Ohio real estate law: Limiting liability in home inspection contracts

When purchasing a home, most buyers take advantage of the common “home inspection contingency,” affording them the opportunity to have the property professionally inspected in order to reveal potential defects before moving forward with the purchase. For their own protection, many home inspectors have begun including clauses limiting their liability to the price paid for the inspection in their contracts. In essence, this means that, if an inspector charges $500 for the inspection but misses a defect that costs the buyer/homeowner $2,000, the inspector is only liable (if at all) up to the $500 amount, not the full cost of remedying the defect. But are these clauses actually enforceable?

Ohio courts seem to say “Yes.” Home buyers have argued that the clauses are unconscionable (or unfair). However, courts have noted that the clauses appear on the face of the contract, that buyers are able to read the contract and ask questions before signing, and that buyers are permitted to decline the clause or the contract or hire another inspector altogether if they do not agree to the clause. See Barto v. Boardman Home Inspection, Inc., 2015-Ohio-5210, ¶19 (11th Dist. 2015).  Therefore, such clauses are generally not considered unconscionable, and courts have continued to enforce them.

In fact, clauses limiting the liability of inspectors have even been enforced where they effectively preclude enforcement of arbitration clauses contained within the same contract. In McDonough v. Thompson, the parties were required under their contract to resolve any disputes through arbitration. 2004-Ohio-6647, ¶¶2-3 (8th Dist. 2004).  However, because the filing fee for arbitration exceeded the inspector’s maximum liability under the contract (i.e., the price of the inspection), the court declined to enforce the arbitration clause, but did enforce the limitation of liability. See generally id. The court found that “an arbitration clause is not enforceable when the clause, in conjunction with a limitation of liability clause, effectively denies a claimant any redress.” Id. at ¶13. Thus, not only are these clauses enforceable, but they seem to be enforceable even to the preclusion of other clauses carrying a general presumption of enforceability (as arbitration clauses do).

In light of the courts’ eagerness to enforce limitation of liability clauses in this context, a buyer’s best remedy might actually be against the seller of the home (to the extent the seller may have concealed or lied about the defect), and those cases can often be tenuous.

Read more here about home defects and residential property disclosure forms:

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