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.
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.
The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry:We bought a brand new home about a year ago and hired a home inspector before closing. The inspector found no problems and said the house was perfect. Since then, we’ve learned that there are code violations in the plumbing and on the roof. How could the house be sold if it didn’t meet code? Is the building department responsible for approving the construction, or what? And if they missed the problems, why didn’t our home inspector find them? Is anyone responsible, or are we just out of luck? Sharon
Dear Sharon: That is a tall list of issues: the quality of new construction and the reliability of building and home inspections. So let’s start with the city inspection.
Without knowing which code violations are involved, little can be said here about what the municipal building inspector should have seen. In general, however, city and county building inspections are usually short in duration and not comprehensive in scope. For example, municipal inspectors typically do not walk on roofs or crawl through attics. Therefore, defects in those areas are likely to go unnoticed. The final inspection of a new home usually occurs before the electrical and gas services are turned on. Therefore, outlets are not tested for grounding and polarity, GFCI performance is not verified, and gas fixtures such as stoves, furnaces, and water heaters are not functionally evaluated.
As for liability, municipal inspectors have none, as specified in chapter one of the building code. In their defense, however, it should be noted that most local building departments are under-funded and under-staffed, so that most of their inspections are conducted with limited time for thoroughness. This brings us to the homebuyers’ next line of defense, the home inspector.
The home inspection industry claims that it does not perform code compliance inspections, but this is only true in a limited sense. The purpose of a home inspection is to disclose visible defects, in accordance with professional standards. Yet many of the defects that home inspectors disclose involve code violations. For example, a hollow core door in a garage firewall is a visible defect that home inspectors routinely report. Why is it a defect? Because it violates the building code. Therefore, visible defects that violate building codes are usually within the scope of a home inspection and should be reported. If not reported, the home inspector would be liable.
Furthermore, when a home inspector tells you a house has no defects, that should warn you that the inspection was not very thorough. A home with no defects is as fanciful and unlikely as a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Homes are made by humans. Humans are not perfect. Therefore, no homes are perfect. All homes, including brand new ones, have imperfections, to lesser or larger degrees.
In cases involving new homes, the buck stops at the doorstep of the builder. Regardless of what was found or overlooked by the inspectors, the builder must guaranty the quality of the construction. If code violations are found when the building is one year old, the builder is still responsible.
To obtain a comprehensive list of the inherent defects in your home, you need a more complete home inspection than the one you received a year ago. Therefore, find the most qualified and experienced home inspector in your area. Then you can present the list of findings to the person or company who constructed the home.
The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: How can I find pre-1985 building codes online. I was told that conditions that were legal when my house was built are subject to the “grandfather” rule and need not be upgraded to newer building standards. Is this true, and if so, how can I verity it? Beverly
Dear Beverly: Building codes have never been available online because the publishers of the building codes are in business to sell codebooks. And even if the codes were available on the web, you probably wouldn’t understand the esoteric language in which they are written.
The so called “grandfather” rule applies to all older construction. A building is only required to comply with codes that were in effect at the time of construction, unless specific upgrade requirements have been enacted. For example, all homes must have smoke alarms, regardless of whether smoke alarms were required when the home was built, and fireplace chimneys must have spark arrestors, regardless of older standards.
For specific answers to code questions, you don’t need to read the code. Just contact your local building department. The building official can tell you what was and what is required and can translate the codes to verbiage that you can understand.
The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: What would be the consequences of improving our home without a building permit? The work to be done would include altered plumbing, new siding, new roofing, removing the electric water heater from the outside, installation of a propane water heater on the inside, repairing a sagging ceiling, replacing some windows, and adding an air conditioning system. We’re presently in disagreement as to whether permits are even required for this work and are wondering what we should disclose to buyers when the house is eventually sold. What do you advise? Gaye
Dear Gaye: Your list of proposed improvements and alterations is formidable and, according to the building code, most would require permits. Conducting work of this kind without permits exposes you to legal and financial consequences of several kinds, and these could be magnified by allowing the work to be done by someone who is not a licensed contractor.
If a qualified contractor were to perform the construction without a permit, the majority of the work could be expected to comply with code requirements, even though it would not be legal. But the lack of permits would have to be disclosed to future buyers, and this could significantly affect the marketability of the home. Some buyers would see this situation as a “red flag” and might demand that an as-built permit be obtained from the building department.
With an as-built permit, the municipal inspector could demand removal of drywall to enable inspection of the framing, wiring, plumbing, etc. Costly repairs could be mandated by the inspector, and this might include restoration of the building to its original state.
If a buyer agrees to take the property as-is, even with full disclosure of the nonpermitted work, future discovery of faulty conditions could lead to legal problems, possibly even a lawsuit.
If the proposed work is done by a handyman, rather than a contractor, the likelihood for any or all of the above consequences could be significantly increased. For these reasons, it is strongly recommend that the proposed work be done by licensed contractors and with all of the permits required by law.