Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Realities of Real Estate: Are chimney inspectors just blowing smoke?

We have written many columns about home inspections and the high hurdle they present in getting a home sale to settlement. Sometimes buyers are unwilling to tolerate even the smallest flaws in a property’s condition, a home inspector might inflate the degree to which condition issues constitute a serious problem, a seller may have failed to properly maintain their home, or a real estate agent might not be helping to find a solution. There can be many reasons why home inspections are a tough nut to crack, but recently chimney inspections have become a significant problem.

In our experience, and that of most agents we talk to, virtually every masonry chimney that is inspected is deemed “unsafe for use” and requires $9,000 to $10,000 worth of repairs. So, what’s going on? Are masonry chimneys falling apart at an alarming rate, or are chimney inspectors just blowing smoke to ring the cash register on repairs?

First off, we don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. There are chimney inspectors out there who have earned a reputation for fair and accurate inspections. Unfortunately, there are a number of other companies that can be counted on to consistently declare a chimney unsafe, and the cost to make it safe is almost always $9,000 to $10,000.

To illustrate the problem, ABC’s “Good Morning America” set up a sting operation. It started with a house that had a 50-year-old chimney. It was inspected by the director for the Chimney Safety Institute of America. This nationally recognized expert determined that the chimney was in proper working order. Then, “Good Morning America” started to bring in chimney inspectors.

Time after time, it was the same story. The inspectors said that the chimney was unsafe and in need of immediate repair. They told the homeowner “that the chimney needed a new liner because it was blocked, rotted, and very unsafe.” One inspector even suggested that the chimney could collapse.

Use common sense

It begs a couple of common-sense questions. First, if so many inspectors are regularly telling buyers, sellers and real estate agents that most chimneys are “unsafe for use,” then why aren’t we hearing about large numbers of people being injured or killed by carbon monoxide poisoning? And second, since carbon monoxide is lighter than air, why would a hairline crack in a chimney liner suddenly cause carbon monoxide to go sideways, through the mortar, through the bricks, through the sheathing, through the insulation and through the drywall into your house? There is one local chimney inspection/repair company that our agents have found to almost always declare chimneys unsafe. We reached out to them for a response to questions like these, but we didn’t get a call back.

Essentially, we see six major reasons why chimney inspections have become a major problem with respect to home inspections; they are as follows:

1) Chimney inspectors and those who do repairs are not licensed. In the state of Maryland, home inspectors are licensed and most all contractors are also required to have a Maryland Home Improvement Commission (MHIC) license. That’s not the case with chimney inspectors or those who do non-structural repair work on chimneys.

2) There are no real standards for what constitutes a failed chimney or dangerous condition.  Occasionally, chimney inspectors belong to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, and through that trade organization there might be some consensus on what makes a chimney unsafe. But for the most part, it’s a subjective call that’s made by the inspector.

3) Damage to a chimney is not immediately visible. Most inspectors will run a camera down a chimney and show you some grainy pictures of the cracks or mortar loss that they believe makes the chimney unsafe, but a lay person can’t really interpret what those pictures mean, if anything.

4) Companies that inspect chimneys also do the repairs. If a chimney company’s profit primarily comes from making repairs, then it’s probably not surprising that many of these companies frequently find some sort of problem when doing inspections.

5) The fear factor is a powerful motivator. A leaky roof isn’t likely to kill you. But, something like carbon monoxide, an invisible killer, is a scary thing. Consequently, when an inspector says a chimney is unsafe, people are quick to pony up the money to make it safe.

6) The pressure of a pending home sale makes people vulnerable. When buyers and sellers become committed to a home sale, they try not to let home inspection repairs get in the way of going to settlement. Plus, once a seller is told that their chimney is unsafe, it becomes a latent defect that must be disclosed to all buyers. So, even if the sale falls apart with the current buyer, the seller is forced to make repairs or disclose a dangerous condition that will essentially make his house unsalable.

So, what can you do to help protect yourself? There is no foolproof answer, but we have three suggestions. First, take the time to make sure you get a reliable recommendation on chimney inspectors. Second, take pre-emptive action and have your chimney inspected on a regular basis, or “before” you put your house up for sale. Third, get a couple of opinions, rather than rely on just one inspector. Remember, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and you don’t want to get burned by an unscrupulous chimney inspector.