Q. We have an asbestos problem that involves our home inspector. Before we bought our home, we explained to our inspector that we planned to remodel the interior. Now the work has come to a screeching halt because our contractor discovered asbestos in the textured ceilings. Removal is estimated to cost nearly $5,000. We checked the home inspection report, and not one word was mentioned about asbestos. Our home inspector claims that asbestos issues are not included in a home inspection. According to our contractor, acoustic ceilings are commonly known to contain asbestos, and this should have been pointed out by the inspector. Who should we believe? Is it the responsibility of home inspectors to disclose the presence of asbestos?
A. As a general rule, home inspectors do not include asbestos information in their reports, and most inspection contracts disclaim responsibility for environmental hazards of any kind. Additionally, all of the state and national home inspector associations specifically exclude asbestos disclosure from their professional standards of practice. Furthermore, an inspector must be AHERA certified, as required by the Asbestos Hazards Emergency Response Act, in order to legally provide asbestos disclosures. Most home inspectors do not hole this credential. The result is nondisclosure of typical asbestos conditions, even when the inspector may be fully aware of them.
Nevertheless, there are home inspectors who step outside the bounds of these restrictions. Some inspectors regard themselves as the hired advocates of their clients and strive to provide any information that would be in the clients' best interests, even when this exceeds professional standards. Other inspectors are so concerned about liability that they disclose suspected asbestos materials to avoid being blamed for nondisclosure. These maverick inspectors give rise to heated controversy within the home inspection profession.
For those inspectors who wish to inform their clients of possible asbestos conditions, without running afoul of laws and restrictions, there is a simple approach. Inspection reports can state the following: "Acoustic sprayed ceilings may contain asbestos. For more information, a certified asbestos specialist should be consulted." These two short sentences alert the client to potential problems without overstepping the inspector's legal bounds or professional standards of practice. Unfortunately, this kind of disclosure can open a Pandora's box of additional liability for the home inspector.
When home inspectors make an exception for one kind of asbestos-containing material, homebuyers may then claim, "Why didn't you also tell us that there may be asbestos in the drywall joint compound, the vinyl flooring, the flooring adhesive, the air duct insulation, etc.?" Then they can ask, "Why didn't you also tell us about lead in the paint, lead in the ceramic tiles, urea formaldehyde in the new carpet, electromagnetic radiation from the microwave oven, mold spores in the air, and all the other environmental hazards that were not mentioned in the home inspection report?"
In a world of endless liability claims, home inspectors are caught in webs of difficult choices. Some take the chance of disclosing issues such as likely asbestos in textured ceilings. Others are simply afraid to open what could be a costly can of legal worms.
• 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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