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

Contractor Loses Job Over Asbestos Bid

Dear Barry:  I hope you don’t mind another asbestos question. As a general contractor, I was bidding on the remodel of an old home. The ceilings had acoustic texture, sometimes known as “popcorn,” so I included the costs of testing and possible asbestos removal in my bid. The homeowners complained that two other contractors had also bid on the job and that neither contractor had mentioned asbestos. Because my bid included the additional costs, I did not get the job. What do you think of this?  Bob

Dear Bob:  Contractors who did not consider the possibility of asbestos in their bids may not realize that they are exposing themselves to financial liability and potential lawsuits.

Most of the acoustic ceilings installed from the 1950’s through the 1970’s contain asbestos. If the texture material is intact, it is not regarded as a significant health hazard. When removal or demolition takes place, the law requires that the material be tested and that handling, removal, and disposal be done by a licensed asbestos abatement contractor.

The homeowners who received your bid were informed by you of a potential problem, but chose to overlook it, supposedly for financial reasons. In so doing, they made a serious misjudgment, exposing themselves and others to a possible health hazard.

In a similar situation, several years ago, a remodeling contractor removed acoustic ceiling texture from a home without advising the owner of possible asbestos. Fabrics throughout the house, including carpets, drapes, upholstery, and clothing, were later found to be contaminated with asbestos fibers. All of these had to be sent to a toxic waste site, and the contractor was held to be financially liable for the losses.

The homeowners in your recent situation were not prudent in their decision. Hopefully, they will not come to regret that choice.

Home Inspector Missed Electrical Defects

Dear Barry:  When I purchased my home, I hired a home inspector. The only electrical problem he found was a charred wire in the fuse box. After moving in, I noticed that the lights kept dimming, so I called an electrician. He said that the panel was very old, that the charred wire was actually burnt through, and that some of the fuses were connected to more than one circuit, a condition he called “double-tapping.” Now I need to install a new breaker panel for a whole lot of money. So I called the home inspector. He said that he does not take things apart and inspect the inner workings. If that’s so, then how did he see the charred wire? What do you think I should do?  Ryan

Dear Ryan:  The home inspector is apparently giving you double-talk. It is the standard of practice for home inspectors to remove the inside cover on every electrical panel to enable inspection of the internal components. As you pointed out, your inspector apparently did this, or he would not have disclosed the charred wire. Therefore, he was in a position to see the other electrical defects and should have disclosed them. Even if he only disclosed the charred wire, his recommendation should have been evaluation and repair by a licensed electrician, prior to close of escrow, especially since this was an outdated fuse panel, rather than a breaker panel. Had he given you that advice, the remaining defects could have been discovered by the electrician before you took possession of the property. If he did not provide full disclosure of the panel defects and did not make the proper recommendation for the charred wire, then he should take some responsibility for lack of disclosure

On the other hand, if he did disclose further evaluation by a licensed electrician, it would have been your responsibility to follow that recommendation. In that case, failure to have followed the inspector’s advice would place the liability back in your court

If by these standards the home inspector remains liable, be sure to take photos of the electrical defects before having them repaired. This will enable you to prove your cased if you file a claim against the inspector

Another Case of Undisclosed Defects

Dear Barry:  We bought our home about 6 months ago, and now we are stuck with a bundle of problems that were concealed by the sellers, dismissed by the agent, and overlooked by our home inspector. Unfortunately, our agent was also the listing agent for the sellers, who happen to be her personal friends, and she also selected the person who did our home inspection. The main problem with the house is ground water seepage into the basement. The seller disclosed that there used to be a drainage problem that was corrected, but they provided no documentary proof of the alleged repairs. When we first looked at the property, we noticed a musty smell and pointed this out to the agent. She said, “I’ve been an agent for a long time. This just smells like an old basement, not a moldy one, and I know the difference….” She also persuaded us to buy the property “as-is” so that the sellers would accept our offer. After moving in, we discovered that the basement carpet was wet. When we removed it, we found mold and rot on the baseboards. We have also learned that the sellers hired a contractor to dry out the carpet and repaint the basement before we bought it. The costs to correct the drainage, repair the water damage, and eliminate the mold are very high. What can we do?  Patrick

Dear Patrick:  If you had written to me during the course of the transaction and said, “Dear Barry, We are buying a home that has musty odors, the dual agent (who is a friend of the sellers) says this is not a problem, the agent has chosen our home inspector, and the agent is persuading us to buy the home as-is,” I would have told you the following: “The agent is representing the interests of the sellers only. You need someone to represent you, which means find an agent of your own to help you negotiate.” I would also have advised you to hire your own home inspector, not an inspector who was chosen by an agent with an apparent bias.

Agents know which home inspectors are the most qualified and thorough. An agent who is more interested in the commission check than doing what is right will recommend inspectors who disclose fewer defects. To those agents, the best inspectors are known as “deal killers.”

My advice is two-fold. First, have your home re-inspected by a qualified professional who has many years of experience and a reputation for thoroughness as an inspector. Whether the agent’s home inspector is liable depends on whether there were visible defects that were within the scope of a home inspection, as defined by industry standards. Call several real estate offices and ask who are the most nit-picky inspectors in the area.

Second, get some advice from a real estate attorney regarding your available options for redress against the sellers and the agent for nondisclosure, and against the home inspector for professional negligence. Certified letters on legal stationary should alert all parties that you are very serious about this matter.

 

How to Maintain Your Septic System

Dear Barry:  We just moved from the big city to the country. So for the first time ever, we have a septic system and have to think about what goes down the drain. The contractor who inspected the septic tank advised us to flush an additive down the toilet once a month to maintain the bacteria level in the tank. Our new next-door neighbor says he’s never used the stuff and insists that it’s a waste of money. What’s your advice for the care and maintenance of a septic system?  Jeffrey

Dear Jeffrey:   Bacterial additives are often advised by septic contractors, but the need for this is debatable because micro-organisms are added to the tank every time solid waste is flushed down the toilet.  In fact, more attention should be given to things that should not be flushed than things that should be.

Several studies have been conducted to determine the effectiveness of septic additives, including one that was published in the Journal of Environmental Health in 2008 and another that was conducted at the University of Ottawa in 2012. In each case, the additives did not significantly increase the bacterial level in the septic systems that were tested. Many septic contractors will no doubt disagree with these findings.

Rather than adding bacteria to your septic system, it is important to protect the bacterial environment that is already present. Here are some do’s and don’ts for maintaining the effectiveness of your septic system:

1) Avoid putting insoluble solids such as grease, fats, and oils down the drain because these can clog the leach lines that convey water from the septic tank into the ground. Keep this in mind when washing pots and pans.

2) Don’t put chemicals such as paint, paint thinner, bleach, etc. down the drain. People sometimes clean their paint brushes in sinks and toilets. This is definitely a no-no.

3) Minimize the use of your garbage disposal to avoid the accumulation of undigested organic solids in the tank. These can take a long time to decompose.

4) Do not let the salt brine from a water softener drain into your septic system. Instead, the discharge pipe from the softener should terminate in a ground sump or leach field designated for this purpose.

5) Minimize the amount of extra water that goes into the septic system. For example, rain gutters from the roof and yard drains should not drain to the septic tank or the leach field.

6) Do not park vehicles on ground surfaces above the leach field, as this can compact the subsurface absorption system.

7) Have your tank pumped and inspected in a timely manner, usually about every five years.

Laundry drains are often diverted to a ground sump or garden area to prevent detergents and other laundry additives from damaging the bacteria in the septic tank. The need for this precaution is often unwarranted because newer types of detergents and bleaches do not adversely affect the microbial environment in a septic tank when used in moderation. I can attest that my own septic system has consumed detergents for the past 10 years with no apparent ill-affects. This particular advice, however, is likely to draw active debate from some septic contractors.

Defects Overlooked During Final Inspection

Defects Overlooked During Final Inspection

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.