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

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.

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.

 

Where to Properly Place Carbon Monoxide Alarms

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  I keep hearing conflicting opinions about whether to install carbon monoxide alarms high or low. Some people say that CO is heavier than air and is more likely to set off an alarm near the floor. Others say it is lighter than air and advise installing alarms near the ceiling. What is the truth about this, and what is the best place to install a carbon monoxide alarm?  Jamie

Dear Jamie:  This question comes up frequently in the course of home inspections, and incorrect information about carbon monoxide has become commonplace. So here are the facts. At standard temperature and pressure, the weight of air is 0.0807 pounds per cubic foot, and the weight of carbon monoxide is 0.0780 pounds per cubic foot. Considering the positions of the decimal points in these numbers, these differences are miniscule, making the relative weights of air and carbon monoxide nearly equal, with carbon monoxide being very slightly lighter. So what’s the best position for alarms, high or low?

To answer this question, an experiment was conducted in May of 2011 at the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. The purpose of the test was to observe the way that carbon monoxide mixes with air and thus to determine the safest placement for carbon monoxide alarms, to provide the earliest possible warning of CO contamination in a home.

An eight-foot-tall Plexiglas chamber was constructed and three carbon monoxide alarms were installed, one in the top portion, one at the bottom, and one in the middle section. Carbon monoxide was then injected into the chamber in a series of tests. Sometimes, the CO was injected at the top, sometimes at the bottom, and sometimes in the middle. In each case, the CO diffused so rapidly with the air that there was found to be no apparent advantage in placing a CO alarm high or low inside a home.

What matters when installing CO alarms is to place them close to all bedroom entrances and to have one on each level of a multi-level home. Although not required, it is also advisable to install a CO alarm in the garage, since an idling vehicle is a likely source of carbon monoxide. And be sure to test each alarm regularly to make sure it remains operable.