The home inspection is one of the most critical aspects of every Massachusetts real estate transaction. Virtually every buyer in a standard purchase transaction (meaning not a short sale, foreclosure, or bank-owned property) will opt to perform a home inspection, and for good reason. You need to know whether there are any serious structural, mechanical or other defective conditions in the home before you close.
As always, I’m going to focus on the legal aspects of the home inspection as it impacts the overall transaction.
Let’s start out with the legal framework for what, if anything, a seller and his real estate agent are required to disclose to a prospective buyer. Surprisingly to most buyers, a private seller has no legal duty in Massachusetts to disclose any type of information, good or bad, about the property (except for the presence of lead paint). This is called caveat emptor, or buyer beware. Real estate agents stand on a heightened legal footing. Under Massachusetts consumer protection regulations governing real estate brokers, a broker must disclose to a buyer “any fact, the disclosure of which may have influenced the buyer or prospective buyer not to enter into the transaction.”
Nevertheless, I always advise buyers not to rely or trust anything the seller or his/her agent says about the property. This is exactly the reason why most buyers will choose to get an independent home inspection.
The standard form Offer to Purchase (click for form) will include several inspection related contingencies: the general home inspection contingency, radon, lead paint, and pest contingencies. The buyer typically has between 5 and 10 days to complete these inspections. If the inspections reveals any problems requiring repair or remediation, the parties will negotiate repairs during this inspection period, and the agreement will be reflected in the standard purchase and sale agreement or sometimes a separate repair agreement which is signed around 14 days after the accepted offer. Typically, the Realtors do the heavy lifting on home inspection negotiations, and by the time it gets to the attorneys, there is an agreement in place.
The attorneys can craft the language for repairs. I always insist that repairs are performed by licensed contractors with evidence of completion provided prior to or at closing. Also, buyers should know that repairs provided in the purchase and sale agreement may trigger a second property inspection by the lender’s underwriters which could add another layer of oversight into the deal.
If the problems are so serious that the buyer wants to walk away from the deal, there is a mechanism for where the buyer provides notice to the seller and a copy of the inspection report. It’s very important to provide proper notice in order to get the buyer’s deposit returned. An attorney should be consulted for this situation.
Home Inspector License Requirements
Since 1999, Massachusetts has required that home inspectors be licensed by the state Board of Registration of Home Inspectors. You can search for home inspector licenses here: Massachusetts Home Inspector License Search.
Buyers should recognize the limits of the home inspection. The state regulations requires inspection of “readily accessible” components of a dwelling. Most modestly priced inspections are visual inspections of the property. The inspector is trained to identify defects in the systems of a house but cannot be expected to have x-ray vision. Moreover, property inspectors are not generally trained civil engineers. Structural defects and weaknesses may not be readily apparent, and may require follow up by a licensed structural engineer. In many cases, however, evidence of inappropriate settling or structural failure can be observed during a visual inspection. An experienced inspector will summarize the “big picture,” but inspectors are not required to identify the exact nature and extent of structural deficiencies. Regulations specifying the elements of a dwelling to be observed and reported on by the home inspector may be found here at 266 C.M.R. § 6.00.
When you buy a condo, you not only buy the unit, but the common areas such as the common roof, mechanical and HVAC systems, grounds, etc. Good home inspectors will ensure that the inspection of a condominium includes the common areas as well as the unit itself. The common area inspection may reveal deferred maintenance needs and inadequately performed repairs that may result in increased condominium fees and special assessments.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established an “action level” of 4.0 pico-curies per liter (4.0 pCi/l) of radon present in indoor air. Although not established as an unsafe level, this figure has been established as the point at which protective measures are recommended. Prospective purchasers and home inspectors frequently use commercially available canisters to collect radon data. This method is cost-effective but may not give accurate results. The canisters are ordinarily placed for twenty-four to forty-eight hours in the basement and on the first floor of the dwelling. The canisters must be placed away from drafts and should not be disturbed. After the test period, the canisters are sealed and forwarded to a testing laboratory. Sometimes, the radon results are not ready by the time the purchase and sale agreement has to be signed. In this situation, the parties can either agree to extend the deadline or agree to a radon contingency.
If the radon results come back over 4.0 pCi/l, depending on the language of the radon contingency, the buyer can typically opt out of the deal altogether or require the seller to install a radon remediation system. Often the sellers will attempt to cap the cost of the system.
Most home inspectors are also qualified to perform inspections for wood-boring insects, such as termites, powder post beetles, and carpenter ants. All properties should be inspected for such pests. Properties financed by certain government-sponsored loan programs, such as the Federal Housing Authority, require a pest inspection as a condition of obtaining a loan. It’s a good idea to ask the sellers if they have an existing pest control contract that can be transferred to the new buyers.
The Massachusetts Lead Law requires the buyer to be given the opportunity to inspect for lead paint. The seller or broker is required to provide potential purchasers of homes built before 1978 with the notification package prepared by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Sellers and real estate agents are required by law to disclose any information about known lead paint hazards in their properties, and to provide copies of any documentation relating to the lead paint status of the properties (i.e., a lead inspection report or risk assessment report). The seller must grant a ten-day contingency period from the date the buyer receives the property transfer notification to conduct a lead paint inspection. If the buyer discovers lead paint in the dwelling during the inspection period, the contingency required by the statute permits the buyer to withdraw from the agreement without further obligation.
Although a seller is under no obligation to actually abate the lead paint, a lead-free house may be more valuable and marketable. This is particularly true for multi-family properties where tenants with children under six years of age may trigger the abatement requirements of the law. Sellers are required to provide any documentation they have of the estimated costs to abate the lead paint. Should a seller refuse to make a price concession based on the presence of a lead paint hazard, a buyer could argue that any subsequent buyer also should be made aware of the hazards and related costs. As a result, the availability of a lead paint inspection and cost estimate can become a powerful negotiating tool for the buyer.
Lead paint testing is typically not done as part of a standard home inspection, and must be separately arranged by a certified lead paint assessor.
Mold and Mildew
Mold and mildew are tricky subjects for home inspectors. The presence of excessive amounts of mold spores has been linked to asthma and other respiratory ailments and is claimed to cause permanent injuries. Mold grows in warm, moist environments and can be present behind walls and ceilings, in heating and cooling ducts, and in other difficult-to-inspect parts of a house or condominium building. As noted, although a building inspector cannot peer behind walls, a thorough inspection can detect water penetration, which is the precursor and necessary condition for a mold problem. Where mold is suspected, a buyer can always request that his home inspector be allowed to drill small exploratory holes to test for the presence of mold/mildew.