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Asbestos Danger in Old Ceilings Mandates Careful Testing

July 25, 1999|BARRY STONE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: My house was remodeled about five years ago, and this included covering the old "cottage cheese" ceilings. To avoid messy demolition, I installed a second layer of drywall over the original ceilings.

Now that I'm selling the property, the home inspector noticed textured ceilings in the closets. He assumed that I had removed the texture from the larger rooms and advised the buyer to verify that I had tested for asbestos.

Since receiving the home inspection report, I've consulted with a general contractor and another home inspector, both of whom say there was no need to test for asbestos before covering the ceilings with drywall. How can I get the buyer's inspector to change his recommendation?

Answer: For many years, acoustic ceiling texture was a standard feature in many homes and, until the late 1970s, asbestos was a common component of that material.

Fortunately, this type of asbestos is not regarded as a significant health hazard unless it is disturbed. If removal or encapsulation takes place, testing and handling by properly licensed people are usually required.

If your buyer's home inspector found acoustic texture in the closets only, he was prudent in assuming that texture was removed from ceilings in other rooms.

Even if the old texture was covered with drywall, rather than being removed, a competent inspector is bound to comment on the issue, because encapsulation of an acoustic ceiling with additional drywall is not an approved procedure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Drywall installation involves significant abrasion, not to mention intrusion by hundreds of nails. This process cannot be performed without creating airborne dust from the acoustic material. If this dust includes asbestos fibers, a health violation has certainly occurred.

Another important issue is the matter of asbestos consultation. You mentioned that dissenting opinions were obtained from a contractor and a second inspector. Only duly licensed and certified individuals may proffer opinions on matters of asbestos testing, removal or encapsulation.

When soliciting such opinions, be sure that the people you have consulted have proper credentials.

Cautious Inspector Upsets Homeowner

Q: After my recent home inspection, the inspector said the shear panels below my home may not provide adequate earthquake protection. He recommended further evaluation by a licensed structural engineer.

I tried to explain to the inspector that my home is only a year old and the city required an engineering approval before it signed off the building permit. The inspector, however, seemed to think he knew more than the engineer who approved the house.

Home inspectors are not structural engineers and they should avoid trespassing in areas that exceed their professional expertise.

A: The home inspector is bound to disclose any doubts that he may have about your shear walls, and it would be better to recommend reevaluation of a faultless condition than to approve a foundation system that is substandard or in any way compromised.

I agree that home inspectors should not trespass in the field of structural evaluations unless they are duly credentialed. However, there are some basic guidelines by which a home inspector may question compliance with general structural standards.

For instance, anchor bolts in a foundation should be spaced no wider than six feet apart. If a home is not in compliance with this standard, a home inspector should disclose that shortcoming, even though that could be regarded as an engineering evaluation.

The same principle applies to shear panels. These are merely sheets of plywood nailed to the walls beneath a building to provide bracing against lateral earthquake forces.

Although the necessary amount of shear paneling can vary according to an engineer's specifications, there are general guidelines for determining minimum shear panel adequacy.

When compliance is in doubt, it is the responsibility of the home inspector to draw such matters to the attention of all concerned parties.

My advice is to consider the consequences if the home inspector should prove to be right. Play it safe and have the shear panels evaluated by a licensed structural engineer.

Inspection Report Opens New Issues

Q: As a home buyer, I can appreciate the benefits of a home inspection. As a seller, however, there is something about the process that seems unfair. I just spent five weeks negotiating the sales price and terms with the buyer of my home. After many hours of haggling, we finally reached an agreement and opened escrow.

Then came the home inspector, and the buyers began asking for price concessions, basing their demands upon the inspection report. Now it seems that we have no deal after all. Is there some way of preventing this kind of situation?

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