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

Buyer Worried About Nonpermitted Fixtures

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:The home I am buying has fixtures that were installed by the sellers themselves, without permits. These include the 8-year-old heating and air conditioning system and the 10-year-old water heater. Should I accept these fixtures as they are or should I insist that they be permitted?  Susan

Dear Susan:  If the HVAC system and water heater were installed without permits, and particularly if they were installed by nonprofessionals, it is almost certain that they are not installed to code, and this could involve significant safety violations. The fixtures should be evaluated by a licensed plumbing and HVAC contractor, as well as by your home inspector, to verify the safety and integrity of these systems. If problems are found, you should request that the sellers make all necessary repairs.

The 10-year-old water heater is already past its expected useful life and will probably need replacement soon. Therefore, obtaining a permit at this late date is not a critical issue. The 8-year-old HVAC system, on the other hand, should still have years of remaining useful life. Therefore, it is recommended that an as-built permit be obtained for this system to enable the building department to inspect and approve the installation.

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.

Dog-Gone Landlord Makes Moldy Excuse

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: A few weeks ago, my landlord installed an old, unvented gas heater in my apartment. Whenever I use it, the place becomes as humid as a steam room, and mold has appeared on some of the walls. I’ve complained, but my landlord says the mold is caused by my dogs. Does that seem plausible, or is the mold caused by the heater?  Elizabeth

Dear Elizabeth: Mold is caused by excessive moisture. The exhaust from a gas-burning fixture is mainly carbon dioxide and steam. Most gas heaters are vented to the outside, but an unvented heater expels exhaust, including steam, inside the building. If the mold began after the heater was installed, then the cause is obviously moisture condensation from the steam that is emitted by the heater.

As for your landlord’s canine excuse, that’s a dogged ploy if I ever heard one. Who ever heard of mold being caused by dogs? The unvented heater is a health and safety hazard and should not be used. Furthermore, if combustion problems ever occur with that kind of heater, you could have carbon monoxide instead of carbon dioxide, and that could be deadly. Your landlord should address this matter immediately. First, the gas heater should be replaced with a vented heater, and the replacement should be done by a license heating contractor. Then, the mold should be mitigated by a qualified expert.

Buyer Concerned About Electric Heat in Ceiling

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’ve made an offer to buy a 40-year-old condo with electric radiant heat in the ceilings. So far, I haven’t been able to confirm that the heat is working. Our home inspector said he wasn’t sure. So what should I do next, hire an electrician? If the heating doesn’t work, is the seller obligated to fix it? Kelly

Dear Kelly: Home inspectors can verify the function of radiant ceiling heat in two easy steps: Step one is to turn on the thermostat in each room and then wait about 15 to 20 minutes, while inspecting other aspects of the property. Step two is to carry a ladder from room to room and to place one’s hands on the ceiling surfaces. If the ceiling feels warm, the radiant heating is functional.

You don’t need to hire an electrician. Instead, call your home inspector and ask that the heating inspection be completed. If the system is not operative, you can request that the seller have it repaired. The seller may not be required to make these repairs, but you can argue that a home without a functional heating system is not a legal dwelling.

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.