How to handle claims against home inspectors

posted: 10/30/2015 1:00 AM


Q. I've been a home inspector for nearly two years and have had a few problems with claims made against me for undisclosed defects. In some instances, I believe I was at fault and therefore liable. In other cases, such as a plumbing leak that occurred months after the inspection, I believe it was unreasonable to hold me responsible for repair costs. This has become a difficult part of my business. What do you consider to be reasonable standards for home inspector liability?

A. Every profession has its downsides. For home inspectors, the most down of all the sides is liability: worse in fact than having to crawl under houses with all the spiders. Liability claims happen sooner or later to every home inspector because no inspector is perfect enough to bat 1.000 on every job. Regardless of knowledge, ability and experience, there will inevitably be some defects that go unnoticed. How to deal with these issues is the big question.

The basic rule, enshrined in the standards of practice throughout the profession, is this: Home inspectors should report defects that are visible and accessible at the time of the inspection and that are within the defined scope of the standards of practice. These standards are set forth by professional associations such as the American Society of Home Inspectors and similar state associations, as well as by the states that require licenses for home inspectors.

Examples of liability claims are numerous enough to fill a large book. So let's consider a few examples. If water damage and wetness are apparent under a bathroom sink, that would be within the scope of a home inspection. However, if the cabinet beneath the sink was full of storage at the time of the inspection, the defect might not have been visible or accessible and therefore would not constitute a fair claim against the home inspector. However, in such cases, the inspector should report that the area under the sink was not accessible for inspection and should be checked further prior to close of escrow. In a vacant house, areas below sinks would be fully accessible, and the inspector would be liable for failing to report a visible defect.

Other issues could involve unreported roof defects. Home inspectors who do competent work walk on roofs whenever possible. If an inspector does not walk on a roof, there should be good reason, such as excessive height or steepness, weather conditions making the roof too slippery, or fragile roof materials likely to be damaged by foot traffic. When an inspector is unable to walk on a roof for any reason, this should be noted in the inspection report, with a recommendation for further evaluation by a licensed roofing contractor prior to close of escrow.

Defects often go unreported because of inaccessibility: because of crawl spaces that are too small or too wet, electrical outlets located behind heavy furniture, garage walls concealed behind storage, closets packed with personal belongings, etc. On the other hand, some conditions are overlooked simply because the inspector was not paying close enough attention or had insufficient knowledge in a particular area of expertise.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding a liability claim, home inspectors should always respond to claims in a professional manner, demonstrating a genuine concern for the person lodging the complaint. Step one in every case is to make an appointment at the earliest possible date to meet at the property for a review of the condition. This display of genuine concern can go a long way toward avoiding an adversarial relationship with the customer.

Step two is for the inspector to ask him or herself: "Should I have seen this defect?" If the honest answer is "yes," the inspector should take some financial responsibility for the problem, as uncomfortable as that decision might be. This is the acid test of professional and personal integrity for every person in the home inspection business.

• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at www.housedetective.com, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.

© 2015, Action Coast Publishing

Date : 10/30/2015