QDEAR BARRY: Since we bought our home, we've learned that another buyer nearly bought it about six months ago. That person hired a home inspector and copies of the report were given to the sellers and their agent. But nothing was mentioned about the report when we bought the property, and we want to know if they were required to disclose the information in that report. -- Betty

ADEAR BETTY: Real estate disclosure issues can be simple or complicated, depending on the views and practices of those involved in the transaction. A process that should require little explanation is somehow plagued with entanglements and uncertainties.

Yet, at the root of all disclosure controversies, there is one common underlying question: How can a person know what to disclose and what not to disclose?

Fortunately, the answer is plain and simple: Disclose all that you know, without exception, without compromise. When in doubt, disclose.

The worst that can happen when everything is disclosed is that another buyer might have to be found. On the other hand, the consequences of less-than-full disclosure may include financial loss, needless litigation and, in the very worst cases, injury or death due to undisclosed safety problems.

With this in mind, one needn't ask whether the contents of an old home inspection report should have been disclosed. In your case, the sellers and their agent were aware of whatever defects were revealed by that report. If they chose not to provide a copy of the report itself, they were definitely required to divulge every defective condition listed.

Failure to do so would constitute deliberate concealment of known property defects, and in most states, that is a violation of the law. If you have concerns regarding possible nondisclosure, you should demand to see a copy of the old report.

I hope you hired a home inspector of your own before buying your home. If your inspector was qualified, experienced and thorough, you should already be aware of whatever significant defects were disclosed in the previous report.

DEAR BARRY: Are home inspections required by law when houses are sold, or are they optional for home buyers? -- Andy

DEAR ANDY: No states require home inspections. Professional property inspections are available to home buyers at their own discretion, as a means of consumer protection. It's a way to heed the age-old caveat "buyer beware." When inspections are performed by a truly qualified professional, they provide the best defense against negative surprises after the sale. A competent inspection serves the needs of all parties in a real estate transaction by reducing the likelihood of conflicts after the sale.

State requirements to protect a home buyer's financial interests should not be necessary. Buyers should have the prudence to do this for themselves.

Barry Stone is a professional home inspector. If you have questions or comments, contact him through his Web site, www.housedetective.com, or send mail to 1776 Jami Lee Ct., Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401.

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