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

Buyer Alleges Faulty Home Inspection

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We purchased our home 1 1/2 years ago, and our home inspector missed a number of problems. These include rotten eave boards, a bad roof, a rusted water heater, garage door openers not equipped with safety eyes, rotted window frames, an unvented kitchen stovetop, a broken vent on the furnace, and the list goes on. We trusted him because he was recommended by our Realtor. Do we have any recourse? Sandra

Dear Sandra: The first step in the process of recourse is to notify the home inspector and the agent that these problems were not disclosed. You should invite them to your home for a review of these issues. And be sure to do this before making any repairs because corrected problems are not as negotiable as existing ones. Be aware also that not all of the issues you listed are within the scope of a home inspection and some may not involve actual defects. Here are some examples:

  • Rotting wood at the eaves and windows may or may not be included in the scope of the inspection. You should check the inspection contract in that regard. Termite inspectors are the ones who typically inspect for rotted wood.
  • Older garage door openers were not required to have safety eyes.
  • In most states, venting is not required at a kitchen range.

On the other hand, the rusted water heater, the broken furnace vent, and the faulty roof should have been disclosed by the inspector if the problems were visible at the time of the inspection.

It is an unfortunate reality of the real estate business that some agents cannot be trusted to recommend the best home inspectors. This does not apply to all agents, but it does apply to some. Therefore, your agent should be asked, “Was this the most thorough and experienced home inspector you know?” In most cases, agents know which inspectors are the best. If you can get the name of a “top gun” home inspector in your area, a second inspection would be advisable. This may alert you to additional problems that may have been missed by the agent’s inspector.

Did Home Inspector Compromise Disclosure

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When I bought my home, the seller paid for the home inspection. That was a red flag that I failed to heed. Now that I’ve moved into the home, it’s clear that the inspector, who was recommended by the real estate agent, was working for the seller’s interests, not mine. The fireplace was not even included in the inspection, and a chimney sweep has now discovered loose bricks, requiring $300 of repair. And yesterday, I learned that the debris on the skylights is actually dried tape, used to seal the cracks and to secure the loose frames. The cost to replace the five bad skylights will be nearly $800. I should have hired my own home inspector, someone who would look out for my interests. Is there any recourse for me at this point? Helen

Dear Helen: Complaints about substandard home inspections are among the most common subjects in my email inbox. In most cases, however, faulty inspections occur when inspectors are unqualified and inexperienced; not because of deliberate intentions by inspectors to favor the interests of sellers. Reports of inspectors who compromise disclosure for the sake of agent referrals are often heard, but in my experience such inspectors are rare. Most home inspectors are painfully aware of the legal and financial liability associated with incomplete disclosure and are unwilling to take such risks for fraudulant short-term gains. In fact, there are many home inspectors who would inspect a home with the same degree of thoroughness whether the inspection were being done for the buyer, the seller, or the inspector’s own family.

In your case, the inspector, regardless of motives, appears to have done a very substandard inspection. Fireplaces are included in the Standards of Practice of all recognized home inspector associations, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI). Failure to inspect the fireplace indicates a significant lack of professionalism. Equally problematic is the inspector’s failure to identify the defective skylights. This should have been part of the roof inspection, also specified in the Standards of Practice for the profession.

The responsibility for the inadequate inspection is shared, of course, by the agent who recommended the inspector. Real estate professionals are familiar with the inspectors who work in their areas of business. They know which inspectors perform thorough and comprehensive evaluations of homes. Fortunately, there are agents who routinely recommend the best inspectors. Unfortunately, there are other agents who view such inspectors as “deal killers” and who avoid those inspectors when making referrals to clients.
Before you take action regarding the lack of disclosure, have your home reinspected by someone who is truly qualified. This will probably inform you of additional defects, not yet discovered and not reported by the seller’s inspector. Try to find an inspector with many years of experience and a reputation for comprehensive thoroughness. Once you have a detailed report, you’ll be able to address these issues with the sellers, the agent, and the sellers’ home inspector.

No Water Service During Home Inspection

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The sellers of the house we are buying have turned off the water service. Our home inspector was concerned about this, but dismissed it when the sellers told him they did it because the house was vacant. But this leaves us with lingering doubts. Perhaps there are some plumbing problems, such as leaks, that they’re hiding. What do you think we should do? Yehuda

Dear Yehuda: For a qualified home inspector, the sellers’ reasons for turning off the water service are irrelevant. The inspector’s singular objective is to evaluate pertinent aspects of the property, and that includes the operational condition of the plumbing system. Without water service, a plumbing evaluation is not possible, and the home inspection cannot be completed.

When any utility service is off during a home inspection, the inspection report should state that the inspection could not be completed and that the service should be restored to enable completion of the inspection prior to close of escrow. Without water, it is not possible to evaluate the performance of the sinks, faucets, drains, toilets, tubs, showers, dishwasher, garbage disposal, water heater, etc. Neither is it possible to check the water pressure, to inspect fittings for leaks, or to determine if water volume is reduced when multiple fixtures are in use.

If your home inspector did not stipulate that the water should be turned on to enable a full inspection, then you are not dealing with a qualified inspector. In that case, you should find another inspector and insist that there be functional water service when the inspection is performed.

Dear Barry: When I bought my house, the home inspector found no problem with the fireplace. But now, a chimney maintenance company has reported some issues. First, there is no firebrick on the sides of the firebox — just mortar and stone construction. While these sidewalls are greater than 12 inches thick, I was advised not to use the fireplace until it is verified that these walls are solid masonry, with no cavities. Also, the smoke chamber was built with corbelled walls (stepped) rather than smooth walls. I was told that this encourages creosote build-up, increasing the likelihood of a chimney fire, and was advised not to use the fireplace until a ceramic coating has been applied. Do you think the inspector is liable for repair costs? Bill

Dear Bill: If the sidewalls are as thick as they appear, without cavities, then the fixture is probably safe to use. If the corbelled masonry is intact and does not appear to be causing a build-up of creosote, it may also be safe to use. However, since these conditions indicate noncompliance with current fireplace standards, a home inspector would be prudent in recommending further evaluation by a qualified fireplace expert. If the inspector made no such recommendation, he may be insufficiently familiar with fireplace issues. In that case, he could be liable for failure to report suspect conditions. On the other hand, if these conditions do not manifest any safety-related problems, there may be no cause to take issue with the inspector. Either way, you should notify the inspector regarding your concerns and ask that he take a second look at the fireplace.

Competence & Ethics in Real Estate Disclosure

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: As a buyer of homes in several states, I find the practice of real estate disclosure to be an unethical mess. In some states, disclosure is mandatory for sellers and agents, while in others, the laws are full of loopholes. Sellers rarely know what defects to disclose, and the agents wouldn’t recognize a defect if it was labeled. But the real slap in the face is from agents who recommend incompetent home inspectors. I never know the true condition of a home until I move in. If I then complain about the lack of disclosure, the sellers claim that they didn’t know, the agents pass the legal buck to the home inspector, and the inspector recites a list of disclaimers in the inspection contract. Disclosure, it seems, is a sad joke, but everyone is safe behind the letter of the law. This may be a rhetorical question, but what ever happened to disclosing defects simply because it’s the right thing to do? Harold

Dear Harold: Defect disclosure is hampered in two significant ways, and you have raised both issues. The first is the inability of many sellers, agents, or home inspectors to provide adequate disclosure. The second is a failure of some to recognize the ethical importance of disclosure.

Sellers in most states must provide a written statement of known defects. These disclosure statements rarely contain pertinent information because the majority of residential defects involve issues that homeowners seldom see and probably wouldn’t recognize, such as improper wiring in a breaker panel or a chimney defect in the attic. Sellers who are serious about disclosure should hire a qualified home inspector for a presale inspection.

Realtors in most states are required to disclose what they know. Degrees of compliance vary from one individual to the next, depending on what they learned in kindergarten. But the real litmus test of disclosure ethics involves the choice of home inspectors that agents refer to their trusting clients. Agents become familiar with the relative abilities of local inspectors. They know which inspectors are more or less thorough in their findings, and these impressions are widely discussed within real estate offices. For the agents who are truly ethical, only the most thorough inspectors will do for their clients. For the ethically disabled, those who had problems learning sandbox etiquette, the best inspectors are known as “deal killers.”

Home inspectors vary widely in their abilities to discover and disclose defects. The reason for this disparity is that home inspection is a learn-as-you-go business. It is not possible to be qualified at defect discovery without having been a full-time inspector for several years. This means that new inspectors must learn their trade at the expense of the first customers. After several hundred substandard inspections, the new inspector begins to catch on. After a few thousand, true competence begins to manifest. To paraphrase an old adage, “There are new home inspectors and true home inspectors, but there are no new, true home inspectors.”

Buyers can obtain adequate disclosure if they understand these realities. When you buy, don’t expect much in the way of disclosure from sellers or agents. They probably don’t have much to disclose and may or may not be committed to the ethical demands of the disclosure process. Instead, try to find a home inspector who is truly qualified: someone who has many years of experience, who has inspected thousands of properties, and who has a reputation for detailed, uncompromised thoroughness. A top-gun home inspector will provide the disclosure you’re seeking, and for once, you’ll know what you’re buying, before you buy it.

Inspector’s Report Dry on Lawn Wet Spot

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We just bought our first house and hired a home inspector before signing the contract. During the inspection, my husband noticed a wet spot in the yard and pointed this out. The inspector said it was probably due to the recent rain and advised us not to worry. But after we moved in, the spot remained wet during the hot, dry months. We emailed the inspector about this and he said we probably have a leak somewhere. So now what do we do? Dawn

Dear Dawn: When a home inspector sees a wet spot in a yard, all possible causes should be considered; not just one. A more complete disclosure in the inspection report would have been, “Wet spot on lawn may be due to recent rains, but faulty ground drainage or plumbing leakage are also possible causes. Further evaluation is recommended to ensure against leakage. If no leak is detected, site drainage improvements may be needed.”

Incomplete disclosure has exposed the home inspector to some degree of liability. If a plumbing repair is needed, he may be willing to assist in the repair. Faulty site drainage, if it affects the lawn area but not the buildings on the property, and if no soil erosion is occurring, may not be a serious problem. Again, further evaluation is needed.