DEAR BARRY: We bought our home about six months ago. According to our home inspector, the furnace was in "satisfactory" condition, but he added that it was old and might soon need replacement. His only advice was to have it cleaned and serviced by a heating contractor before winter.
After buying the home, we took his advice and called a local heating company to service the system. To our surprise, the contractor found a major crack in the heat exchanger, readily visible when the cover panel was removed from the front of the furnace.
We called our inspector to report that he had missed a major defect during his inspection. He refused any responsibility for the crack, explaining that home inspectors do not inspect heat exchangers. He insisted that he had warned us that the furnace was old and might need to be replaced. What do you think of this response? –Mark
DEAR MARK: Your home inspector’s response is common among many home inspectors. It is based upon a reasonable premise, but it contains two weak points.
Heat exchangers are universally excluded from home inspections. This exclusion is plainly stated in nearly all home inspection contracts and in the standards of practice of all of the recognized home inspector associations.
In most cases, this is a reasonable disclaimer because in more than 90 percent of furnaces, the combustion chamber is concealed from view unless the furnace is dismantled. Since home inspections are limited to conditions that are visible and accessible, it is fair to exclude heat exchangers.
Unfortunately, some inspectors take this disclaimer too far, applying it to cracks that are readily visible to an inspector who looks into the burner orifice.
If the crack in a heat exchanger is visible without dismantling the furnace, the home inspector, in my opinion, should take responsibility for overlooking it.
The fact that heat exchangers are outside the scope of a home inspection does not eliminate the need to attempt to inspect what is visible. After all, conditions that are visible and accessible are definitely within the scope of the inspection.
Some inspectors avoid heat exchanger liability by routinely stating that an old furnace may soon need replacement and by advising professional servicing of old furnaces. This might have been an acceptable approach by your home inspector, if not for one crucial detail: He recommended that you have the furnace serviced "before winter."
A safer approach would have been to service the system before the close of escrow. If he had advised doing this, the crack could have been found before you purchased the home, the sellers could have paid for a new furnace, and the home inspector would be a hero instead of a suspect.
Most heat exchanger cracks cannot be discovered during a home inspection. But there are exceptions. A wise approach for home inspectors is to shine a light into the burner orifice. If cracks are not visible, there may be rust flakes, there may be soot, there may be irregularities in the color and pattern of the gas flames, or the flames may change when the blower turns on.
Home inspectors should use the disclaimer fairly, to protect themselves in cases where the defect could not be discovered. They should not use as an excuse to overlook apparent problems.