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

Home Inspector Overlooked Furnace Problem

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:Before we bought our home, we hired an ASHI certified home inspector. We were with him for most of the inspection, but he didn’t spend much time looking at the furnace, and now we have a major problem. The inspection report says the system is “normal,” whatever that means, and recommends “routine maintenance and cleaning.” When we moved in, we hired a heating contractor to clean and service the unit, as recommended by the inspector. The heating guy removed the cover panel and found large rust holes on the inside. The unit puts out carbon monoxide, so it has to be replaced. All our home inspector did was shine a flashlight into a small opening, without removing the cover panel. When we called him about this, he said, “I told you to have the heater cleaned before closing escrow.”  But the inspection report says nothing about before the close. Do you think our home inspector was negligent?  Randy

Dear Randy:  Inspecting a furnace without removing the cover panels is grossly negligent. It makes as much sense as a podiatrist examining your feet without first removing your shoes. If a home inspector or foot doctor is conducting a diagnosis, visual access is essential.

If your home inspector is certified by ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors, he must comply with ASHI Standards of Practice. According to these standards, “the inspector shall inspect the installed heating equipment.” And the definition of “inspect,” according to ASHI standards includes “opening readily openable access panels.” Therefore, failure to remove the access panels on your furnace was a violation of professional standards.

If the heating contractor was able to see rust damage merely by removing the access panels, then your home inspector should have discovered the damage and should now take responsibility for a substandard inspection. If he recommended cleaning and servicing the furnace prior to close, that recommendation should have been in the written report. Verbal recommendations that differ from the written report are legally invalid.

The next question for you home inspector is, “Do you have errors and omissions insurance?” If not, you might consider small claims court.

Dear Barry: We were about to buy an old home until we learned that it has asbestos shingle siding. We’ve read that this material is safe if it is not damaged, but we’re worried about future problems. What do you recommend?  Lane

Dear Lane: Asbestos shingle siding was commonly installed in the 1940’s and early 50’s. It consists of a material knows as transite, a mixture of cement and asbestos fibers. Transite is not regarded as a significant health hazard because it does not release asbestos fibers into the air unless it is ground into dust with power tools.

If you intend to remove or alter the transite shingles, handling, removal, and disposal should be assigned to a specially licensed professional, and this can be very costly. When you eventually resell the home, the presence of asbestos material must be disclosed, and this can adversely affect the interest of some buyers (just as you were deterred), regardless of the relative safety of the material.

Sellers Withhold Disclosure of Defects

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The home that I’m buying has been vacant for two years, and the sellers have not been truthful about its condition. Their disclosure statement says the furnace is in perfect working order, and they listed no other defects. Last week, I called the gas company to turn on the service and to light the furnace. They red-tagged the furnace as “inoperable” and said they had previously informed the owners of this problem. They also told the owners that the copper gas piping needs to be replaced. The sellers have now agreed to replace the gas lines, but they want me to replace the furnace at my own expense. What should I do?  Diana

Dear Diana: Aside from the debate about who should pay for a new furnace, there is a larger question that involves trust and credibility. The sellers have demonstrated the intent to misrepresent the condition of the home, to conceal the fact that the furnace is defective and in need of replacement. This opens the door to additional uncertainties. What other disclosures might they also have withheld? Possibly none, but now you have to wonder.

Another consideration is this: A home is not a legal dwelling unless it has a functional heating system that complies with minimum standards, according to code. From that perspective, the sellers should pay a qualified contractor to replace the furnace, to make the home a livable dwelling before they sell it.

If the home is a particularly good deal, you might be willing to accept it in as-is condition, without replacement of the furnace as a precondition. That is an investment decision you will have to make. But before you proceed with the transaction, be sure to hire the most qualified and experienced home inspector you can find. The sellers are clearly not providing disclosure. Therefore, you need an advocate who definitely will.

Faulty Furnace Was Not Disclosed

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our home, the sellers said that everything was functional, which included the central heating and air conditioning system. On the day of our home inspection, the summer temperature was over 90 degrees outside, so the inspector tested the air conditioning but not the heat. Yet his inspection report said that the entire HVAC system was functional. Well, it turned out when winter came that the furnace would not work. The heating contractor we called found several problems, including a cracked heat exchanger. So now the furnace has to be replaced. Who is responsible to pay for this? George

Dear George: The sellers could be liable if the furnace was inoperative or had obvious defects while they owned the property. But that may not be provable. The sellers may in fact have been unaware of any furnace problems, even though it was defective at the time. The home inspector, however, is clearly liable for approving the condition of a furnace without testing it and without recommending further evaluation.

Operating and inspecting a furnace is standard procedure for home inspectors. If an inspector does not operate a heating system, because of hot weather or for any other reason, the report should clearly state that the system was not tested. The condition of the furnace should then be regarded as an unresolved issue, and the inspector should recommend further evaluation prior to close of escrow. A home inspector who discloses a system as functional when it has not even been operated is grossly negligent and should be held to account for that professional breach.

You should notify the sellers and the home inspector of this situation and insist that they take some responsibility for replacing your furnace.

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.

Agent Concealed Major Furnace Defects

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our home just over a year ago, we hired a home inspector and addressed all the issues he disclosed. The listing Realtor, at the time, gave us a letter stating that the furnace had been cleaned. But last month, we awoke to a house full of smoke because the heater burned out. The heating contractor we called said he had inspected the furnace one year earlier and had told the Realtor that the system had major problems. He recalled her being angry and saying that she’d call another contractor. She never mentioned any of this to us, so now we’re stuck with a worthless furnace and are probably lucky to be alive. What should we do, and who should we contact? Dianne

Dear Dianne: The conduct of the Realtor, as you describe it, is beyond unethical: It amounts to criminal negligence. It involves failure to disclose major furnace problems that could have endangered the lives of your family.

Of further concern is the home inspector’s failure to disclose major furnace problems. He may have been professionally negligent, depending on what conditions were visible at the time of the inspection. But this barely compares with the deliberate concealment by the Realtor.

Here are a few things you can do:

1) You can obtain a letter from your heating contractor, documenting his encounter with the Realtor when he discovered major problems with the furnace.

2) You can have your home reinspected to test the overall thoroughness of the original home inspection. This time, find someone with many years of experience and a reputation for thoroughness.

3) You can have an attorney notify the Realtor that she is liable for replacement of the furnace and could face further liability for deliberately concealing a significant safety hazard.

Agents of that caliber should not be allowed to practice real estate.