QDEAR BARRY: When we bought our home, the agent advertised it as completely renovated, including new electrical wiring and plumbing. After we moved in, we had major plumbing problems. When the bathroom wall was opened, we discovered old deteriorated pipes and some faulty wiring. By the time everything was repaired, we spent more than $3,000. The home inspector never disclosed any of these problems, the seller didn't provide truthful disclosure about the upgrades and the agent falsely represented the property. We've consulted our lawyer and he's offered to file suit. Before we do this, we would like to get your opinion on the entire matter. -- Jesse

ADEAR JESSE: If the sellers represented the plumbing and electrical systems as completely renovated, they may be liable for false disclosure. This assumes that they knew the renovations were incomplete. It is possible that the contractors who upgraded the wiring and plumbing falsely represented the job. If that is the case, the sellers could be the first victims in a series of misrepresentations, rather than the ones at fault for bad disclosure.

If the agent represented the renovations as complete, he might also be liable. The agent, however, has a plausible excuse: In all likelihood, he relied on seller disclosure and lacked the expertise to determine the true state of the electrical and plumbing systems on his own. However, experienced and prudent agents often refrain from making blanket representations they cannot substantiate.

Finally, the home inspector may be liable because he failed to report on specific plumbing and electrical defects. However, those defects may not have been apparent on the date of the inspection -- the defective materials were within the wall, where no inspector could possibly look. The inspection report might even have indicated that some of the original piping and wiring were still in place, but information of this kind is typically included as descriptive information and not as a disclosure of defects. Additionally, home inspector liability often depends upon whether the inspector was given the opportunity to re-inspect defects before their repair. Because the repairs have been made, that avenue of redress may no longer be open.

As you can see, this is not a black-and-white circumstance. Instead, it is one of those situations where liability is uncertain, depending upon details that are difficult to ascertain, if they can be determined at all.

Sometimes it is not possible to lay blame when bad things happen. Sometimes it is necessary to accept a loss and move on. For those who don't agree, there are armies of lawyers willing to pursue fruitless litigation, constructed on frameworks of subjective allegations, in exchange for excessive legal fees.

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 Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401.

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