THE CALL WAS routine enough, a requested estimate to repair a cracked sewer line in a recently purchased home. Upon arrival, this newly ensconced homeowner was dictating instructions to her lawyer regarding whom she wanted named in the lawsuit: the previous owner; the real estate brokers; the home inspector; and just about anyone else involved in the sale.
I was already sorry I’d stepped across the threshold, but didn’t see how I could exit without being sued for failure to perform an estimate! This was one mad-as-hell owner.
While she was talking on the phone, I was politely waiting my turn and thinking about this trend I’m seeing where problems missed in home inspections are, seemingly, becoming more frequent. Just this past month alone, I’ve been called in to perform four PHVAC certifications where problems arose shortly after the property was sold. We have performed dozens of certifications each year, but our scope was limited to mechanical systems. Owners and real estate agents wanted someone to do it all and often asked about roofing or electrical issues, which I politely declined since I have no real expertise in those areas. Then along came home inspectors who specialized in covering everything; a one-call-does-it-all certification business.
Once off the phone, she regaled me with her horror story. By her account, defects were aplenty in the wiring, plaster, flooring and, now, the plumbing. We descended the wooden stairs to the basement level, where she led me to a 4-in. cast-iron stack that offset into the wall 5 ft. above the floor.
“It’s cracked here,” she said, pointing to a short piece of cast iron between the two 1/8-bends. And it was, but a clearly defined trail on the concrete wall, along with mold ringing its edges, indicated a much larger problem.
Looking upward, my gaze fell upon the wooden stair treads and floorboards. They were saturated and stained a dark color, which indicated they’d been wet for a very long time. At the edges of this darkened recess, where flooring met floor joists, there was a prominent black mold growth that stretched for several feet.
On the basement floor there was a heavy rubber mat, which had been left behind by the previous owner. Rolling it back revealed a floor drain with its grate removed and the side-wall cleanout plug removed. The trap was choked shut with remnants of the wall’s surface — no doubt flakes of lead-based paint.
The now nearly hysterical homeowner hollered to a child on the second floor to have the water closet flushed. Sure enough, a torrent of water cascaded down the basement wall. While I measured for the estimate, she was on the phone giving her lawyer a new directive.
Upstairs, the clues to the long-standing problem were all present and abundantly clear to alert anyone familiar with plumbing systems. Carpeting was wet to the touch with a visibly darkened area (directly above the saturated wood I saw from the basement); wooden baseboard rotten with peeling paint — a pocket knife blade easily penetrated completely; paneled walls with the paneling clearly showing signs of moisture damage; and along the main staircase, plaster walls stained with peeling paint in a vertical band revealing the cracked stack’s location.
In another case, in a newly purchased townhouse, Pat had been drawn to the handicapped-accessible tub with a sidewall access-door to permit entry. It was a sales feature prominently promoted and the home inspector’s certification indicated everything checked out. When filling the tub for the first time, Pat was dismayed to see water running out through the side-wall door. We inspected it and discovered the door seal was inoperative.
The PC-board that triggers an air pump to inflate the door seal had been water damaged a long time ago and would need to be replaced. The costs for a new PC board and door seal were enough to drive this defective home inspection to her lawyer’s doorstep.
But the absolute worst case came to us this past week. We have a mentally challenged customer who is striving to make it on her own. Her parents are filling in as needed but know it’s a priority for their daughter to be self-sufficient. They purchased a row house for her and, while she was moving in, they noticed a peculiar odor every time the furnace ran. We checked it and discovered the heat exchanger is rotted away — not just cracked, rotted — with several gaping holes. A simple carbon monoxide check would have revealed this potentially deadly home-inspection oversight.
Next month, we’ll explore the business of home inspections in more detail. Meanwhile, I’d appreciate hearing from you if you’re seeing similar situations where you live and work.
Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].
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