Q: We hired a home inspector to help us out when we were buying a home in Chicago. We received the report, reviewed it and later closed. The report indicated some minor inspection issues but nothing major.
About a week after our closing we called an air conditioning company to come evaluate our system. We knew that some repairs would be needed and were looking for some estimates. The contractor went to the utility room and immediately told us that he wouldn't even dare get close to our heating unit. He showed my husband how the pipes and ducts around the furnace were wrapped in asbestos. He also told my husband that the asbestos was in terrible condition and would need to be replaced by an asbestos contractor.
We called two companies, and both gave us an estimate of around $2,000 to remove and dispose of the asbestos. We then turned around and called our inspector, who referred our call to their customer relations department. They simply said that they do not investigate or make recommendations when it comes to hazardous materials.
To say the least, we were quite incensed. Of what value is the home inspection if they hide behind their fine print and won’t disclose to us something that was clearly obvious to the heating contractor? The heating contractor also went on to tell us that it was pretty clear to him that the wrapping on the pipes would be asbestos. He has seen it a bunch of times and didn’t quite understand why the inspector didn’t bring it to our attention. We don’t understand that either. What do you think?
A: Sam has seen thousands of home inspection reports over the years, and he’s watched inspectors disclose to their customers when a material they come across during an inspection is suspected of containing asbestos. They also may say that they don’t know for sure and simply suspect it is asbestos.
We have no idea why your home inspector failed to advise you of the possibility that you might have asbestos in the home. And we think it’s terrible that the inspector decided to hide behind the fine print of the inspection agreement when the inspector clearly should have told you of a problem with the home.
Yes, home inspectors can't see everything and are not in a position to evaluate every item in a home. Frequently, inspection reports will exclude certain inspections unless a buyer hires the inspector to perform certain specific inspections. Some of these additional inspections would be for radon, termites, lead-based paint, septic system conditions, well water quality, lead in the water, mold evaluations and asbestos-containing materials around a home. But we feel that an inspector should not avoid telling a homeowner of a problem if it is clear to the inspector that the item exists.
If, for example, a home inspector sees evidence of termites in the home, we don't expect the home inspector to ignore the problem altogether. The same would be the case if the home inspector sees asbestos or evidence of mold in the home or other problems with the home. There is nothing wrong with the inspector noting that the problem exists, or a potential problem exists, however the inspector has not been engaged to evaluate that specific issue, and the homeowner should take further action to evaluate the situation.
Your inspector did nothing. He ignored the issue when the inspector should have at least alerted you to the problem. The inspector didn't need to tell you that you had an asbestos problem, but the inspector should have noted on the report that the inspector saw insulation wrapping on pipes that was in poor condition and the homeowner should evaluate them for asbestos-containing materials.
We feel if inspectors take the position that they will ignore all matters that they are not capable of fully evaluating, then hiring the inspector has little value to a home buyer. Frequently, home inspectors will advise homeowners to consult electricians when they see electrical issues, plumbers on plumbing issues, heating and cooling contractors for furnace, boiler and air conditioning issues, lead experts for lead in the water or in or around the home, and radon experts for radon in a home, along with termite experts for wood boring insect problems in a home. And structural engineers when it comes to structural problems with a home.
Let’s reiterate the main point: You hire a home inspector to tell you about specific problems that the home contains, or for the inspector to give you a heads up on a potential problem, with a referral to a follow-up if something serious is in question.
This isn’t just the “Sam and Ilyce” sense of right and wrong, by the way. The American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), for example, has a code of ethics and a standards of practice section on its website. They say that “integrity, honesty, and objectivity are fundamental principles embodied by the code” of ethics and they also say that their standards of practice do not include: “the presence of plants, animals, and other life-forms and substances that may be hazardous or harmful to humans including, but not limited to, wood destroying organisms, molds and mold-like substances” and “the presence of environmental hazards including, but not limited to, allergens, toxins, carcinogens, electromagnetic radiation, noise, radioactive substances, and contaminants in building materials, soil, water, and air.”
In our experience, those inspectors that abide by the code of ethics would advise a homeowner of the possibility of a problem and, in particular, if they see something that could be an issue even if it's an environmental hazard. We feel that your inspector is wrong in excluding the problem with the asbestos or the possible asbestos problem and then hiding behind the exclusion. We wouldn't recommend that you use that company again. On a final note: If the company a homeowner hires is not a member of ASHI, we'd advise the homeowner to use a home inspection company that is a member of ASHI or InterNACHI (International Association of Certified Home Inspectors).
Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website, ThinkGlink.com.