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

Unfair Blaming of Home Inspectors

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: As a home inspector for many years, I’ve been caught in the “you-broke-it,–you-pay-to-fix-it” bind. My question is simple: When is a home inspector responsible for things that break? Tile roofs are not designed to be walked on, so a home inspector should pay for tiles that break under foot. But I’ve been asked to repair wood trim because I pushed my finger through some dryrot. I’ve paid for faucets that would not turn off after being operated, for a garage door that disconnected from its track when I tested it, and for a casement window that fell from its frame when opened. Is it right for home inspectors to bear the costs of such repairs? Marshall

Dear Marshall: Your dilemma is the common experience of most home inspectors. Nearly all can relay stories of unfair liability; of fixtures that chose the moment of the inspector’s touch to leak, break, disassemble, or otherwise fail to function.

There was the main water shutoff valve that wouldn’t reopen after the inspector turned it off. The inner parts of that 30-year-old valve were totally corroded, awaiting the moment when some unsuspecting soul would turn it off. That someone was the home inspector; so he had to buy a new valve.

There was the old garage door opener that would not reverse and might have injured or killed someone caught beneath it. When the home inspector tested it, his resistance caused the chain to break. The old opener needed to be replaced anyway because it did not comply with current child safety standards. But because it broke when tested, it became the home inspector’s responsibility.

There was the microwave oven, which, according to the seller, had worked that morning. But when tested by the home inspector, it was suddenly unresponsive to the control buttons. All the inspector had done was press the time controls, but his presence when the fixture died was enough to require his purchase of a new unit.

There was the forced air furnace that worked perfectly during the course of the home inspection but was suddenly inoperative that evening when the homeowner returned from work. All the inspector had done was turn it on, watch it run, and turn it off. But he was the last one to operate the old system prior to its unexpected expiration. So, repair costs were demanded of the inspector.

And of course, there is the touchy subject of tile roof inspections. Obviously, a home inspector should pay for tiles that are broken during the inspection. But what about the inspector who discovers tiles that are already broken and is then accused of having broken those tiles?

These situations are the real-life experiences of home inspectors who perform their professional duties in an honest and diligent manner. There are times when home inspectors are truly liable for damages that occur in the course of an inspection. But there are as many cases where liability is unfairly imposed on home inspectors. In many instances, inspectors pay for these arbitrary claims, simply to main good customer relations. Justice and equity can be desired in these situations, but can only be found on a hit-and-miss basis.

Home Inspector Misses Hole in Furnace

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We purchased a house last week, and our home inspector found no problems with the forced air furnace. But when the man from the gas company came to turn on the service, he said there is a hole in the heat exchanger, and he “red flagged” the furnace as unsafe and unusable. What recourse do we have? Thomas

Dear Thomas: Heat exchangers are routinely disclaimed by home inspectors because they are located within the recesses of the furnace and are largely inaccessible. Cracks or holes in heat exchangers often occur in places that are not visible without dismantling the furnace, and such conditions are considered to be outside the scope of a home inspection.

A fair rebuttal to this disclaimer is that some portions of heat exchangers are exposed to view at the burner access, and home inspectors are supposed to disclose defects that are visible and accessible. The deciding factor in your case is that the hole in the heat exchanger may have been visible without dismantling the furnace. What also matters is whether there were any other indications of furnace damage. For example, if there were any irregularities in the flame pattern or the flame color, or if there was rust or soot in the burner chamber, or if there were black stains on the walls or ceilings near the air registers, such conditions would have been warning signs indicating possible damage to the heat exchanger.

Any observable defects in the heating system should have been reported by the home inspector, with a recommendation for further evaluation by a licensed HVAC contractor. If visible conditions such as these were overlooked, the inspector is liable.

Dear Barry: I’m not sure how often to have my septic tank pumped, but I’ve heard two opinions on the subject. Some say I should pump the system every 1-2 years. Others say, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Just leave it alone unless there’s a problem. Some even say that needless pumping can cause loosened solids to clog the leach lines. It’s been twelve years since my septic system has been pumped. What do you recommend? Ken

Dear Ken: The septic opinions you’ve heard are incorrect in opposite extremes. Pumping the tank every 1-2 years is needlessly excessive. As long as the bacterial environment in the tank is good, the solids should continue to decompose, and as long as the leach field was property installed and is not too old, the liquids should continue to be absorbed into the earth through the leach lines.

Maintaining the bacterial balance in the tank can be done simply and inexpensively. There are common products for this purpose, available in hardware stores. All that is needed is to flush the contents down the toilet once or twice a year. And care should be taken not to drain strong laundry detergents or other chemicals into the system.

To ensure that the system is performing adequately, the tank should probably be pumped every five years. The idea that pumping will clog the leach field is unfounded: pumping removes the solids from the system before they can flow downstream to the leach lines.

If you’ve gone 12 years without the system being pumped and inspected, you’re long overdue and should have this done soon.

Home Inspector Didn’t Operate Heater

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When I purchased my home, it was the middle of the summer and very hot, so my home inspector did not test the forced air furnace. Months later, when the cold weather arrived, I found the heater to be inoperative, and the contractor I called said the system is unsafe. The repair costs are more than I can afford. Should I go after the inspector for negligence, the sellers for nondisclosure, or both? Chris

Dear Chris: The home inspector may or may not have been negligent, depending on what was stated in the inspection report. Furnace inspections are among the most important aspects of a home inspection because of the potential for hazardous conditions and the high costs of repair or replacement of equipment. Home inspectors should operate and inspect them, regardless of the weather. Unfortunately, some thermostats are unable to activate a heating system when the air temperature is above 90 degrees. But this does not mean that the furnace inspection should simply be dismissed.

If a home inspector, for any reason, is unable to operate a furnace, the inspection report should recommend reinspection prior to close of escrow or evaluation by a licensed heating contractor. If your inspector did neither, then he was negligent and could be liable for the cost of repairs. You should contact him in this regard.

Of equal concern is the question of disclosure by the sellers. If the heating system was inoperable before the property was sold and the sellers were aware of that fact, they should have disclosed this to all concerned parties. Failure to provide such disclosure could render them liable. On the other hand, it is possible that they had no knowledge of the problem. For example, if the home had been used as a rental or had been vacant for a prolonged period, the sellers may not have known that the furnace was inoperative. In any event, the sellers, along with the home inspector, should be notified that this problem has come to light.