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

Bank repossession for red tagged water heater

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We purchased a home that was repossessed by the bank, and we hired a home inspector to check it out. After moving in, the gas company red-tagged the water heater because of improper exhaust venting. The gasman said this should have been disclosed by our home inspector, and according to our plumber, a new vent pipe will cost $629. Is the home inspector liable for this costly repair? Lillian

Dear Lillian: Without knowing the specifics of the vent violation, I cannot comment on whether the home inspector should have disclosed it. The most surprising aspect of your situation, however, is the incredible cost for a new vent pipe. For $629, you could have a new water heater installed.

As for the home inspector’s liability: If you have not already replaced the vent pipe, you should notify your inspector about the problem and request that it be reinspected. That call should have been made as soon as the gas company pointed out the problem. Many home inspection contracts specify that the inspector must be given the opportunity to view the defect before it is repaired. Otherwise, the home inspector may be relieved of liability.

If the vent pipe has already been replaced, you have two separate issues: 1) You may have been grossly overcharged for the repairs; and 2) The home inspector may no longer be liable. If the repairs have not yet been done, call the home inspector and get two more bids for the cost of repairs. The House Detective

Inspector say old water is good – gasman says it’s unsafe.

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we purchased our house, our home inspector said the water heater was an old model but was in useable condition. After moving in, we called the gas company to light the burner pilot, and the gasman red-tagged the unit, refusing to light it. According to the gas company, the water heater is unsafe and should not be used. Do we have recourse against the home inspector? Frank

Dear Frank: The defining question in this situation is “What exactly is wrong with the water heater?” Without that information, it is not possible to fairly judge between the home inspector and the gasman.

A home inspector should disclose conditions that are visible at the time of the inspection, and with water heaters, the possibilities are numerous. For example, there could be rust damage in the burner compartment, a defective flue pipe, a detached flue baffle, a faulty gas connection, improper gas piping, an unstable platform, lack of a temperature pressure relief valve, flue contact with combustible materials, soot in the burner compartment or in the flue, a damaged or missing draft diverter, back-drafting of combustion exhaust, and so on. Some of these conditions would necessitate replacement of the water heater, while others would be repairable.

One possibility is that the water heater is so old (mid-1960s or earlier) that it does not have an orifice for installing a relief valve. Most water heaters of that age have long since found passage to the nearest landfill, but a few of these antiques are still in service and are in need of replacement. A defect of that nature would call for replacement of the fixture.

In most cases, the gas company specifies the nature of defects when they issue a “red tag” on any gas-burning fixture. If you check the tag, you’ll probably discover what they found. In any event, the home inspector should be contacted regarding reinspection and reconsideration of the water heater. If he missed a visible defect, he may be liable for repairs.

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.