Most would-be homeowners aren’t aware of what, exactly, a general home inspection does and doesn’t cover. This is why good home inspectors take time to thoroughly explain the Standards of Practice for home inspections to clients who hire us and to set clear expectations upfront. The Standards of Practice (or “SOP”) define what, at minimum, we are required to inspect and not inspect as part of a home inspection. Virtually all home inspectors go beyond the Standards of Practice to provide a worthwhile inspection, but there are a few things that are specifically excluded… and for good reason.
Asbestos, mold, lead, radon gas and other contaminants are specifically excluded from general home inspections, and clients are occasionally confused as to why. I’d like to provide some clarification as to the reason so you have a thorough understanding and know what to expect.
Each contaminant really deserves its own entire article, but I don’t wish to go that deep so I’ll provide a blanket statement to cover them all. Contaminants that can potentially cause adverse health effects are excluded for several reasons. First, a general home inspection is visual and non-invasive. This means that the inspector is not tearing things apart, opening up walls, snaking or scoping through plumbing lines, etc. If it can’t be seen or accessed with relative ease and safety, it is not required to be inspected – period.
This fact, alone, greatly limits an inspector’s ability to uncover contaminants because they may be hidden behind walls, concealed by layers of paint or finishing materials, and so forth. Second, disclosing a possible contaminant in one location opens up the inspector to additional liability. A client could argue that since the inspector was able to identify old tape around a furnace flue as asbestos, he or she should have also been able to identify the asbestos floor and ceiling tiles in the house. If an inspector reports on a contaminant in one area, it could be argued that he/she should have been able to identify it in other areas as well. So by disclosing a contaminant in one area, the inspector opens him or herself up to additional scrutiny.
In reality, while many contaminants are relatively easy to identify by experienced inspectors, not all are – especially when they are not readily accessible. Furthermore, just because something appears to be a contaminant doesn’t mean it definitely is. Often times, testing is the only way to conclusively determine whether something is, in fact, a contaminant.
Additional liability necessitates additional risk and, therefore, additional expense to make the risk worthwhile. It’s for this reason that home inspectors inspect for contaminants separately and require an additional signed contract and fee for the separate inspection. Some inspectors don’t inspect for contaminants outside the Standards of Practice at all, but those who do should be trained and certified to do so and will generally require that the contaminants be inspected separately.
Having to sign a separate agreement and pay an additional fee may seem excessive, but in reality it is beneficial for both the client and the inspector. It benefits the inspector by providing protection against additional risk (both legally and monetarily), but it also benefits the client because a separate agreement and fee means a thorough and detailed analysis of the contaminant(s) being tested. Rather than being lumped in with the many other systems and components of the home, contaminants are given special and detailed attention.
That being said, inspectors often report on obvious contaminants; but the language used to disclose them in the home inspection report will generally be rather vague for the liability reasons I already discussed. Instead of stating that mold was present, an inspector may write that an area appeared to be covered with “microbial growth.” This is a more safe and all-encompassing term that disclosed the presence of apparent organic matter but doesn’t specifically identify it as mold, mildew, etc. Likewise, the inspector may state that a material “appears” to “possibly” be asbestos in an effort to make the client aware without conclusively stating that the material is, in fact, asbestos. By not stating something as a fact, the inspector can rightfully say they were not presenting it as a fact.
Another issue that makes contaminants especially tricky is that each one poses health risks in different ways, and some are rather time sensitive while others are not. For example, houses built after 1978 are not as likely to have lead based paint as houses built prior to that year, but elevated levels of radon gas can exist in any home whether it’s a hundred years old or brand new. With so many variables, each type of contaminant deserves (and really requires) its own dedicated testing to determine its presence or absence, severity, and the best course of action for possible mitigation/abatement.
In short, a general home inspection does not cover the several types of contaminants that may exist in a home, and this is partially due to increased liability but also the unique nature of each contaminant. Don’t expect your home inspection report to contain information on contaminants, but if you are concerned about any contaminants you can pay to have them tested for separately. Just be sure that whoever completes the inspection(s) is trained and qualified to do so.
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