Who's Responsible for the Unsafe Furnace in the House You Just Bought?

Angie Hicks
Written by Angie Hicks
Updated May 11, 2016
Inside a furnace
If a home inspector red flags a problem with HVAC or another safety hazard before you buy a home, don’t ignore it before you go forward with the sale. (Photo by Brandon Smith)

Clear up any questions about HVAC or other system safety issues before you purchase a house.

Get quotes from up to 3 pros!
Enter a zip below and get matched to top-rated pros near you.

Dear Angie: I recently bought a house with a furnace that was installed improperly in 2002. My building inspector identified this as a safety hazard during the purchase process. The HVAC company now says that because the previous owner didn’t have the initial work inspected by the city, they’re not legally responsible. Is this actually the case? — Robert S., Los Angeles

Dear Robert: My advice to you is to contact a good lawyer and ask for an opinion, because the specific answer to your question varies from state to state and city to city. Some jurisdictions place more responsibility on the contractor than others to make certain that work is completed to code and finalized through the permit process. The city of Los Angeles requires inspections for HVAC installations.

If a home inspection uncovers a safety issue, make its correction a condition of sale

The fact you knew about it in advance and purchased the home anyway may work against you here, but again, you’ll want to talk to an attorney. Whatever the case, it demonstrates the importance of clearing up as many questions as possible about a house before you close the sale. Once you own the home, its problems become your problems. Even if others are found to be ultimately liable for the issue, it still poses a hassle to you in the best-case scenario. This is why the inspection process is so important. If an inspector finds an issue in a home you’re interested in buying, make it a condition of sale that the problem be corrected, and get it in writing. 

Incidentally, home inspectors we talked to tell us that they’re not code inspectors and shouldn’t be counted on to catch things like permit problems and safety issues. They go over everything as well as they can and often perform permit searches, but if it’s not visible, they may not catch it. If you have questions about a particular system in a home you’re buying, it’s worth hiring a trusted contractor to take a look and offer advice. 

Take care when hiring a contractor for those critical HVAC repairs

You might also question why the HVAC company didn’t get the work inspected, and take that into account when deciding you want to hire them to repair it. That's a detail they should have followed up on, and it doesn't speak well for their commitment to quality if they did unsafe work and then later tried to pass off the blame.

Whoever you hire, verify that the company is licensed, bonded and insured — and make sure they follow the permit process all the way through. For more information on HVAC maintenance, check out our Guide.

Staff writer Paul F. P. Pogue contributed to this report. Angie Hicks is founder of Angie’s List. Have a question for her team? Email askangie@angi.com or tweet to #AskAngie. Follow her @Angie_Hicks.

Need professional help with your project?
Get quotes from top-rated pros.