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

A Chip Off The Old Tub

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:   I purchased my house about a year ago. At the time, the bathtub seemed to be OK, but now it is apparent that it was painted to cover rust. I also found plumbing problems under the sinks, but none of these issues was reported by my home inspector. What can I do about this?  Dawn

Dear Dawn:  The parties who are potentially liable are the sellers and your home inspector. Sellers are required to disclose all known defects. However, the sellers in your case may not have thought the painted tub was a defect. It might have seemed to them that this was a former defect, having been repaired with paint. Unfortunately, paint is not a permanent repair for the damaged finish on a bathtub. In most cases, chipping or peeling eventually occurs.

Home inspector liability depends on whether the problems were visible at the time of the inspection. The paint on the tub may not have been obvious at the time of the inspection.

As for the plumbing problems, seller liability depends upon whether the previous owners were aware of those issues and whether the problems even existed prior to the sale. Home inspector liability depends on whether the problems were visible and accessible at the time of the inspection. If the problems involve leakage, that may or may not have been occurring at the time. If there are installation defects, they may have been obscured by storage under the sinks, as is often the case during home inspections.

You should contact your home inspector and request a second look at these problems.

Asbestos Pipe Insulation Not Disclosed

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:   My home was built in 1926 and has asbestos insulation on all the hot water pipes under the building. Fortunately, all of this asbestos has been wrapped. When I first learned about it, I was horrified and wondered why my home inspector hadn’t mention it when I bought the property. My main concern is what will happen when I eventually want to sell the home. Can I resell it in this condition, without penalty?  Am I required to have the asbestos removed? And also, do I have recourse from my home inspector for not mentioning the asbestos?  Judy

Dear Judy:  Asbestos pipe insulation was common in the 1920s and is not regarded as a significant health risk when it is undamaged and intact. Fortunately, the asbestos insulation in your home been encapsulated, rendering it in much safer condition than when it was exposed to the air.

As a seller, there is no requirement for removal of asbestos, and there are no penalties for merely having it. Your only requirement will be to provide full disclosure to prospective buyers, to let them know that the asbestos material is present. If the former owners were the ones who had the pipes wrapped, they probably knew about the asbestos and should have provided some disclosure.

Environmental hazards such as asbestos are not within the scope of a home inspection. However, competent inspectors who take their work seriously will often point out situations where the presence of asbestos is likely, such as insulated pipes in an old home. This is something that your home inspector would have been wise to do, even though not required to do so.

House Need To Be Rewired?

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:   We just bought a home but can’t move in because of major electrical problems. Before we bought it, our home inspector found a few electrical defects, but he said these were minor, so we waited till the escrow closed before making repairs. Our electrician now says that the previous owner tampered with the wiring, and the entire house needs to be rewired. But we don’t have enough money to pay for that kind of repair. Shouldn’t our home inspector have reported this situation, and isn’t he liable for the cost of rewiring?  Carol

Dear Carol:   If your home inspector failed to identify visible defects in the electrical wiring, then he is probably liable for the repair costs, depending on liability limits in the inspection contract and liability laws in your state. However, before rushing to judgment regarding liability, there are other questions that should be answered.

Presently, you have two conflicting opinions about the electrical system. The home inspector says there are some minor defects (whatever that means), and the electrician says the house needs to be rewired. The question is, “Who is correct?” Two possibilities come to mind: either you have a home inspector who overlooked significant defects or an electrician trying to land a big job. This uncertainty should be resolved before taking action.

One thing to keep in mind is that it’s extremely unusual for a house to require total rewiring. Most electrical defects are specific and can usually be repaired without replacing all of the wires. If the previous owner of your home “tampered with the wiring,” it is hard to imagine that he affected all of the circuits.

To gain some clarity on the situation, you should get a third opinion from another electrician. If the second electrician agrees that the house needs to be rewired, the home inspector should be notified and should come to the property to explain why he failed to correctly evaluate the electrical system. At that point, he should be asked to file a claim on his errors and omissions insurance, assuming that he has insurance.

Additionally, the seller of the home should not be dismissed from potential liability. The electrical code requires that there be a permit for altering the wiring in a home. If the seller “tampered” with the wiring in ways that affect safety, the work was most likely not permitted. If that is the case, the seller should have disclosed this prior to sale of the property. If no disclosure was made, the seller should pay for the electrical repairs.

Aftermath of an As-Is Sale

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  We just purchased a home “as is.” The previous owner signed a mold disclosure statement that says there is no known mold. After moving in, we found that one entire bathroom wall is rotted with mold, and the roof has mold as well. Isn’t the seller liable for withholding this information?  Klemmy

Dear Klemmy:  Your question raises more than one issue. To begin, sellers are required to disclose all known defects, even when the sale is “as-is.” If the bathroom walls were covered with apparent mold, that should have been disclosed. However, mold does not cause walls to rot. The primary concern with mold is the release of airborne spores that can be harmful to breathe. If the walls seem rotted, there is probably some moisture damage that should also have been disclosed.

Before closing escrow on a property, it is customary for the buyers to do a final walk-through inspection. If you had done this, the defective bathroom wall would probably have been seen. Therefore, you may not have been exercising sufficient due diligence as buyers.

As for mold on the roof, that would be highly unusual and should be confirmed by a qualified mold professional. What you see on the roof may actually be lichen, a combination of algae and fungus that commonly grows on the north sides of trees and the north slopes of roofs. Lichen is not mold and is not known to be harmful to people or to roofs.

The final issue is whether you hired a home inspector as part of your due diligence. Failure to have a professional home inspection is a common mistake among buyers making an as-is purchase. Buying a house as-is means that the seller will not make repairs. It does not mean that you buy the property with blindfolds on: without finding out what you are buying in as-is condition.

If you bought the house without a home inspection, now is the time to find a highly qualified inspector to see what other defects were not disclosed. After you get the inspection report, you can consider whether to hold the seller liable for non-disclosure.