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

Undisclosed Septic Problem

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  Two days after we moved into our home, the septic system backed up into the tub and toilet. This was a big surprise because the septic had been inspected and approved by a septic contractor before the close of escrow. We called a different septic contractor, and he said the leach field needs to be replaced for thousands of dollars. We called two other contractors for additional quotes. One of them told us that he had inspected the system a few months ago and had told the previous owners about the failed leach field, but the sellers never disclosed this to us. Another contractor told us that the Realtor was liable for recommending a septic contractor who is not licensed. The sellers have moved out of state, so we can’t hold them liable. What can we do to recoup this unexpected expense?  Jason

Dear Jason:  Sellers who conceal known defects from buyers are worthy of public disgrace. Unfortunately, your sellers seem to be out of harm’s way, having moved out of state, which leaves their agent and the agent’s septic contractor as the potentially liable parties. The agent is at fault for recommending an unqualified contractor. The contractor is culpable for issuing false findings, especially if this was done without a license.

To verify whether the septic contractor was, in fact, operating without a license, you should contact the state agency that issues licenses to contractors. Even if the contractor is licensed, there is the issue of the false septic report.

The agent, broker, and septic inspector should be notified by certified mail of the current situation. If no one is willing to pay for a new leach field, you probably have a strong case for small claims court. In any event, you should get some advice from a real estate attorney regarding your available remedies under law.

Should a Contractor Do Your Home Inspection?

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:I am planning to buy a home but don’t know who the home inspectors are in my area. On the other hand, I have a good friend who is a licensed general contractor, and he has offered to do my home inspection for free. He is a very experienced builder with vast construction knowledge, and I would expect that he can do as thorough a job of inspecting a home as anyone in the inspection business. Is there any reason why I should not have him do my home inspection?  Seth

Dear Seth:  Hiring a general contractor to do a home inspection seems reasonable to anyone who does not know the scope and processes involved in home inspection, but a contractor inspection can be a costly mistake. A home inspection is not a walkthrough evaluation by someone who knows how to build a house. That is something that many homebuyers, especially first-time homebuyers, do not realize when they are faced with your choice. Home inspection involves skills, practices, and knowledge that are not essential to the process of construction, and this in no way minimizes the respectability of qualified contractors.

Most home inspectors start out as contractors who enter the home inspection profession and gradually learn to conduct thorough inspections. That learning process takes a few years and involves a very large number of home inspections. A basic apprenticeship in home inspection usually requires about 1000 inspections. Those who have done fewer than 1000 are likely to resent this opinion. Those who have done more than 1000 are sure to agree with it.

Home inspection is a process of investigation and discovery. Contracting is a process of mechanical skills and management. Although building knowledge is essential to the practice of home inspection, construction itself has little or no relation to the practice of forensic analysis. A home inspector is an investigator — a property detective – someone who observes and evaluates defects. The skills essential to a thorough home inspection are unique, are refined by years of practice, and are not essential to the process of building construction.

The focus of a home inspection is not merely the quality of construction, but the overall level of maintenance versus deterioration of the property, the operability and shortcomings of fixtures, compliance with numerous safety standards, the projected longevity of various materials and components, old versus new standards of construction, and much more.

Just as a traffic patrolman is not a crime detective; just as your family physician is not a medical pathologist; likewise, home inspectors are diagnostic specialists, distinct from professionals in the building trades.

What matters most when you choose a home inspector is to find someone who has done many inspections and has a reputation for thoroughness. If you need some referrals, call some of the real estate offices in your area and ask them who are the nit-pickiest inspectors. Those inspectors are the contractors you should consider before you buy a home.

Code Violations Not Found By Inspectors

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.

Builder Won’t Correct Drainage Problem

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The contractor who built my home won’t fix damages caused by flooding in our basement. We bought the house about a year ago, and the warranty covers one year of workmanship. We don’t trust the builder and want to hire a contractor to fix the problem and then have the builder pay for all of the repairs. We are preparing the case for court. What do you advise?  Marcos

Dear Marcos: If flooding occurs in the basement of a new home, this means the builder did not adequately provide for ground water drainage and waterproofing of the foundation walls. These are significant construction defects, and the builder is responsible for corrective work, which is likely to be very costly. In preparing your case, you’ll need professional evaluations for evidence. First, you need a report from a geotechnical engineer. In this case, that would be the fancy name for a drainage specialist.

Next, you should have the entire home evaluated by the most qualified and experienced home inspector you can find. A good inspector will find more construction defects than you are currently aware of, and the added list of defects will strengthen your case against the builder.

The entire matter should be handled by an attorney who specializes in construction defect law. And finally, you should file a complaint with the state agency that licenses contractors.

To Permit or Not to Permit

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.