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

Ventless gas fireplace safety

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We are concerned about the safety of our ventless gas fireplace. We use it a lot, and a black film has recently appeared on the glass panel, as well as on our windows. What should we do? Barbara

Dear Barbara: The first think to do is stop using the fireplace and report the problem to a qualified fireplace specialist for evaluation and repair.

When a gas-burning fixture produces a black residue, that is a symptom of incomplete combustion and faulty exhaust venting. It means that combustion byproducts are venting into your home, and this is potentially dangerous, depending on whether these byproducts include carbon monoxide.

After your fireplace is professionally serviced, read the owners manual before resuming use. The manufacturer’s instructions may advise not using the firxture for periods of more than two hours. The manual may also recommend that a nearby window be kept open while the fireplace is in use to dilute exhaust with fresh air.

Ventless gas fireplaces are vigorously defended by their manufacturers as being incapable of abnormal combustion. In past articles, I’ve expressed the view that no manmade product is, or ever can be, 100 percent foolproof. Your situation appears to support that opinion.

Faulty Chimney Missed by Home Inspector

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our house, the home inspector said the bricks in the fireplace needed to be repointed. He said this meant filling in the gaps in the brick mortar. But a lot more turned out to be wrong with the fireplace, and we think he should have disclosed these issues. A few months ago we called a brick mason to repoint the firebricks. He said the entire chimney is unstable, the portion above the roof is crumbling, and water leakage occurs when it rains. The quote to rebuild the chimney is $12,000, and we would have negotiated this with the seller if we had known. Do we have any recourse against the home inspector? Jennifer

Dear Jennifer: From your description of the chimney, it would seem that the defects should have been apparent to a competent home inspector. If he inspected the roof, which would be standard procedure unless the roof was inaccessible, he should have seen the chimney up close. If he couldn’t get onto the roof, he should have viewed the chimney from the ground; preferably with binoculars. If he did a thorough inspection, he should also have inspected the attic, and this should have enabled a close-up inspection of a portion of the chimney and might have revealed the water stains caused by rain leakage. The interior of the chimney could also have been inspected from inside the firebox, with the aid of an inspection mirror and flashlight.

When firebricks need to be repointed, there are usually additional defects that warrant evaluation by a brick mason or a certified chimney sweep. A competent inspector, when reporting crumbling mortar in a firebox, will usually recommend further evaluation of the entire system by a qualified fireplace specialist, not merely repointing of the bricks.

It appears, therefore, that your home inspector could be liable for failure to disclose visible defects that were within the scope of a home inspection. You should notify him of these conditions and request a reinspection of the fireplace. If he has errors and omissions insurance, a claim may need to be filed.

Dear Barry: We are purchasing a bank-owned home, built in 1953. It is in horrible condition and needs to be demolished. When we talked to the county building department, they said that the asbestos had to be removed prior to the demolition. We have heard that the seller is responsible for removing asbestos. Is this true? If not, how much will it cost to have it removed? Michelle

Dear Michelle: Sellers are not required to remove asbestos, and when the sellers are banks, they are not even required to provide disclosure of property conditions.

Asbestos removal in a residence is only required when remodeling or demolition occurs, and the cost can be high if much asbestos is involved. However, you need to determine where the asbestos materials are, if there are actually any at all. Therefore, an asbestos survey by a certified asbestos inspector should be your next step. If the inspector finds asbestos, you should get bids from licensed asbestos abatement contractors to determine the likely costs of removal.

Did Home Inspector Compromise Disclosure

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When I bought my home, the seller paid for the home inspection. That was a red flag that I failed to heed. Now that I’ve moved into the home, it’s clear that the inspector, who was recommended by the real estate agent, was working for the seller’s interests, not mine. The fireplace was not even included in the inspection, and a chimney sweep has now discovered loose bricks, requiring $300 of repair. And yesterday, I learned that the debris on the skylights is actually dried tape, used to seal the cracks and to secure the loose frames. The cost to replace the five bad skylights will be nearly $800. I should have hired my own home inspector, someone who would look out for my interests. Is there any recourse for me at this point? Helen

Dear Helen: Complaints about substandard home inspections are among the most common subjects in my email inbox. In most cases, however, faulty inspections occur when inspectors are unqualified and inexperienced; not because of deliberate intentions by inspectors to favor the interests of sellers. Reports of inspectors who compromise disclosure for the sake of agent referrals are often heard, but in my experience such inspectors are rare. Most home inspectors are painfully aware of the legal and financial liability associated with incomplete disclosure and are unwilling to take such risks for fraudulant short-term gains. In fact, there are many home inspectors who would inspect a home with the same degree of thoroughness whether the inspection were being done for the buyer, the seller, or the inspector’s own family.

In your case, the inspector, regardless of motives, appears to have done a very substandard inspection. Fireplaces are included in the Standards of Practice of all recognized home inspector associations, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI). Failure to inspect the fireplace indicates a significant lack of professionalism. Equally problematic is the inspector’s failure to identify the defective skylights. This should have been part of the roof inspection, also specified in the Standards of Practice for the profession.

The responsibility for the inadequate inspection is shared, of course, by the agent who recommended the inspector. Real estate professionals are familiar with the inspectors who work in their areas of business. They know which inspectors perform thorough and comprehensive evaluations of homes. Fortunately, there are agents who routinely recommend the best inspectors. Unfortunately, there are other agents who view such inspectors as “deal killers” and who avoid those inspectors when making referrals to clients.
Before you take action regarding the lack of disclosure, have your home reinspected by someone who is truly qualified. This will probably inform you of additional defects, not yet discovered and not reported by the seller’s inspector. Try to find an inspector with many years of experience and a reputation for comprehensive thoroughness. Once you have a detailed report, you’ll be able to address these issues with the sellers, the agent, and the sellers’ home inspector.