The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: As a home inspector for many years, I’ve been caught in the “you-broke-it,–you-pay-to-fix-it” bind. My question is simple: When is a home inspector responsible for things that break? Tile roofs are not designed to be walked on, so a home inspector should pay for tiles that break under foot. But I’ve been asked to repair wood trim because I pushed my finger through some dryrot. I’ve paid for faucets that would not turn off after being operated, for a garage door that disconnected from its track when I tested it, and for a casement window that fell from its frame when opened. Is it right for home inspectors to bear the costs of such repairs? Marshall
Dear Marshall: Your dilemma is the common experience of most home inspectors. Nearly all can relay stories of unfair liability; of fixtures that chose the moment of the inspector’s touch to leak, break, disassemble, or otherwise fail to function.
There was the main water shutoff valve that wouldn’t reopen after the inspector turned it off. The inner parts of that 30-year-old valve were totally corroded, awaiting the moment when some unsuspecting soul would turn it off. That someone was the home inspector; so he had to buy a new valve.
There was the old garage door opener that would not reverse and might have injured or killed someone caught beneath it. When the home inspector tested it, his resistance caused the chain to break. The old opener needed to be replaced anyway because it did not comply with current child safety standards. But because it broke when tested, it became the home inspector’s responsibility.
There was the microwave oven, which, according to the seller, had worked that morning. But when tested by the home inspector, it was suddenly unresponsive to the control buttons. All the inspector had done was press the time controls, but his presence when the fixture died was enough to require his purchase of a new unit.
There was the forced air furnace that worked perfectly during the course of the home inspection but was suddenly inoperative that evening when the homeowner returned from work. All the inspector had done was turn it on, watch it run, and turn it off. But he was the last one to operate the old system prior to its unexpected expiration. So, repair costs were demanded of the inspector.
And of course, there is the touchy subject of tile roof inspections. Obviously, a home inspector should pay for tiles that are broken during the inspection. But what about the inspector who discovers tiles that are already broken and is then accused of having broken those tiles?
These situations are the real-life experiences of home inspectors who perform their professional duties in an honest and diligent manner. There are times when home inspectors are truly liable for damages that occur in the course of an inspection. But there are as many cases where liability is unfairly imposed on home inspectors. In many instances, inspectors pay for these arbitrary claims, simply to main good customer relations. Justice and equity can be desired in these situations, but can only be found on a hit-and-miss basis.