What should a home inspector be held responsible for? Inspections are to be of visible items, and this may raise a question if they did their report correctly.
Last night I had a phone call about one of my posts, but the caller raised a question about home inspector responsibility. With the power being out last night due to a storm, I had time not to be distracted, so I thought about the implications of a visible inspection. Home inspections by definition are inspections of visible elements of the home. Infrared technology has expanded some reporting, but this is not that common, and an infrared inspection does not reveal all issues. Exactly what is behind that wall or concrete slab can only be known when those obstacles are removed, and no one is going to take a home apart to examine it. This call did present a unique scenario about reporting on visual issues.
I do not know the situation faced by this inspector at this home, so I will take examples from my own inspections to illustrate problems with visual inspections. I have known sellers to hide problems. Storing items around a problem area to prevent the inspector from seeing it happens often. I had a seller inform me that a particular set of boxes could be moved under no circumstances, because they contained delicate goods. From other evidence, I told my client that I thought there was a leak in that location. Turned out that I was right. Garages become storage areas in preparation for the move, so parts of the home may not be inspected simply because there is too much in the way. One homeowner had only a small path left in their garage, so there was no way for me to reach the electrical service panel of water heater. Another had blocked access to the attic (fortunately, the homeowner helped me move goods, so I could get into the attic). Sometimes furniture blocks outlets and panels. There are many obstacles to visually see elements in certain inspections.
There are times when a homeowner is not hiding a problem, but correcting one issue can hide another. A month ago I was walking through an attic that had new blown insulation. This was a small attic, and I could have stood at the entrance to see most things. I did walk this small attic, since that is what I am supposed to do, and I know that I could very well find a problem. I was lucky. Trying to find joists under the insulation for footing, I stumbled upon an open junction box. Once I discovered the first one, I began looking for others. I did find a different wiring issue, but finding another junction box was like finding a needle in a haystack. Let us pose a question here: if an inspector did not find this open junction box, would he be responsible if it was discovered as a problem later by the new homeowner? Here is my answer: if I only stayed at the attic entrance, and did not attempt to explore, then I should be held responsible; however, if I walked the attic, and did not find it, then I should not be held responsible. This is why an inspector should state how the attic was inspected, but what do you think of this situation?
Lets change the scene to a different problem. I mentioned before that I had a suspicion that there was a leak where the homeownerhad insisted that some boxes could not be moved. In the bathroom, there had been repairs done to the sink waste piping which made me curious. I reported this repair, because it was done badly. What if I had seen that a repair had been made, but it looked clean, like a professional may have fixed it? Here is one problem, I have seen professionals do sloppy jobs. What if the job looks sloppy, but it show no signs of being a problem? This is where I find a grey area. I may or may not mention that repairs have been made if the repairs were done properly, and I can find no issue. If the repair was sloppy or a patch job, then I think that I would mention it, even if there was not a problem. A homeowner is allowed to make repairs on their own home, and they are not going to always make perfect looking repairs, so I cannot say that a repair is a problem, unless there is an issue. The question becomes: was the repair so badly handled that the home inspector should have called it as an issue on their report? Then we have to define “so badly”, and this I think may be a matter of perception. Is one patch on a water pipe bad? Maybe not. What if there are several patches along the pipe? Maybe the pipe should have been replaced. If there is only one repaired section with no issue, we may say the inspector did not need to mention it. The pipe with several repairs, even without issues, could indicate more problems. Your thoughts?
If there is a question of doubt as to whether the home inspector should have reported a situation, then you may have to go to a higher authority. Backing up, you should discuss this with the home inspector first. If that talk does not resolve your problem, then go up the ladder. In states with a legal entity overseeing home inspectors, then you should go to that authority. In Texas, this would be TREC (Texas Real Estate Commission), which also handles situations with real estate agents. For other states, you can look at my “Information on Inspectors” page.