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

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.

Home Inspector Missed Cracked Furnace

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I recently bought my first home and was extremely proud of myself because I’m just 23 years old. I found an older home that needed some work and hired a home inspector who was recommended by my Realtor. The inspector found a few minor problems, so I bought the house. But 5 months later, the heating system failed. The repairman said the heat exchanger was cracked and was giving off carbon monoxide. If my home inspector had told me this, I could have had the sellers replace the furnace, or I could have bought another house. What can I do now? Julie

Dear Julie: If you haven’t already replaced the damaged furnace, you should contact your home inspector immediately and request a reinspection of the heating system. If the crack or any related defects are visible and accessible, then the home inspector would be liable for failing to disclose those conditions.

In many cases, cracks in a heat exchanger are located within the dark recesses of a furnace and are not visible to a home inspector. Sometimes, however, there are symptoms that can alert a home inspector to potential problems with the heat exchanger, such as irregular flame pattern, abnormal flame color, or soot near warm air registers or inside the flue pipe.

The big question, therefore, is whether faulty furnace conditions were visible at the time of the inspection. If so, then the inspector would bear some liability for negligence. Be aware, however, that the degree of liability could be limited by the wording of the inspection contract, by state laws, and by the inspector’s willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of a professional error.

Dear Barry: We are first-time homebuyers and have made an offer on the condo we are presently renting. We’re trying to decide whether to get a home inspection, and several friends have advised us to save our money. They say we can do away with it because the condo is priced very low and the equity will more than cover the cost of needed repairs. Are we taking a big risk if we buy without having an inspection? Jean

Dear Jean: My email box is littered with laments from homebuyers who bought homes without having them inspected. In many cases, their decisions were based on well-meaning advice from friends and relatives or inexcusable advice from misguided agents.
The reasons given for bypassing an inspection are numerous and always erroneous. For example, your friends say the equity in your condo will enable you to pay for needed repairs. But how will you know what those repairs are if you don’t hire a qualified home inspector? If there are problems with the electrical wiring, the plumbing, or the heating system, symptoms may not be evident until serious consequences occur.

Regardless of low price and high equity, you need to know the true condition of the home you are buying. You need to know that systems are not only functional, but safe and in compliance with applicable building standards. You’re preparing to buy a commodity that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Spend a few hundred dollars to protect that investment. But before you do, be sure to find the most qualified and experienced home inspector available.

Inspector Misses Recalled Furnace

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we purchased our home, the home inspection report listed the furnace as “serviceable.” After moving in, we had problems with heating, so we called a heating contractor. He said we have a Premier furnace that was recalled because of major safety problems. So now we have to buy a new furnace. Our Realtor says the home inspector is responsible. But the home inspector says he can’t be expected to know about every product that’s been recalled. Is the home inspector liable for having approved the furnace, or are we stuck with the expense ourselves? Jessica

Dear Jessica: Home inspectors, in most cases, are not liable for product recall notices. But the Premier furnace matter is not a typical recall. It is probably the most widely publicized, most well known recall to occur in many years. It has been a frequent subject of discussion among home inspectors, and even among Realtors, since 1999, the topic of seminars, trade journals, even newspaper articles.

It would be difficult for a home inspector to have missed the issue, unless he were new to the inspection business. For a qualified home inspector, failure to recognize a Premier furnace as a potential safety hazard constitutes professional negligence.

It should be noted, however, that not all Premier furnaces are subject to the recall. This only applies to models equipped with nox rods in the burner chambers. These fixtures can be identified by the “x” at the end of the model number. On the other hand, Premier models that are not subject to the recall often have problems with the venting of combustion exhaust. A home inspector who carefully examines furnaces while they are in operation would notice this.

Your home inspector should reconsider the matter of his liability and let this be a professional learning experience.