Dear Barry,

From time to time, your column addresses the subject of asbestos, and you sometimes refer to building materials as “possibly containing asbestos.” As a home inspector, I’ve always tried to avoid “might be” types of wording with my customers. My reports state that “there was a time when asbestos building materials were used,” but I always follow this by explaining that “the only way you can verify asbestos content is by testing the material.” Don’t you think that home inspectors should avoid suggesting what “could possibly be contained” in various materials, especially regarding hazardous substances that are outside the scope of a home inspection? –Bernie

Dear Bernie,

Without question, home inspectors should not identify materials as “asbestos-containing” without the support of laboratory analysis. But materials such as acoustic ceiling texture and transite cement are commonly known, even among nonprofessionals, to be asbestos-containing in many instances. For a home inspector to say that such materials “possibly contain asbestos” does not seem to be overreaching. This, of course, is a personal opinion, and has long been a point of heated discussion among home inspectors.

Those who oppose asbestos-related comments of this kind are concerned primarily with liability. According to their view, inspectors who comment on conditions that are outside the scope of a home inspection (such as asbestos materials) can no longer deny responsibility for other issues that are outside the scope of an inspection, such as problems involving structural engineering, water quality or geological stability.

The other side of the controversy is also based on liability concerns, but from a different perspective. When home inspectors say nothing about possible asbestos content, they can be sued for nondisclosure, even though such disclosures are outside the scope of the inspection. For example, home inspectors have been named in lawsuits against termite inspectors, even in states where they are precluded by law from making termite-related disclosures. If court rulings were always fair, inspectors could expect to win such cases. But judicial fairness is never guarantied, and even if it were, the cost of justice is heavily punctuated with dollar signs. A home inspector can win the case but lose on court costs and attorney fees. Those of us with this view would rather tell a customer that there might be asbestos than be sued when asbestos is discovered after the close of escrow.

In the final analysis, this is a business decision that each inspector must make. Basically, we’re damned if we disclose, and damned if we don’t. It’s a choice between one form of risk or the other. In this inspector’s view, the better choice is disclosure.

Dear Barry,

We are presently buying a 20-year-old home. The roof has never been replaced, and our home inspector reported apparent hail damage. An insurance claim may have been filed at one time, but no evidence of repair work was reported. How can I check into this? –Michael

Dear Michael,

The sellers should be asked to provide copies of all roof-related documents as part of their disclosure statement. If they have ever filed a claim with their insurance company or received a contractor’s repair bid, copies should be provided. And based upon your home inspector’s findings, you should request further evaluation by a licensed roofing contractor.

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