Even High-End Homes Can Hide Huge Flaws

By Dan Rafter
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 15, 2007

The cabinets hung precariously to the walls, each held in place by only a handful of nails. Then there were the crack in the foundation, the termite damage in the floor joists and the furnace that had been spilling combustion fumes into the living space.

By the time Hollis Brown, a home inspector based in Bethesda, finished his five-hour inspection of the sprawling Fairfax house, he had also uncovered appliances that someone had set in place but never hooked up, plumbing fixtures that did not work and an attic bare of insulation. His report documented more than $100,000 in estimated construction defects.

This was no rundown fixer-upper. It was a "new" house -- built on an unstable 1940s foundation, it turned out -- carrying a $1 million-plus price tag.

The mansions and million-dollar residences dotting the Washington area aren't immune to such problems, inspectors say. Instead, these homes, which are often larger and more complicated than traditional residences, often have more -- and more serious -- problems.

"Don't get me wrong now. This is not the norm," Brown said of the problems he uncovered in that Fairfax house. "Most new homes today are well built, and most builders are reputable businesspeople. The problem is that we never know when the odd situation is going to present itself, and the risks are significant."

This is especially true in high-end homes, where buyers are throwing around millions of dollars.

J.D. Grewell, an inspector in Silver Spring, once worked with a homeowner who bought a pricey rowhouse in the District. The house had been extensively remodeled, and its new owner was particularly impressed that she could open the front door and see all the way to the back walls.

The owner's problems started when she hired a contractor for some simple remodeling. The contractor took a quick look around the house before delivering the bad news: That nice view from one end of the rowhouse to the other was made possible only because the original remodeling crews had removed all of the load-bearing walls, beams and posts.

The new owner, now in a panic, called Grewell to inspect the house. Grewell estimated that it would take $45,000 to replace the beams and posts. "If she doesn't get that fixed, worst case, her second floor can fall in," Grewell said. "I told her not to put anything up on that second floor."

Frank Lesh, a Chicago area inspector, said the most shocking problem he's seen in a high-end house was during a presale inspection of a multimillion-dollar residence near his home town.

The owners had the house built with four bathrooms. The owners, though, had never used one of the bathrooms upstairs. They'd also never so much as stepped into the bathroom's whirlpool tub.

One of Lesh's jobs as an inspector, though, is to fill any whirlpool tubs with water, switch on the jets and see what happens. In this case, the whirlpool jets didn't work. That wasn't a big problem. But when Lesh pulled the drain, he instantly heard water pouring down the second-floor stairs. He and the horrified owners could only watch as hundreds of gallons of water saturated the ceiling, walls and carpeting.

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