Dear Barry,

We have an old deteriorated fireplace in a 1914 home. There are holes in the mortar, smoke stains on the mantle, numerous cracks in the exterior stucco, and the chimney actually moves when you push against it. When we bought the home last year, the only fireplace comment in the home inspection report was “no spark arrestor.” If our inspector had disclosed these additional problems, we could have insisted that they be repaired. Now that we own the home, we’re stuck with a nonfunctional fireplace. Shouldn’t our inspector have seen these problems, and isn’t he liable for the cost of repairs? –William

Dear William,

Based upon your description of the fireplace and chimney, your home inspector was apparently negligent in his inspection of those components. Home inspectors typically report deteriorated mortar and visible cracks. When smoke stains are apparent on a mantle, inspectors commonly point out that the fireplace may vent smoke into the home. Furthermore, most fireplaces more than 50 years old are regarded as substandard because they generally consist of nonreinforced masonry and have unlined chimneys.

The primary function of a home inspection is to disclose defects that are visible and accessible at the time of inspection and that are within the defined scope of a home inspection, according to industry standards. All of the defects now under discussion fit those basic criteria and should have been disclosed by a competent home inspector.

Your first course of action is to notify the inspector of your concerns and to request a reinspection of the fireplace and chimney. His financial liability for negligence will be determined jointly by the terms of the home inspection contract and pertinent laws in your state. Regardless of liability limitations, be sure to ask the inspector if he carries errors and omissions insurance.

Another consideration, however, is to ask yourself what you would have done had the fireplace defects been disclosed by the inspector. In most cases, sellers are not willing to reconstruct old fireplaces. In all likelihood, you would have been given the choice to buy the fireplace as is, to accept a price adjustment, or to cancel the purchase contract. The decision you would have made under those circumstances needs to be weighed in deciding your course of action, if any, against the home inspector.

Dear Barry,

We purchased a new home about five years ago. Now we want to do some electrical work, but the developer won’t give us a copy of the blueprints. He says they are proprietary information and that we can’t see them. He is willing, however, to show the plans to our electrician. Is this the way things are commonly done? Don’t we have a right to see the plans? –Linda

Dear Linda,

Unfortunately, it is a common practice for developers to withhold copies of building plans. The reason for this secretiveness is that most homes are not built precisely in accordance with approved plans. There are usually alterations of one kind or another, and builders don’t want these deviations to give rise to conflicts or other unpleasantries. If the builder agrees to let your electrician see the plans, be thankful for that concession. Some developers won’t even do that.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at

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