The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: We bought a brand new home about a year ago and hired a home inspector before closing. The inspector found no problems and said the house was perfect. Since then, we’ve learned that there are code violations in the plumbing and on the roof. How could the house be sold if it didn’t meet code? Is the building department responsible for approving the construction, or what? And if they missed the problems, why didn’t our home inspector find them? Is anyone responsible, or are we just out of luck? Sharon
Dear Sharon: That is a tall list of issues: the quality of new construction and the reliability of building and home inspections. So let’s start with the city inspection.
Without knowing which code violations are involved, little can be said here about what the municipal building inspector should have seen. In general, however, city and county building inspections are usually short in duration and not comprehensive in scope. For example, municipal inspectors typically do not walk on roofs or crawl through attics. Therefore, defects in those areas are likely to go unnoticed. The final inspection of a new home usually occurs before the electrical and gas services are turned on. Therefore, outlets are not tested for grounding and polarity, GFCI performance is not verified, and gas fixtures such as stoves, furnaces, and water heaters are not functionally evaluated.
As for liability, municipal inspectors have none, as specified in chapter one of the building code. In their defense, however, it should be noted that most local building departments are under-funded and under-staffed, so that most of their inspections are conducted with limited time for thoroughness. This brings us to the homebuyers’ next line of defense, the home inspector.
The home inspection industry claims that it does not perform code compliance inspections, but this is only true in a limited sense. The purpose of a home inspection is to disclose visible defects, in accordance with professional standards. Yet many of the defects that home inspectors disclose involve code violations. For example, a hollow core door in a garage firewall is a visible defect that home inspectors routinely report. Why is it a defect? Because it violates the building code. Therefore, visible defects that violate building codes are usually within the scope of a home inspection and should be reported. If not reported, the home inspector would be liable.
Furthermore, when a home inspector tells you a house has no defects, that should warn you that the inspection was not very thorough. A home with no defects is as fanciful and unlikely as a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Homes are made by humans. Humans are not perfect. Therefore, no homes are perfect. All homes, including brand new ones, have imperfections, to lesser or larger degrees.
In cases involving new homes, the buck stops at the doorstep of the builder. Regardless of what was found or overlooked by the inspectors, the builder must guaranty the quality of the construction. If code violations are found when the building is one year old, the builder is still responsible.
To obtain a comprehensive list of the inherent defects in your home, you need a more complete home inspection than the one you received a year ago. Therefore, find the most qualified and experienced home inspector in your area. Then you can present the list of findings to the person or company who constructed the home.