A Realtor’s Duty to Refer a Competent Professional

In the past I have stated my concerns about REALTORS® that recommend water well drillers & pump installing contractors to perform well inspections for prospective buyers of homes on private or shared water wells. I have pointed out that well drillers and pump installers are in fact, just that, they are contractors. They are not consultants, and they are not licensed to consult, yet they consult frequently about the most important aspect of a home, having water. When a water well driller or a pump installer performs a water well inspection for the sale and transfer of real estate, they are in fact working as a consultant, but they are not licensed, and perhaps not qualified to do that.

It’s common practice for realtors to assist buyers in locating appraisers, home inspectors, pest or termite inspectors, and even septic tank inspectors. Most realtors feel that they should provide at least three names of local inspectors, especially if they are working with a buyer from out of town. In the case of an agent representing a new buyer who is seeking to purchase a rural home, that home is likely to be served by a private or shared water well. When it is, the realtor has a fiduciary responsibility to recommend that a well inspection be performed prior to making an offer.

Substantive Policy Statement 2005.13 4/8/2025 states: “A licensee is a real estate professional with a fiduciary duty to his or her client to act in the client’s best interests as described in R4-28-1101 (I). Reasonable care or competence may include recommending that a client seek professional or technical advice when the matter is beyond the expertise of the agent.”

In other words, an agent is not required to have the expertise of an appraiser, a home inspector, a termite, or a water well inspector. They are obligated to recommend professionals for these services. If that buyer is from out of town or out of state, they would not be expected to know who is a competent water well inspector for them to use. There is a question in my mind whether an agent or broker could be held responsible for a negligent referral to a non-professional that was negligent in their performance of their contacted duties.

Not all well drillers or pump installers are equally qualified to perform consulting services for a buyer. Most states and counties don’t have minimum performance standards for private or shared wells. Without standards to meet, what can they report about a given well? Besides not having state or county standards, they don’t have any standard of the industry to follow in making their well inspection and testing for the prospective buyer. Without an established standards of performance, or for performing well inspections or accepted standard for reporting it, what can a buyer expect or understand about the well they will be using for many years to come?

Despite the importance of having a sustainable supply of potable water for a home, the trade (if only it could be called that) of performing water well inspections is not a recognized trade in most states. This is a serious problem in the arena of home sales and financing when the source of water is a private or shared water well. Everyone else involved in the process of buying rural homes supported by private and shared water wells is a registered professional, except the water well inspector.

There was a case in West Virginia where a realtor was held responsible for a negligent selection and retention of an inspector, although it was not a water well inspection. Thomas v. McGinnis 465 S.E. 2nd. 922 (W.VA, 1995). Considering the importance of having a reliable supply of water for a home, it is not totally unlikely that a realtor or agent could be held liable for recommending a particular pump contractor to a buyer if that contractor was negligent in reporting professionally.

In some rural areas where there are lots of private water wells, there may be only a few water well contractors, so choices for a well inspector could be limited. In addition, the well to be inspected could have been one that was drilled, constructed, and serviced by an older member of the same family now running that well business. Alternatively, this well system could have been installed by the inspector’s fiercest local competitor. Either of these two scenarios might cause the report to be less than totally objective.

What I wish to make clear is that any realtor who recommends a water well contractor to consult to a prospective buyer about the single most important element of a home, good sustainable water, could be exposing themselves to a negligent referral claim from a disappointed buyer. Until more states recognize the importance of what should be a professional trade, realtors should be cautious about referring water well contractors for performing water well inspections for rural home buyers.

Gary L. Hix, RG., CWD/PI