The cold truth about inspecting winterized homes

Home Inspector with Final Analysis Home Inspections

Now that the housing market has frozen over and it's January, I've been seeing a lot of foreclosed, bank owned homes. I had 3 inspections this week on "winterized" homes and I've got to say I do not feel comfortable about this and neither should the buyer. When I get a call to schedule an inspection and I'm qualifying the appointment I get to the question, are the utilities on? It's the same answer every time.."well it's winterized but the bank said to just go ahead and de-winterize it."  Sounds easy enough, just close all the faucets and open the meter valve right? Wrong! First of all Home inspectors are not supposed to be turning on utilities such as water, gas or electric because of the liability that come along with that. How are we supposed to know what was wrong before or after this property was foreclosed. One of the houses I was supposed to "de-winterize" didn't even have any pipes in it because the copper was stolen by some crack heads. Often times it's the home inspector that first discovers these problems because before the buyer came along no one had a reason to care. The second winterized house I inspected must have been winterized after the water was shut off or after it already froze because as soon as we turned on the city water valve, water came gushing like an overflowing pot out of the top of the water heater tank. This water heater also happen to be the hot water source for the fan coil furnace. So we couldn't inspect the plumbing or the heat on that one. The third house also had fan coil water heat in the attic. We turned the water on and everything was fine for about 5 minutes when suddenly water came cascading out of the attic hatch. You guessed it, the fan coil was either corroded through or it had fractured from the cold.

Here's the problem. It's not as simple as just turning on the water. It can easily take an extra hour to find and close all water valves, find the water main, dig it out, bail out the water, Light pilot lights on furnaces and water heaters, run here, run there, only to find that something is wrong and you can't inspect those systems anyway. I've ben trying to deal with this because I want the work and I want to help the buyer. But I think it's clear that I should draw the line on how much risk and time I should take especially when it almost always doesn't benefit the buyer.

So what should a buyer and their agent do? The banks don't seem to care and just keep shoving that "as is" phrase up every ones nose. I think if the bank gets a viable offer on the property then they should make it and it's systems fully available for inspection so we can at least see what "as is" is. Why should those risk and additional cost be passed on to the home inspector or potential buyer? These homes should be in basic working condition otherwise the inspection is crippled. I think that when an offer is made, it should be contingient on the bank making the property and it's systems fully available for inspection and that includes de-winterization. They usually have all the utilities turned on so why not have it de-winterized at the same time.

What I'm going to do is start telling people that they must have the house de-winterized and recommend they try to have the bank absorb that liability before we can inspect. I'll explain the liabilities and limitations of doing this during the home inspection and the advantages of doing it before hand as it may reveal damages that can be repaired that might otherwise hinder the inspection.  I'm also thinking about offering to doing the de-winterizations as an additional service but I will have to factor in the extra time, liability and cost associated with doing this. The won't like it but they will have to be responsible for the extra cost. It's a hard sell but certainly worth it so they can get a full and complete inspection. If they choose not to have the home de-winterized then I will just not be able to inspect the things that can't be inspected and I'll disclose that up front and in the report. Otherwise I may find myself out in the cold.

Final Analysis Home Inspections

Comments (9)

Jim Allhiser
Perfection Inspection, Inc. - Salem, OR
Salem, Oregon Home Inspector

This is a nationwide issue with inspectors right now.  The market is FULL of bank owned.

I have been thinking about adding the "winterization/dewinterization" to my service but it may be a big freakin hassel.

Good post thanks.

Jan 17, 2009 02:29 PM
Joan Whitebook
BHG The Masiello Group - Nashua, NH
Consumer Focused Real Estate Services

You raise so many important points.  I hate those foreclosures which have been "winterized" -- I try to eplaint the risks to buyers.

Jan 17, 2009 02:32 PM
Marlene Pellegrini
Norwich, CT

I agree that this is a problem right now.  I wonder if when your office gets a call that the person taking the appointment should now ask if the property is a fordclosure or if it is vacant and winterized.  This may help to avoid some of this.  More work for the person who takes the appointment however it may save you from going out there to find out that it is winterized and the complete inspection will be done.  This is just a suggestion.

Jan 17, 2009 02:40 PM
Bob & Carolin Benjamin
Benjamin Realty LLC - Gold Canyon, AZ
East Phoenix Arizona Homes

Agree, it is silly that the banks are pushing this all onto buyers. Often times there are unpaid utilities and they can't even e turned on at all until the liens are paid.

Jan 17, 2009 02:46 PM
Diane Lynch
Realty Executives Premiere - Warrenville, IL
Real Estate Broker


I don't blame you for not wanting the liability. These REO's are really a mess to deal with. They turn off the electricity so the sumps don't work, water gets in the house and the problems begin. Now the freezing pipes are a big problem. Wait till they all thaw - we'll have water, water everywhere! What will become of these houses - they all can't be teardowns! Who wants to invest the money to repair all the damage? Mold alone is a tough thing to deal with. And the buyer expects you to find ALL the defects. You are in a tough profession!

Jan 17, 2009 03:08 PM
Matt Peters
RE/MAX Premiere - Albuquerque, NM
(New Mexico Broker)

     In New Mexico, our Purchase Agreement has a place to specify whether the Buyer or the Seller is responsible for "turning utilities on" to allow inspections.  As a REO listing agent, I get the utilities on, including water service, when it is specified as the Seller's responsibility.  REO Sellers do not pay for inspections, but they usually will pay for turning utilities on.  HUD is one exception, and I have run into some others.
     Since I initially ordered the winterization, I usually know if there were any leaks if the water was on when I took possession of the property. Either way in most cases the water can be turned on with little or no excitement.
      SOMEONE needs to meet the water utility people to supervise turn on of the water. Often that is ME.  If there is a plumbing disaster, it is possible the water can't be left on.  Usually a bad water heater or missing RO system can be isolated.  If there are no pipes left in the house, it seems unimportant for an inspector to determine if a faucet drips and a toilet flush or fill valve function properly. 
     If the utilities are not on, you can't inspect that system.

Matt Peters, Albuquerque-Rio Rancho, NM                 
(505) 269-4791 . . . .  Your Direct Line to RESULTS


Jan 17, 2009 03:12 PM
Tina Merritt
Nest Realty - Blacksburg, VA
Virginia Real Estate


Shame on the agents for putting you in this position.  Agents should know that a home inspector cannot do an inspection on a winterized home and "de-winterizing" is something that should be done before you arrive.  Whenever I have sold a foreclosure that the buyer wants inspected, the buyer has paid for the property to be de-winterized, then inspected, then re-winterized.  It's just not that difficult!

Tina in Virginia

Feb 20, 2009 11:04 AM
New Lake Owner

I am the proud owner of a new lake and would appreciate feedback.  I just closed on a Fannie Mae owned foreclosure.  The selling agent foolishly had the power disconnected 2 days before closing, which caused me to have to get an occupation permit in order to get it turned back on.  Because of this error I inquired about the water service, and the selling agent told face to face that the water was on, and all I needed to do was have it switched over to my name.  He called his office and someone supposedly verified that the water was on while talking to me in person.  I called the water company and gave them my info to have it switched over, they apparently came out and turned it on, and left a tag on the door with a box checked "suspect plumbing leak, water turned off at meter".  I walked in the house 7 hours after the note was left, and water was covering some of the floors.  I immediately called my realtor and shared what I knew.  As it turns out, the water company says the house had not had the water on for months, the sellers agent was either misinformed by his office or lieing.  The house was winterized, and in doing so the washer connects and icemaker line had been left in the open position, so when they cut it on it flowed freely.  Now the sellers agent has lied and told my agent that he never said the water was on, and I have wet carpets and walls.  This has all happened in the past 24 hours, any suggestions?

May 06, 2010 04:17 AM
Dave Halpern
Dave Halpern Real Estate Agent, Inc., Louisville, KY (502) 664-7827 - Louisville, KY
Louisville Short Sale Expert

Sometimes banks winterize homes after the pipes froze. Always inspect the plumbing even if the house was winterized.

Jun 09, 2018 10:07 AM