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andrew ryan: television

Like the proverbial "good man" or "uncomplicated woman," a reliable home inspector is hard to find these days. And the healthier the housing market becomes, the more the bad eggs will surface.

I got lucky. The inspector for my house purchase - a pleasant and bookish chap named Elliott - clearly liked his job and knew his business. He showed up a half-hour early and had already hopped up on the roof and identified a few niggling concerns. Together we spent the next four hours combing every inch of the place - a wise idea when you buy a bungalow built in 1969. Other new homeowners are not so fortunate - particularly those who unknowingly buy a former marijuana grow house. Returning Friday with a run of fresh episodes, the consumer-watchdog series Marketplace (CBC, 8:30 p.m.) profiles two Canadian families whose new domiciles passed their home inspections. In both instances, inspectors missed the glaring signs of grow-op habitation.

"It was heartbreaking to see how the lack of a proper home inspection has hurt these families," says Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson. "And it was amazing how little protection home inspectors actually offer you. In almost every case, the home buyer is left holding the bag."

And in this country, the pot business is a growth industry, so to speak. At present there are an estimated 50,000 grow houses operating in Canada and police have labelled it an epidemic. The weed growers flip the houses frequently and always try to cover up the signs, but the damage is unavoidable to the trained eye.

For an informed source, Marketplace brings in burly TV contractor Mike Holmes - who takes the home-inspection industry to task in his new series Holmes Inspection - to go through the house of a family who poured all their money into a newer property in a Toronto suburb, only later to discover signs of grow-op activity.

Holmes finds such signs only a few moments after arriving. He immediately spots a manufactured hole in the fireplace, evidence that the growers were trying to find a way to funnel heat and smell out of the house. Holmes believes the home inspector should have spotted it right away: "I would have known this when I was 18," he says.

And like a bad dream, the Holmes home inspection keeps getting worse. Moving upstairs, he points out shoddy patches on a bedroom ceiling, very likely former locations for ventilation tubes. He tears up a carpet to find a hole cut right in the hallway floor. And the attic? It's a veritable garden of mould, along with more patched-over vent holes.

"Every home inspector that came in here should have seen what I saw," Big Mike says firmly. "Every one."

But they didn't, and the most unpleasant part of watching the segment is the sinking expression on the family members' faces. "It was a horrible day we spent with him because every room we entered had a worse problem," Johnson says.

The outlook is no cheerier on the other side of the country. Johnson visits with a woman in Kamloops, who moved her children and herself into what she believed would be their dream house. Here again, the deal passed a home inspection with flying colours.

Soon after, she learned from a local shopkeeper that the home was a former grow-op. Tests have shown the place is overloaded with toxic mould spores. Her son has developed a serious mould allergy and has to take steroid medication. She's already dropped $8,000 to fix the problem and has been told it will cost her another $100,000. When Johnson confronts the home inspector who originally passed the house, he shrugs his shoulders and walks away.

The Kamloops case study underscores the biggest problem: There is currently no protection for people who get ripped off in grow-op house purchases. The standard home inspection report is full of caveats - the home inspector is not responsible for the discovery of mould or urea formaldehyde, for example - and there's no specific branch of government willing to deal with the problem.

"The only recourse," Johnson says, "is a long and costly court battle and most people who have just bought a new home usually don't have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on lawyers. For people caught in this situation, it's a nightmare."

The situation might be even worse than it appears. Perhaps the most unsettling part of the report occurs in a hidden-camera experiment. Marketplace arranges for four new home inspectors to come and re-inspect the Toronto house.

And yes, the former grow-op house again passes muster with the alleged professionals, as captured on film, almost to comic effect. One confidently claims the hole in the fireplace is for an air intake to make the fire roar. Come again? Another acknowledges the mould in the attic, but insists it is merely cosmetic.

"Since when is mould a cosmetic problem?" Johnson asks. "The negligence of the home inspectors we brought in was shocking. This was so obviously a former grow-op and not one of the four caught it. You almost want to laugh, but you'd cry if it was your house."

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