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  1. #1
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    Default The Dreaded Complaint Call

    I got a call today from a client for whom I inspected a house two months ago. They were out-of-town buyers. They did not attend the inspection. I have never met them. Before today I had only talked to the husband.

    The house was described to me as "very nice" and the only thing they had found wrong were two fogged windows. After I got done ripping the house apart I reported that the roof needed immediate repairs or replacement, the windows are a local (defunct) brand known to deteriorate shortly after the home warranty expires and the house has polybutylene piping (among other various and sundry other things). The husband called me later thanking me for doing such a good, thorough inspection.

    Enter the unhappy wife. She called me today in a very ill temper. We had a brief but intense storm blow through Monday night and they had a leak into the basement mechanical room. Allow me to flesh out my inspection and report a bit so the facts make more sense.

    I found no drainage problems around the foundation but many areas were covered by stone. I observed some honeycombing at the foundation above grade but it did not affect the structural integrity of the foundation wall.

    I also observed a puddle of water on the basement mechanical room floor. The puddle was not near a wall and was near the water softener equipment and pressure tank (the house is on a well). I found no plumbing leaks in the mechanical room.

    I showed the puddle to the buyer's agent. She asked if it was water. I told her it could be urine (perhaps a cat had been locked in the house and urinated there) but that testing it was beyond my scope of work.

    The listing agent showed up and I showed him where the puddle had been (the puddle had evaporated by then). He informed me workmen had been in the house earlier that morning testing the well and well equipment and suggested they opened a valve somewhere and some water squirted on the slab. I agreed that was a distinct possibility.

    I saw no signs of a water leak in the mechanical room other than the puddle.

    Here is how I reported the above observations:

    Site Drainage
    Note: No significant deficiencies were observed in the site drainage. Stone ground cover prevented viewing the grade of the soil below in many areas. Any areas along the foundation that are lower than the surrounding grade should be regraded so that water will drain away from the foundation walls. Ideally the grade should drop at least 1 per foot for a minimum of 6 from the foundation wall. Improve drainage as needed around the house.

    Foundation
    Note: No significant deficiencies were observed in the foundation walls. Minor cracking is typical. Honeycombs are generally cosmetic only. Most areas of the foundation walls were not visible due to insulation, interior finishes, backfill and vegetation.

    Plumbing
    Monitor: Water was observed on the floor of the basement mechanical room near the water softener equipment. The listing agent stated the well had been tested earlier in the day and may be the source of the water.


    The wife's complaint:

    They found water in the basement (don't know the extent) after the storm and called a plumber. The plumber did not find any leaks but lifted up the foundation wall insulation (fiberglass batts covered by clear sheet plastic) and found the insulation was "sopping wet". He also found stains on the foundation wall (behind the insulation) indicating the foundation wall has leaked for some time. The plumber went on the other side of the foundation wall and found the honeycomb and proclaimed that to be the source of the leak.

    The wife asked me why I had not told them the foundation wall was leaking. I told her that I saw no indications the foundation wall was or had been leaking. She asked why I had not found the wet insulation and why I had not lifted up the insulation to find the stains. I told her the insulation was not noticeably wet at the time of the inspection and the source of the water on the floor appeared to be from testing the water softener equipment so there was no reason to suspect a leak at the foundation. And I don't lift up insulation to inspect foundation walls. Further, there had not been any large storms in the days before the inspection so the conditions for the leak had probably not been met before my arrival.

    "Why didn't you tell us the honeycomb could leak and should be repaired? We got the other experts you recommended and we would have gotten the honeycomb repaired if you had only told us. Now we are STUCK!"

    I told her that honeycombs are typically a cosmetic issue and do not normally leak when they are above grade except in extreme cases. I said, without knowing any more, the repair most likely is a simple fix - regrade the area along the foundation wall so it drains properly.

    I asked the wife if the sellers disclosed a leak at the mechanical room. She said they had not but that they (the buyers) had discovered some caulking where the slab meets the foundation wall (a possible attempt to stop a leak). She has complained to her Realtor who contacted the listing agent. So far no response from the sellers. I told her that is the route I would recommend.

    I am meeting the wife tomorrow afternoon to take a look at the situation. I feel that I have not done anything wrong and that I did not miss anything that I should have caught. I don't feel that I owe the buyers anything but I might refund the inspection fee if they press the issue. (The wife mentioned taking the issue to court if they have to. I got the impression she meant they might sue the sellers (and not me - but I don't know)).

    Any advice on how to handle this situation?

    Does anybody have a release form I could use in case I refund the fee?

    No E&O insurance so we don't need to go down that road.

    The photo of the honeycomb was not included in the report because it appeared to be a cosmetic issue only. (And I still think it is a cosmetic issue regardless of what the plumber says. If the grading below the stonescaping is incorrect water can find its way through the foundation wall any number of places. THAT is beyond my ability to detect.)

    No pic of the puddle; it just didn't rank up there on my radar at the time.

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  2. #2
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    As an owner of a company with several employees I've taken many calls like you describe. Best things to do is get on site quickly and take as many pictures as you can (without looking scared). Don't be defensive or apologetic. Just try to gather facts.

    A lot comes down to how reasonable your client is. I've had reasonable people with some pretty major problems take thier fee back and go away... and I've had some unreasonable people with very little or no problem come after me for thousands of dollars. There is really no telling what to expect.

    It's often best to just refund the fee and chalk it up to the cost of doing business. Of course get a release signed. I have two different forms. One for an on-site refund and one I mail people and they send back and then I send them a check. They were drawn up by an attorney but are super short. Send me an IM and I'm happy to pass them along to you.

    I remember I used to have a really hard time dealing with these but after a few I got used to it. Keep in mind they called you to come out and look at something... don't kill yourself trying to explain too much. Kind of the 'person with weakest argument yells the loudest theory' - Listen much more than you talk... that's often times all people want.


  3. #3
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    Bruce,
    I notice that the plumber determined that the wall had been leaking for a long time, but that he didn't mention that the sopping wet insulation was mold laden. I tend to believe that either the wall had not been leaking for a long time or that the insulation had been changed.

    Handle it the best that you can. Matt's suggestions seem reasonable.
    Most of the time, if you can stay focused on the problem and solution irate clients seem to settle down. As long as you've been around, you probably have a working relationship with a foundation person. Arrange for him to go over with you. Many times, we are too quick to assume responsibility. Be sure of the cause before you do that.

    But if your Clients turn out to be the "My whole life is ruined" types and it turns ugly, you might want to drag the sellers and the selling agent into the equation. Seems like some non disclosure might have occurred.

    Good luck and stay cool.

    The only reason some people get lost in thought is because it's unfamiliar territory.
    - Paul Fix

  4. #4
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    Quote Originally Posted by Thom Walker View Post
    I notice that the plumber determined that the wall had been leaking for a long time, but that he didn't mention that the sopping wet insulation was mold laden. I tend to believe that either the wall had not been leaking for a long time or that the insulation had been changed.
    Good observation. My recollection is the insulation and VB looked new or nearly new. I really need to learn to suspect a coverup when I see new materials or paint.

    Quote Originally Posted by Thom Walker View Post
    Seems like some non disclosure might have occurred.
    That's what I'm thinking.

    "Baseball is like church. Many attend but few understand." Leo Durocher
    Bruce Breedlove
    www.avaloninspection.com

  5. #5
    David Banks's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    Bruce. This release is from someone on Inspection News.

    Attached Files Attached Files

  6. #6
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    UPDATE

    I feel like the crosshairs are no longer on me after my site visit this afternoon. This case has the hallmarks of a classic cover-up by a seller.

    The plumber was right! The leak is at the honeycomb. That's the last time I will call a honeycomb "cosmetic only".

    The honeycomb on the exterior of the foundation very closely corresponds with the honeycomb on the interior. I am surprised the builder did not repair this. (OK. I lied. I am NOT surprised the builder did not repair the honeycomb. He (or at least someone) made a feeble attempt to cover - not repair - the honeycomb on the exterior.) I wonder why the regional building inspector missed it as well.

    In these parts we float basement walls. That means a plate is nailed to the basement slab and a wall is framed above this plate with a gap (typically 1-1/2") to allow for heaving of the slab due to expansive soils in our region. The bottom plates have been caulked along the slab in the mechanical room - apparently for two reasons: 1) to prevent water from flowing from the mechanical room to the adjacent finished room and 2) to catch water as it flows through the wall and prevent it from making it to the mechanical room (effective only for the smallest of leaks).

    A wall was framed along the exterior foundation wall. The wood appears to be newer than the partition wall between the mechanical room and the adjacent finished room. This wall was then insulated and a clear sheet plastic vapor barrier stapled to the studs. I suspect this work was done to hide the honeycomb and evidence of leaking. (It worked. It fooled me!)

    The buyer told me the day of their closing there was a good deal of water on the mechanical room floor extending from the foundation wall halfway across the room. The carpet in the adjacent finished room was wet. They postponed the closing until the source of the water could be determined. The seller called a plumber. When the plumber arrived the seller pulled the plumber away from the area of the foundation wall and showed him that "the home inspector pulled the A/C condensate drain line out of the floor drain and left in on the floor. THAT must be the source of the water." The plumber agreed that the dumb inspector (that would be ME) must have done just that. Problem solved! The house closed after the carpet was dried and the pad replaced.

    Fast-forward to the day of the intense storm. The mechanical room flooded again. Luckily the water was noticed before it spread to the adjacent finished room (thanks to lots of towels). The buyer called a plumber to investigate. He happened to be from the same company that the seller called (same company, different man). He told how the seller drew the other plumber away from the area of the leak and to the condensate drain. The new plumber is the one that discovered the wet insulation and the honeycomb and evidence of leaking behind it.

    What is amazing is that this is going to be an easy and relatively inexpensive repair. Very little digging will be required. Foundation repairs don't get much easier than this. I don't understand why the sellers went to so much trouble to cover up the problem instead of repairing it. Then they apparently lied on their disclosure (Foundation problems or leaks? No.) And now it appears they will fight to the end to keep from paying for this undisclosed defect.

    I explained to the buyer what the problem is, how it occurred, how appears it was covered up and how it can be repaired. I even recommended a foundation repair company. I will also provide her with a brief report on my observations including photos. She is still my client and I am on her side.

    Below are some of the photos I took today. Note the stains below and a little efflorescence around the honeycomb on the inside face of the foundation wall. This thing has been leaking for quite some time. Probably only a few times a year when the conditions are just right, e.g., a driving rain blowing rain into the honeycomb or a snowdrift against the foundation wall melting).

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  7. #7
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    Bottom plate caulked to slab along wall between mechanical room and adjacent finished room. Notice how we float basement walls here.

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  8. #8
    David Banks's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    Bruce looks like some negative grade issues where the stone is.
    Good to hear your off the hook. Now you do not have to run to Romania with John Arnold.

    Last edited by David Banks; 08-04-2007 at 05:02 AM. Reason: addition

  9. #9
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    It is interesting that the seller blamed you for the condensate line but did not ask you to replace the carpet, huh makes one think.
    Customer service is where it is at.
    Happy Inspecting


  10. #10
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    Quote Originally Posted by David Banks View Post
    Bruce looks like some negative grade issues where the stone is.
    Good to hear your off the hook. Now you do not have to run to Romania with John Arnold.
    The area had positive drainage. Maybe it doesn't appear so in the pics. In the original inspection I made sure of positive drainage because of the honeycomb (never thinking the honeycomb extended all the way through the foundation wall).

    I hear Romania is nice this time of year.

    "Baseball is like church. Many attend but few understand." Leo Durocher
    Bruce Breedlove
    www.avaloninspection.com

  11. #11
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    It sounds like it came out good... It's amazing how much some old fashioned customer service can do.

    I firmly believe that as long as your clients believe you did your best they won't come after you if something goes wrong. Of course the best way to make your clients believe that you did your best is to.... well, do your best.

    You did the exact right thing to go out and meet with them and talk through the problem and show you care.

    It's easy to think the world is full of a bunch of horrible people... in reality, a lot of people are pretty reasonable and accepting that things happen sometimes.


  12. #12
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    Glad to hear this is turning out well for you Bruce.
    I was up in your neck of the woods this past weekend to visit my son and his wife. Definitely different construction methods than here in the Dallas area. It kind of surprises me that you have expansive soils and that most homes don't have stone or brick considering all of the rock. Brick exterior facade is the norm here with slab foundations.
    Jim

    Jim Luttrall
    www.MrInspector.net
    Dallas, Texas

  13. #13
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    Mar 2007
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    Chicago IL
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    After a similar situation to yours I started moisture testing every basement finish. In this case I would have moisture tested the plates at least and kept a photo record as evidence showing the moisture level at the time of the inspection. Also, it helps to remind the client that an inspection is a 'snapshot in time' and that conditions can change. Glad to hear you have handled it well.

    Dan Cullen
    www.domicileconsulting.com
    Chicago IL

  14. #14
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    Default Re: The Dreaded Complaint Call

    I have a statement in my contracts that requires the client to conduct a pre closing walk through. I also include a walkthroughcheck list with every report. If they find issues I tell them that they should contact me immediately so that they can be looked at before the closing. I dont know how many clients actually conduct this inspection, but I did have one case where one did and found nothing wrong. Six weeks later, his ceiling fell in from a roof leak (roof looked fine during the inspection - there was a repair which was noted). Having him do that inspection saved me from a lawsuit.

    Bill Siegel
    Florida Home Inspection Team Inc.

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