The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Building Inspector
Dear Barry: We are buying a brand-new home and were not planning to have a home inspection because the house was just approved by the county building department. Then we read your recent article about inspecting new homes, so we hired a home inspector and got some big surprises. He found two plumbing problems in the crawlspace under the house, three ungrounded outlets in the living room, and a safety violation concerning the furnace in the attic. What I want to know is, how could these defects have been overlooked when the county did their final inspection? Jason
Dear Jason: Whenever I begin to inspect a brand-new home, I wonder if this will be the first one where I find no faulty conditions of any kind. So far, no cigar.
So the question is, how do so many defects escape discovery by municipal inspectors? In most cases, incompetency is not the problem. In your situation, involving undiscovered defects in the crawlspace and attic, as well as three ungrounded outlets, the problem does not necessarily involve ineptitude on the part of the county inspector. More likely, it is due to endemic shortcomings with the municipal building inspection process.
Some municipalities may be exceptions to this, but in general, building inspectors do not crawl under houses or through attics. They are not even equipped with ladders or with crawl suits. This means that faulty conditions in those areas of a house are never subject to the final inspection. As a result, any problems with plumbing, wiring, heating, framing, insulation, etc. in those places are never seen during the final inspection and remain as-is when the construction is signed off by the inspector. That is why further inspection by a qualified home inspector is always a good investment.
As for the ungrounded outlets, here is why those were not discovered by the municipal inspector. The power company does not turn on the electrical service to the property until the final inspection has been officially approved. Therefore, the power is off during the final inspection. Without power, there is no way to determine whether outlets are grounded, whether they have correct polarity, or whether any of the electrical fixtures are actually operative.
Home inspections, on the other hand, take place after the utilities are turned on, and unlike municipal inspectors, home inspectors test the functional condition of fixtures and use test devices to determine whether outlets are properly wired.
The main differences between municipal inspections and home inspections are these: Municipal inspections are for code compliance only, and they are limited locations that are accessible by pedestrian means only. Home inspections involve not only compliance with building standards but with quality of workmanship and with functional and safety-related conditions that are outside the scope of the building code. What’s more, home inspectors go where most municipal inspectors are unlikely to go in an entire career: to places that entail crawling in the dirt or through narrow cavernous recesses.
Municipal inspections should be regarded as a preliminary final inspection. Home inspections, when done by a qualified inspector, should be regarded as a “final” final inspection.