Buyer believes inspector missed HVAC problem

Q: I bought a house in June. My real estate agent hired an inspector and collected a fee from my husband and me. The inspector wrote an inspection report which showed that there were minor problems. I paid a second fee for him to return after the owners fixed the issues to make sure everything was in good working order.

We closed and moved into the house. The day we moved into the house, water started leaking from the ceiling and the HVAC system was not working properly. We called in an independent HVAC company to assess the problem. The temperature in the house was over 100 degrees and we have two toddlers. He stated that there was a clear pre-existing condition that everyone should have been able to identify. This would be especially true for a home inspector.

We paid the home inspector twice, $425 for the initial assessment and $100 to make sure the minor issues were fixed. But the HVAC was clearly out of order and we spent the first two weeks in this house with no air conditioning. Should we go after the real estate agent, the home inspector or the seller?

A: Let’s start here: When you get the name of a home inspector (or real estate agent, or anyone else who is going to provide a service to you during your real estate transaction), please take the time to research whether that person or company is good at what they do. – and is the right person or company to hire.

We find it quite disturbing that your real estate agent has hired your inspector. Usually agents will give you a list of several inspectors and you can interview them all to see which one is best for you. This has several advantages. You will learn more about what different inspectors offer in terms of price and service. And you’ll find out if your personality is a match for this person, which is important because you’re going to follow that person through the inspection to learn about the mechanical systems of the property you’re about to buy.

While many real estate agents make great (and personalized) recommendations for home inspectors, you can’t just trust their word and do your own research. You can still interact with an agent’s service providers.

Things happen after hours. It is not uncommon for us to receive letters from readers informing us that they are experiencing problems once they move into a home. Last winter, we heard of a couple who closed an expensive house in New York. The roof leaked the night they entered the property. Often our readers find problems with older air conditioning systems when they first turn them on after the winter or during a heat wave.

What new homeowners learn from older homes is that systems sometimes fail. Yes, older air conditioning systems can suddenly fail after a long winter, even if they worked just fine for the past cooling season. And heat waves, like the ones that hit the northwest and southwest of the US this summer, can put extreme strain on an older HVAC system and it will just die. For the most part, a home inspector doesn’t have a crystal ball to let them know when or how the system will fail.

For us, the pertinent issue is determining what the inspector saw both times when he toured the property and what his report told you about the condition of the HVAC system. We also wonder if the contractor you hired was legit and not just trying to sell you a new system.

We regularly get questions from readers letting us know that their home inspector has missed something, but in reality the problem is a coincidence. After a hard rainstorm, you can get water in your basement, even if the basement has never had a leak or seepage problem. During a major snowstorm (followed by a long cold spell), an ice dam can form and the roof can develop new leaks. A home inspector cannot see or find everything.

That said, we’re seeing more home inspectors relying on checklists when inspecting homes (rather than using their eyes and ears) and are losing the woods for the trees. What we mean by that is they can point to loose cabinet doors or a missing GFCI outlet in an old bathroom, but not see foundation cracks or other potentially large items.

Interestingly, you say that the air conditioning contractor you hired said everyone could have seen the problem with your system, but you didn’t say what the problem was. If the external compressor was missing, that would have been pretty obvious. Sam has a customer who recently closed a house where the HVAC system suddenly stopped working and claims the seller must have known the system was not working properly even though it passed inspection.

Does your existing home warranty cover the repair costs? Many homes are now sold with an existing home warranty. We checked one warranty company and the policy excludes existing defects or mechanical failures that could have been detected by a visual inspection or a simple mechanical test. If you have an existing home warranty and haven’t called the service number yet, you may want to do this.

At this point, we’re not sure where the blame lies. Unless you find a smoking gun, it’s hard to prove that the inspector was at fault or that the seller cheated on you.

If we assume your inspector was incompetent and missed the air conditioning problem, you should call that inspector and discuss it. If the inspector admits to overlooking the problem, you should try to get what you can from him, which is usually a refund of the money you paid for both inspections.

If your sellers did something wrong and actively hid the problem, you can also have a claim against the seller. Seller disclosure claims are difficult to prove. A local attorney can discuss whether you’ll be lucky here and whether it’s worth going after the seller.

Finally, unless you can prove that the agent deliberately lied to you about the air conditioning system, you should spend your energy elsewhere. Good luck.

Contact Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin through her website, ThinkGlink.com.

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