

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: In one of your articles, you said, “The essential purpose of home inspection is to disclose property defects.” If that is true, why don’t home inspectors use the top tools of the trade, such as thermal cameras, borescopes, and moisture meters? In my opinion, most home inspectors are retired general contractors with a lock on Realtor referrals. I am a new home inspector, but I provide a far more thorough inspection than my competitors who don’t use specialized testing equipment. The problem, however, it getting real estate agents to refer me to their clients They all seem to use the same few home inspectors who have been here forever. Can you offer any help on this?  Mark

Dear Mark: When I said that the essential purpose of a home inspection is “to disclose property defects,” I did not mean that the purpose is to disclose every possible property defect. If home inspectors intended to disclose every possible defect, thermal cameras, borescopes, and moisture meters would definitely be needed, as you suggest. But even then, the inspections would not be complete. To provide disclosure of all possible defects, inspectors would need to take air samples for mold, to place test canisters for radon gas, and to sample various materials for possible asbestos fiber and lead content. But that’s not all. Home inspections would not be complete without a structural analysis of the foundations, which would require that the inspectors be licensed structural engineers or that they subcontract with a structural engineer on every inspection. Inspectors would also need to take core samples of property sites to ensure geological stability and to evaluate subsurface water drainage characteristics based upon soil composition. This, of course, would require credentials as a licensed geotechnical engineer. Homes would also need to be tested for electromagnetic fields, for soil contamination, and for off-gassing of synthetic compounds such as urea formaldehyde.

This list could be expanded almost indefinitely if the essential purpose of a home inspection was to disclose all possible property defects.  In truth, home inspections are preliminary visual inspections, not techically exhaustive evaluations. A home inspection is analogous to the routine annual phyical that you receive from your doctor. Family physicians don’t do EKGs or CATSCANs as part of an annual exam. Instead, they look for indications that such tests might be necessary.  If critical symptoms are observed, they refer you to specialists. In the same way, a competent home inspector is looking for conditions that might warrant further evaluation by specialists such as plumbers, electricians, geotechnical engineers, or registered environmental assessors.

It might surprise you to know how very thorough many home inspectors are in their forensic duties; how able competent home inspectors are to find significant defects without the use of sophisticated testing devices.

As for referrals by real estate agents, there are many reasons why agents recommend particular home inspectors. Some refer the inspectors they believe will provide the most thorough disclosure, while others refer inspectors who are not so thorough and are perceived as less likely to scare away their buyers. Either way, it takes persistent marketing to develop a base of agents who will routinely recommend you to their clients.

Sellers Refuse to Repair New Damage

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We are in escrow to buy a home. When we made our offer, there was an attractive concrete walkway in the front yard. Since then, the sellers hired a contractor to inspect the septic tank. The contractor had to cut out two sections of the walkway, but when he replaced the pieces, he set them in a way that is uneven, unsightly, and could cause someone to trip. Now the sellers and their agent say it is up to us to replace the damaged pavement because temporary removal was required to meet the terms of the sale. Do we really have to fix this ourselves, or is it the responsibility of the sellers?  Misty

Dear Misty: The sellers and their agent are entirely out of bounds. You made an offer to purchase a property in the condition that existed when it was marketed. Since the offer was accepted, that condition was adversely altered by contractors who were hired by the sellers.

The excuse offered by the sellers and their agent is entirely unacceptable. Suppose the sellers’ chimney sweep had damaged the roof? Would that also be your problem? What if the sellers’ painter had cracked a window? Would you be required to replace the glass? In this case, the sellers had to hire a septic contractor. The performance of that obligation did not license them to denigrate the property at your expense. Either the sellers or their septic contractor should restore the property to the conditions that existed when you made your offer. Your agent, not theirs, should step up to the plate and demand that this be done. Hopefully, you have your own agent in this transaction.

Dear Barry: When we bought our house, the home inspector said he could not open the damper in the fireplace and suggested we have it checked further. We probably should have taken his advice but did not. Recently, we used the fireplace for the first time, and our teenage son had no problem opening the damper. The fireplace worked okay, but on a rainy day the brick firebox became wet. Now we’re wondering why the home inspector was unable to open the damper and whether leak repairs are covered by the home warranty policy.  Mike

Dear Mike: Your son would most likely prevail against the home inspector in an arm wrestling match. Be that as it may, leaking at the chimney top apparently caused rusting of the damper hardware, causing the damper to stick. The resistance was too much for the home inspector but not for your son. To prevent further water intrusion and rust, a chimney cap should be installed. It is unfortunate that caps are not required on all masonry chimneys.

You should also follow the home inspector’s original recommendation and have the fireplace system fully evaluated by a qualified professional, such as a certified chimney sweep. And make sure the chimney cap is the type with a four-sided spark arrestor.

As for home warranty coverage, that will depend upon the fine print in the policy. Warranty companies typically exclude pre-existing conditions.