A few SoPs use the phrase “adversely affect habitability” as a deficiency that home inspectors must report. A definition of habitability is: “The condition of a building in which inhabitants can live free of serious defects that might harm health and safety.” (Black’s Law Dictionary, Seventh Edition) This definition has the potential to expand the definition of unsafe that is commonly used by home inspectors, and has the potential to introduce environmental and health issues that are typically excluded from a home inspection. Home inspectors who use a SoP that contains the term habitability should review their inspection agreement with a local attorney to reduce the chance that the term habitability could be interpreted in a detrimental manner.
Imminent Threats to People and to Property
One general inspection rule is that the home inspector may not discuss findings and recommendations with anyone except the client without the client’s permission. Another general inspection rule is that the home inspector should leave the property as it was before the inspection and should not turn on or off any system or component that does not function using normal operating controls. The exception to these rules involves situations that present an imminent threat to occupant health and safety or an imminent threat of property damage. These imminent threat situations are uncommon; however, the home inspector should be prepared to respond appropriately when they occur. A home inspector might be held responsible for damages if the home inspector fails to respond appropriately, even if the home inspector did not cause the situation.
Imminent threats include, but are not limited to, significant fuel (gas or oil) leaks, water distribution pipe leaks, significant drainage pipe leaks, chimneys and vents that are blocked, disconnected, leaking, or significantly damaged, exposed and energized electrical components, probable fire hazards (e.g., fuel stored near an ignition source), the presence of dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide (if the home inspector tests for the presence of carbon monoxide), and houses where drugs such as methamphetamines may have been prepared (meth houses).
The appropriate response depends on the threat level and on conditions during the inspection. The home inspector should leave the house with all other parties during imminent life safety threats such as significant fuel leaks inside the house, dangerous carbon monoxide levels, and meth houses. The home inspector should call, or ensure that someone calls, the appropriate emergency service. The home inspector should attempt to turn off the water supply if a water distribution pipe leak is observed, and turn off the branch circuit serving exposed and energized electrical components. The home inspector should attempt to turn off the fuel supply if a significant fuel leak is observed inside the house if the home inspector believes it is safe and prudent to do so. Fuel leaks outside of the house, such as at the gas meter, are usually less dangerous because the flammable vapors are have more space in which to disperse.
The home inspector should notify, attempt to notify, or witness someone notify the property owner or the owner’s representative if an imminent threat is observed. The owner’s representative is usually a real estate agent, preferably the listing (seller’s) agent. The home inspector should carefully and completely document notification attempts including the names and telephone numbers of people spoken to, the times of the calls, and a summary of the conversations. This includes leaving voice or text messages when people cannot be reached immediately. The home inspector should carefully and completely document all actions taken by the home inspector and other parties present to prevent or mitigate damage. The home inspector should take pictures if it is safe to do so. The home inspector should report that attempts were made to notify responsible parties about an imminent threat and should make appropriate recommendations not to use affected systems or components until repairs are made.