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Disclosure of Septic System Is Seller's Responsibility

July 01, 2001|BARRY STONE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: We recently purchased our home and assumed that it was connected to a city sewer. But now we've learned that there is a septic system that needs replacement, at a cost of $7,000. We hired a home inspector and feel that he should have found this problem. We are also wondering whether the city should have inspected the sewage system when we were in escrow. Now that we're stuck, what recourse do we have?

Answer: It is highly unlikely that the municipal authorities were required to inspect your sewage system before you closed escrow. But the seller should definitely have disclosed that the house is connected to septic, rather than sewer. Had that information been revealed, a septic contractor could have been hired to evaluate the system. This is standard procedure with home sales involving septic systems.

As to your home inspector, his liability does not include septic systems or other aspects of a property that are concealed from view. A home inspection is a visual inspection only. Because septic systems are buried, their presence cannot always be determined by visual inspection.

Even if the home inspector had discovered that there is a septic system, the condition of the system could not have been determined without excavating and pumping the tank. This can only be done by a septic contractor, because special equipment and expertise are needed.

Once again, it was the seller's responsibility to disclose the septic system. Failure to divulge this information is a liability issue for the seller. If the system needs replacement, the seller may have been aware that there were problems, and failure to disclose such conditions is illegal. Proving that this was known could be difficult, unless a local septic contractor has records of having serviced the system in recent times. For further advice on seller liability, you'll need to consult a real estate attorney.

You should also check to see if a city sewage hookup is available on your street. If so, the cost of connecting to that system may be more affordable than a new septic.

Use Copper Rod for Electrical Grounding

Q: As a handyman, I've noticed a makeshift type of electrical ground on many older homes--a steel pipe driven into the earth, with a copper wire running from the pipe to the electric meter. On newer homes, I've never seen this and am wondering if this is a permissible way to ground an electrical system.

A: The grounding of electrical systems in older homes was originally done by connecting a copper wire, known as a bond wire, to the main water supply pipe. In those days, a main waterline was made of galvanized steel, an excellent electrical conductor. And because this pipe extended a considerable distance below ground, it served as an adequate basis for grounding the entire electrical system.

Problems occurred, however, as these old water lines became rusted and finally needed replacement. Some of the plumbers who replaced these deteriorated lines focused primarily on plumbing concerns, with lesser attention to the status of the electrical system. Thus, many of these water lines were replaced with PVC plastic pipe. And because plastic has no capacity for conducting electricity, grounding for those homes was effectively eliminated.

There were, however, some plumbers who realized the necessity of maintaining an electrical ground when installing a PVC water main. And since copper grounding rods were not standard equipment on a plumber's truck, the most handy substitute was a length of galvanized steel pipe.

On newer homes, grounding is provided either by an 8-foot length of half-inch-diameter copper rod, driven deep into the ground, or by connecting a bold wire to the steel bars which reinforce the concrete foundation of the building.

Inspector Missed Chimney Damage

Q: When we purchased our home two years ago, we hired a home inspector. He reported that there were a couple of cracked tiles in the lower part of the chimney and recommended minor repairs. Recently, we hired a chimney sweep, and he says the fireplace is unsafe, and repairs are quoted to be $11,000. If our inspector had disclosed this condition, we would have asked the seller to repair it or we would have offered less for the house. Do we have any recourse against the home inspector?

A: If the fireplace defects were visually discernible, that is, not concealed at the time of inspection, and if the inspector did not recommend further evaluation by a fireplace expert before close of escrow, then he can probably be held liable for the cost of repairs.

Your first step is to bring the matter to the attention of the inspector so that he can reinspect the chimney and offer a solution. If he is insured for errors and omissions, he may be able to file a claim. If he is unwilling to take responsibility, you may have to resort to legal action.

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If you have questions or comments, contact Barry Stone through his Web site at http://www.housedetective.com. Distributed by Access Media Group.

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