Varying standards among home inspectors
Q: After moving into our home, we noticed a gas smell near the fireplace and immediately called the gas company. They found a leak and turned off the gas service until our plumber could repair the problem. This cost us about $500. When we contacted the inspector, he told us gas leak detection is outside the scope of a home inspection. If he reported the fireplace as "operational," shouldn't he assume some responsibility for the undisclosed gas leak?
A: There are two general approaches among home inspectors regarding the extent of inspector liability. One is to view the scope of an inspection strictly in accord with minimum industry standards. The other is to make every reasonable effort to discover as many property defects as practically possible, given normal limitations.
There is something to be said in defense of both approaches, although one is clearly more commendable as an avenue for serving the best interests of homebuyers.
The approach that relies on standardized limitations is the inevitable response to the litigious business environment fostered by tort attorneys. Home inspectors, along with most people in business, operate in a general state of apprehension regarding the likelihood of needless lawsuits. To address this threat, professional home inspectors have limited the scope of an inspection to defects that are visible and readily accessible. Many gas leaks, in fact, do occur in places where they are not readily detected. Therefore, gas leak detection has been excluded from the standards of practice of the home inspection industry. Unfortunately, some inspectors have used this exclusion as a means of avoiding liability for gas leaks that were actually quite detectable.
The approach of other home inspectors is to conduct defect discovery to the extent of one's observational abilities, regardless of industry standards and limitations. In the case of a gas leak in a fireplace, normal olfactory sensitivity may have been sufficient to afford discovery of the leak. On the other hand, the gas leak may not have been occurring on the day of the home inspection. No one will ever know for sure.
Hopefully, no other significant defects were missed by your inspector.
Q: Our neighbors asked our permission to build a shed in their backyard. We said OK, but then the shed evolved into a large, unsightly office. Now that they're selling the property, we've asked them to remove the structure, but they refuse. We don't want to have a conflict with the new owners over this unpermitted building, and we're wondering if the sellers have disclosed the illegal status to those people. How should we address this situation?
A: If the "shed" was built without a permit, a complaint to the building department should produce some results. This, however, does not mean removal of the building will be ordered. If the construction is brought into compliance with local building codes, the building department can approve the structure with an as-built permit. In that case, you can plant some trees or shrubs whose eventual growth will obscure your view of the unsightly building.
• 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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