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

Another House With An Unpermitted Addition

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:   You’ve written before about additions that are not permitted, and now we’ve bought a house that has that problem. No one told us about this before we bought the property, and now we’re stuck. Realistically, what can we do? Should we tear down the addition and rebuilt is with a permit? If so, who is liable for the costs, the seller, the agent, or home inspector, or all of the above?  Joanna

Dear Joanna:  If the quality of the unpermitted construction is reasonably good, an as-built permit is probably the best course. An as-built permit can be obtained from the building department. A municipal inspector will come to your home to evaluate the work. If the additions are approved, you can try to recover the permit costs from the sellers. If the work is not approved, the inspector will provide a list of improvements to be made to obtain approval. Worst case scenario would be that the work is so substandard that the building authority orders demolition of the addition.

Regardless of the outcome, the sellers should have disclosed that the additions were not permitted. However, it is also possible that the additions were built before the sellers owned the property and that they were unaware of the lack of permits. Therefore, it is important to determine when the additions were built. If the sellers were aware of the unpermitted additions, they should be liable for the costs to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, you might have to hire an attorney to enforce that liability.

In most cases, Realtors are not qualified to identify which portions of a building are original and which are added, unless they are given that information by the sellers.

Whether your home inspector is liable for professional negligence depends on whether pertinent defects involving the additions were visible and accessible at the time of the inspection. 

Seller Worried About Environmental Hazards

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:   I am concerned about environmental hazards in my home — about lead paint, asbestos ceilings, formaldehyde in treated wood, etc. etc. But I’m not very knowledgeable about these things. I’ve read just enough to be scared to death! Now we are planning to sell our home, built in 1978, and are concerned about what may have to be disclosed to buyers. What do you advise?  Kim

Dear Kim:    Given the age of your home, formaldehyde in plywood and other wood products is an unwarranted concern. After this many years, formaldehyde will have dissipated from wood laminates and finish materials. If you have installed newer materials, formaldehyde is a possibility, but this is not something a homeowner would be expected to know or disclose. Only an environmental inspector with specialized testing equipment could be expected to provide such information.

Textured ceilings in a 1978 home are likely to contain asbestos, but this type of asbestos containing material is not hazardous if left alone. Asbestos fibers only become airborne when the material is disturbed. If you or your buyers want to have the texture removed, it should be tested first to determine if special handling and disposal are required.

Asbestos can also be found in some vinyl flooring materials and some drywall finishing products. Again, this is only a concern if the material is to be removed, in which case testing would be needed.

The manufacture of lead paint was banned in 1978, but it’s use continued until supplies of the material were used up. Therefore, your home may have some lead paint. However, lead paint is only hazardous if ingested. Its mere presence is not unsafe. On the other hand, if exterior lead paint has been allowed to peel, chips may have contaminated the soil around the building. In that case, professional testing would be needed to determine if disclosure and remediation disclosure are needed.

The potential for asbestos and lead in your home is something you can disclose to buyers, with the understanding that you do not know for sure whether these substances are actually present.

Crazy Buzzing In Bathroom Wall

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:   I have an intermittent buzzing sound in my bathroom wall, and it’s driving me crazy. It only buzzes between sunset and 11pm every evening and is very noisy. I have tried turning off the electrical power at the main, turning off individual circuit breakers, and shutting off the water main, but the noise continues each evening. Sometimes it stops for five or ten seconds and then starts up again. A contractor suggested opening the wall to see what’s going on, but we just remodeled the bathroom, and we hate to tear things up. What do you advise?  Paul

Dear Paul:    Now that you have eliminated electrical and plumbing conditions as possible causes, the most likely suspect is a bee hive or wasp nest. Bees usually return to their hive around sunset, which is when you begin to hear the buzzing in your wall, and later in the evening they usually settle down for the night. Check your phone directory or the internet for local companies that specialize in bee hive removal. Unfortunately, you may have to cut open the wall of your newly remodeled bathroom.

 

Buyer Worried About Nonpermitted Fixtures

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:The home I am buying has fixtures that were installed by the sellers themselves, without permits. These include the 8-year-old heating and air conditioning system and the 10-year-old water heater. Should I accept these fixtures as they are or should I insist that they be permitted?  Susan

Dear Susan:  If the HVAC system and water heater were installed without permits, and particularly if they were installed by nonprofessionals, it is almost certain that they are not installed to code, and this could involve significant safety violations. The fixtures should be evaluated by a licensed plumbing and HVAC contractor, as well as by your home inspector, to verify the safety and integrity of these systems. If problems are found, you should request that the sellers make all necessary repairs.

The 10-year-old water heater is already past its expected useful life and will probably need replacement soon. Therefore, obtaining a permit at this late date is not a critical issue. The 8-year-old HVAC system, on the other hand, should still have years of remaining useful life. Therefore, it is recommended that an as-built permit be obtained for this system to enable the building department to inspect and approve the installation.

White Debris From Forced Air Heating

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:Ever since we installed wood flooring, we notice little white granules on the floor every morning. We previously had white carpet, so we never noticed this before. We suspect that this is coming from the forced air registers in the ceiling, but we had the furnace checked by a heating contractor. He said the system was OK. We’re tired of vacuuming every day and are worried that this might be a health risk. What do you recommend?  Joan

Dear Joan:  If the white granules are coming from the heating system, this could be the symptom of a serious defect in your furnace. Step one is to confirm whether the forced air heating system is the source of the white granules. To do this, you should place filters inside the air registers where the problem is occurring. If white particles show up on the filters, the furnace is the source of the problem. If your heating contractor failed to identify this, you should contact another heating contractor and should discontinue use of the system until you have a reliable evaluation.

The combustion exhaust in a furnace is acidic. If this makes contact with galvanized steel, the acid will react with the zinc in the galvanizing, and this can produce a white powdery residue, as is commonly seen on the terminals of a car battery. If this substance is getting into the circulating air system, there could be a crack or hole in the heat exchanger, and that would be hazardous. Again, you should have this system thoroughly evaluated by a qualified HVAC contractor. You can also have the white particles analyzed by an environmental laboratory to determine their chemical composition.