Two prong outlet to a three prong outlet: illegal?
April 15, 2008 6:48 AM   Subscribe

Is it a NEC violation to simply change a non-grounded, two-prong electrical outlet with a three-prong outlet? Is it bad enough to use as leverage in price negotiation of a house?

I'm currently in the negotiation stage of buying a house, and closing is actually tomorrow. It seems like every step of the way I discover a way that the seller has cut corners. The house in question was listed as "completely renovated" with no mention of the fact that nothing in the house is grounded. Even so, they changed every two-prong outlet with a three-prong outlet and apparently hoped that no one wouldn't notice. Even their shady electrician said it was no big deal (as long as I used a "power strip" -- yeah okay, sure).

But I noticed. And I looked up our county building code & the National Electric Code. And then I checked a few more sources. Everything I read says that this is a code violation and a safety hazard.

Today at 4pm, we're meeting with the seller, my Realtor, and a neutral electrician at the house. We plan on having him reinspect the situation and explain to the Seller what they've done is a code violation. Then I plan on asking them to give me an additional 3000 US at closing to compensate this (among other things).

Is what they've done truly a violation? Is this worth contacting Consumer Affairs? Suable? [Not that I would, but it could be a bargaining tool.] Any other ammunition that the AskMeFi collective can offer?
posted by Plinko to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
have a lawyer look it over. Realtors don't know what they are talking about when it comes to suing people. they are not lawyers. I'd have my own attorney at the close.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:00 AM on April 15, 2008

I'm confused -- did you hire a licensed home inspector? What does his report say?
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 7:06 AM on April 15, 2008

Talk to a lawyer and talk to an electrician. Be sure that the electrician really is neutral, and not necessarily someone that your realtor suggested. I don't know your realtor, but at this point it's definitely in their best interest to just get you through the closing and get their commission [no offense to realtors intended]. There ought to be permits for the electrical work, and the rest of the renovations. Run over to the local municipality's building inspector's office to find out if there are permits on file for the work. If they find out there was major work without a permit or violates building codes, they could refuse to grant a certificate of occupancy.

I am not a realtor, lawyer, electrician, or inspector, but that's how I've seen it work.
posted by ellenaim at 7:14 AM on April 15, 2008

Response by poster: It was inspected by a licensed home inspector. From his report: "Older house has ungrounded wiring. This was common at time of construction. 3 prong grounded outlets are present, however, no ground protection is offered due to older wiring. Newer homes have grounded 3 prong outlets and wiring. Client should consult with a qualified electrician for any updating information."

I did have a chance to confirm with an electrician neutral to all this nonsense that what they've done is "not a good idea". He wanted to visually inspect the mess before making any further statements.
posted by Plinko at 7:24 AM on April 15, 2008

Do you really think you can replace all the wiring for only $3000? Get a quote on how much it will cost on getting it up to code.
posted by grouse at 7:25 AM on April 15, 2008

Best answer: I am a Realtor, and don't listen to yours right now. The fact that your Realtor didn't immediately say "Get a lawyer, I am not a lawyer, and this is not my area of expertise" is in itself a potential violation of real estate law (Depending on the state). Real estate agents are supposed to land squarely away from practicing law or commenting about any area of the home that is not directly related to their knowledge (You can say its a beautiful home in a lovely cul-de-sac, but you do not say the wiring is all up to code).

Now to my non-Realtor, construction knowledge: As to the violation aspect, that depends entirely on city/county building codes. It was probably fine before it was renovated, but it is possible that they had to pull permits to renovate and could possibly be held to today's standards of construction. The only ones who can tell you that are electricians and the appropriate building departments for your location.

If they did have to pull permits, then it should have passed inspection. Talk to a lawyer, and have them recommend the next steps - if you should contact the building department, etc.

By all means, don't just close for an additional $3000 off the price. You have no idea what the cost would be to replace, and where it can really come back to bite you is if permits weren't pulled, or there were and inspections didn't pass. Then you'll be stuck with the responsibility and cost of getting the home up to code (if that is required), especially when you try to sell it.
posted by shinynewnick at 7:39 AM on April 15, 2008

If i didn't know better Plinko is actually Tom Hanks who is married to Shelly Long and we're talking about Steven Spielberg's 2008 remake of MoneyPit.

If you keep finding issues this may be time to back out.
posted by doorsfan at 7:39 AM on April 15, 2008

Upon re-reading, I see that closing is tomorrow. Your priority today is to make your Realtor get an extension for you, at least a week or two if possible. At this point, it is beyond a money issue and moves into potential safety/ability to occupy territory.
posted by shinynewnick at 7:42 AM on April 15, 2008

Best answer: $3,000 doesn't sound like enough. And, buying the house with this problem in place, without a funded solution, is not a good idea, unless you've gotten such a fabulous deal on the price already that the extra $3,000 is good enough for you to feel OK about taking on the cost uncertainty of fixing it.

If you can't get a solid quote, and if you do need a fully-funded solution, I would suggest this: with further advice from counsel, go into the closing and say (or have your lawyer say), words to the effect: "This wiring issue is a deal breaker, particularly because by having three-prong outlets throughout, the seller in effect represented the house as having up-to-code grounded wiring, but it doesn't. We need to have this problem solved. We think it may cost up to [say] $10,000. We need to have $10,000 out of the closing costs set aside in an escrow account, out of which the electrician will be paid. Any surplus will revert back to the seller. We'll get three quotes from reputable electricians and we'll choose the lowest-cost one." This gets reduced to a written side agreement which (this is important) must be specifically written to survive the sale. (Otherwise, upon closing all pre-closing agreements expire.)

I've been through something similar, though smaller in scale; it worked for us. The beauty of this kind of arrangement is that the buyer gets the problem fixed without out-of-pocket costs; the seller doesn't have to concede a round-number amount but pays exactly what the cost to fix turns out to be.
posted by beagle at 7:46 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A 3-prong outlet with an "open ground" (no ground connection) is unsafe. A power strip will not make it less unsafe. The reason it's unsafe is that an appliance with a 3-prong plug was designed with the expectation that should a ground fault develop internally (i.e., a hot wire manages to contact the metal case), that the current will be shunted to ground and cause the circuit breaker to trip. Obviously, if there is no ground wire connected to the outlet, this will not happen, and someone could be electrocuted!

There are three possible resolutions that are safe and code-compliant:

1) replace all of the ungrounded 3-prong outlets with 2-prong outlets
2) replace the ungrounded 3-prong outlets with GFCI outlets and a "No Equipment Ground" sticker
3) run new wiring from the panel to the outlets, and ensure that the panel itself is connected to a code-compliant grounding system and that the neutral wire is bonded to ground in the right place. Have a qualified electrician perform this work or verify that it was done correctly.

If you go the GFCI route, bear in mind that some appliances need an actual ground connection to operate properly, not just protection from ground faults.
posted by brain at 7:49 AM on April 15, 2008

I've seen this outlet swap in older homes before. It's actually quite common. People had to adapt to newer appliances that came with 3-prong plugs, and the common "fix" was to simply replace the old plugs with 3-prong plugs. Now, whether it's an actionable violation for the homeowner to do it is, obviously, up to others to determine. Whether changing the outlets falls under the umbrella of "renovation requiring permits" or will be looked at as a simple small homeowner repair is going to be up to officials and when the swap-out was done.

Do you have any indication that the outlet swap was done recently specifically to cover-up the fact that the house was ungrounded and enhance re-sale? Or was this something done ages ago when codes and permit requirements weren't as strict?
posted by Thorzdad at 7:53 AM on April 15, 2008

Response by poster: Thorzdad: this switch was done within the last 4 months and was done to enhance re-sale.

Looks like I have quite a bit to do in the next 24 hours.
posted by Plinko at 7:56 AM on April 15, 2008

Response by poster: Also, just to specify: My Realtor has had little dealings in all of this, they are not selling it so much as facilitating the sale between me and the Seller's agent. My Realtor actually recommended that I hold off on specific numbers until after the Neutral Electrician has had his say.
posted by Plinko at 8:02 AM on April 15, 2008

This is nowhere near as big a deal as you are making it. What exactly would you contact Consumer Affairs about? What would you sue for? It is not illegal to replace ungrounded two-prong outlets with ungrounded three-prong outlets, are they should be no expectation that the owner of an older house have everything brought up to current code. Older houses will always have problems like this. I just moved from a house (built in 1947) that has *gasp* ungrounded three-prong outlets (and knob and tube wiring before that). And I just moved into a house built in 1952 that has *gasp* ungrounded three-prong outlets. You know why no one (including me) has ever replaced all of the outlets with grounded three-prong outlets? Because it would probably cost way more than $3,000 and it just isn't worth it.

These kinds of things are why you have the home inspected. You find issues, you decide which ones are worth bringing up to the owner, the owner decides how much money he wants to give up to sell his house. (Incidentally, you are still in the negotiating phase and you are closing on the sale tomorrow?)

More on the safety issues at another MeFi thread.

You should ask for the $3,000, but don't be surprised if the owner says no thanks.
posted by na2rboy at 8:07 AM on April 15, 2008

Why are you doing this the day before closing? Is the inspection contingency still active? It seems hard to believe that a lender is going to send the money for closing on a deal that hasn't satisfied all its contingencies.

If you've already gone through the inspection contingency, then you should be pretty well fucked, as now you'd have a contract that says that you're offering to buy the place for a certain sum, and the sellers have accepted that offer, and that there are no remaining contingencies standing in the way of the deal.

If you did this to me, I would be apocalyptically pissed at you for bargaining in bad faith. At most, I would offer to swap back ungrounded plugs at my expense or tell you that the old plugs are in a box in the basement, since you knew full goddam well that the house had old wiring. At worst, I would inquire about suing if you backed out after passing the inspection contingency.

That said, I know that it might be that the seller dithered and somehow you managed to go forward with the contingency still in place.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:12 AM on April 15, 2008

We had a similar situation with the house we bought (live knob-and-tube wiring in the attic (under insulation) and all the outlets in the downstairs were ungrounded 3-prong outlets) and as I recall, we asked for about $2000 off the purchase price to pay for the rewiring. We found a good electrician (who may have made the bid before we closed, I don't remember anymore) and he came in at just under that, for replacing the outlets, getting rid of the knob-and-tube wiring, and installing sub-circuit-box (or something like that) and replacing the old circuit box.
posted by leahwrenn at 8:20 AM on April 15, 2008

Best answer: Oh---I think it's definitely worth asking for money off, especially since it sounds like the home inspection guy didn't think it was so safe, but I'm not sure I think it's worth reporting a possible violation. Depends how much you think it was done in bad faith, I guess, as opposed to simple incompetence.
posted by leahwrenn at 8:22 AM on April 15, 2008

Response by poster: The inspection contingency is still active. [And you'll have to pardon me, this is my first house so I'm treading water.] The housing inspection was done more than two weeks ago and we made the usual list of repair requests, many of which the seller agreed to. The confusion began when the seller hired an electrician that tried to contradict the housing inspector. It was the seller's refusal to replace a well known safety-related defect [Stab-Lok circuit panel] that opened up this entire can of worms.

The house was listed as "completely renovated". Tons of work done to it to the point where it is by no means unreasonable to expect grounded outlets.
posted by Plinko at 8:34 AM on April 15, 2008

Best answer: It is not illegal to replace ungrounded two-prong outlets with ungrounded three-prong outlets...

Except it is. If you're altering the wiring, you are required to bring the part you're working on up to code, which means grounding those outlets. The exact reference escapes me, but part of the standard residential real estate contract says that there are certain health and safety issues that cannot be left unrepaired after they're discovered. Faulty wiring is one of these things.

Your recourse in this situation is not to buy the house. You can report his sketchy electrician to the local licensing board, but that's about it.
posted by electroboy at 8:37 AM on April 15, 2008

Best answer: An ungrounded three-prong outlet is much worse than a two-prong outlet. It's like a car seat belt that's going to let go just when you need it. Moral hazard is involved.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:24 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

With this being your first house, I would very seriously consider walking at this point. You've already seen numerous issues with the home's renovations, and it is not always easy to go back and fix other people's mistakes in a home. My father-in-law is a custom home builder and 99% of the time will not go in to work on other people's completed homes (renovations, completing basements) because of all the issues that arise when you dig into finished homes.

Also, is your Realtor your designated Buyer's Agent? Did they have you sign a paper to that effect? In Missouri at least, if the Realtor doesn't explicitly represent you as a Buyer's Agent, they should not be giving you any advice for your side of the deal (they would still be an Agent of the Seller's side, assisting the listing agent). If they are your Buyer's Agent, they should solely be looking out for your interest.
posted by shinynewnick at 10:10 AM on April 15, 2008

It is absolutely a violation of the NEC to replace a two-prong with a three-prong if there is no actual ground unless you use a GFCI outlet and it is labeled "No Equipment Ground". Beagle gives some good advice on how to handle this.
posted by JackFlash at 10:14 AM on April 15, 2008

Yep, violation, but super common on older buildings. I kinda doubt you'll get any money off for ungrounded wiring. But, if you have an old fuse box you might get some cash if you say you want to update it to a breaker box. Just a thought.
posted by Craig at 10:17 AM on April 15, 2008

It'll run you about $1500 to upgrade your breaker box and service to 200 amp, if you want to use that to negotiate. Rewiring is pretty expensive, depending on construction type and how much you're doing.
posted by electroboy at 11:20 AM on April 15, 2008

Response by poster: An update in case anyone is wondering: the electrician popped out there, found some additional problems, reiterated the violation bit, and provided an estimate for updating the panel + wiring to 200 amps, grounding everything, and fixing the extra mess that was discovered: $2000 total. It's quite a low figure compared to what I was expecting, and this was from a well revered company. I'm not being greedy, so I'm asking the seller to pay half of the bill at closing, and I'll just write the electrician a big check when all the work is done. To be honest, I'm quite happy with how everything turned out.

Thanks Mefi Brain!
posted by Plinko at 11:25 AM on April 15, 2008

brain writes "2) replace the ungrounded 3-prong outlets with GFCI outlets and a 'No Equipment Ground' sticker"

Note that not every outlet needs to be replaced with a GFCI, just the first one in the chain. It'll protect all outlets downstream of it.
posted by Mitheral at 8:09 PM on April 15, 2008

If the wiring is in conduit, grounding can probably be achieved easily and inexpensively.

posted by gjc at 8:42 PM on April 15, 2008

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