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posted: 12/21/2012 5:44 AM

Home inspector: Faulty outlet fried appliances

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Q. About five years ago, we built a detached garage in our back yard. All of the work was inspected and passed by the county building inspector. The electrician who was hired to do the wiring installed an RV receptacle, but we never used it until just recently when we bought a new fifth wheel. When we plugged the RV into the outlet, the power fried all of the built-in appliances. The outlet that the electrician installed was intended for a 110-volt plug but was wired to a 220-volt circuit. We tried to call the electrician, but he is no longer in business. The only other responsible party is the county building department. Are they liable since they approved the work?

A. Municipal building departments and their inspectors are exempt from liability when they make errors in their inspections. In fact, that exemption is actually written into the building code. The building inspector, however, may not be at fault because final inspection of a building takes place before the power is turned on. Therefore, the outlet could not have been tested, and the faulty wiring would not necessarily have been observable.

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Although the electrician is no longer in business, he may still be liable for faulty work that was done before his business was closed. If you take this issue to small claims court, you might win a favorable judgment. But get some legal advice before proceeding in that direction.

Another possible solution is to file a claim on your homeowners insurance. The damage to your appliances may be covered by your policy.

Q. My neighbor's place is a mess. The yard is a collection of scrap building materials and junk cars, with tall weeds everywhere. Some of us in the neighborhood have complained repeatedly to the city. Last month, two city building inspectors and one fire department official inspected the property. They took photographs, but did not file a report, and nothing has been done to correct the situation. This lack of municipal action is unsettling. What is your opinion about this?

A. The condition of your neighbor's property, as you describe it, is an obvious fire hazard and may involve other health and safety violations. Why your local officials have not taken a more assertive approach is anyone's guess. But then, government agencies are rarely known for efficiency and expedience.

One way to spur bureaucrats into action is to complain to their bosses, the elected officials of your city or county. People in elected positions tend to be more responsive because they have to be rehired by the voters every few years, in contrast to civil servants who have tenured positions until retirement. My advice is to assemble a committee of neighbors. Schedule a meeting with a city council representative to discuss the inaction of the building and fire officials. And be sure to bring photos of the property to that meeting.

• Email questions to Barry Stone through his website, housedetective.com, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.

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