Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone
Home Inspector Goes To Small Claims Court

Home Inspector Goes To Small Claims Court

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  I’ve been a home inspector for about two years, so I’m still learning. Unfortunately, I just learned a very hard lesson after doing a free walk-through inspection as a favor for a real estate agent who was buying a high-rise condo. Eight months later, he is suing me because he found fogging between the panes of a large dual-pane window. The controversial window is on the 15th floor, and the cost to replace it is $2,500. The agent had the window replaced before notifying me of the problem, and now he expects me to pay for it. We’re scheduled for small claims court next month, and I’d like some advice in presenting my side of the story to the judge.  Tim

Dear Tim:  Welcome to the enervating world of home inspection and real estate disclosure. Good deeds, as they say, may not go unpunished.

As this is not a legal advice column, I can only counsel you as a layman and a home inspector. Additional advice from an attorney is strongly advised before representing your side of the story in court.

Since you did the inspection as a favor, you probably do not have a signed contract to specify the scope of the inspection or the limits of liability. Nevertheless, here are some effective points that can make a positive difference when presenting your case to the judge:

1)    This was not a paid home inspection but merely a casual walk through, performed as a personal favor, and therefore is not subject to the same standards as a full home inspection.

2)    You inspected the windows, and no evidence of a faulty dual-pane seal was apparent at that time.

3)    The agent also did not see the window defect prior to purchasing the property, indicating that the defect was not apparent or was nonexistent at that time.

4)    The agent is alleging that the window defect pre-existed the purchase of the property, but there is no way for him to prove that such was the case.

5)    It is common knowledge in the home inspection business that fogging between window panes is not always visible, depending upon variations in lighting and temperature.

6)    The eight-month time lapse between purchase of the property and discovery of the window defect indicates that the window seal may have failed after the property was purchased.

7)    You were never given an opportunity to re-inspect the failed window prior to its being replaced. It is common knowledge among real estate agents that home inspectors should be called to re-inspect a defect prior to making repairs.

8)    If the agent appears in court without an expert witness who is a professional home inspector, be sure to point out to the judge that the plaintiff has no expert witness who is qualified to testify regarding the standard of care for a home inspection.

Be sure to practice your presentation of these points, use notes in court so you won’t leave anything out, and spend an hour with an attorney for additional advice on presenting your case.

Home Inspector’s Halloween

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  You never do columns that recognize holidays. Even at Christmas time and the 4th of July, your articles are always about property defects, real estate disclosure, and home inspections. Now that Halloween is here, how about a spooky house story? Something in keeping with the season. Surely you’ve inspected a few creaky old houses. How about it?  Bram

Dear Bram:  Home inspections tend to be business-as-usual events: checking the foundations, roofing, plumbing, electrical wiring, etc. But there was one inspection that I recall with dread and discomfort; an inspection where property defects ceased to be of concern, where routine was over-shadowed by fear, where disclosures were eclipsed by a frenzied struggle to flee the premises. And it just so happened that this inspection occurred on the eve of Halloween.

The house was an old, neglected, two-story Victorian, with leaning fences, tangled vegetation, and dense vines engulfing the walls, windows, and roof. The property, in escrow as a probate sale, had been the subject of headlines when the owner was found hanging from the rafters of the foyer. The police investigation had not determined whether death was from suicide or foul play, and the body’s subsequent disappearance from the local mortuary had unsettled the community.

The buyers and agent were unable to attend the inspection, but the agent had left a key under the mat. Bracing myself in the cold gloom of the dilapidated porch, I pressed open the massive door, entered slowly, and commenced what I had hoped would be a routine inspection. But then, beneath the lofty ceiling of the dark interior, I beheld the silhouette of the noosed rope, still attached to a high, dusty beam. A foul odor of decay permeated the stagnant air, and I recalled reading that the previous owner had spent many days at the end of that rope before the neighbors had found him. The prospect of working alone in those dim, silent rooms unsettled me, and my foremost thought was to complete the job and get out of that ominous place.

A steep, ladder-like stairway descended to the unpaved basement floor, where I proceeded to inspect the moss-covered stone foundation walls, but the sounds of creaking timbers echoed throughout the building, disrupting my attention. In spite of this distraction, I busied myself and tried to dismiss my uneasiness. But then there seemed to be a different sound, somewhere at the far end of the upstairs hallway. At first, it blended with the incessant creaking of the structure, but the difference was unmistakable. This was not the sound of old rafters. It was the slow but steady cadence of footsteps. Someone was in the house.

Hoping to hear the voice of the real estate agent, I called out, “Hello, is someone upstairs?” No one answered, but the footsteps continued toward the basement entrance and suddenly stopped at the top of the stairwell. I called again, “Hello, who’s there?” Again, no answer. Then, a shadow appeared on the stairs and moved slowly, silently downward.

A dark, disfigured form gradually took shape, the head laid awkwardly against the left shoulder. Yet my attention was drawn from this to some shadowy, indistinct object that dangled from his left hand. As he reached the basement floor, a putrid foulness filled the room, so that breathing became forced and repugnant. Gripped with horror and disbelief, I was unable to move. But then, the eyes of that disjointed head found me, the lips formed a sardonic grin, dripping with thick gray saliva, and my mobility was wakened by a wave of terror. Grasping the top of the nearest foundation wall, I squeezed into the narrow space between the ground and the floor framing, seeking desperately for any path of escape. But as I looked back, the advancing form appeared atop the foundation wall and steadily pursued me into the dark crawlspace.

I scrambled breathlessly past rows of old stone piers, reaching a dead-end corner where the foundation walls joined, and realized with desperate finality that I could flee no further. Somewhere is the nearby darkness, I could hear that half dead form crawling toward me. Clutching at my flashlight, I pressed the switch and was startled by the impending nearness of the face: the glare of cold eyes, the glint of gray teeth, the viscous fluid that dripped from grimacing lips — and that mysterious object gripped in his left hand and dragging on the ground as he approached.

Terror pounded in my chest as I faced those final, hopeless, remaining seconds. The feet between us became inches. His right hand gripped my ankle with frightful force as he drew forward. Then his left hand extended the old gunny sack that he held, and the acrid smell of cold breath filled my face, as he cried, “Trick or Treat!!”

New Home Inspector Seeks Startup Advice

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:I just completed an 80-hour classroom course in home inspection. Now that I’ve got my certificate, I’m not sure what to do next. What do you suggest?  Randy

Dear Randy: Now that you’ve learned the basics of home inspection, your internship is about to begin. Home inspection is a learn-as-you-go business. The longer you do it, the more you learn and the more proficient you become as a home inspector. And no matter how long you do it, you never learn it all. The problem with the first few years in business is legal and financial liability for defects that you fail to report. Therefore, to spur the learning process, join a local chapter of ASHI or a recognized state association, and participate as much as possible in their educational programs. If possible, find an experienced home inspector who will let you ride along on a few inspections. This is one of the best ways to learn the ropes.

What To Do After Your Home Inspection

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:We are buying a house. The home inspection is scheduled for next week, but we’re not sure what to do once we get the report. Is the inspection report just for our information, or can we use it to negotiate with the sellers? Can we walk away from the deal if we don’t like the report, or are we obligated to go ahead with the purchase? What can you tell us about this?  Alan

Dear Alan:  A home inspection empowers you with essential options as a buyer, but with some limitations. In the majority of home sales, the deal is contingent upon the buyers’ acceptance of the home inspection report.  This means that you, as buyer, have a specified number of days to accept or decline the property in “as is” condition.  If you decline acceptance, you have four basic choices:

1)             Ask the sellers to make a few repairs;

2)             Ask the sellers to make many repairs;

2)             Ask the sellers to reduce the sales price;

3)             Decline to purchase the property.

If you request repairs or a price adjustment, based upon the home inspection report, the sellers also have choices.  They can:

1)            Agree to all of your requests;

2)            Agree to some of your requests;

3)            Agree to none of your requests;

4)            Tell you to take it as-is or to take a walk

The sellers’ only obligation is to address defects that are named in the purchase contact or required by state and local laws.  If the contract specifies an “as is” sale, the sellers may refuse to make repairs of any kind or to adjust the price in any way.  Lawful exceptions may include strapping water heaters for earthquake safety, providing smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in specified locations, or upgrading plumbing fixtures for water conservation.

As long as you are in the contingency period of your transaction, the choice to buy the property or to walk away from the deal is entirely yours. This is your discovery period, the time to learn what you are buying and to decide whether to proceed with the purchase or to renegotiate the terms of the sale.

Home Inspector Delivers Report Too Late

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I recently purchased a home and hired a home inspector while there was still time to negotiate with the seller. But the inspector took four days to prepare the inspection report, and by that time the negotiation period under contract had expired. My choice at that point was to buy the property as-is or lose  my deposit. Since then, I have been told that the report should have been delivered within 24 hours. If that is so, shouldn’t the home inspector refund the money that I paid him?  Beverly

Dear Beverly:  In most states, there is no law declaring how soon a home inspection report should be delivered, but the standard of practice among home inspectors is to provide a report on the day of the inspection or the very next day. The reasons for prompt delivery should be obvious to every home inspector. Time is of the essence in a real estate transaction. Buyers have a limited time period for negotiation or for rescission of the contract. Home inspectors are aware of these constraints, unless they have been living in a vacuum, and should provide the kind of professional service that considers the needs of their clients and the importance of timeliness.

A four-day delay in processing an inspection report is inexcusable negligence and is reasonable grounds for requesting a refund of the inspection fee, especially since that delay prevented you from making beneficial use of the report. If the inspector has any sense of professional responsibility, he will not hesitate in providing that refund.

Problems of this kind are among several reasons why attending a home inspection is so important for homebuyers. When you accompany your inspector, you can discuss the findings, ask questions, and learn about the condition of the property before you receive the written report.

In some cases, there are circumstances that prevent a buyer from attending the inspection. A buyer may live too far away to attend or may be unable to get time off from work. When attendance is not possible, the inspection findings should be reviewed by phone later in the day. Then the buyer can proceed with negotiations before the written report is received.

Unfortunately, there are some home inspectors who prefer to work without buyers present and routinely send their reports without a verbal review. Inspectors of this type should find another line of work, and homebuyers should avoid such inspectors in every case. Home inspection is not just a technical process; it is a business in which the needs of customers are served.

A final issue in this situation is the role of your real estate agent, assuming that you had an agent. Part of a Realtor’s responsibility is to coordinate the various aspects of the transaction; to ensure that things take place in accordance with the purchase contract. If the contract sets a time limit on negotiating the findings in a home inspection report, then the agent should pressure the inspector to produce that report before the due date expires. If the inspector fails to meet his responsibility, the agent should submit a request to extend the negotiation period.

If your home inspector is not willing to issue a refund, your agent should exert some persuasion on your behalf. Hopefully, one or both of them will have the professional integrity to meet these responsibilities.