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.