Who’s To Blame?

If you’re in the market for a house and are considering an older home, here’s something to think about. Earlier this year, “William” decided to buy an older house. Acting according to standard operating procedure, he had it inspected prior to signing the papers. However, he later realized that the vinyl flooring in one of the rooms was fixed in place using mastic that contained asbestos fibers, posing a potential health hazard. His question now–can the home inspector, who failed to note the asbestos hazard, be held liable?
According to Barry Stone, who writes a nationally syndicated newspaper column on home ownership issues, the answer is “no.”

Stone says, “It is not common practice for home inspectors to list all of the building materials likely to contain asbestos. If they did, the list would include asphalt composition roofing materials, roof mastic, drywall joint compound, old air duct insulation, transite flue pipes, acoustic ceiling texture, adhesive mastics for flooring and other applications, interior plaster, some exterior stucco, asphalt floor tiles, vinyl floor tiles, and of course, sheet vinyl flooring.” Unless the asbestos is exposed and friable (crumbling and spreading dust into the air), home inspectors are not legally obligated to report it. This is because such inspections are based primarily on visual data. Most potential and actual environmental hazards are hidden, and therefore beyond the scope of a standard home inspection. “Homes are generally sold on an ‘as-is’ basis,” says Stone. If there were obvious safety hazards, such as loose or crumbling stairs, or visible leakage from roofs or plumbing, nonworking electric fixtures or visibly defective wiring, the home inspector would be legally obliged to report these conditions to the potential buyers, which could then be used as negotiating points.

However, the seller is not normally obligated to contribute to the cost of renovations after the sale is finalized unless it could be proved that the seller had full knowledge of a hazard or defect and deliberately withheld such knowledge. The bottom line is–unless the inspector actually sees it, s/he is not liable for disclosure. In any event, even if the buyer does discover an asbestos hazard prior to signing mortgage papers, the seller is under no obligation to have it removed–although the potential buyer can always walk away from the transaction. Caveat emptor, indeed…