A recent comment on a post about home inspection scams caused me to think about a recent home inspection, and what I could have missed.
My home inspector completely missed that problem, so can I sue him? Is the inspector legally responsible for missing an issue with my home in his report? I had a bad home inspection, so what can I do about it? Valid questions, which do bring visitors to this blog. After being asked about a home inspector’s liability in a comment, I remembered a recent inspection, and how it could have gone bad.
Inspections are defined as being visual inspections in state codes, because inspectors cannot take the building apart. Even x-rays or infra-red detection devices do not tell the entire story. Visual in this case does not limit the inspector to simply walking around the home. In states where codes exist, an inspector is required to access areas which should be examined. Equipment with panels that can be removed, should be removed. For example, an outlet cover can be removed; the panel to a gas furnace can be removed; and the interior panel to a breaker box (service entrance panel) can be removed. The next step would be a question of safety. If I remove this panel, could I be harmed? Many inspectors will not remove the interior panel of an FPE breaker box, because these units are known to be dangerous. The next step after safety would be other access concerns. Often a home is inspected when the homeowner is moving out. Garages are used as storage space for their already packed goods. This may prevent an inspector from reaching a piece of equipment. In this case, most inspectors take the view that if the items can be easily removed and replaced, then they will do so to inspect the home.
I was faced with an unusual situation during a recent home inspection which will provide us with a real world scenario to examine. I knew the home had hot water. Since this was a stand alone home, I knew that the hot water was produced at the home. I mention this, because a condo complex could have its hot water produced at a central location. Typically places where a hot water heater can be stored: attic; garage; and a closet. The problem: I did not spot the water heater during my walk through. I went back through the house twice, but I could not find it.
I have read home inspection reports where an inspector stated that an item which should be inspected could not be found. The item will be marked as deficient or non-compliant as if the problem lies with the home. I decided that if I could not inspect the water heater, I would at least do my best to find its location. I started in the attic looking for clues. I went to each closet and wall to see if there was a space hidden away (I had found a water heater behind a sealed wall cavity in one home). I ended my search in the garage. Along one garage wall was a series of shelves, while the other walls were bare. When I thought about the layout of the home, I realized there may be a space behind those shelves. Removing boxes from the top of the shelving units, I found a gap behind one unit, and I could see the flue pipe for the water heater. At this point, I could have stopped. I could tell my client that the unit was not accessible. Here is the question for you: would I have met my legal obligations at that point? If I had stopped, I would have noted the situation on my home inspection report, and I would have offered to inspect it, once the shelves had been removed.
What I did on the inspection? I emptied the shelves. I began to see if I could pull the shelves away without breaking anything. Once I had a gap that I could squeeze through, I went into the water heater space. I inspected the unit. Afterwards, I moved everything back into position.
I think that I could have been faulted (held liable) if I had not made a determination of where the water heater is located. I have read inspection reports where inspectors did not bother to do a little bit of extra research, and I did not care for that habit. As for moving the shelving unit, I think that we have a gray area. If a home inspector had to spend his time moving furniture, boxes, or other objects, a home inspection could last for an entire day. However, there should be times when an inspector can move obstructions without a problem. Also, we have to consider the ability of the inspector. Does his/her physical condition prevent them from moving the shelves? I feel that this reasoning is used by inspectors when they do not want to walk a roof. Whether this is right or wrong will be a determination of the client. This is where also local regulations may help define reasonable. If moving the shelf might cause the unit or items near it to break, then the situation would be unreasonable to move the shelves. If the shelving unit was not heavy, and there was no chance of breaking anything, then it would be reasonable to expect me to move it. Another aspect for defining reasonable in the inspection process would be codes stating how an inspection is to be performed. If your state regulates home inspectors, then there will be codes regulating aspects of their job. For example, in Texas an inspector only has to carry a ladder that can reach the roof of a one story house. Although walking a roof of a two story house may be done by one inspector, legally it could be argued that it is not reasonable to expect all inspectors to walk a roof of a two story roof (I am the fool who always attempts to walk every roof). What do you consider reasonable?