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The $20,000 mistake by Barry Stone, Inman News

DEAR BARRY: Before we purchased our home, the sellers hired their own home inspector. We were given a copy of the report and bought the house “as is” because no major problems were disclosed. Two months later, we had a sewage backup. We snaked it out, but two weeks later it happened again, and then again, and then again ¦ Our plumber says the main sewer line has major root damage. A new line is needed, and the repair bid is $5,000. That’s problem No. 1.

Problem No. 2 is the large deck and retaining wall in the backyard. The structure is totally rotted, and replacement is estimated at $15,000. Shouldn’t these problems have been disclosed by the sellers and their home inspector? –Michael
DEAR MICHAEL: Some disclosures should have come from the sellers, and some from the home inspector. So let’s sort through the details.

A home inspector cannot know about internal problems in a sewer line. All an inspector can do is report defects that are apparent at the time of the inspection. If a sewage backup occurs every few weeks or months but is not occurring at the time of the home inspection, the inspector has no way of knowing it.

Liability in this case points toward the seller. If sewage backups happen repeatedly, the seller was probably aware of it and should have disclosed it. Unfortunately, prior knowledge by the seller is not easily proven. Sometimes you can learn details of past problems by asking the neighbors. Sometimes the neighbors can recall which plumbing company visited the property. It’s all a matter of detective work, which may or may not lead to proof.

Then we have the deck problem. Rotted wood in decks and retaining walls is usually reported by a pest control operator, commonly known as a termite inspector. But wood rot can also be found by home inspectors who take the time to investigate. If the underside of the deck is accessible for inspection, that definitely helps, but a badly rotted deck usually has apparent damage on exposed wood members.

A major mistake in your transaction was trusting the seller’s inspection report, without hiring a home inspector of your own. Regardless of the qualifications of the seller’s inspector, it is always best to have someone conduct an inspection specifically on your behalf, assuming that you hire a highly experienced inspector. This should have been recommended by your agent.

At this point, the sewer problem needs to be diagnosed and corrected, once and for all, rather than paying for repeated snaking of the line. Begin by finding a plumbing company that does video inspections of sewer lines. Then the problem can be determined with certainty. If a new line to the street is needed, inquire about installing a synthetic lining in the existing line, rather than excavating the yard and installing a new pipe.

As for the deck and retaining wall, the home inspector should return to the property for a second look and explain why the damage was not disclosed in the inspection report.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at www.housedetective.com.
Copyright 2010 Barry Stone

See Barry Stone’s feature, Black Crud Invades Whirlpool Bath.

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  • Kimmeesue2

    The same thing happened to me when I purchases a foreclosed property. After moving in we found that there was a sewer problem that apparently had been going on a while an was never disclosed. Luckily we were coved by our cities lateral sewer line insurance so there was no cost to me. Check with you city hall and see if you are covered before paying to have it fixed. You may find that you have insurance to cover it. You will need to pay to have a plumber come and scope it and make sure you get a copy for yourself.

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