Late last year, Emilie and Michael Miller, of Newport, Minn., moved into their first house. It was appraised and okayed for a mortgage loan by the Federal Housing Administration. The roof was inspected and "certified." Emilie's father, who is a carpenter, looked the house over. It would seem they did everything right.
What's happened to them since then shouldn't happen to a dog.
The bedroom and dining room get no heat, because there was no duct work behind the grills.
There were no cold air returns anywhere, something Emilie's father didn't notice because, when he saw the house, the former owner's furniture was against the walls.
The living room and bedroom ceiling started to leak, damaging rugs and furniture.
The plumbing system needs major repairs.
All in all, the essential repairs on the Miller's 10-year-old, $30,400 home, will come to around $4,000.
When they called the former owners, the real estate agent, the roof inspection and the FHA, everyone said, "Tough luck, you bought the house as is. I'm not responsible for your problems."
What especially upsets Emilies is the FHA's role in all of this. "We want the public to know," she wrote me, "that having your home inspected by the FHA before you buy is no guarantee that you won't run into the same problems we did."
It's not unusual for homebuyers to believe that an FHA "inspection is sound. Real estate brokers and bankers may even encorage you to think this. But in fact, the FHA checks only for "visible defects, which are readily apparent, and obviously need fixing," according to an FHA spokesman. In other words, they check for defects that you can easily see yourself.
Then what's the good of an FHA inspection, and why should a homebuyer have to pay for it?, you may well ask. The appraisal is purely for the benefit of the mortgage lender, to be sure that he doesn't offer to high a mortgage on the property, and to protect the government, which insures the mortgage.
In the case of the Miller house, the FHA was clearly derelict in the its duty, even to the bank. Had it discovered the defects, the loan wouldn't have been approved. "Having no cold all-returns should have been obvious even to the FHA," an exasperated Emilie Miller told my associate, Anne Colamosca. Responds the FHA spokesman, "Sometimes our inspectors overlook a few things."
And what about the so-called "certification" of the roof? When Emilie complained, the roofer fell back on the "accuracy" of his document, which stated that "there is no sign of leakage at this time." Since the inspection was done in December when the flat roof was frozen over, you'd hardly expect anything else.
This story has a semi-happy ending, because Emilie Miller isn't the such of person to take an outrage by living down. She wrote not only to me, but to everyone she could think of who might be of help - other consumer media, state and local officials, the professional housing inspector. Apartment (which supervises the FHA) and even the White House. That last letter really brought results.
At eight o'clock one morning, the telephone rang in the Miller house. A White House aide was on the phone, saying that the president was concerned about the problem and wanted to help.
Two days laters, the Millers heard from the local office of HUD, which previously had ignored them. In a highly unusual move, HUD took over the Miller mortgage from the bank and set up a deferred payment schedule. This allowed them to take out a separate home improvement loan in pay for repairs. The Millers are still footing the $4,000 bill, but they were at least able to get their house fixed up. They decided that bringing a full scale lawsuit was too expensive, but have sued the former owner in small claims court.
Moral: Don't rely on an FHA inspection for anything. Bring in your own professional housing inspector. Another word: The former owner of the Miller's house is the person who built, doing a lot of the work himself. Amatuer work should be more closely inspected than anything else.