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.

Plumber Disagrees With Home Inspector

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  I am a real estate broker and am trying to resolve a difference of opinion between my plumber and my favorite home inspector. The inspector routinely cites water heaters that are installed without a drain pan, especially when the water heater is on a raised platform in a garage. He says a pan will prevent water damage if there is a leak. The plumber says there is no code requirement for a pan. Who is right, the home inspector or the plumber?  Leila 

Dear Leila:  Your question raises two separate issues. The first involves the plumbing code – whether or not the code actually requires a drain pan under a water heater. The second issue is the wording in the home inspection report. Did the inspector say that a drain pan is required by code or merely that a pan is advised to prevent water damage?

First, let’s look at the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC). According to UPC Section #510.7: “When a water heater is located in an attic or a furred space where damage may result from a leaking water heater, a watertight pan of corrosion resistant materials shall be installed beneath the water heater with a minimum three-quarter inch diameter drain to an approved location.”

This requirement names two situations where a drain pan is required under a water heater. The first in when the fixture is installed in an attic. Why a person would install a heavy water heater in an attic is a challenge to common sense, but that is not relevant to this discussion. The second and more pertinent situation is when a water heater is installed in “a furred space where damage may result from a leaking water heater.”

A “furred space” is a wall, ceiling, or floor surface that has been extended with additional construction material. An example of a furred space is a raised platform in a garage, on which a water heater is installed. When a water heater leaks onto the wood and drywall of the platform, moisture damage is likely to occur. To prevent such damage, a drain pan with a ¾-inch drainpipe is required by code.

Most home inspectors do not specifically cite building codes in their reports. Instead, they disclose conditions that are defective, unsafe, or that pose potential problems. Regardless of whether your home inspector mentioned the plumbing code, the recommendation for a drain pan under the water heater was valid, and the plumber should be made aware of section #510.7 of the code.

Aside from code requirements, it is hard to understand why a plumber who is installing a water heater would choose not to include a ten-dollar pan under the fixture. Sooner or later, nearly every water heater ends up leaking. A drain pan, known in the trade as a “smitty pan,” is very cheap insurance when you consider the costs of repairing and replacing damaged building materials, not to mention the potential consequences of mold infection. Instead of debating what is or isn’t required by code, plumbers should recommend smitty pans to all of their water heater customers and should agree with home inspectors who recommend drain pans.

Gas Water Heater Unsafe in Bathroom

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our house, the home inspector found no problems with the water heater. On moving day, the gas man had a different story. Instead of lighting the pilot, he capped off the gas and said it is illegal to have a gas water heater in a bathroom. He advised moving it to another location or replacing it with an electric water heater. The seller says he installed the water heater himself and that the previous water heater was in the same location. Is the seller required to move or replace the water heater since he is the one who installed it, or is this our problem?  Lauren

Dear Lauren: Your home inspector should have reported this problem. It is common knowledge among experienced inspectors that gas-fueled water heaters are prohibited in bathrooms. You should notify your inspector of the situation and request a reinspection. The seller, on the other hand, may be liable for installing a water heater without a permit, but most homeowners are unaware that permits are required for water heater replacement.

The purpose of a permit for water heater installations is to insure compliance with pertinent plumbing and safety codes, including the prohibition against placement in a bathroom. If the seller did not obtain a permit, he is in no position to defend the quality of the installation. This does not mean that he is contractually obligated, as a seller, to correct the problem, but you have a reasonable basis for demanding that he do so.

Water heaters are prohibited in bathrooms for two reasons: 1) Faulty exhaust venting can contaminate the air, causing asphyxiation; 2) Inadequate combustion air supply can reduce the oxygen level in the room. Either of these would be very dangerous for someone relaxing in a tub of hot water.

The code requirement is clear. Its intent is to save lives. The gas man was right. The water heater should be moved or replaced with an electric one.

Home Inspector Misjudges Water Heater

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:We just closed escrow on a home, and the day we moved in we found a flooded basement because the water heater had failed. But four weeks ago, our home inspector said the water heater would be good for many more years. Our plumber disagreed. He said the fixture was 10 years old, was rusted at the bottom, and was well past its normal lifespan. We paid our inspector $450 to let us know what was wrong with the house and then had to spend twice as much for repairs on moving day. Is our home inspector liable for this mistake?  Faith

Dear Faith: Experienced home inspectors know better than to predict the remaining life of an old water heater. Those who break that rule expose themselves to needless liability.

Home inspectors routinely determine the age of a water heater by reading the serial number on the label. If your inspector had done this, he might not have predicted years of continued use for the fixture. In fact, most home inspectors typically report that an older unit may soon fail.

Aside from the age of the fixture, your home inspector should have noticed the rust at the bottom of the tank, a clear indication of age and of past leakage. It appears, therefore, that he did not conduct a thorough inspection of the fixture.

Before you replaced the water heater, you should have notified your home inspector of the problem and given him the opportunity to review the damage. Some home inspection contracts require that the inspector see the defects in question, otherwise the inspector is absolved of liability. On the other hand, a written statement from the plumber who replaced the water heater will provide evidence in your favor. But first you must contact the inspector and let him know that this problem has occurred.

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