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. 

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.

Aftermath of an As-Is Sale

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  We just purchased a home “as is.” The previous owner signed a mold disclosure statement that says there is no known mold. After moving in, we found that one entire bathroom wall is rotted with mold, and the roof has mold as well. Isn’t the seller liable for withholding this information?  Klemmy

Dear Klemmy:  Your question raises more than one issue. To begin, sellers are required to disclose all known defects, even when the sale is “as-is.” If the bathroom walls were covered with apparent mold, that should have been disclosed. However, mold does not cause walls to rot. The primary concern with mold is the release of airborne spores that can be harmful to breathe. If the walls seem rotted, there is probably some moisture damage that should also have been disclosed.

Before closing escrow on a property, it is customary for the buyers to do a final walk-through inspection. If you had done this, the defective bathroom wall would probably have been seen. Therefore, you may not have been exercising sufficient due diligence as buyers.

As for mold on the roof, that would be highly unusual and should be confirmed by a qualified mold professional. What you see on the roof may actually be lichen, a combination of algae and fungus that commonly grows on the north sides of trees and the north slopes of roofs. Lichen is not mold and is not known to be harmful to people or to roofs.

The final issue is whether you hired a home inspector as part of your due diligence. Failure to have a professional home inspection is a common mistake among buyers making an as-is purchase. Buying a house as-is means that the seller will not make repairs. It does not mean that you buy the property with blindfolds on: without finding out what you are buying in as-is condition.

If you bought the house without a home inspection, now is the time to find a highly qualified inspector to see what other defects were not disclosed. After you get the inspection report, you can consider whether to hold the seller liable for non-disclosure.

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.