Concealed Fire Damage Q&A

QUESTION:

“We just bought our first house three months ago and have been painting and carpeting. My husband was in the attic last week to cut a hole for a skylight to be installed. When he cut into the roof boards, he noticed that the wood had been charred from a fire. You can’t see the charring on the surface because the attic had been sprayed with a white paint. After talking with the neighbor, we found out that there was a major fire in the kitchen three years ago. Shouldn’t this have been disclosed to us? Our property inspector did not mention it in his report, and now we’re worried that we’re going to have some real problems.” –  M. T. , Alameda

ANSWER:

California law requires that any material fact, defect or condition that may affect the desirability of a house must be disclosed to prospective buyers. A major fire in the kitchen would definitely qualify as needing to be disclosed. I’m surprised that the sellers did not inform you of this. I strongly suggest that this be investigated further to determine the extent of the fire and whether the repairs were properly done and completed.

Any time there is a fire in a house, the extent of the damage has to be thoroughly investigated to determine what components must be replaced in order for the house to be safe and structurally sound. This includes not only the framing members, but also the plumbing and electrical lines and any appliances such as the furnace and water heater. Often damage can extend beyond the wall surface, affecting items that cannot visually be seen.

The two questions that you need to answer are whether or not the fire damaged repairs were completed with the approval of the city, and why wasn’t this disclosed to you by the sellers. I am assuming that the sellers were living in the house at the time the fire occurred. If not, they may have had no knowledge of it either.

Most people assume that after a fire, a house is restored to its original condition and will not cause present or future problems. This is usually true, however, there are some exceptions to this. One such exception is the fact that not all charred or smoke damaged wood is required to be removed. It only has to be removed if it has been structurally weakened. Usually, if the charring is less than 20% of the depth of the board, the board is considered to still be capable of serving its intended purpose and left in place.

When charred or smoked-stained wood is left in place, it is almost impossible to clean. It is commonly sealed with a lacquer based, sealer / deodorizer that leaves the surface of the wood with a light white, painted finish. That is what you observed in the attic. I’m a little surprised that your house inspector did not mention that your attic had been sprayed painted with this sealer. There is really no other reason to see this done in an attic. It would have given you an opportunity to question the sellers about it.

Does this mean that you bought a house with problems? Not necessarily. The first thing that you want to do is to check with the building and fire department. They should both have records and a report of the fire. If there is proof that the work was signed off and completed, there should be no problem with your house.

If the work was not signed off and approved of by the building department, you could have some problems, and should investigate further. Sometimes fire damage repairs fall through the cracks in the system and not get properly inspected. This is often true when there is no insurance company involved at all, or if the insurance company settles directly with the home owner and is not involved in the repairs.

I’ve inspected many homes where the fire damage was cleverly concealed and not repaired, or repaired in a sub standard manner. Unfortunately for the average person, the evidence of this damage was cosmetically covered over. It was only discovered after a wall, a ceiling or floor cavity was either opened up, or undergoing repairs. Correcting in-place fire damage can be messy and expensive. Hopefully, you will not be faced with that.

If, after checking with the fire and building departments you are still unsure about the extent or safety of the repairs, you should immediately contact the seller. Your agent should be able to assist you in contacting them and in your handling of the matter. If the house was insured at the time of the fire, the seller’s insurance company would also have documentation of the fire and it’s repair. If it was not insured, and the work was done without permits, there could be definite liability on the part of the sellers for not disclosing this to you and for any costs you incur to settle this.

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