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

Sellers Refuse to Repair New Damage

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We are in escrow to buy a home. When we made our offer, there was an attractive concrete walkway in the front yard. Since then, the sellers hired a contractor to inspect the septic tank. The contractor had to cut out two sections of the walkway, but when he replaced the pieces, he set them in a way that is uneven, unsightly, and could cause someone to trip. Now the sellers and their agent say it is up to us to replace the damaged pavement because temporary removal was required to meet the terms of the sale. Do we really have to fix this ourselves, or is it the responsibility of the sellers?  Misty

Dear Misty: The sellers and their agent are entirely out of bounds. You made an offer to purchase a property in the condition that existed when it was marketed. Since the offer was accepted, that condition was adversely altered by contractors who were hired by the sellers.

The excuse offered by the sellers and their agent is entirely unacceptable. Suppose the sellers’ chimney sweep had damaged the roof? Would that also be your problem? What if the sellers’ painter had cracked a window? Would you be required to replace the glass? In this case, the sellers had to hire a septic contractor. The performance of that obligation did not license them to denigrate the property at your expense. Either the sellers or their septic contractor should restore the property to the conditions that existed when you made your offer. Your agent, not theirs, should step up to the plate and demand that this be done. Hopefully, you have your own agent in this transaction.

Dear Barry: When we bought our house, the home inspector said he could not open the damper in the fireplace and suggested we have it checked further. We probably should have taken his advice but did not. Recently, we used the fireplace for the first time, and our teenage son had no problem opening the damper. The fireplace worked okay, but on a rainy day the brick firebox became wet. Now we’re wondering why the home inspector was unable to open the damper and whether leak repairs are covered by the home warranty policy.  Mike

Dear Mike: Your son would most likely prevail against the home inspector in an arm wrestling match. Be that as it may, leaking at the chimney top apparently caused rusting of the damper hardware, causing the damper to stick. The resistance was too much for the home inspector but not for your son. To prevent further water intrusion and rust, a chimney cap should be installed. It is unfortunate that caps are not required on all masonry chimneys.

You should also follow the home inspector’s original recommendation and have the fireplace system fully evaluated by a qualified professional, such as a certified chimney sweep. And make sure the chimney cap is the type with a four-sided spark arrestor.

As for home warranty coverage, that will depend upon the fine print in the policy. Warranty companies typically exclude pre-existing conditions.

Changing Fireplace From Gas Logs to Wood Logs

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We have a gas log fireplace in our home and would like to have real wood fires. Would it be safe to remove the gas logs and burn real logs instead?  Dave

Dear Dave: Before making changes to your fireplace, you should determine the type of fixture that you have, as well as its internal condition. If it was originally built as a wood-burning fireplace and then converted to a gas log set-up, it may be possible to return to solid-fuel use. This would depend on the extent of the conversion and the reason the conversion was made. For example, if the firebox or the damper assembly was altered, wood-burning use may no longer be safe. If a metal flue liner was installed, the liner may not be suited for the high temperatures produced by solid fuel combustion.  If the conversion was made because the firebox or the chimney was damaged, a return to wood combustion may not be possible without making costly repairs.

It is also possible that the fixture was never intended for solid fuel. It may have been specifically manufactured as a gas-burning appliance. If so, it should not be used with any fuel other than gas, no exceptions. Altering the intended use of a gas fireplace could damage the unit and cause a fire in your home.

Before making any changes in the way your fireplace is used, have it thoroughly inspected by a certified chimney sweep to ensure that all such changes are safe and in full compliance with applicable requirements. Otherwise, your home could become a “fire-place.”

Seller Disputes Condition of Fireplace

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’m having trouble with the seller of the home I am buying. When I first looked at the house, he said the fireplace was in good working order. But my home inspector says there are loose bricks and mortar in the firebox. Now the seller says he never used the fireplace but was told when he bought the house that it worked. When I asked him to fix the loose masonry, he refused because the sale is not contingent on the findings of the home inspector. And he still insists that the fireplace is in working order, even though the home inspector disagrees. Does the seller have to pay to fix the fireplace? And if not, can I get out of the contract even though there wasn’t a contingency on passing inspection?  Kim

Dear Kim: If the purchase contract is not contingent on the findings of the home inspection, then the seller is not required to make repairs, and the condition of the fireplace does not provide an option to cancel the purchase. The seller, however, should stop insisting that the fireplace is in working condition. If he has never used it, and if the bricks and mortar are loose, he obviously has no basis for that claim.

Your choice, then, is to decide if the cost of chimney repair overrides the value of the home. If the property is acceptable to you in all other respects, does a fireplace repair of several hundred or even a few thousand dollars offset its desirability. If so, you may have to forfeit your deposit. Otherwise, you should proceed with the purchase and eventually pay to have the fireplace repaired. But before you decide, hire a fireplace specialist to provide a detailed evaluation, as well as a written bid for necessary repairs.

What to do about fireplace backdraft

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: Back-drafting has been occurring in our fireplace. What can we do to make the fireplace usable? Ray

Dear Ray: When you refer to “back-drafting”, I assume that you mean your house becomes smoky. This can be caused by a poorly designed firebox or by a chimney that is too short. A qualified fireplace contractor or chimney sweep can often recommend upgrades that will correct this kind of problem. For example, the chimney height can be extended at the roof, or the lintel can be lowered at the firebox. Just be sure to find someone who is qualified to make this kind of evaluation.

House Blackened by Faulty Furnace

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We purchased a home about a year ago and had it inspected. But we think our home inspector missed a problem with the forced air furnace. When the weather turned cold, we began using the heating system, and within a week we noticed black soot around the house. We thought it might be coming from the fireplace, so we had the chimney swept and we cleaned up the house. But the black soot soon came back. We cleaned the house again, but the soot came back again. Do you think our home inspector should pay to have the furnace fixed? Scott

Dear Scott: Whether the home inspector is liable for the faulty furnace depends on whether there was visible evidence of a furnace problem on the day of the inspection. For example, if there was soot in the burner chambers, in the flue pipe, on the flue cap, or at the air registers, these would have been red flag symptoms for a competent home inspector. If the flame pattern or flame color at the burners was abnormal, if there was rusted hardware in the furnace, if any signs of deterioration or damage were apparent, those conditions should also have alerted your inspector. If such conditions were apparent, further evaluation by a licensed HVAC contractor should have been recommended in the inspection report.

Of greater importance than the question of liability, however, is the matter of safety for everyone in your home. If the furnace is emitting soot, it may also be venting carbon monoxide, and that would extremely dangerous. Therefore, the furnace should not be used until it has been thoroughly evaluated by a licensed HVAC contractor. At the same time, you should notify the home inspector of these concerns and ask that he reinspect the furnace. If you can coordinate that reinspection with the HVAC contractor’s evaluation, that would help to clarify questions of liability.

Dear Barry: Last year, we bought a home from a nationally known developer. They offered us several optional upgrades, including a covered patio with plumbing and electrical connections for an outdoor kitchen; all for $1,800. Now that we’re ready to install the grill, the building department says that a barbecue pit under an overhanging roof is not legal. We would never have purchased this option if we had know the cooking fixture could not be installed. Do we have recourse? Bill

Dear Bill: A professional builder should know better than to sell an option that is not permissible by code or by local building ordinances. But you’d better check the fine print in the contract, because it may give them an “out.” On the other hand, a small claims judge might take a different view of the matter and override what could be an unfair contractual provision. You might also file a complaint with the state attorney general’s office to see where you stand according to state law.