Is your Home Inspector opening access panels to properly inspect behind them?

Part of a home inspection is opening access panels to inspect behind them.  But is your Home Inspector taking the time to properly perform their job?[tab: Why open access panels?]

There are many issues that can be found in the areas behind access panels that homeowners themselves rarely open.  It is not only important for Home Inspectors to open and inspect behind these access panels but it is also required by the Texas rules governing Inspectors.  The rules governing licensed Inspectors in Texas can be found on the Texas Real Estate Commission (TREC) WEB site HERE.  These are the Rule sections and wording that require this.

535.227. Standards of Practice: General Provisions.
(a) Definitions.
(1) Accessible ‐‐ In the reasonable judgment of the inspector, capable of being approached, entered, or viewed without:
(A) undue hazard to the inspector;
(B) moving furnishings or large, heavy, or fragile objects;
(C) using specialized tools or procedures;
(D) disassembling items other than covers or panels intended to be removed for inspection;
(E) damaging property; or
(F) using a ladder for portions of the inspection other than the roof or attic space.

(6) Inspect ‐‐ To look at and examine accessible items, parts, systems, or components and report observed deficiencies.

(b) Scope.
(2) General Requirements. The inspector shall:
(A) operate fixed or installed equipment and appliances listed herein in at least one mode with
ordinary controls at typical settings;
(B) visually inspect accessible systems or components from near proximity to the systems
and components, and from the interior of the attic and crawl spaces; and

Problem under a dishwasher

This is just one of the problems that can be found under dishwashers. Click the picture for a larger view.

One such example of an access panel is the kickplate panel at the bottom of a dishwasher.  This picture is just one example of the hazards that can be found under something as simple as a dishwasher.  In this example the connection for the electrical wiring has been improperly installed and in a dangerous manner.  The electrical cabling here is just coming out of the wall and being wire-nutted to the stripped end of the dishwasher power cord.  This arrangement is just laying on the concrete floor.  In this case no protective and raised conduit or junction box was used to enclose the wire-nutted connections.  If any type of leak or spill occurs that comes in contact with those conductors it can cause a short and/or serious safety hazard for anyone near that dishwasher.

The chances of this serious safety condition happening might be small but even small is possible and to much!  Under dishwashers I have found drain hoses deteriorating and not properly connected which can easily cause this serious safety hazard.  I’ve also found damage to the dishwasher. water damaged cabinets as a result of previous leaks, and other problems as well.

The dishwasher is only one example of access panels that should be removed.  Some more examples, but not all, and what has been found are:

  • Access panels behind tubs and showers – Here we can find failing and badly rusting plumbing components, signs of termite activity, signs of current and past leakage just to name a few.
  • Heating and cooling system supply and return air duct covers – Return air plenums under the air handler are notorious for having many issues, especially on older homes.  Here I have found previous and current signs of condensation leakage and damage, signs of termite activity, outright heavy dirt and dust which can block filters quickly, open sewer pipes that are allowing sewage smells into the system, as well as other issues.  Yes these are access panels as the homeowner should be opening them as needed to inspect and clean inside of these areas.
  • The dead front cover on the electrical panel – Here I have found seriously flawed installation and maintenance issues causing more significant safety hazards as well as signs of arcing and shorting.
  • The maintenance access panels of heater/air handler units – A critical part of a gas heater is the heat exchanger and leaks in the heat exchanger can cause a serious risk of carbon monoxide poising.  Although we can not fully disassemble the heater to view the heat exchanger we can potentially see problems near the surface of the unit, but inside the access panel, indicating a high potential of a bad heat exchanger.  For example rust inside the cabinet on the burner jets can indicate possible rusting of the heat exchanger.

So it is very, very important that access panels be opened and inspected behind.  There is a saying that “You can never judge a book by its cover!”.  Well the same is true when you have a nice clean and pretty access panel cover you still don’t know what is behind it until you open it!  So why do access panels not get opened?  Read on for more.

[tab: Why not open access panels?]

There are many reasons why access panels do not get opened and inspected by Home Inspectors.  Opening access panels takes additional time to properly perform a home inspection.    For example in the dishwasher kickplate panel cover example that can easily add 10 – 15 minutes or more to any inspection.  If you don’t think it takes that much time then please get a screwdriver out and check under your dishwasher.  The only ones I have been able to get off and on fairly quickly are the newer ones that use a one piece kickjplate and the plastic twist fasteners.  However “Time is money” and unfortunately many Home Inspectors cut corners by not opening access panels to inspect behind them.  Also if they open that access cover and find something they now are required to add that to the report which many don’t want to deal with.  When you hire that “Cheap Inspector” you are most likely getting one that does not open access covers.

There are other reasons why these covers might not be opened.  If you go back to the TREC rule provided before and read the definition of “accessible” then take note of the following exceptions to what is or is not “accessible”.

(A) undue hazard to the inspector;
(B) moving furnishings or large, heavy, or fragile objects;
(E) damaging property; or

Home Inspectors are provided some latitude in determining if a specific situation can be hazardous to them in attempting to remove an access cover.  In those cases the Home Inspector has the authority to not take the chance.  For example one of the first things I will do before removing an electric panel dead front cover is touch the break switch handles to see if they are firmly secured and do not move.  If breakers are loose in the panel then it is very unpredictable what can happen if the dead front cover is removed.  It can range from nothing happening to very serious injury to the Home Inspector if a breaker comes loose and causes an “arc flash” condition where the panel can literally explode in the Inspectors face!

On many inspections we encounter objects that are blocking access to the panel for removal.  All of the access panels we encounter should never be blocked as described above.  Sometimes they are inadvertently blocked by positioning of furnishings or other items.  Sometimes they are purposely blocked as the owner is aware the Home Inspector might find issues there.  In either case a good Home Inspector is going to do what they can to access that panel, open it, and inspect behind it.  On the other side of the coin is the cheap Home Inspector who will use this clause to prevent from having to move anything and inspect behind that panel.  After all for the cheap Home Inspector “Time is money”.

There are times when attempting to remove an access panel can potentially damage property and even I won’t damage property to inspect behind an access panel.  One example is the dishwasher kickplate discussed before.  I encountered a kickplate where the screws holding it on were so rusted the potential was very high if I attempted to remove or replace them they might snap and the kickplate could not be re-secured.  Another condition are access panels that have been heavily caulked around and painted over.  These conditions hide the edges of the panel and sometimes using a razor knife to cut the bond is not enough.  Removing these panels can damage the finish materials.

Then there is the “gray area” of what actually is considered an access panel for the definition of “accessible”?  For this we need to look at this part of the definition for “accessible”.

(D) disassembling items other than covers or panels intended to be removed for inspection;

Since TREC has chosen not to define “disassembling” then at what point does a panel no longer become one used “for inspection”?.  A good example of this is the heater/air handler for the HVAC system.  You will have the exterior cover for the entire unit which should be removed when possible.  Then inside the unit can be one or more additional covers that are removed for inspecting more deeply into the units internals.  In all fairness to even the cheap Home Inspector these internal covers should not be removed by anyone other than a properly trained service technician.  The internal covers might look simple to remove but might have other removal requirements to ensure no damage occurs to the unit and that the unit can be reassembled into a proper working order.  So in short the Home Inspector should not go beyond any surface access cover for the unit.

So how do you know access panels are being removed?  Read on for some interesting thoughts and recommendations.

[tab: How Do You Know?]

So how do you know if your Home Inspector is properly removing and inspecting behind access panels?  Well unfortunately you don’t unless they are performing according to the rules governing Home Inspectors.  Of importance in those rules is the following requirement.

535.227. Standards of Practice: General Provisions.
(b) Scope.
(5) Departure.
(A) An inspector may depart from the standards
of practice only if the requirements of subparagraph (B) are met, and:
(iii) conditions beyond the control of the inspector
reasonably prevent inspection of an item;
(B) If a part, component, or system required for inspection is not inspected, the inspector shall:
(i) advise the client at the earliest practical opportunity that the part, component, or system will not be inspected; and
(ii) make an appropriate notation on the inspection report form, clearly stating the reason
the part, component, or system was not inspected.

So basically the Home Inspector is required to let you know they did not inspect the item and why.  They are also required to make an annotation in the inspection report about not inspecting the item.  In essence then if your report does not state that they did not open the access panel you are free to expect that they did in fact open the panel!

Of course there are plenty of Home Inspectors out there that do not even read the rules and have no idea what is in them.  Also most, virtually all, of the consumers are not even aware of what is in the rules.  There are also Home Inspectors out there that know the consumer does not know and will take advantage of this to reduce their workload.  The cheap Home Inspector is one that can fit in the “ignorant” or “dishonest” categories just described.  Unfortunately the phrase “Caveat Emptor” (buyer beware) comes into play here.  There are three ways that you can help ensure that your Home Inspector is properly opening and inspecting behind those access panels.

  1. When you interview your Home Inspector ask them “Will you be opening and inspecting behind all accessible maintenance panels?”.  If they say no then move on to another Home Inspector.
  2. On the day of the inspection ask if they did open all accessible panels and ask them to show you where they are.  Not only does that help ensure they did but now you also know where these are and you can ask what you need to do for regular homeowner maintenance.
  3. Read your report closely and make sure that the inspector has annotated any access panels as not accessible and why if they told you on site they did not open it.

It’s up to you to make sure that you are getting the home inspection you paid for.  If you have a cheap Home Inspector who is trying to cut corners then hold their feet to the fire, and the rules governing them, to ensure they are not trying to pull a fast one on you!

[tab: Links and References]

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