Q. I am a Realtor and am having a problem with damage done during a home inspection. The property is one of my listings, so I represent the seller. The inspector was testing the whirlpool tub in the master bathroom and forgot to turn it off. The water level was too low because of a leak, and this caused the pump motor to burn out. The seller said the whirlpool was working before the inspection, but now it is inoperative, and the motor needs to be replaced. The buyer and inspector were the only ones home during the inspection. Who is responsible for the cost of repair?
A. There are two answers to this question. The real estate purchase contract probably holds the buyer responsible for any damage that occurs during inspections authorized by the buyer. This, however, does not relieve the home inspector from liability on the basis of professional ethics. The buyer, therefore, is liable to the seller, but the home inspector is liable to the buyer.
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In the course of a career, most home inspectors will have caused and paid for some kind of property damage. One inspector told me that he tipped over and broke a flower pot that turned out to be an expensive piece of ceramic. Another inspector said that he was filling the bathtub to test the whirlpool pump. At that moment, the buyer asked, "Could you please take a look at something in the garage?" By the time the inspector remembered the bathtub test, two rooms had been flooded. A third home inspector admitted that he forgot to turn off the oven before leaving the property. When the buyers returned from vacation five days later, the house was a virtual sauna, the decorative candles on the fireplace mantle had melted, and the gas bill for that month was as large as a car payment.
In each case, the inspector accepted professional responsibility and paid for the damages. The first inspector paid for the flower pot. The second hired a casualty repair company to dry the carpets and replace the damaged drywall. The third inspector paid for the gas bill and replacement of damaged personal property.
Everyone makes mistakes, and one quality of a true professional is to accept the consequences when mistakes happen, which brings us back to the burned out motor at your listing.
When a home inspector tests a whirlpool tub, he should watch the system while it is operating to check for leaks and other functional or safety-related problems. When he is through with that part of the inspection, the pump should be turned off, and the tub should be drained. If the pump in this case was left on long enough to burn out, the home inspector probably walked away, not realizing that it had been left on. If that is the case, then he is liable for momentary negligence and should pay for the repair. That is what a professional inspector with a sense of integrity would do. To do otherwise would damage his reputation and cost him future referrals from the buyer's agent and from other agents who learn of the incident.
• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at www.housedetective.com, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.
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