Q: Can I sue the inspector who supposedly inspected my country house? The guy essentially found little wrong with it — and it’s a disaster. It’s costing at least twice as much as we’d anticipated to fix the wreck. The basic problem: water damage. There is so much of it because it turns out there is no sub-floor in the living room or kitchen (my contractor fell through the floor when he began working on it). Shouldn’t the inspector have noticed? There was also so much mold in the bathroom that the walls had to be power-washed and redone. My contractor calls the thing a money pit. What are inspectors good for if not finding a home’s issues? — E. D., Putnam Valley
A: You can sue anybody you like — this is America. But New York State law does not require a home inspector to report on anything more than “readily accessible, observed conditions.” That said, as Certified Master Inspector Jeffrey Molloy of Check Mark Services in Mount Kisco points out, inspectors come in four styles: “great, good, bad and lousy.” Inspectors examine a property’s electrical and mechanical systems, plumbing, and structure, but Molloy says they’re not required to do anything that might cause damage, like removing wall panels or lifting floor coverings, so yours may have had no way of observing missing sub-floors. Nor does an inspector have to report on contaminants, or a substance like mold.
“A lot of people misunderstand what an inspector is,” says Molloy. “We’re experts in looking at the general condition. We look at visible, structural items, but only a structural engineer can tell you if the house is structurally sound.” To be licensed, an inspector must complete a 100-hour training course, work 40 hours in the field, and take an exam, Molloy explains. “Then, technically, all you have to have is a pair of eyeballs.” His company, however, supplements eyeballs with an infrared thermal camera to help find invisible electrical problems, wet spots, missing insulation and such. “The infrareds cost three thousand dollars and are not required by law,” he adds. “But we go over and above the minimum standards. In one new house, we found ceilings that looked clean and dry, but with the infrared we could see water dripping from the attic. It was poorly ventilated; the whole underside of the roof had ice crystals.” Some inspectors, he contends, “do an inspection in forty-five minutes. We charge a little more and do a little more. We average three to four hours for a smaller house, and take one hundred twenty-five to one hundred-fifty photos. Photo-based inspections give you an idea of the intensity of a problem.”
Check Mark lives up to its name by checking about 1500 items during a routine inspection. “We turn on the furnace, make sure there are no drips in the plumbing, we check appliances,” Molloy says, listing just three. Additional services include testing for toxins in the water, radon, asbestos, mold, lead, and the sci-fi-sounding electromagnetic field around the home.
It’s too late for you, E.D., but Molloy suggests that those hiring an inspector ask for a sample report, to see how thorough he is. And be on the premises when the inspection is taking place, he suggests. “It’s important for a client to be there and ask questions.”
If you’re still fired up for some legal reparation, you can check the NYS Home Inspector Code of Ethics to see if your inspector failed to meet the minimum requirements. The “Limitations and Exclusions” section is an eye-opener. Or you may have recourse against the sellers, if they were aware of problems. Usually, though, lawyers benefit most from such wrangles. Hang in there. One day, your money pit will be your delightful getaway, and you’ll have horror stories to amuse your guests.