Purchasing a house is often the largest purchase a consumer can make in their lifetime, so it’s little wonder why it’s highly recommended that before closing on the deal that a property inspector reviews the property and tries to find any problems for the buyer. But what happens if the property inspector misses something big, something that will cost the buyer several thousand dollars to fix?
I found myself recently in a situation where the property inspector missed several large problems that were very costly to repair. As a first-time homebuyer, I had no idea what to look for as possible problems with a potential property and relied heavily on the property inspector’s opinion. Sure the inspector found some obvious problems such as broken electrical sockets, questionable window locks, and missing smoke alarms. But two significant problems went undetected; that should have been discovered. The first issue was found immediately after closing on the property, and I started moving in. Underneath the sink in the basement bathroom was a tremendous amount of water damage and a thriving colony of black mold. Immediately I thought back to the property inspection- how did this get missed?! Then it hit me; I remembered how cluttered the cabinet under the sink was at the time of the inspection, and neither the inspector or I wanted to remove all the items the seller stored under there. Simply taking the time to remove a few items, or asking the seller to move them, to inspect the floor board of the cabinet could have saved me quite a bit of money in repairs and mold mitigation.
The second problem, like many household issues, didn’t surface until much later. At the time of inspection, I vividly recall having a lot of questions about the Boiler system. The property was built in the late ’70s and used baseboard heating for the winter, which is something I never used before. The inspector glanced over the boiler system and told me everything looks good, boiler systems last 50-70 years on average, and informed me to have the seller do a tune-up as a condition of the sale. Seemed fair enough and the seller had no qualms with doing a tune-up. It wasn’t until the end of this winter when I brought a contractor out to do another tune-up that I discovered that not only was this boiler system in such bad condition that a tune-up could not be performed, but that it should have never passed inspection since the setup was done backwards, highly corroded, and is in violation of numerous building codes. The cost to replace the system and put it up to code: $14,000! Ouch! This piece of information would have been great to know during the inspection and could have been negotiated during the sale of the property. Needless to say, I felt a bit slighted by my property inspector- how could he have missed this, and could he potentially be liable for such a huge oversight?
Unfortunately, in Colorado, property inspectors are not regulated by any state agencies and usually limit their liability through their contracts. In my particular circumstance, the property inspector had a clause that limits his liability to the purchase price of his services- a measly $200. While there may be some ways to pierce this clause, such as fraud, the likelihood of success is quite small and would cost significantly more in legal fees to do so.
Although I am unlikely to hold the property inspector responsible for his huge oversights, I did come out of this experience with a few lessons that I can pass along:
- Be there at the inspection! Don’t just trust that the inspector will look at everything and get back to you. Now is your chance to ask questions about the property, so take advantage of it.
- Don’t be afraid to request the seller to move things around to get a better visual. This is where I failed. I noticed there was a huge mess of stuff inside the cabinet underneath the sink, but did not move any of the items to get a proper visual on the condition of the inside cabinet. Moving just a few items would have exposed significant water damage and black mold at the bottom of the cabinet.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Unless you’re a contractor, you probably don’t know much about the “guts” of the house: the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems. So ask plenty of questions. A good inspector will answer all of your questions thoroughly and will explain what he’s doing and looking at all along the way.
- Get a specialist. A home inspector is like a doctor who’s a general practitioner. They both can diagnose problems, and they both know when to refer you to a specialist. If your housing inspector recommends a specialist, you should get one. In my case, bringing in a specialist to review my boiler system would have saved me $14,000 in repairs.
- Inspect your inspector. Your real estate agent might suggest a home inspector, and that inspector could turn out to be wonderful. But you’re the one buying the house, so make sure you choose well. Besides asking your friends and neighbors, use the American Society of Home Inspectors to vet their recommendations and make sure you hire someone who’s qualified.