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.

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.

Home Inspector Overlooked Furnace Problem

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:Before we bought our home, we hired an ASHI certified home inspector. We were with him for most of the inspection, but he didn’t spend much time looking at the furnace, and now we have a major problem. The inspection report says the system is “normal,” whatever that means, and recommends “routine maintenance and cleaning.” When we moved in, we hired a heating contractor to clean and service the unit, as recommended by the inspector. The heating guy removed the cover panel and found large rust holes on the inside. The unit puts out carbon monoxide, so it has to be replaced. All our home inspector did was shine a flashlight into a small opening, without removing the cover panel. When we called him about this, he said, “I told you to have the heater cleaned before closing escrow.”  But the inspection report says nothing about before the close. Do you think our home inspector was negligent?  Randy

Dear Randy:  Inspecting a furnace without removing the cover panels is grossly negligent. It makes as much sense as a podiatrist examining your feet without first removing your shoes. If a home inspector or foot doctor is conducting a diagnosis, visual access is essential.

If your home inspector is certified by ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors, he must comply with ASHI Standards of Practice. According to these standards, “the inspector shall inspect the installed heating equipment.” And the definition of “inspect,” according to ASHI standards includes “opening readily openable access panels.” Therefore, failure to remove the access panels on your furnace was a violation of professional standards.

If the heating contractor was able to see rust damage merely by removing the access panels, then your home inspector should have discovered the damage and should now take responsibility for a substandard inspection. If he recommended cleaning and servicing the furnace prior to close, that recommendation should have been in the written report. Verbal recommendations that differ from the written report are legally invalid.

The next question for you home inspector is, “Do you have errors and omissions insurance?” If not, you might consider small claims court.

Dear Barry: We were about to buy an old home until we learned that it has asbestos shingle siding. We’ve read that this material is safe if it is not damaged, but we’re worried about future problems. What do you recommend?  Lane

Dear Lane: Asbestos shingle siding was commonly installed in the 1940’s and early 50’s. It consists of a material knows as transite, a mixture of cement and asbestos fibers. Transite is not regarded as a significant health hazard because it does not release asbestos fibers into the air unless it is ground into dust with power tools.

If you intend to remove or alter the transite shingles, handling, removal, and disposal should be assigned to a specially licensed professional, and this can be very costly. When you eventually resell the home, the presence of asbestos material must be disclosed, and this can adversely affect the interest of some buyers (just as you were deterred), regardless of the relative safety of the material.

Buyers Concerned About Asbestos Floor Tiles

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We just purchased a 1920’s colonial style home that we are renovating. During the basement work, we removed the carpet and discovered tiles that we fear may contain asbestos. A few were cracked, and most were covered with a rough layer of mastic that secured the carpet. If we cover these tiles with new carpet, would that be a health hazard? If not, is there a way to test the air for asbestos particles?  Catherine

Dear Catherine: Vinyl floor tiles may or may not contain asbestos. The only way to confirm asbestos content is to have a small sample tested by an environmental laboratory. The cost of this test is nominal, usually less than $20. If you send a tile sample, be sure to include some of the adhesive mastic that secured the tiles, as well as some of the mastic that secured the carpet. Adhesive mastics often contain asbestos fibers.

On the optimistic side, asbestos tiles and mastic are not regarded as significant health hazards because they are not friable. This means that they do not crumble easily and, therefore, are unlikely to release asbestos fibers into the air. Covering asbestos floor tiles with carpet does not pose a significant health hazard. However, when you eventually sell the home, be sure to disclose that the tiles under the carpet may contain asbestos.

If you want to test the air for asbestos fibers, check for asbestos inspectors in your phone book. Not all asbestos inspectors perform air tests of this kind, so be sure to ask when you call these inspectors.

Should Home Inspectors Disclose Asbestos?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The home inspector I hired never mentioned that the floor tiles and air duct insulation contain asbestos. Shouldn’t he have pointed this out?  Robert

Dear Robert: Asbestos is generally regarded as “outside the scope” of a home inspection and is typically not mentioned by most home inspectors. For homebuyers, this leaves a gap in the disclosure process. For home inspectors, the issue is one of legal liability. If any material is disclosed as a potential source of asbestos, the inspector may be held liable for other possible asbestos materials that were not mentioned in the inspection report. For this reason, the home inspection industry has excluded asbestos as a consideration during home inspections.

If asbestos disclosure was included in home inspections, complications could ensue because there are so many common building materials that might contain asbestos. Examples include sheet vinyl flooring, asphalt and vinyl floor tiles, adhesive mastics, acoustic ceiling texture, old heat duct insulation, asphalt composition roofing materials, plaster, stucco, drywall, joint compound, and more. In most cases, these do not contain asbestos, although with some materials, such as acoustic ceilings, asbestos content is common. Those materials that contain asbestos are usually not hazardous if they are undamaged and allowed to remain as-is.

It could be argued, however, that home inspectors should point out potential asbestos in some cases. For example, many homebuyers plan to remodel and renovate the homes they buy. Interior renovations often involve, for example, the removal of acoustic ceiling texture or of sheet vinyl flooring. Unless alerted by their home inspector, the new homeowners could remove the material without consideration of the potential for asbestos exposure. Ceiling texture that is scraped off or vinyl flooring that is torn off could release asbestos fibers into the air of the home if proper removal procedures were not used.

Another example would be old insulation on warm air ducts installed prior to 1973. Duct insulation that appears as gray cardboard, sometimes with a foil veneer, it is certain to contain asbestos. If the material is undamaged, it can be left as-is. But it is common for such material to be torn in places or to be detached from the air ducts. Home inspectors in those instances would do well to recommend further evaluation and repair by a licensed asbestos contractor.

The pros and cons of asbestos disclosure have been debated among home inspectors for many years. On one hand, there is the need to provide vital information to home-buying customers. That argument weighs in favor of measured and limited asbestos disclosure. On the other hand is the fear of liability and lawsuits if asbestos disclosure is not comprehensive and thorough. That consideration favors a total avoidance of asbestos disclosures of any kind. The controversy is an outgrowth of the freewheeling practice of litigation, an ongoing threat to businesses and professions throughout the nation. The proliferation of cases, whether frivolous or justified, has taken its toll on home inspectors everywhere. In the end, each home inspector must decide whether to confront or avoid the practice of asbestos disclosure.