For most people, our homes will be the biggest investment of our lives. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars between purchasing the home, paying interest on the mortgage, and maintenance throughout your time in the home. We all hope to make countless happy memories in our homes and make it a safe refuge for our families.
To reduce the risk of unknowingly purchasing a damaged house that will become a bottomless money pit, buyers frequently employ home inspectors to examine the house before completing the purchase. I imagine that most homeowners are at least vaguely familiar with a home inspector’s role. According to the American Society of Home Inspectors, a home inspection is “an objective visual examination of the physical structure and systems of a house, from the roof to the foundation.” In other words, the home inspector looks at the interior and exterior of your house to determine if anything is wrong and in need of repair or upgrade. The home inspector is not required to conduct any tests. Further, the home inspector is not supposed to move anything, such as furniture or wallpaper, to get a look at potential hidden defects. An inspector’s role is limited to what can be readily observed. If something concerning is found in the inspection, the buyer can either back out of the purchase agreement or renegotiate the agreement’s terms.
Given the importance of a quality home inspection, many people are surprised to learn that there are no licensing requirements for home inspectors in Montana. The State of Montana does not require any testing or examination before people can market themselves as home inspectors. Even though I would be woefully unqualified, I could go out tomorrow and legally set up Gerstner Home Inspection Services. Some home inspectors have years of experience in a relevant industry, like general contracting. Others take online or in-person courses on home inspection. But in Montana, there are no requirements for home inspectors to undergo any training or obtain any licensing.
Lucky for Montanans, our state has enacted the Home Inspection Trade Practices Act, or HITPA for short. It can be found in the Montana code starting at § 30-14-1001. The HITPA enacts a set of requirements on home inspectors doing business in Montana. For example, a home inspector must issue a written home inspection report unless the client specifically waives it. That written report “must clearly identify and describe: (a) the inspected systems, structures, and other relevant components of the dwelling; (b) any major visible defects in the inspected systems, structures, and other relevant components of the dwelling; and (c) any recommendations for further evaluation of the property by other appropriate persons.” § 30-14-1002(2), MCA. Put differently, a home inspector must thoroughly inspect the house, accurately report any major visible defects, and recommend any follow up by somebody else, such as a structural engineer or an electrician. Home inspectors also cannot hurt the consumer by disclosing the results of the home inspection to somebody else without the client’s permission. Finally, the home inspector home must work solely for the client and cannot be influenced by any potential conflicts of interest when determining whether to include material in the written report.
Luckily, the Montana Legislature gave the HITPA some teeth if a home inspector causes harm by violating any of the HITPA’s requirements. Any violation of the HITPA can lead to some significant remedies. If a consumer is forced to sue a home inspector for violating the HITPA, the consumer may be awarded his actual damages, treble damages (his actual damages multiplied by three), and his attorney fees.
In addition to the HITPA, a home inspector can be liable under a simple negligence theory. There are several industry standards that are applicable to home inspectors. In addition to the previously mentioned American Society of Home Inspectors, there is the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. Both of those organizations have created standards of practice. It seems that most home inspectors are members of one or both of those organizations.
Let’s take a look at how this aspect of Montana law can help a homeowner recover damages caused by a home inspector. Imagine Lenny and Wendy are young first-time home buyers, and they find their dream home right in their price range. They enter into an agreement to purchase the house, provided that they obtain a satisfactory home inspection report. Lenny and Wendy hire Hurried Harry, who is the owner of Harry Home Inspections Inc. Unfortunately, Harry tends to overbook himself, and he has four inspections to complete on the same day he inspects Lenny and Wendy’s prospective house. Harry performs a very rushed inspection and barely glances at the house’s structural components. Harry did not note any defects in his written report, and Lenny and Wendy are so gleeful with their new house that their friends get sick of seeing pictures of it in their Instagram stories. Their glee turned to gloom, however, during the first rainstorm in their house. Water pours through the roof and into their house like water through a colander. Their dream home turns out to be a dramatically oversized shower. On the next sunny day, a different home inspector comes out and immediately notices defects in the house’s ceiling and roof. Hurried Harry should’ve noticed these defects, but he simply missed them in his rush to complete the inspection. Under Montana law, Lenny and Wendy should be able to hold their home inspector liable and at least make Hurried Harry pay for the actual damages that they’ve suffered.
Of course, every case is different, and no results are guaranteed. If you think you’ve been wronged by a home inspector, you need to contact an attorney pronto. Gerstner Law has experience in litigating against home inspectors. Contact us if you think you may have a claim, and we’ll discuss if you may be entitled to compensation. We’ll always provide an honest assessment and never lead you on. Until next time, enjoy January and keep an eye out for our next installment!