DEAR BARRY: We purchased a townhouse about five months ago, and now we have major problems with the heating and cooling equipment. Our contractor said the furnace needs to be replaced, and we also need a new motor in the swamp cooler. Our home inspector never operated the furnace or the cooler during the inspection, and his report has only one comment about these systems. It simply says, "Info needed."

Besides this, he missed two plumbing problems. The toilet needs to be flushed three times to completely get rid of solids, and we sometimes smell sewer gas in the bathrooms. Is our home inspector liable for these undisclosed problems? –Linsay

DEAR LINSAY: It is unusual and surprising when a home inspector does not operate a heating and cooling system. Testing of this equipment is standard procedure in the course of a home inspection. More surprising, however, is your home inspector’s very limited comment on the subject. His written report, as well as his oral review, should have said "yea" or "nay" regarding the function and safety of the furnace and cooler.

His comment, "info needed," provided mystery, rather than disclosure. Instead, he should have indicated exactly what that statement meant. If he believed the system needed further evaluation by an HVAC contractor, he should have said so plainly and should have included that recommendation in his report.

To determine liability, you should read the home inspection contact that you signed. Many inspection contracts require you to notify the inspector that there is a problem, prior to making repairs. If repairs are done before the inspector can review the problem, these contracts usually disclaim liability.

The plumbing issues are a different story. Sewer gas odors are easy to miss during a home inspection because they tend to come and go. At the time of the inspection, the odors may not have been present. As for the poor flushing of the toilet, it is not possible for a home inspector to test every toilet for its capacity to expel solids. The only way the inspector would be liable for this is if there are visible drain defects that were not reported. You should have this evaluated by a licensed plumbing contractor.

DEAR BARRY: When we bought our home, no one told us there was a septic system on the property. We discovered this months later when the sewage backed up in the house. We called the seller, but he denied knowledge of a septic system. How likely is it that someone could live in a home for 15 years and not know there was an operable septic tank and no sewer hook-up? –Brian

DEAR BRIAN: More than a few homeowners have had to deal with this kind of surprise. If a septic system operates for years without backing up, it is entirely possible that an owner could be unaware of its existence. In one case, a homeowner paid sewer assessment fees as part of his property tax bill for many years, only to learn that his home had never been connected to the sewer system.

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