You are on page 1of 150


A homebuyer’s guide to getting the
most out of your home inspection
and avoiding a money pit
Good Buy or
Big Mistake?
A homebuyer’s guide to getting the
most out of your home inspection
and avoiding a money pit
Greg Madsen and Richard McGarry
Good Buy or
Big Mistake?

© Greg Madsen and Richard McGarry 2012
ISBN: 978-0-9886651-0-1 (pdf edition)
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by
any information and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the authors.
About the Authors
Greg Madsen and Richard McGarry are partners in McGarry and Madsen Home Inspection, Gainesville, Florida.
Greg is a Florida-certified building contractor (#CBC-1250725) since 2003, with experience in constructing both commercial and
residential structures. He is also a Florida-certified home inspector (#HI-27), has completed training in home inspection techniques
with Inspection Training Associates, including specialty training in manufactured housing, and has passed the National Home
Inspector exam. He takes annual continuing education courses offered by multiple home inspection and building contractor
associations, and is a member of InterNACHI. Greg is a Florida Certified Pest Control Operator (#JF177361) and a member of the
Certified Pest Control Operators Association of Florida.
Richard has been a Florida-certified general contractor (#CGC-001310) since 1972, building both commercial and residential
structures. He is also a Florida-certified home inspector (#HI-15), has completed training in home inspection techniques with
Inspection Training Associates, and has passed the National Home Inspector Exam. Richard
takes annual continuing education courses offered by multiple home inspection and building
contractor associations, and is a member of InterNACHI. He is a Florida licensed Radon
Technician (#R-1960) and a Florida Wood Destroying Organism Inspector (#JE130411).

Other books by Greg and Richard: Marker Magic: The Rendering Problem-Solver for
Designers (John Wiley & Sons, 1992), Key West Sketchbook (Maupin House, 1992), Scale
Elements for Design Elevations (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991), and Tracing File for
Interior and Architectural Rendering (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988)
for Kenny, Betty Jo and Dick,
and Sam and the rain lilies.
About the Authors......................................................... ii
Introduction................................................................... vi
Chapter 1 - So Many Choices...
Evaluating the opportunities in today’s housing market
• Should I buy a fixer-upper?....................................... 8
• What do I need to know about
buying a foreclosure................................................... 10
• I love old houses but my friends warned me
about buying one. What’s the problem?.................... 13
• What can you tell me about buying a house with
structural problems? It’s priced cheap!...................... 16
Chapter 2 - Inspecting the Inspector
Finding the right inspector and preparing for the inspection
• Should I try doing my own home inspection?............ 19
• What questions should I ask a home inspector
I’m considering hiring?.............................................. 24
• I’m buying a brand-new home from the builder.
Do I still need a home inspection?............................. 26
• Should I be there for the home inspection?................ 27
• Do I need to hire an engineer for
my home inspection?................................................. 28
• How can I verify when an old house was built?.......... 29
Building on a Good Foundation
Identifying structural problems and evaluating their significance
• Hey, what about that crack?............................................. 32
• Why do the floors slope in this old house?....................... 34
• I’d swear that crack wasn’t there yesterday.
What happened?.............................................................. 35
• There’s cracks running along the concrete tie beam
What’s wrong?.................................................................. 36
The Top Priority
Determining the condition of the roofing and roof structure
• How can I tell if the house needs a new roof?.................. 38
• What is an “architectural” shingle roof?........................... 41
• How do you track down roof leaks? What about
wet spots in the walls?..................................................... 42
• What’s a kick-out flashing?............................................... 44
• What’s the difference between a gable
and a hip roof?................................................................. 45
• There’s old insulation in the attic labeled “rock wool.”
Is it really dangerous asbestos?....................................... 46
• I’m buying a 1950s modern house with a gravel roof.
Is the roof going to be a problem?................................... 47
All Around the House
Walls, windows, door and stairs
• What are those powdery white areas on
the brick walls?................................................................ 50
• Is a brick house sturdier that a regular
wood frame house?.......................................................... 51
• What is the difference between “composite”
and regular wood siding?................................................. 52
• The garage has been converted to a family
room. Is that all right?..................................................... 53
• What do you look for when inspecting stairs?.................. 54
• The house walls look like stucco, but the
inspector says they are “EIFS.” What’s the
difference?........................................................................ 57
• What do all the numbers on manufacturers’ stickers
on new windows mean?................................................... 59
• What do you check when you inspect a garage door?........ 61
Table of Contents
Clanging Pipe and Wobbly Toilets
Solving the mysteries of the plumbing system
• How do you check a toilet?.................................................. 64
• What is “cross contamination” in a home’s
plumbing system?............................................................ 65
• Why are shower water valves all single-handle
nowadays?........................................................................ 66
• What’s that powdery crust on the pipe connections
at the water heater?......................................................... 67
• The inspector says I have an S-trap under the sink.
Why is that a problem?.................................................... 68
• The house has high water bills. How do
you check for a leak?........................................................ 70
• Where is the septic tank? Are you going
to inspect it?..................................................................... 72
• There’s a banging sound in the wall when the
bathroom faucet is turned on. What’s that about?......... 74
• The home has galvanized water pipe. Can that
be a problem?................................................................... 75
• How old is that water heater?........................................... 76
• Why is polybutylene pipe considered defective?.............. 78
Staying in the Comfort Zone
Heating and air conditioning systems and their maintenance
• The fireplace doesn’t have a chimney. Is that all right?..... 80
• How is a factory-built fireplace different from
a regular fireplace?.......................................................... 82
• How much life is left in that air conditioner?................... 84
• What does the “SEER” rating of an
air conditioner mean?...................................................... 86
Shocking Tales
Understanding the electrical system and potential problems
• Do you check the wall plugs?............................................ 89
• Is the electric panel big enough for this house?............... 93
• Why are generator hook-ups often
tagged as defective?......................................................... 95
• Do you check the ceiling fans?.......................................... 97
• Does this place have one of those “bad” electric
panels I’ve heard about?.................................................. 98
• I heard that aluminum wiring is a problem. Do
you check for it?............................................................... 99
Things Your Mother Warned You About
Mold, lead, asbestos, termites and other contaminants
• What if mold is found during the inspection?.................... 101
• I signed a lead paint disclaimer in my real estate
contract. What’s that about?............................................ 104
• The radon test came back high and the house
needs mitigation. How do they do it?.............................. 106
• How can I tell if a home is a former marijuana
grow-house?..................................................................... 108
• There’s asbestos siding on the house. What should I do? 110
• There’s an old fuel oil tank underground in the yard.
Is that a problem?............................................................ 111
• I saw a little termite damage on the baseboard.
Should I be concerned?.................................................... 113
• I think I saw a termite. What do they look like?................. 114
• Why is the inspector calling out rotten wood on
my termite inspection report?......................................... 115
The Big Decision
Negotiation and purchase strategies
• What’s your best advice for a homebuyer?......................... 119
• Will the inspector help me battle the seller to
get the price down?.......................................................... 120
• Why does the insurance company need a four-point
inspection report before binding coverage?.................... 121
• The seller has to fix everything that’s wrong
with the house, right?...................................................... 123
After You’ve Done the Deed
Maintaining and improving your new home
• Can I take that wall out? Is it load-bearing?....................... 126
• How do I find a good remodeling contractor?.................... 128
• Where do I turn off the water in an emergency?.............. 130
• The coils on the heat pump are coated with ice on
on cold mornings? What’s wrong?................................... 131
• What does the MERV rating on an air conditioning
filter mean?...................................................................... 132
• What can I do to prevent mold in my home?................... 134
• Should I put some more insulation in the attic?.............. 136
• How can I improve the energy efficiency of my
not-so-new home?............................................................ 138
Exit Strategy
Preparing for a home inspection when you’re the seller
• What projects can a seller tackle beforehand
to get a better home inspection?...................................... 140
• Any last-minute things I can do to prep the
house for a home inspection?.......................................... 143
More To Know
Resources for further reading
• Helpful websites................................................................ 146
• Our favorite books............................................................. 148
“Our house was not unsentient matter--it had
a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with.
We never came home from an absence that its
face did not light up and speak out its eloquent
welcome, and we could not enter it unmoved.”
-Mark Twain
We love to look at houses. No kidding, we really do. A home’s
history unfolds as we poke around its rooms, attic, and roof;
and the process of inspecting the house informs us about the
era in which it was built, how the owners modified and main-
tained it over the years, and the
possibilities for its future.
So we hope our enthusiasm for
the facts, history, and little details
of houses and their construction
comes through as you read this
guide to home inspection for
home buyers. Although we are
both building contractors going
back many years, we have been do-
ing home inspections exclusively
for the past ten years, and the
book uses a Q&A format based on our customers’ most often-
asked questions.
We start with the more basic issues, like determining what
type of home to buy and choosing an inspector. Then we delve
into more specific areas like roofing, electrical systems, fire-
places, remodeling, and so forth.
The book is designed to provide an overview of the home in-
spection process for a homebuyer when read from cover to
cover. But you can jump in anywhere in the book to the ques-
tions that interest you most.
Because we work in the mildly temperate weather of Gaines-
ville, in North Florida, you won’t find any information about
basements or ice dams here. But the guidelines we give you
for examining a house structure and its components apply to
all parts of the country.
We hope you find this book
useful, and it helps you verify
that the next home you pur-
chase is just as wonderful as it
looks! For more info on both
home inspection and maintain-
ing your home, check the lat-
est entries in our blog at:
So Many Choices...
Evaluating the opportunities in today’s housing market.
Should I buy a fixer-upper?
What adventurous young—or not so young—couple hasn’t
dreamed of buying a battered fixer-upper, then using their
hard work and imagination to turn it into a showplace? It
really is possible to buy a downtrodden house at a great price,
invest your time and money improving it, and end up with a
home that is worth significantly more than your total invest-
A house doesn’t have to be 50-year-old wreck to be a fixer-
upper candidate either. A frumpy 30-year-old that needs up-
dating will work. And the sight of happy people slapping high-
fives on an HGTV show after demolishing their old kitchen
cabinets with a sledge-hammer...well, it just makes you want
to jump in and tackle a remodel project yourself.
Then again, a fixer-upper gone bad can stress both your mar-
riage and bank account. Here’s some questions to ask when
evaluating a potential purchase:
Is it in a good neighborhood? No matter how great the
price is, improving a home in a less-desirable neighborhood is
a financial mistake. Realtors and professional investors recom-
mend buying the least house in the best neighborhood, or at
least a not-so-good house in a good neighborhood. Buying a
home in a neighborhood that is experiencing an upturn can
also be a good strategy. Look for updated facades and new
landscaping in nearby
houses. Your realtor can
tell you which areas are on
the upswing.
Does it have a work-
able floor plan? It might
seem illogical to worry
about the floor plan in a
house that you are plan-
ning on shredding. But it’s
important, because only so
much relocating-of-walls can be done before a remodel goes
over budget. Also, be sure to have your home inspector show
you which walls are load-bearing, because they are much
more expensive to change. Remodeling bathrooms and kitch-
ens can be expensive, but moving a bathroom or kitchen to a
new location is very expensive.
Can you afford it? Make a gen-
erous estimate of all the remodel-
ing costs. Then add 25 percent. It
always costs more than you expect,
plus almost every homeowner adds
a couple of extra touches along the
way, so you should expect your
budget to inch upward as you pro-
Does the combination of sweat equity and cash in-
vestment that is required match what you are able to
give the project? The best deals look genuinely creepy and
need the most work. They can be a good choice if you have the
time and money to invest and can wait awhile before moving
in. Time equals money, both in terms of your personal time re-
quired to do the work yourself and the monthly overhead
costs (taxes, insurance, utilities) of keeping a house that you
can not yet occupy. The less time you have available to work
on the house—weekends, nights, vacation-time—the more
money you need to allocate to hire tradesmen or contractors
to do a larger portion of the work.
How much camping-out can you tolerate? Washing
dishes in the bathtub is only amusing for the first week. Also,
major remodeling creates an amazing amount of dust. It may
not be healthy to be in the house during the most brutal part
of the work. Moving into a fixer-upper-in-progress too early
can simply be too stressful, so be sure to allow a reasonable
amount of time before planning to move in.
When the dust clears, is it a good investment? Does
the purchase cost + out-of-pocket expenses for materials and
professional labor + a reasonable allowance for the value of
your own time = at least a little less than what the house
would sell for when you are done? Not that you would sell
your labor of love right away, but nobody wants to lose money
on a major investment. A experienced realtor or professional
appraiser can give you a rough idea of what the house will be
worth when the remodeling is completed.
We recommend having three advisors to help you evaluate a
potential fixer-upper purchase: a trusted realtor, home inspec-
tor, and contractor. Your realtor will help you find the good
neighborhoods and best deals. A home inspector will tell you
the condition of the home, along with what immediate repairs
it needs. Also, some home inspectors, like us, are also building
contractors and can give you preliminary advice on a remodel-
ing strategy. But ultimately, it’s best to have a knowledgable
contractor, whom you can count on to do at least part of the
work, and to give you key estimates and further advice
What do I need to know
about buying a foreclosure?
Foreclosures are now a significant part of the market.
They are becoming the new norm in real estate transactions:
according to a U.S. Foreclosure Sales Report by RealtyTrac, 31
percent of residential sales in first quarter of 2010 were in
some stage of foreclosure. Nevada led the nation--with foreclo-
sures representing 64 percent of all sales in the same period,
followed by California, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Idaho.
Most foreclosure properties are sold strictly “as-is.”
No repairs will be made by the seller. So it’s important to
know what you’re getting into before you buy. When signing a
sales contract for a bank-owned property, make sure to clarify
whether you have the right to withdraw your offer based on de-
fects found during the inspection. Sometimes the bank will
only allow you to withdraw based on material, significant de-
fects. A cracked window pane won’t get you out of the con-
tract. And, in some rare cases, you have the right to inspect
the house but not to cancel the contract based on the inspec-
Recently, however, we have seen a shift in the attitude of
banks towards foreclosure property buyers. When presented
with an inspection report that documents a leaking roof or
other significant defect that would make the house difficult to
finance, they have become a bit flexible and willing to make
repairs before the closing, or to give a price concession. But
this is not a consistent trend, and is typically only happening
for foreclosure properties that have been on the market for an
extended period of time. Don’t expect anything if the property
is new on the market.
Even if you know the home has problems, a home in-
spection is still necessary, because it’s the extent and ex-
pense of the necessary repairs that makes the difference be-
tween a good deal and a bad deal. Holes punched in the walls
are ugly but easy to fix; roof, foundation, or mold problems re-
quire significantly more work to repair and can get very expen-
sive. A home inspector will find any big-ticket defects for you,




and many also give you ballpark prices for repairs where the
extent of the defect can be determined.
Beware of a This Home Winterized sign in the house.
Originally the notice meant that an empty, unheated home’s
plumbing was prepared to endure a hard winter freeze with-
out having any burst pipes or water damage.
The winterization involves draining the wa-
ter from the pressurized supply piping and
the water heater and putting “DO NOT
USE” notices over the sinks and toilets. In
harsher climates it also involves adding a
special anti-freeze to the system.
But today it often means that all the utili-
ties have been disconnected. So the plumb-
ing fixtures cannot be tested in a winterized
home, and you may not be able to operate
the electric and gas appliances either.
Here’s the rub: if you make an offer on the
home, and the bank accepts it, the house
has to be de-winterized in order to do a
proper home inspection. And, when the in-
spection is complete, it often requires re-
winterizing. Some banks handle this for the buyer through the
listing agent, and some don’t. And sometimes the bank re-
quires the buyers to arrange, at their expense, for the utilities
to be turned on briefly for the inspection—which is not an
easy process. For the really cheap “bargain” properties, you
may not be allowed to turn the utilities on at all. It’s as-is,
where-is: take it or leave it..
When you see the bank’s winterization notice in the front
window of a property that you want to make an offer on, be
sure to find out from your realtor how de-winterizing works
with that particular financial institution, so
you know what to expect when you proceed
with the home inspection.
If the bank refuses to “un-winterize”
the house, you still have options. It’s a
risky strategy but, if you can’t get the sell-
ing institution to turn on the utilities for
the inspection, there are still a number of
things that can be checked during a “dry”
inspection. Number one is moisture intru-
sion. A home that is unoccupied for an ex-
tended period of time, especially in the sun-
belt states, can have problems related to
high indoor humidity. Also, water can en-
ter the home from roof leaks and vandal-
ized doors and windows. We use an infra-
red camera to scan for moisture behind
walls and ceilings, then confirm the pres-
ence of water with a moisture meter, and a growing number of
inspectors nowadays have this technology.
Here’s a list of components that can still be inspected with
utilities off: structure, foundation, siding, roof, attic, insula-
tion, doors, windows, interior walls, crawl space, garage, drive-
way, walkways, grading of property, electric service cable, and
electric panel. A WDO (wood destroying organism /termite)
inspection can also be performed.
What can’t be fully inspected or tested are electric recepta-
cles, fixtures, and appliances, plumbing fixtures and piping,
and air conditioning and heating systems. However, the in-
spector can often document visible damage to these home
components. Just be aware that there are invariably a few un-
pleasant surprises when the utilities kick back on, and make
an allowance in your budget for them.
A foreclosure inspection costs no more than a regular
home inspection. Most inspectors we know just charge their
regular fee. Our rate, too, is the same as regular home inspec-
The home inspector will not find all the defects in the
home. Your inspector will do a thorough, careful visual inspec-
tion. But no home inspector will find every home defect, pri-
marily because they cannot use invasive search techniques
that might damage the property, such as opening walls or pull-
ing up carpet; and they do not disassemble appliances to evalu-
ate them.
I love old houses, but my
friends warned me against
buying one. What's the
We love old houses too, and have owned houses from the
1930s, 1950s, and 1970s, along with remodeling homes of
every vintage for clients, including 100-plus-year-old wood
Victorians. Our hometown has homes dating back to the begin-
ning of the twentieth-century, with an abundance of post-
WWII neighborhoods. Old houses seem to have more charac-
ter, and evoke the style and values of another era—which can
be especially charming.
But all that charm and history comes with a price: unless the
house has been recently updated by the previous owner, you
can get stuck with a sizable bill bringing the home up to some-
thing resembling the standards of the twenty-first century.
It’s a rule of thumb in the construction industry that a build-
ing has approximately a 50-year useful life. After 50 years,
even with the best maintenance, all major systems and appli-
ances need to be replaced. Also, several building materials
that were once considered safe are now recognized as hazard-
ous contaminants.
Here’s a list of things you (and your home inspector) should
be on the lookout for in an older home you’re considering buy-
Knob-and-tube (K&T) wiring was an early type of resi-
dential wiring, used between 1880 and the 1940s, with the
wires stretched between porcelain
insulating tubes. Today’s building
codes do not require that it be re-
moved, but most insurance compa-
nies will not insure a home with
K&T wiring still in place, and the
wiring suffers from overheating, un-
safe modifications over the years,
and lack of a ground wire.
Wikipedia Commons
Screw-in fuse panels—the
kind with little round fuses
with a window so you to tell if
it’s blown—are considered ob-
solete. They typically have un-
grounded circuits and, because
the fuses of different amperage
ratings are interchangeable in
the older boxes, are easily
over-fused. Again, most insurance companies will not issue a
policy on a home with a screw-in fuse panel still in use.
Undersized electrical service is another problem in
older homes. When a family only used electricity for a refrig-
erator, a radio, and a few lights around the home, the size of
the electric service coming into a home was smaller. Service is
rated in amps, which is a measure of the amount of electrical
energy the system can handle. The first standard was 30
amps, then 60 amps in the 1930s and 40s, followed by 100
amps in the 1950s. Today, most residential electrical service is
150 or 200 amps, in order to accommodate the major electric
appliances: range, water heater, air conditioner, furnace,
washer, dryer, and dishwasher, just to name a few. If you want
all the modern appliances in your older home, you may have
to upgrade the electric service.
Non-grounded receptacles were the standard before
1962. They have only two slots and are missing the round hole
for a ground connection that many modern appliances with a
three-prong cord need. A ground provides a route for stray
electric current that improves the safety of the appliance.
Keep in mind, too, that if you don’t have any three-slot recep-
tacles in the home, you can’t safely plug in a modern refrigera-
tor, for example. “Cheater
plugs” that hardware stores
sell to enable a three-prong
cord to connect to a two-
slot receptacle are an unsafe
solution that we see all too
Lack of ground-fault
circuit interrupters
(GFCIs), in homes built be-
fore the 1970s, leaves you
without modern shock pro-
tection in the wet areas of the home, like the kitchen and bath-
Poor energy efficiency means higher utility bills than in
a newer home. Vintage homes were built with non-insulated
single-pane windows, no wall or floor insulation, and minimal
attic insulation that will have compressed and deteriorated
over the years, losing a significant portion of its original of in-
sulating ability. Air leaks around door and window openings
due to deteriorated caulk, along with inefficient older HVAC
systems with leaking ducts, also contribute to low energy effi-
ciency in older homes.
Buried fuel oil tanks are often abandoned and forgotten
when homeowners switch to newer fuel sources. Long-term
corrosion causes tanks
to leak into the sur-
rounding soil and
poses a safety hazard.
Disposal guidelines
typically call for re-
moval of the tank or
filling it with sand and
gravel. Soil testing
may also be necessary
to determine if the tank has leaked underground.
Lead is a toxic metal that was once commonly used to make
household paint and plumbing fixtures. While lead has been
banned in new construction for many years, lead-based paint
and plumbing may present a significant health hazards if not
removed. Homes constructed prior to 1978 may contain lead
paint (although its use was significantly reduced after 1960),
which can be ingested by small children or contaminate sur-
rounding soil and vegetable gardens. It is easily identifiable by
its alligator-skin-like flaking pattern. Lead pipes, too, were
used in homes up until the late 1940s, and they may allow
lead to leach into drinking water. They can be identified by
their dull gray color and the ease by which they can be
scratched by keys or coins.
Asbestos insulation, which is linked to lung cancer and
mesothelioma, was used in homes between 1930 and 1950.
Asbestos insulation should be left undisturbed until it can be
removed by a qualified professional, as its fibers can be in-
haled when they are airborne, creating a significant health haz-
ard. Asbestos siding and roofing, while not a threat as long as
the materials remain undisturbed, also require removal by a
qualified, professional asbestos mitigator when it’s time for re-
The good news is that most of
these problems have been re-
solved in many older homes. But if
you miss just one of them during
your home inspection, be pre-
pared for a headache later.
So you’ve done your research,
checked everything out carefully,
and found yourself a great old house to buy and renovate.
Now for the fun part! Here’s some websites to visit for inspira-
tion as you get ready to move into your new-to-you home: - If “mid-century modern” is
your thing, the folks at Atomic Ranch magazine can show you
photos, plans, and resources to turn your rambling ranch-
style into a Jetsons’ marvel. - Lots of photos and step-
by-step remodeling demonstrations. - The companion website for
the popular PBS show and magazine.
What can you tell me
about buying a house with
structural problems?
It’s priced cheap!
You can determine whether a house with structural problems is a
good buy by getting answers to the following three questions:
1) What is the cause of the problem?
Your home inspector can talk to you about the extent of the prob-
lem and point out where there is visual evidence. In the picture
above, for example, there is a stair-stepping crack in brick wall fac-
ing with “differential,” meaning that one face of the crack has
moved forward of the other. Unfortunately, evidence of structural
problems in the early stages is not always this easily recognizable
to the average homebuyer.
The second photo is more subtle—but still absolutely definite—
evidence of a structural problem unfolding. Because the evidence
is often undramatic, occasionally we inspect a home where the
buyer tells us that “the house seems all right to me but I thought it
was a good idea to have a home inspection anyway,” only to have
to advise them that the house has structural issues that require re-
In our region of the country, we see three primary causes for
structural problems due to a defect in the ground under a home:
soil subsidence (the washing away or movement of the soil, from a
higher to lower elevation), clay soil (which expands during wet
weather and contracts during dry spells, causing up-and-down
heaving), and sinkholes (the partial or complete collapse of the
limestone karst layer under a home, causing moderate to severe
settlement). Secondary causes include tree roots, plumbing leaks,
and poor soil drainage.
Each area of the U.S. has a slightly different mix of factors that
contribute to structural defects. To an extent, the cause of the prob-
lem determines what type of repair is required. After diagnosis, the
next step is to have an evaluation by a structural engineer, who will
also provide a plan for repair.
2) What is the cost of the repair?
The seller or seller’s realtor will sometimes provide an estimate
from a local foundation repair company to the buyer as part of the
disclosures. Read the estimate carefully. Does it include only stabi-
lizing the home? Are cosmetic repairs to the exterior included?
How about repairs to the interior cracks, and door and window re-
What is the guarantee? Typically, a foundation repair company
only guarantees the area in which they make repairs. So if settle-
ment at the back left corner of the home has been repaired, a new
set of cracks in the front left corner of the home in the future repre-
sents additional work that you have to pay for.
3) Is it a “rented suit”?
There’s a joke that Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor, likes to
tell about evaluating long-term risk: “A fellow traveling abroad got
a call from his sister to tell him that his dad has died. The brother
replied that it was impossible for him to get home for the funeral;
he volunteered, however, to shoulder its cost. Upon returning, the
brother received a bill from the mortuary for $4,500, which he
promptly paid. A month later, and a month after that also, he paid
$10 pursuant to an add-on invoice. When a third $10 invoice
came, he called his sister for an explanation. ‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘I for-
got to tell you. We buried dad in a rented suit.’”
Some houses with structural problems are like Warren’s rented
suit. If the cost of repair only fixes the damage done by the geologi-
cal defect under the home, but does not address the underlying
cause, then the settlement or heaving will continue and may keep
you paying new repair bills every few years. Talk to the structural
engineer who prepared the repair plan about the likelihood of fur-
ther structural movement in years to come. There are no guaran-
tees, only a judgement of possibilities. So it’s a good idea to add in
some additional future cost when you calculate whether the price
of the house plus the cost of immediate repairs equals a good deal.
For a review of the multiple causes of foundation problems and
further examples of the visible symptoms, we suggest visiting the
“Signs & Symptoms” page of the RamJack Foundation Contractor
website at:
Inspecting The Inspector
Finding the right inspector and preparing for the inspection.
Should I try doing my
own home inspection?
Yes, you can be your own home inspector—but we don’t think
its such a good idea. There are numerous books on how to
save money and do your own home inspection. They typically
recommend that you get a few basic tools that are available at
a hardware store, then follow their step-by-step instructions
to evaluate your potential home purchase. And you can expect
to both be educated and find some things that need repair in
the house you are examining.
Unfortunately, books will not help you find every potential
issue with a house, including often the most critical defects,
that can make or break your home purchase. This is because
some of the biggest defects are not right there in your face, but
present themselves merely as a clue. In other words, they are
subtle and appear as something to be examined or probed fur-
ther. Even more difficult for the homebuyer-inspector are the
things that are defects because they are missing—simply not
Professional home inspectors have an advantage over the
homebuyer inspector for two reasons. The first one is obvious:
after doing thousands of home inspections, the depth of their
experience and knowledge of home construction means they
can process all the visual data of a house faster and more effi-
ciently than a layperson. They know what to look for and have
a mental catalog of the recurring problems common for each
The second reason is not so obvious: a home inspector is not
buying the house. The inspector is not excited about the home
and looking forward to moving in. As a homebuyer, it’s hard
to stay emotionally detached while you are examining a house.
Thoughts about furniture layout, color schemes, and what a
great deal you’re getting keep creeping into your mind while
you are trying to focus on finding the home’s defects, no mat-
ter how hard you try to push them back. It’s easier to miss
something because you like the house and want the inspection
to go well. The home inspector is dispassionate, just doing a
job. And that’s a big advantage.
So, we think doing your own home inspection is not a great
idea and recommend hiring a professional home inspector.
But there are a number of things you can look for in your first
walk-though of a house as a kind of “pre-inspection.” They are
simple, require no tools other than a small flashlight, and can
serve as a baseline standard to help you decide which homes
are not even worthy of an offer. The flashlight comes in handy
for the dark corners in every home, and is a necessity if you
are looking at a foreclosure with the power turned off.
Here’s our pre-inspection checklist:
Stand in front of the long side of the house and sight along
the ridge of the roof (horizontal top line that each face of the
roof slopes towards), holding any convenient straight-edge
like a notebook or flashlight up to it. If the ridge is straight,
fine. But sagging in the middle or at the ends indicates roof
structure problems.
Walk around the home and look at the way the land slopes
around it. Ideally, you want the ground to slope away from
the house, even if only slightly, on all sides. If the lot slopes
in only one direction, like
front to back, then look for
any gullies or washed-out
areas under the foundation
that indicate undesirable
water movement around
the house during a heavy
Sight down the exterior
walls, with your face close
to the wall at each corner.
Any bulges indicate a structural problem.
Look for any significant cracks in concrete block or brick
walls, especially near the ends of the walls and emanating
from the corners of doors and windows. Every house settles a
little, so a few small cracks are nothing to worry about. But if
you can stick two quarters side-by-side into the crack, or if
one side of the crack is raised up off the surface higher than
the other as you run your hand over it, you likely have a struc-
tural problem that needs re-
Do any large trees stand
near the house? They can
cause structural settlement
problems over time. Tree
roots near the surface of the
ground can lift a foundation
slab, and some tree species
cause settlement by sucking excessive water out of the soil in
the radius of their root system. Also, look for tree branches
branches that overhang or rub
against the roof.
Look at the windows. Do
you see any cracked or missing
panes? Are they single-pane
(older) or double-pane insu-
lated (newer)? Do any of the
double-pane windows have a
haze over the glass?
Older insulated windows lose
their inert gas between the
panes, which reduces the insu-
lating ability, then condensate
forming repeatedly inside the
windows builds up an obscuring mineral haze—which indi-
cates the window is ready for replacement.
An easy way to determine if an unclouded window is single
or double-pane: put an edge of the lens of your flashlight
against the glass, with it tilted at a 45º angle to the glass, and
turn on the light. If the window is double-pane, you will see
two discs of light.
Look at the visible surfaces
of the roof from the ground. As
an asphalt shingle roof ages,
the edges of the shingles begin
to curl, first at the corners,
then towards the middle. The
granules on top of the shingle
wash away over time, giving
the shingle surface a speckled
appearance, and the edges be-
come brittle and break off.
This can be difficult to observe
unless you get close to the roof. Either of these signs means
the roof is ready, or nearly ready, to be replaced. More than
one or two missing or damaged shingles also indicates the
roof is older needs repair or replacement.
Metal roofs age by corrosion. The fasteners (nails or screws)
show signs of rust first, then the panel sur-
faces. If the overhang of a metal roof is open
and you can look up at the bottom of the
metal panels, any pinholes of sunlight shin-
ing through are a bad sign.
Are there rainwater gutters? That’s a plus.
A gutter system diverts water away from the
foundation of the home, which both reduces
the erosion and rainwater splash-back onto
the base of the walls. Do they look like they’re in good condi-
tion? Do the ends have vertical leaders down to a splash plate
that directs the water at least a few feet away from the house?
What does the exterior paint finish look like? If it looks
powdery, wipe your hand across it. Paint powder on your
hand indicates old paint. Peeling, curling, or blistering paint
surfaces can indicate any of several things: a very old paint
finish, paint that has been applied over an older layer that
was not adequately prepped, or moisture accumulation un-
der the paint surface.
Look at the intersection of the exterior windows and doors
with the exterior wall surfaces. Are the joints caulked? Are
there areas of crumbling, loose, or missing caulk? Deterio-
rated caulking allows water to
enter the walls, leading to
wood rot and mold problems.
Search for veins of dirt run-
ning up interior walls, exterior
walls, or foundation piers.
These are subterranean ter-
mite mud tubes—mini-tunnels
they use to gain access to the
wood in a house.
Is any of the wood in the exte-
rior wall less than 6 inches above the ground? Wood any
closer will have continual problems with rot, due to rain
Do the doors sit squarely in their frames? As you close
each door, look at the relationship between the top edge of
Deteriorated roof shingles
Termite mud tubes
the door and the bottom edge of the door frame above it. The
gap should be consistent for the hinge-side to latch-side. If it
is not, the house may have settle-
ment issues. Homes with multiple
interior doors that are missing can
be a red flag. Removing a door is an
easy way to fix stuck doors in a
house with settlement problems.
Open a couple of windows at ran-
dom. Do they move easily? Again,
settlement can cause stuck win-
dows (so can cantankerous old
Check for stains in the ceiling or around windows or doors.
This usually means water intrusion.
Locate the electric panel for the house. Open the cover.
Does it contain circuit breakers (switches) or screw-in fuses
(glass rounds)? If you see fuses, it means the home has an an-
cient electric system, more than 50 years old. The panel will
likely require immediate replacement in order to get home-
owner’s insurance. It also means
the service is undersized—typically
60 amps.
If you see banks of switches, then
you have a modern circuit breaker
system. Look at the side of the
main breaker switch, which sits
alone at the top of the panel, or
around it, for a marking that reads
100, 125, 150, or 200A. The “A” in-
dicates amps, which is a measure of the current carrying ca-
pacity of the home’s electric system. The minimum modern
service is 100 amps, which would be used for a smaller condo
or an older single-family home. Next size up, 125A would be
typical for a small starter house, and 150A and 200A indicate
the standard size of panels in newer homes.
Do the receptacle outlets have two vertical slots with a
round hole above or below, or just two vertical slots? If they
are missing that round hole, which is the ground slot, it
means the receptacles are pre-1960 and ungrounded. While
there is nothing inherently wrong with two-slot receptacles,
they indicate two things: the wiring is 50 years old or more,
and you cannot plug in many modern appliances that require
a three-slot outlet receptacle.
Is there at least one receptacle outlet on every wall of each
room? If the house is occupied and you can’t see the walls
clearly, do you see extension cords running around the pe-
rimeter of the rooms? This is a telltale sign of too few recepta-
cle outlets.
Is the water flow adequate in the bathrooms? If you get a
few seconds alone in a bathroom, turn on the faucets at the
sink all the way, flush the toilet, then turn on the bathtub. If
the water flow slows down to a trickle, you have a problem.
And last, don’t forget to:
1) LOOK UP, at the ceiling on the inside and the soffit (under-
side of roof overhang) on the outside, while touring the
2) LOOK BEHIND OBJECTS that obstruct your view of the
walls. Move them a little to peek behind, if possible. Any
throw rugs appear to be in an odd location? Pull up a corner
and look under them. Sometimes objects are artfully placed
to conceal a problem.
3) ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS, if the seller or realtor is pre-
sent, like: What is this? Why is this door locked? What hap-
pened that made it necessary to make this repair? When
was the roof replaced? Does the washer and dryer come
with the house?
Many of the items in this pre-inspection checklist will be cov-
ered in more detail in next sections of this book. Happy house
hunting! Call a home inspector when your pre-inspection ob-
servations turn up a good house. If none of the points on this
checklist find a problem, you probably have.
What questions should I
ask a home inspector I’m
considering hiring?
The U.S. Department of Hous-
ing and Urban Development
(HUD) has prepared a list on
their website, entitled “Ten Im-
portant Questions To Ask
Your Home Inspector.” We
have reproduced it below, but
think you should use the ques-
tions just as a starting point for
talking with a prospective home inspector. Unfortunately, most
homebuyers don’t meet their inspector until the day of the inspec-
tion. But you can learn a lot from him or her through a short
phone conversation. Because home inspection is essentially a per-
sonal service, a few minutes of talking will give you an idea of
whether the inspector is someone that communicates well with
you and has a personal style you are comfortable with.
1. What does your inspection cover?
The inspector should ensure that the inspection and inspection
report will meet all requirements in your state, if applicable, and
will comply with a well-recognized standard of practice and code
of ethics. You should be able to request and see a copy of these
items ahead of time and ask any questions you may have. If there
are any areas you want to make sure are inspected, be sure to iden-
tify them upfront.
2. How long have you been practicing in the home inspec-
tion profession and how many inspections have you com-
The inspector should be able to provide his or her history in the
profession and perhaps even a few names as referrals. Newer in-
spectors can be very qualified, and many work with a partner or
have access to more experienced inspectors to assist them in the
3. Are you specifically experienced in residential inspec-
Related experience in construction or engineering is helpful, but
is no substitute for training and experience in the unique discipline
of home inspection. If the inspection is for a commercial property,
then this should be asked about as well.
4. Do you offer to do repairs or improvements based on
the inspection?
Some inspector associations and state regulations allow the in-
spector to perform repair work on problems uncovered in the in-
spection. Other associations and regulations strictly forbid this as a
conflict of interest.
5. How long will the inspection take?
The average on-site inspection time for a single inspector is two
to three hours for a typical single-family house; anything signifi-
cantly less may not be enough time to perform a thorough inspec-
tion. Additional inspectors may be brought in for very large proper-
ties and buildings.
6. How much will it cost?
Costs vary dramatically, depending on the region, size and age of
the house, scope of services and other factors. A typical range
might be $300-$500, but consider the value of the home inspec-
tion in terms of the investment being made. Cost does not necessar-
ily reflect quality.
7. What type of inspection report do you provide and
how long will it take to receive the report?
Ask to see samples and determine whether or not you can under-
stand the inspector's reporting style and if the time parameters ful-
fill your needs. Most inspectors provide their full report within 24
hours of the inspection.
8. Will I be able to attend the inspection?
This is a valuable educational opportunity, and an inspector's re-
fusal to allow this should raise a red flag. Never pass up this oppor-
tunity to see your prospective home through the eyes of an expert.
9. Do you maintain membership in a professional home
inspector association?
There are many state and national associations for home inspec-
tors. Request to see their membership ID, and perform whatever
due diligence you deem appropriate.
10. Do you participate in continuing education programs
to keep your expertise up to date?
One can never know it all, and the inspector's commitment to
continuing education is a good measure of his or her professional-
ism and service to the consumer. This is especially important in
cases where the home is much older or includes unique elements
requiring additional or updated training.
A final note: many home inspection companies are a one-person
business. If you phone one during regular business hours, the in-
spector may be in the middle of doing a home inspection. So don’t
be offended if they answer a couple of your questions, and then of-
fer to call you back later to continue the phone interview when
they have more time to talk. We personally find that we get most of
our calls requesting information when we are hunched over, crawl-
ing across an attic with a flashlight.
I’m buying a brand-new
home from the builder.
Do I still need a home
We think so. New homes have
different defects than older
homes. We evaluate a “used”
home primarily for any deterio-
ration of its components, like
the roof or air conditioning sys-
tem. The focus of the inspection
is to make sure that everything
is still in adequate condition and
But the problems home inspectors find in new homes are dif-
ferent, and relate to two factors:
1) The home has never been lived in. Nothing has been actu-
ally tested.
2) Because most homes today are built almost entirely by sub-
contractors, with the “builder” primarily acting as a coordina-
tor of all the subs, the areas where one subcontractor’s work
has to align with or follow up on the work of another can get
messed up.
It’s true that your new home will have already been in-
spected several times by the local building department for
code compliance, but there are a number of things they do not
check, such as shoddy workmanship: poorly hung doors,
badly mitered corner trim, missing caulk, and loose faucets,
for example. Sloppy work is not a building code issue.
Also, building inspectors only do a “walk through” of the
home. They don’t climb up on the roof or crawl in the attic.
But home inspectors get up into these areas, and routinely
find problems overlooked by a municipal inspector. Also, in-
spectors from the local building department do not actually
test major appliances like the air conditioning system. They
only do a visual inspection for proper installation.
Some other defects we find are plumbing drains that never
got connected or are clogged with construction debris, wall
dings from clumsy workmen, attic hatches that have been cov-
ered over with blown insulation by the insulation contractor
(always a big surprise for the first person that opens the
hatch), windows that are over-shimmed with a compressed
frame that makes them difficult to open, and little items like a
couple of cabinet pulls that just got forgotten in the push to fin-
ish the project.
While the builder will likely assure you that any defects you
find after you have moved in will be fixed promptly, it’s always
better to get those headaches out of the way first. Bypassing
the inspection may leave you with problems you only find af-
ter the warranty has expired. A home inspector provides you
with a “punch list” of repair items to give your builder before
Should I be there for
the home inspection?
If you can, it’s well worth the time
because your home inspector can
talk with you about both the prob-
lems and the good points of the
home you’re buying (in the final re-
port, inspectors typicall only review
the defects). And while we also in-
clude plenty of photos in your re-
port, there’s nothing that makes
things quite as clear as actually examining problem areas with
a professional inspector.
Unfortunately, a real-life home inspection is not as exciting
as the shows on HGTV, where the host immediately sees, un-
derstands, and explains amazing things about the house as he
saunters from room to room, then reaches for a power saw to
slice away a chunk of wall and show you what’s inside.
A home inspector can’t cut any holes, pull up flooring, or dis-
assemble anything without incurring the wrath of the seller.
Also, tagging along with us at the beginning of the inspection
is usually counterproductive: we need to spend some time
alone examining the whole house before we can talk to you in-
telligently about it. That stain in the bedroom ceiling, for ex-
ample, will typically require a look in the attic and up on the
roof before we can understand what’s going on.
Plus, house defects are often interconnected. One defect can
cause a second defect, which will then create a third problem.
A concealed water intrusion area inside a wall, for example,
can cause corrosion in an electric receptacle, which makes the
receptacle short-out, which causes a circuit breaker in the
panel to trip repeatedly. Investigating the tripped breaker
leads us backwards to the concealed water intrusion, one step
at a time.
So please be understanding if the home inspector asks you
for a little time alone with the house (typically about half an
hour) before beginning to talk with you, answer your ques-
tions, and walk around to show you the findings. Some real-
tors suggest that their customers arrive about a half hour to
an hour after the beginning of the inspection, so that the in-
spector will be well-oriented to the home and ready to talk
with you—and we think that’s a great idea. Of course, if you
are planning to do some measurements for your furniture
placement while at the inspection, the first half-hour or so is a
good time to do that, too.
If your work or travel schedule makes it impossible for you
to be at the inspection, be sure to let the inspector know, be-
cause you should have a conversation beforehand about any
special concerns you have, things you saw that should be inves-
tigated further, photos of particular areas that you want sent
to you, your remodeling ideas, and anything else you want
your inspector to know about the house.
Do I need to hire an
engineer for my
home inspection?
It may be a good idea to hire an engineer to look at a house
you are considering buying if the home inspector turns up any
issues that require an engineer’s expertise to evaluate; how-
ever, we don’t recommend that you begin your home evalua-
tion with an engineer.
Most engineers don’t do building inspections, and the ones
who do often specialize in commercial buildings and forensic
evaluations, not in inspecting residences. The members of the
National Academy of Building Inspection Engineers
( specialize in building inspection. But
the organization is small—there are only 11 members in Flor-
ida, for example—and not all of their engineers will do home
inspections. Also, an inspection engineer is significantly more
expensive than a home inspector.
But an engineer is definitely useful to a homebuyer after the
home inspector finds a problem that needs further evaluation,
especially where the problem is structural and requires repair.
Issues like damaged roof trusses or a failing foundation re-
quire the services of an engineer to specify the repair materi-
als and procedure and then certify that the repair is adequate.
When these kinds of problems arise during an inspection, a
good inspector will refer a client to a local engineer for an
opinion, as the next step in evaluating the home.
How can I verify when
an old house was built?
Knowing the approximate year that an older house was built
is useful information for both you and your home inspector,
because it enables an inspector knowledgeable in the construc-
tion materials and methods of each era to tell you more about
the house, such as what is original versus newer, the remain-
ing useful life of older components, and what’s likely to be in-
side the walls, under the floors, and in other non-accessible ar-
eas of the home.
Sometimes the listed age of the house is simply the best
guess of the most recent owner, especially in rural areas where
older building records can be scarce. You may want to double-
check the listed age of the house by visiting the county prop-
erty appraiser’s website. That’s how its year of construction is
usually found, but things can get complicated. There are some-
times two dates listed: actual year built and effective year
built. The “actual year built” is when the initial construction
was completed. If the house was significantly changed later,
then the “effective year built” reflects when a major remodel-
ing or addition occurred.
For very old houses, the property appraiser’s date is nothing
more than the earliest record of it appearing on the modern
tax rolls—which may not even be remotely close to the year
built. Sometimes an old house will be moved, and the prop-
erty appraiser’s information shows only when it arrived at the
new location. And, once in a while, the official year built is ob-
viously just wrong. Luckily, there are multiple other ways that
a determined sleuth can find the approximate age of the
! The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company created detailed
maps of approximately 12,000 cities around the U.S. begin-
ning in 1867, which showed the outline of each home in each
block of a neighborhood, and were updated every few years.
They were created to help insurance agents assess the degree
of fire hazard for each location.
In Florida, for example, over 130 cities and towns were
mapped, with the earliest depicting Cedar Key in 1884. The
company went out of business a few years ago, but its maps
are a valuable historic record. The age of a house can some-
times be determined by the date of the Sanborn map where its
outline first appears.
The University of Florida maintains a collection of early San-
born maps of Florida cities which can be accessed online at Many
other state and university archives
have the maps digitized for public
! The type of building components
still in place in the home can tell a
story about the age. Electric wall re-
ceptacles have a technological time-
line, for example. If the receptacle
has only two slots, and they are
both the same height, it is non-
polarized and pre-1920. When the
receptacle has two slots and one is
slightly taller than the other, it is po-
larized and pre-1960. If the recepta-
cle has two slots and a round hole below, then it is a grounded
receptacle and post-1960.
Asbestos siding, terra-cotta drain pipe, and linoleum floors
each peg a house to a particular era if they are original to the
construction. OSB (oriented strand board) was not developed
until the 1980s and, at the other end of the timeline, indicates
that a house is newer.
! The architectural style of the home and construction type
tell their own story. Heavily textured stucco over wood lath on
the exterior walls dates a home to the 1920s or 30s, and a low-
slope gravel roof on a long and narrow home with minimal
trim means it’s from the 1950s or 60s.
! Check the electric meter, if it appears older. It will be
marked with a date of manufacture,
providing another clue.
! And last, pulling the lid off the
toilet tank and looking for a date
stamp underneath is a favorite tech-
nique among real estate appraisers.
After looking at thousands of
houses, a home inspector develops
an intuitive sense for the age of a
house, along with an understanding
of what is the original part of the
home and where the later additions
begin. And, every once in a while,
we come up with evidence that a
home could not possibly be as young—or as old—as it is por-
trayed to be.
Building On A Good Foundation
Identifying structural problems and evaluating their significance.
Hey, what about that
There are two unavoidable consequences of the passage of
time for any type of construction: 1) buildings move, and 2)
materials deteriorate. It’s the architectural version of death
and taxes. Clay soil and sinkhole activity, which occurs in
some areas of the country, can complicate things further.
The process begins even while a home is under construc-
tion. The ground under a new home compacts slowly as the
massive weight on it piles up, the concrete floor slab shrinks
slightly as it hardens, and the lumber inside the walls moves
and shrinks a little as it dries. All of this happens over the first
two years, while the ground and the interconnected compo-
nents of the structure adjust to the new loads and stresses im-
posed on them.
So you get minor hairline cracks in a concrete floor slab that
are normal and unavoidable. A contractor typically cuts score
lines about 1/4-inch deep in both directions across a large con-
crete slab, which encourages the inevitable cracks to run in
the notches and be less noticeable.
Also, the slight bowing or twisting of a few rogue pieces of
lumber inside the wall causes fasteners to raise out from the
wall slightly and short cracks to appear in the interior walls,
usually along the seams between drywall boards near inside
corners or doors and windows. The problem is easily repaired
and is a one-time event if no other factors are involved.
Minor hairline cracks are considered “cosmetic,” as opposed
to larger cracks, which are termed “structural.” A structural
crack is defined as one that is 1/8-inch or more wide and/or
has “differential,” meaning that one side of the crack is raised
above the other side. A simple way to determine if a crack is
structural: run your hand across it to feel for any differential,
and hold two quarters side-by-side and try to stick them into
the crack to determine if it exceeds the 1/8-inch width crite-
After the initial “settling in” of a home’s structure, other
forces can cause cracks over time, such as:
Soil erosion - Rain and underground water movement
through the soil causes particles of soil to move from higher
levels to lower levels over time. This movement, called soil sub-
sidence, happens in slow motion over many years, and can
gradually undercut the foundation of the home and cause set-
tlement, typically at the corners first.
Tree roots - Roots can cause a lifting action under a home.
But, more often, tree root intrusion results in settlement, be-
cause the roots absorb so much of the water from the ground
in their immediate vicinity.
Clay soil - The sponge-like quality of clay deposits in the
soil under a home make the ground swell in seasons of heavy
rains and subside in droughts. This up-and-down motion
wreaks havoc with the footings, floor slab, and walls of a
Sinkholes - Definitely the most dramatic cause of cracks in
a home, sinkholes are created when underground water
erodes pockets in the karst underlayment of the ground in cer-
tain areas. At some point the pockets collapse, often slowly,
but sometimes in a quick, dramatic action.
Moisture changes - Building materials absorb and release
moisture in relation to the change in humidity of the air sur-
rounding them and, of course, any liquid moisture (water)
that they get immersed in. The consequent expansion and
shrinkage of the materials are another cause of cracks, al-
though usually minor ones. A home that is air conditioned
(which causes dehumidification), then left with the a/c off for
a period of time (causing the humidity to rise), then air condi-
tioned again (yes, lowering the humidity back again) can
cause cracks to appear, especially on interior surfaces.
A knowledgeable, experienced inspector can interpret what’s
happening to cause mysterious cracks to appear in a home--to
some extent. The location of the cracks, direction, relation to
each other, taper shape, and debris accumulation, along with
change of planes of the surfaces, tell a story about the forces
causing them. It’s a kind of “puzzle” that we enjoy solving.
Usually the cracks that we study are understandable, man-
ageable, and perhaps just need minor repair and to be
watched for any further movement over time. But when we
are stumped, or the cracking indicates a serious problem that
warrants a repair plan, we refer homebuyers to a licensed
structural engineer for further evaluation before the end of
their inspection period.
Why do the floors slope in
this old house?
There are two reasons for sloping (out-of-level) floors in an
old house. One of the slopes was built-in when the house was
constructed and the other occurred over the years.
Let’s start with the built-in slope. It’s necessary to pitch the
floor on an open porch slightly to cause blown rain to run off,
thereby avoiding puddling water, which quickly develops
wood rot underneath. In old houses the porches often get en-
closed into rooms, but the floor slope toward the new exterior
wall remains. Because sleeping porches were popular in the
era before air conditioning, and they were the size and shape
of a small bedroom, you may not realize that a room in your
old house was once a porch.
The second reason is a structural problem, which can hap-
pen in several ways: the ground under the supporting piers
can settle, or heave upward in areas of clay soil; the piers
themselves can deteriorate and begin to collapse and tilt over;
or the supporting floor beams or joists can sag due to rot or
termite damage. A look in the crawl space under the affected
area will usually clear up the mystery.
We recommend that you leave the crawling around under a
house to someone like us who does it for a living, and wears
protective equipment for
the job. But you can often
figure out most of what’s
going on under the house
by viewing it with a flash-
light from any available
openings in the perime-
As part of our home inspection, we note any sloping floors
and attempt to determine the cause of the problem. When the
floor slope is significant, it’s usually accompanied by other
signs of structural problems, such as wall cracks, jammed
doors and windows, and cracked window panes. Structural re-
pairs may be necessary. But if the floor slope is barely notice-
able and the inspector finds no visible structural problems un-
der the home, it might be best to chalk it up to “old house char-
acter” and enjoy the little quirks of your vintage home.
Leaning piers
Termite damage
I'd swear that crack
wasn't there yesterday.
What happened?
While that crack you noticed on
your second visit to the house
may have been opening slowly
over a period of months or years
and you missed it on your first
walk-around, it is also possible
that it appeared in a single day.
The key word for understand-
ing how a fairly large crack can
appear overnight is “elasticity.”
While we normally think of things
like rubber bands as being elastic, all materials--including con-
crete, brick and mortar--have a small amount of elasticity.
Within that elasticity is the ability to contain the tension
(pulling-apart) forces imposed on them--up to a point.
But, like a over-stretched rubber band, when the forces pull-
ing building materials apart exceed a certain point, they
“snap” and a crack opens all at once. People in homes with ex-
treme pressure being applied to the structure, from sink hole
activity or clay soil heaving, sometimes actually hear the
sounds of their walls fracturing. But mostly it’s not that dra-
Two things you want to try to determine after you notice a
crack in the walls or floor of a home are 1) whether it is a re-
cent event or older damage and 2) if it is continuing to open or
the movement has stopped. Looking closely at the opening for
evidence of debris buildup or weathering over time is a help in
establishing a time-frame for the damage. But determining if
it is an ongoing problem can be more difficult. Sometimes the
seller inadvertently provides you evidence that the movement
is continuing: a caulk-repaired seam of cracking with the
caulk torn already pulled away from one side.
A more scientific way to evaluate what’s going on—assuming
that you decide to buy the house—is to install a simple device
called a crack monitor after you move in. It consists of a plate
with a grid printed on it that is placed over the crack and se-
cured at one side, and a clear plastic plate with a cross-hair on
it, which aligns exactly with the center of the grid at time of in-
stallation, that is secured overlapping it at the other side of
the crack.
Keeping tabs on the monitor will tell you if any further move-
ment is occurring and, if so, at what rate. We keep a couple in
the truck for installation where homeowners are concerned
about cracks they have found.
There’s cracks running
along the concrete tie
beam. What’s wrong?
Cracks on a tie beam are
likely due to “spalling,”
which is caused by moisture
penetrating the layer of con-
crete covering the reinforc-
ing steel in the beam. Over
time, the steel begins to rust
inside the beam and, be-
cause rust is slow but very powerful expansive process, cracks
appear at the surface over the reinforcing steel. It’s a progres-
sive deterioration, because the open crack allows more mois-
ture to accelerate the corrosion (formally known as ferrous ox-
ide scale), which opens the crack further. Eventually small
chunks of concrete begin falling out and, if it is left without re-
pair long enough, structural failure follows.
Any exposed area of steel-reinforced concrete can develop
spalling, including columns, floor slabs, and precast compo-
nents like window sills (like example at right).
Spalling is more prevalent along oceanfront neighborhoods,
where a salt mist gets blown over the surface of the beam from
the breeze. It starts appearing in these homes as early as 20
years after construction, but occurs eventually in some inland
homes—just much later.
Oceanfront exposure is actually only one factor that allows
spalling to begin. Others include too little concrete coverage
over the steel (less than about one and a half inches), poorly
placed concrete with air pockets in it, and an upset of the natu-
ral alkalinity of the concrete.
The fix is simple but labor-intensive: each crack line has to
be jack-hammered open to expose the surfaces of the steel re-
inforcing bars. The rust is then cleaned away with a chemical
solution and stiff brush, coated with an anti-corrosion solu-
tion, and then a special concrete/mortar mixture is packed
into the damaged area and smoothed out along the surface.
The Top Priority
Determining the condition of the roofing and roof structure.
How can I tell if the house
needs a new roof?
A roof leak is often a home-
owner’s the first sign that a
house needs a new roof. But a
leak due to a small area of
damage or a minor flashing
problem, in an otherwise
sound, young roof, needs only
repair. When a leak is the re-
sult of deterioration due to ad-
vanced age, then replacement
in needed.
Conversely, an older roof
with clear warning signs of imminent failure requires replace-
ment—even if it’s not leaking yet. Most homes today have an
asphalt shingle roof, and here are the symptoms of an ailing,
older shingle roof:
Granule loss: The rock granules that coat the surface of
the shingles protect them from deterioration from the sun’s
UV-light rays. When you see piles of the coarse sand-like gran-
ules below the gutter downspout, or a faint ribbon of granules
on ground under the roof’s drip edge, they are coming loose
and the shingles are no longer getting adequate protection.
You can also tell if you’re experiencing granule loss by looking
for a mottled granule texture on the surface of the shingles.
Curling: Look up the slope of the roof from the ground, and
search for shingle edges that are beginning to curl upward, an-
other sign of advanced age.
Cracked, damaged, and missing shingles: As shingles
age, they get brittle, are easily damaged, and begin to break
Loss of granules
loose in places. Look for broken-off corners, exposed nails,
and missing shingles.
Loss of Tab Adhesion - If you feel comfortable putting a
ladder up to the edge of the roof, try lifting the front edge of a
few shingle tabs you can easily reach, a couple of rows back
from the edge. They should be impossible or difficult to pull
up, and make a ripping sound if you can pull one up. If they
are effortless to lift, and make no noise at all—well, that’s not
good. It means that the shingles are susceptible to being
blown off in a windstorm.
Deteriorated flashings - Any roofer will tell you that the
majority of roof leaks occur at flashings. A flashing is a transi-
tion material, used at the intersection of two angles of a roof,
or a roof intersecting a wall, to prevent leakage. Flashings are
the most difficult part of a roof job to do correctly and, when
they start to rust and come loose, big-problem leaks follow.
Look at the edges of the roof
and at roof penetra-
tions—like skylights, chim-
neys, and plumbing vent
pipes—for any signs of dam-
age or deterioration.
How A Home Inspector
Evaluates a Roof
As part of your home in-
spection, some home inspec-
tors will walk your roof,
where practical, and take photos of its condition. Others will
only view it at the edge from a ladder, or with binoculars from
the ground.
We try to walk the roof whenever possible. The two main
things we look for when inspecting a roof are: 1) evidence of
roof leaks and 2) age and condition of the roof material. Age
and condition are tied together as one item because there’s al-
ways a correlation between the two. In the absence of any
other information, we look at the condition to determine the
approximate age of the roof. Some roofs age a little faster or
Damaged, missing shingles
Loss of tab adhesion
slower than average but, like
people, they show definite
signs of middle age and then
the relentless progression to
senior-citizen status.
The roof surface provides
clues for where to look in the
attic for leaks: missing or de-
teriorated flashings, and
damaged or severely deterio-
rated areas of roofing are
noted and warrant a careful
look in the attic sheathing for water damage. If the home is a
type that does not have an attic, like most mobile homes and
1950’s modern ranch designs, we look at the ceiling with an
infrared camera for evidence of leaks.
Different planes of a roof age in different ways, and we take
that into consideration, too. The south-facing side of the roof
gets the most sun, and therefore has the most ultraviolet dam-
age, whereas the north-
facing side gets the least sun
and is more likely to have
moss growth or mildew dis-
coloration. Also, the heavy
tree cover in some neighbor-
hoods can cause staining
that makes a roof look older
than its actual age.
Each roof material shows different signs of age. Metal roofs,
for example, corrode with age, and the fasteners are the first
to show rust damage. We also check for proper fastener spac-
ing and correct lapping of the panels.
Broken and damaged tiles, along with any improper installa-
tion, are noted at tile roofs, which are the most difficult to age
by condition.
Built-up and modified bitumen roofs are used for low-slope
applications (under “2 in 12” pitch, which is two inches of ver-
tical rise for every twelve inches of horizontal run) and show
signs of aging similar to shingles, along with “alligatoring” (a
spreading crack pattern similar the back of a gator) of the roof-
ing tar.
It’s an old cliché, but a good roof is the number one protec-
tive element of your home. And a bad roof, once it starts to
leak, can destroy the interior: staining, mold, and rot follow
quickly. So naturally we take roof condition seriously, and so
should you.
After you move in, we recommend that you eyeball the roof
at least once a year from the ground while walking around all
sides. As an alternative, many local roofing contractors will do
a scheduled regular roof-check every year or two, along with
minor upkeep maintenance, such as removing leaf debris or
branches near the roof, or replacing a few damaged shingles,
at a reasonable cost.
Leaking boot at roof
plumbing vent
Older metal roof
What is an “architectural”
shingle roof?
Architectural shingles are a premium grade of asphalt shingle
roofing. The shingles are thicker and have a distinctive, tex-
tured appearance; they are sometimes called dimensional or
laminate shingles. Architectural shingles were introduced in
the 1970s in an effort by manufacturers to create a higher-end
Regular roof shingles are called “three-tab” in the trade, for
the three tabs/flaps with quarter-inch grooves between them
in each panel. They run in flat, even rows as opposed to the
textured and layered look of architectural shingles.
Regular shingles have an average life of 15 to 20 years. An
architectural shingle roof has a 24 to 30-year life, with some
super-premium grades rated for up to a 40-year lifespan.
Architectural shingles come in wider variety of colors and sub-
tly variegated color patterns, have greater resistance to uplift
in a windstorm, and have a heavier granule covering.
All of this comes at a premium price, of course: typically, an
architectural shingle roof will cost about 25 percent more. But
you are rewarded for the extra investment with a 50 percent
longer lifespan and a better looking roof.
Architectural shingles start with a heavier mat base, typi-
cally fiberglass that has been coated with asphalt. Multiple lay-
ers are then overlapped and laminated together to create the
distinctive texture. The finished product weighs about 100
pounds more per “square” (a roofer’s term for 100 square feet
of roof area) than regular shingles. Builders also like them be-
cause minor imperfections in the roof deck are concealed by
the texture.
If you currently have a regular shingle roof, most realtors we
know recommend upgrading to architectural shingles when
it’s time for a roof replacement, because of the all-important
curb-appeal boost it gives an older home.
How do you track down
roof leaks? What about wet
spots in the walls?
Back when we were building
contractors in Key West, the
number-0ne roofing contrac-
tor in town was a guy named
Michael Chodzin. He had
been doing roofing since the
1970s, and the slogan on the
side of his trucks said
“Chodzin Roofing - We Are Smarter Than Water.” Ask most
anybody in town for the name of a good roofer, and Michael
was right there at the top of the list.
It seemed like a truly dumb business promotion to me:
smarter than water? But he was proud of his slogan and, after
years of dealing with moisture intrusion problems in homes, I
realized that water is very sneaky and hard to predict. Turns
out, being smarter than water is not easy.
Let’s start with the science. Water has three different states
according to it’s temperature, each with different
physical properties: liquid, solid (ice), or gas (vapor).
Liquid water rolls downhill due to gravity, right? Yes, except
where capillary action, the phenomena you see
when a sponge sucks up water out of a bucket, comes into
play. And, of course, wind-blown water in a storm can be
pushed upward six inches or more into any unsealed opening
in a home’s exterior, where capillary action sometimes takes it
anywhere else it wants to go.
Then there’s ice. Most materials
shrink when frozen, but water ex-
pands. And it expands with tremen-
dous force. This is the property that
causes burst plumbing pipes during a
hard winter freeze.
And finally, there is water vapor to
consider. House-wrap material, which
is applied over wall sheathing of a
house under construction before the
siding is applied, is specifically designed to deal with the per-
plexing issue of water vapor movement through walls and its
tendency to condense back to liquid form when it reaches a
colder surface. Modern house-wrap allows water vapor to pass
through, but not liquid water, because trapped water vapor
that condenses inside a wall can be an insidious mess.
In our job as home inspectors, what we call “water intrusion”
(water that gets into a home where it shouldn’t) can cause the
most expensive repairs. Mold, wood rot, crumpling drywall,
electrical shorts, and a myriad of other problems follow. A
Michael Chodzin
good roof is the first line of defense against water, but well-
sealed exterior walls and good plumbing are important too.
Finding water intrusion is difficult, but figuring out how it
got there is sometimes even more complicated. Michael
Chodzin always had amazing stories about how he tracked a
roof leak that had stumped lesser tradesmen back to it’s
A typical issue we confront is an ugly ceiling stain, and a
homebuyer that wants to know what caused it. The first thing
we try to determine is whether it was caused by a roof leak or
some other problem, such as a leaking air conditioning
condensate-water drain line in the attic. If we conclude that a
roof leak is the culprit, then the next question is: active leak or
previous leak?
If the home has a newer roof, then we might be looking at
the problem that caused the homeowner to recently replace
the roof. Perhaps they just haven’t repaired the ceiling
damage/staining yet. Further investigation in the attic and on
the rooftop itself will give us a clearer picture of what’s hap-
One of the first tools we pull out for this puzzle is our infra-
red camera. A visual tool that sees heat instead of light, the in-
frared easily recognizes wet areas because the evaporation of
the moisture cools the surface in the area of the wetness. And
a wet area at the staining is an indication of an active prob-
lem. If the infrared camera sees signs of moisture, the next
weapon in our water-fighting arsenal is our fingers, which,
like everyone else’s, are sensitive to moisture at a touch. Then
we use another tool called a moisture meter to verify and
measure how much water is in the material.
But a dry area is not necessarily an indication of an issue
that has already been repaired: if the cause is a roof leak, and
it has not rained recently, then it is possible to have an active
roof leak but no moisture at the time of testing.
Looking up at the area directly above the stain in the attic
tells us more about what’s happening; next is checking the
area of roofing above that for defects that would cause leak-
ing. Because the water in a roof leak doesn’t always fall di-
rectly down from where it penetrates the roof covering, some-
times even more probing is necessary. A roof leak can migrate
downward between the roof covering and roof sheathing be-
fore it enters the attic, then run down the surface of roof fram-
ing lumber before it finally falls onto the ceiling.
Being “smarter than water” is a big job, but we’re on it. And
Michael is retired now. But we remember him fondly, always
with a laugh.
What’s a kick-out
A kick-out flashing diverts
rainwater away from wall sur-
faces that abut a roof. See
the photo at left for an exam-
ple. Sometimes called “di-
verter flashing,” it provides
excellent protection against
the penetration of water into
the building envelope when installed properly.
Several factors can lead to rainwater intrusion at roof-to-
wall intersections. But a missing kick-out flashing, in particu-
lar, often results in concentrated areas of water accumulation
and potentially severe damage to exterior walls, usually near
the edge of the roof. The effects of water penetration into the
wall siding can be observed on the exterior wall in the form of
vertical water stains, or staining in the soffit or ceiling below
the area, or noted on the inside during an attic inspection.
A kick-out flashing is necessary anywhere a roof and an exte-
rior wall intersect, and the wall continues past the lower roof-
edge, or vice-versa. If a kick-out flashing is absent in this loca-
tion, large amounts of water may be funneled under the siding
and become trapped inside the wall.
Once in while, we see a homeowner-modification of a kick-
out flashing because they don’t like the look of it sticking up at
the edge of the roof. A common way this is done is to shorten
the height or trim away a portion of it, which will greatly re-
duce effectiveness. We don’t recommend this practice.
Kick-out flashings are extra-important when the exterior
cladding of the home is EIFS (Exterior Insulated Finish Sys-
tem), a stucco-like finish over a hard foam insulation board,
that is popular in homes built in the Southeast during the
1990s and later. The photo below shows an EIFS wall with wa-
ter migrating around behind the wall surface due to lack of
proper wall-to-roof flashing.
Kick-out flashing
Evidence of
moisture behind
What’s the difference
between a gable and a
hip roof?
A gable roof slopes inward on two sides, and the other two
sides have a wall with a triangle shape at the top, whereas a
hip roof slopes in on all four sides. The photo above shows in-
tersecting gable and hip roofs: the hip roof is in the back on
the main part of the house, and gable roof at the protruding
And here they are again below, represented in diagrams
along with other popular roof styles. Hip roofs are more com-
plicated and labor-intensive to build, but are also more wind-
resistant in a storm. Gable roofs are easier and less expensive
to build, but the triangle-shaped “gable end” is prone to col-
lapse in a high-wind event if not properly braced, with a dom-
ino effect knocking down a row of roof framing members once
the gable end collapses.
While engineers and builders evaluate these two most com-
mon roof structures based strength and cost parameters, archi-
tects see the two types of roofs as part of their design vocabu-
lary, and it is currently popular to have the main mass of the
house topped with a hip roof, with smaller gables added as a
kind of embellishment for entry porches, dormers, and ga-
There’s old insulation
in the attic labeled
"rock wool." Is it really
dangerous asbestos?
Rock wool is not another name for asbestos. It is a type of ther-
mal insulation made from rocks and minerals unrelated to as-
bestos. The material is also called mineral wool or slag wool,
and some versions of it are actually a recycling of industrial
furnace slag.
The most common types of rock wool are not classified as
carcinogenic to humans. The material may, however, cause
skin irritation, and it is always a good practice to wear gloves
and other personal protective equipment while handling it.
Rock wool is produced naturally during volcanic eruptions,
which is how the fiber was first discovered: in the early 1900s,
Hawaiian volcanologists found unusual, wool-like clusters of
fiber hanging from trees around Mount Kilauea. Experiments
with the newly found fibrous material uncovered its excep-
tional insulation qualities.
Today the volcanic process is replicated in industrial fur-
naces, where minerals are heated to approximately 2900º F,
then subjected to a blast of steam or air. Another technique in-
volves spinning the molten rock at high speeds, similar to the
way cotton candy is made.
The finished product is a mass of fine, intertwined fibers
that are bound together in blankets or used as a loose fill, and
has a wide variety of industrial and residential insulation ap-
We come across older rock wool insulation occasionally in
homes, often buried under a top layer of newer insulation.
New rock wool insulation is considered an environmentally
friendly building material and LEED rated for environmental
For more information about rock wool and other types of
home insulation, we recommend a visit to the North American
Insulation Manufacturers Association (NAIMA) website at:
I'm buying a 1950s modern
house with a gravel roof.
Is the roof going to be a
Not necessarily. Tar-and-
gravel roofs, also called built-
up roofs, are well suited for
waterproofing the flat and
low-slope roof styles that
were popular in the sunbelt
during the 1950s and 1960s.
They are not as common to-
day for two reasons: 1) low-slope roofs are out of fashion, and
2) the application of the hot asphalt tar used between the lay-
ers of the roof requires special equipment and insurance, so
many roofers do not install them.
The roof is literally “built up,” like a pan of lasagna, with al-
ternating layers of roofing felts and hot liquid asphalt, and the
black tar paper felts are pressed into each previous layer of as-
phalt before it cools and hardens. The roof layers are called
“plies,” and three to five can be applied, but the average roof
has four plies and is called a four-ply built-up roof. The final
topping is a thick flood coat of asphalt, with gravel raked over
and embedded into it while it’s still hot. The layers of roofing
felt and asphalt are the actual waterproofing, and the gravel
topping protects the black asphalt from the sun’s UV rays,
which would otherwise accelerate the deterioration of the roof
The primary concern with a built-up roof is maintenance.
You should plan on checking the roof twice a year to remove
leaf debris that collects on the surface (and does not wash
away like it would on a higher-pitched roof), along with occa-
sionally adding gravel to any areas where the black asphalt
has become exposed to the sunlight.
Here’s some common defects we see
in built-up roofs:
Alligatoring - As the roof
approaches the end of its life-
span, the asphalt topping be-
comes brittle and multiple
rows of cracks form, loosely
similar to the pattern on an
alligator’s back, exposing the
roofing plies below. Water
seeps into the seams and between the plies, causing blisters.
Blisters - When moisture seeps between the plies of the
roof, then the sun comes out and heats up the surface, the wa-
ter turns to vapor, and the expansion of the trapped gas
causes a raised pocket, known as a blister, to form. The blister
will often loosen the gravel and some of it will slide away from
the area, allowing more deterioration and leakage. An older
blister is not just visible; when you step on it, the blister
makes a squishy sound from the trapped water inside.
Ponding - The long-term puddling of water on an area of a
roof is called ponding. A built-up roof is designed to accept wa-
ter puddles on the surface without leaking, but the rule of
thumb is that any area of standing water on the roof 48 hours
after a rain is considered a problem.
Even what is called a “flat” roof is usually built with a very
slight slope to allow water runoff, but a poorly framed roof
structure, or one that has
had some sagging of the raf-
ters over time, will create ar-
eas of ponding. The evidence
of ponding is often still visi-
ble to a inspector, even after
all the water has evaporated,
due to the debris rings
around the ponding area. A roofer can add fillers to re-slope a
problem ponding area when re-roofing the home.
Flashing defects - Where roof planes meet, where roofs
and walls intersect, and at penetrations of the roof by things
like skylights and plumbing vent pipes, a flashing material is
added to seal the joint properly. Roof leaks can occur at the
flashings, either because they were installed improperly or
have deteriorated over time.
When a low-slope or flat roof does leak, the water often does
not drip directly though below the leaking area because the
roofing sheathing under the roofing is nearly flat. Instead, it
migrates a few feet away before coming through to stain the
ceiling. This can make pinpointing a leak on a built-up roof
more difficult than on other roof surfaces. But when properly
maintained, a built-up roof has a good lifespan and is a satis-
factory roofing choice.
Kick-out flashing
Missing gravel cover near flashing
All Around The House
Walls, windows, doors and stairs
What are those powdery
white areas on the brick
Powdery white discoloration
on brick is likely “efflores-
cence,” which is an accumula-
tion of minerals and salts on
the surface of the brick due
to repeated bouts of excess
water in the material. When
brick is saturated with water,
the minerals that naturally occur in the masonry material are
dissolved and, as the water migrates to the surface of the brick
and dissipates from evaporation, the mineral deposits are left
behind as a thin layer of powder. Repeated saturation and
evaporation cycles lead to a buildup of the surface powder.
While the efflorescence in itself is only a cosmetic problem,
its appearance on the wall indicates an ongoing water intru-
sion problem, which can lead to mold growth in adjacent
building materials over time. So your home inspector will
treat efflorescence as red flag for further evaluation of the area
where it’s occurring.
Occasionally, efflorescence is mistaken for mold. Here are
three ways to tell the difference between the two:
"When a sample of efflorescence is pinched between the
fingers, it will crumble into a powder. Mold will not.
"Efflorescence grows on inorganic masonry materials,
while mold does not, with the exception that a dirt/dust
buildup on the surface of a moist masonry wall will some-
times grow mold.
"Efflorescence will dissolve in water, while mold will not.
A pressure washer and/or a diluted acid solution is typically
used for removal of efflorescence, with the surface promptly
dried afterwards to prevent reabsorption of the water. New
masonry buildings will sometimes have a minor efflorescence
bloom, as the moisture still in the material from the manufac-
turing process is evaporated away during the first months fol-
lowing construction.
Is a brick house sturdier
that a regular wood-frame
Not really. Most brick homes are actually wood-frame homes
with a brick veneer applied over the sheathed wood walls, as
an alternative, upscale wall surfacing. Perhaps one in thirty
brick homes we inspect are “structural brick,” meaning that
the bricks provide support for the roof with no wood-frame
wall behind it. If you look closely you will see a concrete tie
beam (usually painted in a similar color to the brick) wrap-
ping around the top of the walls of the newer structural brick
homes. In the photo below right, of a structural brick house in
the Northwood neighborhood of Gainesville, the concrete tie
beam has been painted white.
Older structural brick (pre-1940) skipped the tie beam.
Brick does have the virtue of being a lower maintenance
wall than wood siding, and many people equate brick with
quality construction too.
There are also a number of different brick-shaped and col-
ored concrete blocks, but often larger than regular bricks, that
were popular building materials from the 1950s thru the
1970s. Realtors in our area call them “Ocala Block,” but they
go by a multiple different regional names and are structural
masonry, with similar properties to a regular concrete block
What is the difference between
“composite” and regular wood
Wood siding is made of solid wood, which is milled to the
specifications of the particular siding type. Composite wood
siding (also sometimes referred to as fiber-board siding) is
made of wood fiber pieces that are bonded with a resin-like
material and formed into siding boards in a factory. It is a
less-expensive, value-oriented product that has a shorter ex-
pected lifespan than wood or fiber-cement siding.
There are several manufacturers of composite wood siding
and they all have a disclaimer that reads something like this:
“Because it is not a solid wood material, it must be installed
and maintained properly.” In other words, the material must
be nailed properly, caulked and painted correctly, and the
paint surface must be maintained scrupulously—or it will pos-
sibly suffer an early failure.
Multiple manufacturers of composite wood siding sold from
the 1980s to the mid-1990s were the target of class-action law-
suits over the premature failure of the material. Settlements
were issued to the claimants in many cases, and the period for
accepting new claims expired several years ago.
Moisture that got behind the paint finish or entered at a
poorly nailed areas caused the material to balloon up and then
crumble away in pieces. The photo above shows an example of
this problem (carefully painted over, but continuing to pro-
gressively deteriorate) at a home in Florida from that era.
Occasionally we come across a home that was originally con-
structed with composite wood siding, that has been partially
replaced with fiber-cement siding (often called by the brand-
name “Hardi-Plank”) only at the areas of failure--usually the
lower boards on the walls. Because both products have a simi-
lar embossed wood-grain pattern, it can take a little time for
us to sort out where the original material still remains in
Although the newer generation of composite wood siding
does not appear to have the same problems as the earlier
manufactured product, it is less popular now due to consumer
alerts over the years.
For more information about composite wood siding and
other engineered wood products, go to the APA - Engineered
Wood Association website at
Composite wood siding
The garage has been
converted to a family
room. Is it all right?
A well-executed garage conversion is the classic home im-
provement that can add more value to a home than its cost.
The best ones integrate seamlessly with the original floor
plan, with the loss of protected parking and storage more than
compensated for by the added living space.
But a shoddy conversion, like the one above, makes it pain-
fully obvious at a glance that what was once a garage is now
an awkward extra room. The giveaways are the driveway that
still runs up to the front wall of the house and the lack of a win-
dow to balance the front elevation. Also, because this type of
remodeling project is often tackled by a homeowner, without a
building permit or inspections, the defects we point out in our
inspection report are related to minimum building standards
that are not met. Here are a few examples:
The ceilings and exterior walls of a garage are not re-
quired to be insulated, because it is not a conditioned
space. Many garage conversions skip the expense of insulat-
ing the new living space, increasing energy consumption.
A garage typically has one, or maybe two, electric recep-
tacles. As part of the remodeling, there should be recepta-
cles installed on each wall with no more than 6 feet to a re-
ceptacle from any point on the wall. Often this is over-
A typical home of the 1960s to 1990s era requires one
ton of air conditioning for every 400 to 500 square feet of
conditioned space; so, converting a two-car garage to living
space should require an additional ton of a/c capacity.
When this doesn’t happen, the existing system may prove
inadequate for the hottest days of summer. Occasionally we
find that there are not even ducts run to the new room with
service registers, with the newly created living space always
hotter or colder than the rest of the home.
Every exterior entry door into a living space in a home is
required to have two switches at the interior wall near the
door: one that turns on an exterior light so you can walk
safety out at night, and one that turns on interior light so
you won’t stumble in dark trying to turn on a lamp when en-
tering. When a door into a garage becomes a door into a
room of the house, it should meet this safety standard.
Many homes are wood-frame construction and, to avoid
moisture intrusion and wood rot, the wood framing is kept
a minimum of 6 inches above the ground by a stem wall or
elevated concrete slab. But the floor of a garage must meet
the level of the driveway at the overhead garage door and,
when the garage door is framed in to create a new room, a
short masonry or concrete stem wall should be built to set
the wood wall framing onto. But homeowner remodelers
often put the base plate of the wall that frames in the ga-
rage door opening directly on the floor slab—which is at, or
very near, ground level. Moisture intrusion and wood rot
problems typically begin within the first year.
Your home inspector will check for all of these potential
problems if the home has a garage conversion room. Several
of the most elegant garage conversions we have seen convert
the space into a master bedroom/bathroom suite at the oppo-
site end of the home from the original bedroom cluster. Oth-
ers become a game room or home theater. As long as a few ba-
sic building standards are applied to the remodeling, they are
an excellent home-improvement project.
What do you look for when
inspecting stairs?
We primarily do a safety in-
spection, looking for defects
that may cause a person go-
ing up or down the stairs to
trip and fall, because the sta-
tistics on stair-related inju-
ries are grim. About 1,400
people die in the U.S. each
year as a result of a fall and
just under a million people
are hospitalized yearly due to stair falls—over half of them in
their own home.
Falls are also the leading cause of hospitalizations among
children and the elderly. By the way, any set of steps with four
or more risers (vertical panels) is considered a stair by build-
ing codes.
So we take stair safety seriously. Here’s some of the things
we look for when examining stairs:
The height of the riser of stair should be a consistent di-
mension. If one of the risers is different, it can cause a per-
son to trip. Sometimes the first or last riser in a stair run is
a different because of a miscalculation by the stair builder.
The stair riser should not exceed 8 inches in height,
and the riser-to-tread (horizontal piece) ratio should con-
form to the normal cadence of a person. One rule of
thumb is that two times the riser dimension, plus the
tread dimension, should total between 24 and 26 inches.
As the riser dimension decreases, the tread dimension
should increase proportionately, and vice versa.
Stairs should be a minimum of 3 feet wide and have a
safe landing area at the top and bottom of the run, typi-
cally 3 feet square. A person should not have to stand on
one of the steps, for example, to open a door at the end of
the stairs.
There should be reasonable headroom clearance, so
you don’t bang your head halfway up the stairs.
Lighting should illuminate the entire stair run and both
landings, switched at both the top and bottom of the stairs
(called a three-way switch).
There should be a handrail on at least one side of the
stairs, and it must be small enough around so that it can
be firmly gripped at a comfortable height. The handrail
should return to the wall at both ends, to prevent snagging
a purse or sleeve at an open end, and causing a fall.
Each stair tread should have a nosing (small extension
of the tread past the riser below it), and treads should pro-
vide reasonably good traction. They should not be slippery
or have a loose surface material.
Winders (stair treads that radiate from a center point
in a spiral fashion) are subject to a complicated set of
safety rules. But the essence of them is that there should
be sufficient surface to lay your foot down on the tread
without part of it sticking over the edge.
There are more safety guidelines that we check for—too
many to enumerate here. But the primary way we examine a
stair is to walk it. The defects become evident immediately.
Minor issues, like a missing section of handrail or a dead
bulb in the stair lighting, are relatively easy to fix. But the lack
of adequate headroom or uneven risers can be an expensive
and time-consuming repair.
The house walls look like
stucco, but the inspector
says they are “EIFS.”
What's the difference?
EIFS is an acronym for Exterior Insulation and Finish Sys-
tem. It has been a popular exterior finish material for about
the last 25 years. It is also called synthetic stucco, as it is essen-
tially a foamboard and a fiberglass mesh attached to a wall
that is covered with a polymer-based material and then tex-
tured to look like historic stucco. It has been in use in Europe
since the 1950s, and in the U.S. beginning in the late 1960s.
EIFS is often used on wood-framed houses.
Traditional stucco is a plaster made with water, sand and
lime that has been used for centuries as finish surface over a
masonry wall. While the composition of stucco has changed
over time, it is still most often applied wet over a masonry sur-
face, such as concrete block.
What problems have been found with EIFS?
Traditional building materials used on the exterior of resi-
dential homes will allow water or water vapor that finds its
way inside to eventually escape back to the atmosphere. EIFS,
however, is a “barrier” type material, and blocks the move-
ment of water and water vapor—it does not “breathe.” While
barrier-type materials have excellent insulation properties,
they are not good at dissipating moisture. This fact, coupled
with interior vapor barriers that are often required by building
code, can lead to prolonged moisture intrusion and, eventu-
ally, rotting of materials.
Water can find its way inside through any cracks that have
developed or through any areas where the EIFS abuts a differ-
ent material, such as door and window frames, or at the roof.
If the EIFS continues below ground level, any cracks or open-
ings in the finish will allow moisture, as well as wood-
destroying organisms, such as termites, inside. When pro-
longed moisture intrusion of the wood behind the EIFS
reaches 30 percent, rot and mold growth will begin.
Has water damage occurred or is it likely to occur?
Your home inspector’s prelimi-
nary visual review of the exte-
rior wall surfaces may deter-
mine if water damage is actively
occurring, as well as whether it
is likely to occur due to improp-
erly installed synthetic stucco.
There have been many reported
cases of EIFS manufacturer in-
stallation instructions not being
followed correctly by builders,
leading to problems. There are several different approved in-
stallation methods for EIFS, and inspectors in areas where it
is common are familiar with them. A visual inspection in-
Ground contact: EIFS should not continue into the
ground. It should end a minimum of 6 inches from finished
ground level.
Roof flashing: Kickout flashing should be installed where
the EIFS and the roofline meet. A missing kickout flashing in-
creases the possibility that water is entering the wall cavity.
We also check for any areas that feel soft or are discolored.
Joints around windows and doors: We check caulking
joints around windows and doors to make sure that there are
no cracks, not even small ones. If wood on a door or window
frame feels soft, or it is discolored, water may have entered
the wall around the frame.
Areas of cracking or bulging: Any cracks in the EIFS al-
low water to infiltrate the wall assembly and cause rotting.
Bulges can be an indication that wall coatings are delaminat-
ing or detaching from the board underneath.
If evidence of damage or moisture intrusion is found, op-
tions for repair should be explored. These may include any-
thing from additional caulking and sealing to removal and re-
placement of synthetic stucco sections. It’s best to catch any
possibility of water damage to EIFS at the earliest stage possi-
ble, before any lingering moisture has had time to cause rot-

Evidence of moisture behind wall
Cracking in EIFS finish
What do all the numbers
on manufacturers’ stickers
on new windows mean?
They are energy perform-
ance ratings. Here’s a typi-
cal sticker you would see on
a new window, with the
five performance rating
numbers. Letters in blue
have been added so that
you can reference each rat-
ing in sequence in the expla-
nation that follows. Win-
dow ratings are certified by
the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC). The first
two performance ratings, U-Factor and Solar Heat Gain Coeffi-
cient, are the most important.
The U-Factor is a measure of the insulating ability of the win-
dow: how well it prevents heat from entering or escaping
through the window. U-Factor ratings generally fall between
0.20 and 1.20. The lower the U-Factor, the better the window
is at insulating. To convert a U-Factor to an R-Value (the num-
ber used to rate the insulating ability of other building materi-
als), divide 1 by the U-Factor. So a window with a U-Factor of
0.25 would have an R-Value of 4 (1 divided by 0.25 = 4). A low
U-Factor is more important in cold climates, where you want
to keep the heat from escaping .
Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) measures how well a
window blocks the transmission of heat from the sun through
the window. SHGC is expressed as a number between 0 and 1.
The lower the SHGC, the better the product is at blocking un-
wanted heat gain, which is particularly important in hotter,



Southern climates where homes are air conditioned part of
the year.
Visible Transmittance (VT) measures how much light
comes through the window and is expressed as a number be-
tween 0 and 1. The higher the VT, the higher the percentage of
sunlight that penetrates the window for better daylighting.
Air Leakage (AL) measure how much outside air comes into
a home through the window. AL rates usually fall between 0.1
and 0.3. The lower the AL, the better the window is at keeping
air out. It is an optional rating, and not all manufacturers
choose to include it on their labels.
Condensation Resistance (CR) measures how well an win-
dow resists the formation of condensation. It is expressed as a
number between 1 and 100, with higher numbers indicating
better resistance to condensation on the window.
For more information about composite wood siding and
other engineered wood products, go to the APA - Engineered
Wood Association website at
What do you check when
you inspect a garage door?
The garage door is the largest and heaviest moving object in
most homes, plus some of its components are under high ten-
sion. Improper installation, damage, or poor maintenance cre-
ates a dangerous condition that can cause serious injury or
even death. So we take garage door inspection seriously.
Here’s a summary of the ten points we check on a garage
door during a home inspection:
1) Confirm that the garage door has a manual release han-
dle, and that it is functional.
2) Check the garage door panels for
cracks, dents, signs of fatigue, or
separation of materials.
3) Confirm that the door has safety
warning labels in place.
4) Check that all hardware is se-
curely and correctly attached, and
visually inspect the springs for dam-
5) Verify satisfactory door opera-
tion: handles or grip points on the
inside and outside of door, door
moves freely and is not excessively
noisy, and rollers stay in the track throughout the opening
and closing.
6) Check that the counterbalance springs have a contain-
ment mechanism, such as a center cable or protective shaft.
7) Operate door with wall button, confirming that it is in
clear view of the door within the garage, at 5 feet above the
floor (for child safety), and safely away from all moving
parts (outside of path of garage door when opening).
8) Test the safety beam (non-contact reversal mechanism),
and verify that the door returns to fully open position. Con-
firm that the photoelectric
safety beam is a maximum of 6
inches above the floor.
9) Confirm that the photoelec-
tric safety beam is a maximum
of 6 inches above the floor—so
that it is not possible for a small
child laying on the floor in the
path of the door to be outside of
the beam.
10) Test the contact reversal safety system, and verify that
the door returns to fully open position. The mechanism
should be set to reverse itself at 10 to 15 lbs. of resistance.
The two most common defects we find are a safety beam set
too high, and the contact reversal system set at too high a resis-
tance before it reverses.
Manually operated and older, tilt-up garage doors are evalu-
ated somewhat differently, but with door operation safety as
the primary concern. Our inspection sequence is based on
Technical Data Sheet #167, issued by DASMA (Door & Access
Manufacturers Association International), which is consid-
ered an industry standard.
You can visit the DASMA website for more information at:
Also, you might enjoy DASMA’s new website featuring the
latest in designer garage doors, with before-and-after remodel-
ing photos at:
Clanging Pipes and Wobbly Toilets
Solving the mysteries of the plumbing system
How not to do it...
How do you check a toilet?
Both the tank and bowl of the
toilet must be filled with wa-
ter before a toilet can be
tested. When the lever on the
tank is pressed, it flips up a
rubber stopper called a flap-
per, which releases the water
in the tank into the bowl. The
water flushing action is ac-
complished by water shooting from small holes around the in-
ner ring of the top of the bowl, in coordination with a si-
phoned jet hole at the bottom of the bowl. The bowl should be
rinsed clean at the end of the flush, as the flapper resets itself
over the opening at the bottom of the tank and the tank refills.
Here’s what we check:
The tank and bowl should have a smooth, cleanable sur-
face without any cracks.
The connection to the floor should be secure. The inspec-
tor will straddle the toilet bowl between his legs with a gen-
tle rocking action to see if it’s loose. A secure, bolted con-
nection to floor is important: a loose bowl will eventually
open the wax seal connection to the drain pipe in the floor,
and allow slow leakage to spread across the floor. When
the toilet is sitting on a wood floor structure, wood rot will
weaken the floor over time. Also, an inspector should con-
firm with a nudge that the connection between the tank
and the bowl is not loose.
When flushed, the bowl should drain promptly and com-
pletely, and the tank should refill in a reasonable amount
of time. We note if the toilet fill valve opens intermittently
due to a small leak or runs continuously. If we’re uncertain
about a leak, we put a small dye tablet in the tank and wait
a couple of minutes. Any dye color that shows up in the
bowl indicates a problem. We may also use an infrared
camera or moisture meter if moisture around the base of
the toilet is suspected.
The standard residential toilet is a called a gravity type.
More sophisticated designs include the vacuum-assist and
pressure-assist toilets, both of which have an enhanced—but
A federal mandate in 1994 requires new toilets to have a
maximum 1.6 gallon flush volume, but one variation on the
standard toilet is a dual-flush, with a choice of two buttons for
either a low-volume (1.0 gallons, for liquid only) or regular
(1.6 gallons, for solid waste) flush.
Everyone in the building trades has a favorite toilet story.
Ours is about an old-time builder we know who would push
the merits of buying one of his brand-new homes versus an
older one by saying: “You know, you shouldn’t have to sit on
another man’s toilet!”
While there’s plenty of humorous stories told about toilets, a
malfunctioning one is no laughing matter.
What is “cross contami-
nation” in a home's
plumbing system?
Cross contamination a very bad thing. In fact, the evolution of
modern plumbing is largely the history of developing safe-
guards to avoid it.
A cross connection is a point in a faulty plumbing system
where polluted water (such as sewage) can flow into the drink-
ing water piping and contaminate it. It has been the bane of
plumbing systems dating back to the Roman Empire.
And until plumbing codes began to be rigorously enforced
well into the twentieth century, cross contamination contin-
ued to be a public health problem in the U.S. One famous ex-
ample was the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: thousands of visi-
tors from all parts of the county came to enjoy the “Century of
Progress” exhibits, but contaminated drinking water ended up
spoiling the party. Before the fair closed that fall, 98 persons
had died and over 1,400 became seriously ill from amoebic
Investigators found that plumbing installed by unlicensed
and unqualified persons at two major hotels had allowed cross
connections and back-siphonage. Polluted water caused the
people who drank it to become critically ill or die.
Back siphonage is a particular kind of cross connection in
which a partial vacuum is created in water supply piping, typi-
cally by a temporary loss of water pressure, which can suck
the contents out of a plumbing fixture, or other container of
contaminated water, if preventative measures are not in place.
A typical cross-contamination scenario would be created by
a sink with a faucet arm that extends below the rim of the
sink. If the sink is full to the rim and the water pressure fails,
siphoning of the sink contents into the water supply will be-
gin. The modern plumbing code addresses this possibility by
requiring faucet arms to terminate safely above the rim of the
sink, creating what is called in the plumbing trade an “air
Professional plumbers are always on the lookout for piping
and fixture configurations that might cause cross contamina-
tion. And so are we.
Why are shower water
valves all single-handle
Showers with separate hot and cold valves were nixed by U.S.
building codes about twenty years ago, in favor of a single-
handle anti-scald valve that prevents the water temperature
from rising above 120º F. The statistics on scalding injuries in
the U.S. back up building officials’ decision for the changed
• More than 20 percent of all burns are caused by scalding
• Over 2,000 children are burned by scalding water each
year, mostly in the kitchen and bathroom.
• Scalding can lead to other injuries, such as falls and heart
attacks, especially for the elderly trying to escape a stream
of super-hot water.
• 160º F water will scald your skin in half a second.
Anti-scald shower faucet valves reduce the danger of burns
by automatically adjusting to sudden changes in the pressure
and flow of the water supply lines, using a diaphragm or pis-
ton mechanism to continuously balance the hot-to-cold water
ratio. You can fine-tune the temperature of the water with a
rotating mechanism inside the unit if you want the water a lit-
tle hotter or colder.
While anti-scald valves are one safety precaution to avoid
hot water burns in the shower, another strategy is to set your
water heater thermostat to 120º or 130º F (the “low” to “me-
dium” setting); so that the hot water coming out of any faucet
in the house will not quickly scald bare skin--even at straight
What’s that powdery crust
on the pipe connections at
the water heater?
Water heater pipe crust is galvanic corrosion, an electrochemi-
cal disintegration that happens when two different metals are
in contact with each other while also in contact with an electri-
cally conductive liquid, typically water. One metal, the less “no-
ble” of the two (see galvanic scale at right), corrodes. In the
photo above, the galvanized steel pipe stub, buried under a
thick cake of both galvanic corrosion and regular corrosion
and no longer visible, is the victim or “sacrificial material” in
the electrochemical reaction. The water leakage caused by the
galvanic corrosion has caused the surrounding rust. You have
probably already seen another example of galvanic corrosion
in the powdery crud on the contact pins of an old car battery.
Galvanic corrosion can be avoided by electri-
cally separating two dissimilar metals in a pip-
ing system, using plastic fittings or grease. A
second method is to only use metals that are
close together on the galvanic scale, so there
will be less galvanic electric current between
them—the combination of two different met-
als and water creates a kind of electric bat-
tery. A third solution is to use only one metal
throughout the piping system, which is not
always easy to accomplish. And finally, re-
placement of the metal piping with a plastic
pipe, like CPVC, also works.
The water heater itself has a replaceable “sacrificial anode”
tube built into it, to resist any galvanic corrosion of the tank.
The anode, typically zinc or aluminum, essentially sacrifices
itself through corrosion to avoid deterioration of the tank
The Statue of Liberty is probably America’s most famous ex-
ample of galvanic corrosion. The contact points between the
wrought-iron support structure and the outer copper skin
were originally separated with asbestos cloth by the French
sculptor, Frederic Bartholdi, who was familiar with the corro-
sion potential of the two metals. But, over the years, the cloth
dried up and became sponge-like, absorbing and holding har-
bor salt-water spray. This ended up accelerating the galvanic
corrosion, instead of preventing it. A major restoration was un-
dertaken by the National Parks Service in 1986, replacing the
wrought iron with corrosion-resistant steel.
More Noble
protected from
Less Noble
likely to
Stainless Steel
Silver Solder
Brass, Bronze
Steel, Cast Iron
Galvanized Steel
Galvanic corrosion
The inspector says I have
an S-trap under the sink.
Why is that a problem?
An S-trap looks like the photo above: kind of a sideways
S-loop configuration before it heads directly downward. This
type of drain has been banned by the building codes for dec-
ades, because it is considered an “unvented” drain. Venting is
necessary for a sink to drain properly. In essence, sufficient
air has to get into the pipe in order to displace the water and
allow it to exit easily.
A simple experiment can demonstrate the problem with an
unvented drain. Place your thumb over a straw that is par-
tially immersed in a glass of water. As you lift the straw out
of the glass, the water level in straw stays intact, rising above
the surrounding water in the glass. When you release your
thumb, the water in the straw drains to the level of the rest of
the water in the glass.
Although an S-trap is able to gulp some air for displacing the
draining water—so it’s not exactly like the straw experi-
ment—the air is not sufficient for good drain flow. Plus, S-
traps tend to suck out the water seal in the trap (necessary to
keep sewer gas from rising up into through the sink into the
home) as they finish draining.
If you have an S-trap drain and notice sewer-type odors in
the room, you can run the water slowly down the drain for a
few seconds to replenish the trap-seal as a temporary fix. But,
of course, the best solution is having a licensed plumber bring
the drain piping up to modern standards. A properly installed
P-trap, like the one shown below, will always keep it’s water
Another requirement of an efficient plumbing drain system
is at least one vent pipe that extends above the roof, to allow
sewer gas that rises into the drain piping behind the sink traps
to exit into the atmosphere. The vent pipe also provides atmos-
pheric pressure to the drains.
Occasionally, we see vent pipes that terminate in the attic or
on an exterior wall near a window. Both of these installations
allow the possibility of sewer gas migrating back into the
Although TV home-improvement shows sometimes make in-
stalling your own plumbing look easy, doing it right requires
both training and years of experience. Plumbing repairs
should always be performed by a licensed plumber. The
plumbing inside your home is so critical that every municipal
building department in the United States requires plumbers
to be licensed.
At right are a couple of classic homeowner-installed plumb-
ing boo-boos. The top photo shows a double trap connected to
the tail piece of a sink with a section of accordion-type flexible
pipe. Two traps are not better than one and, when combined
with the ridges of the flexible pipe (which is not plumbing-
code approved) guarantee future drain clogs. The bottom
photo shows a pipe configuration where everything below the
red lines will be standing water in the sink drain, which is also
likely to make the drain sluggish and easily clogged.

The house has high
water bills. How do
you check for a leak?
The big water bills could be due
to either a temporary jump in
water usage or a leak. To find
out if it’s a leak, first we shut off
all the water-using fixtures in
the house, including the auto-
matic ice maker. Next we take
the cover off the water meter
box (typically somewhere along
the front property line, often near a corner) and flip open the
protective cover plate on the meter dial. Sometimes it’s neces-
sary to dig down a little in the dirt to find it.
If we are lucky, the meter is a newer one, and has a small tri-
angular or pinwheel-shaped low-flow indicator near the cen-
ter, usually red (like in the photo above). It should not be turn-
ing. But if it is, there’s a leak somewhere in the plumbing sys-
tem. At a meter without a low-flow indicator, we note the me-
ter reading and check back towards the end of the inspection
to see if it has changed.
Here are a few places checked for leaks if the meter says
there is water flow:
Faucets - Not just the at the the sinks: also check the fau-
cets at the washing machine hookup, water heater, tub/
shower, and the outside hose faucets.
Toilet tanks - A bad flapper valve that doesn’t seat prop-
erly at the bottom of the tank will cause a leak, along with a
bad ballcock arm or a defective overflow tube. We drop a
dye tablet (available in most hardware stores specifically
for toilet testing) and wait 15 minutes without flushing. If
the color shows up in the bowl, the toilet needs repair.
TPR valve at water heater - The small valve with a flip-
up handle at the top or side of the water heater, called a
Temperature and Pressure Release valve, is designed to
open if the water gets too hot, to keep the tank from explod-
ing. These valves sometimes fail by opening slightly and let-
ting loose a slow trickle of hot water, which runs in a pipe
to a location near the ground at the exterior wall. We find
the termination of the TPR valve and check for a drip.
Under the floor slab - These are the hardest to detect
until they get really bad. A walk around the perimeter of
the home looking for any muddy areas at the base of the
walls, especially any areas where the soil has washed away
a little under the slab creating a pocket will tell the story.
Wet spots in the floor and moist, discolored baseboards are
another clue.




Between the water meter and the house - Again,
leaks here are difficult to detect until they become gushers
and water starts bubbling up out of the ground. But some
homes have a secondary water shut-off valve in the ground,
usually near the front wall of the house. If the house has
one (and if it’s still functional, because they tend to freeze
up with age), we try shutting the water off there. If the me-
ter continues to show water flow, the problem, or at least
part of it, is underground in the yard.
Two types of water supply piping tend to fail prematurely:
galvanized steel and PB (polybutylene). Copper pipe can also
deteriorate early when the water is especially acidic. So the
type of supply piping in the home is a factor to consider. And,
when all else fails, we suggest calling a good plumber for fur-
ther evaluation.
at 60 lbs. water pressure
1/32” - drip 6,150 gallons
24,500 gallons
98,000 gallons
393,000 gallons
1/16” - trickle
1/8” - stream
1/4” - gusher
Where is the septic tank?
Are you going to inspect it?
The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank was the
title of a book of humorous stories about suburban life in the
1970s by Erma Bombeck, a popular newspaper columnist of
that era. What Erma didn’t realize is that, if there’s a bright
green patch over the septic tank, it’s not functioning properly.
A good septic system should not be that easy to find.
Nowadays, most homes in well-populated area are served by
a municipal sewer system. Septic systems become the norm as
you get further away from town, but there is usually no clear
demarcation line as to where the sewer system ends. It’s al-
ways a good idea to ask the seller or seller’s realtor what type
of system serves the house.
Also some houses have houses, especially rambling ranch-
style homes, have two two septic systems at opposite ends of
the house because the drain runs are too long for one tank lo-
The septic tank can be located just about anywhere on the
property except, if the house is served by a well instead of a
Pumping an older septic tank
municipal water system, within 75 feet of the well head. It is
usually located using a T-shaped steel probe bar, that’s held at
the top of the “T” and pushed into the ground, starting where
the main drain pipe exits the house, and followed out by tap-
ping down to the top of the drain pipe, until the tank reached.
The outline of the tank is then determined with the probe and
dug up to open.
We don’t do that. Most states require that septic tank inspec-
tion be done only by a licensed septic tank contractor or a mas-
ter plumber. Plus, the septic tank must be pumped out as part
of the inspection. It’s a little like a colonoscopy: you have to
clean it out in order to examine it. And that requires a heavy-
duty tank pump-truck like the one pictured here.
If you are buying a home with a septic system, it’s always a
sensible part of “due diligence” in buying to get a septic tank
inspection. The report is usually a single page, and includes
reporting the size of tank, condition of system components,
and if everything is functional. Most of the cost is for the
pump-out. When the house is only a couple of years old or the
seller can provide proof of a recent inspection, you may opt to
avoid the expense--typically $200 to $350.
Here are a few situations in which getting a septic system in-
spection becomes more of a priority:
If the home has been vacant for an extended
period of time.
If the septic system is 30 years old or older.
If there are trees with roots close to the tank or drain-
field. Generally, a tree’s roots will extend underground at
least the same dimension as its height.
And, yes, if Erma’s bright green patch of lawn defines
the location of the septic system (a slightly greener area
over the drainfield is normal).
Don’t be scared by the prospect of the inspection, or buying
a home with a septic system. It is a marvel of low-tech engi-
neering, with no power source and no moving parts, requiring
only healthy microbes and reasonably permeable soil to do its
work. The standard advice is that a tank needs to pumped
only about every 5 years or so.
To learn more about your septic system, how it works and the
best way to maintain it, we suggest reading this article by the
University of Florida, IFAS Extension Service:
Also, for a more complete understand-
ing of your septic system, we recom-
mend reading The Septic System
Owner’s Manual, by Lloyd Kahn,
Blair Allen and Julie Jones (2000,
Shelter Publications, Bolinas, CA
There’s a banging sound in
the wall when the bath-
room faucet is turned off.
What’s that about?
What you experienced is
called “water hammer.”
When water flow is halted
quickly, the water pressure
has lots of energy that must
dissipate. If the water can
bounce against an air cush-
ion, pipes won’t pound. Most
homes have anti-hammer devices installed in the water serv-
ice piping. Older homes have a foot-long elbow of pipe with
air trapped at the top located at one or several places in the
system. New homes have a manufactured air chamber device
that is a bulbous shape. Over time, the older type of anti-
hammer device can lose the air cushion in the pipe leg and no
longer be effective.
To reintroduce the air cushion into the pipe system, the fol-
lowing procedure is recommended:
1) Turn off the water to the home at the main shut-off
valve, which is either at the water meter or where the wa-
ter service enters the house.
2) Open all faucets and allow the water to drain from
3) Slowly open the main valve partway and close the fau-
cets, one by one, as the water runs steadily.
4) After all the faucets are running steadily, fully open the
main valve.
5) Test to see if the anti-hammer arresters are working by
quickly shutting off a faucet.
If this sequence doesn’t eliminate the water hammer in your
pipes, we recommend calling a plumber to evaluate and repair
the problem. If not fixed, repeated water hammer events will
damage the pipes.
The home has galvanized
water pipe. Can that be a
Yes, it can. Galvanized steel pipe was often used for water sup-
ply piping in homes until the early 1970s. It is rarely used to-
day because corrosion problems limit its useful lifespan to be-
tween 40 and, at best, 50 years. Rust accumulates inside the
pipe and causes a plumbing version of arteriosclerosis, with
the gradual hardening of the arteries narrowing the diameter
of the pipe in horizontal runs to the size of a soda straw in
places. Essentially, it rusts from the inside out. This restricts
the flow of water to faucets and showers and, eventually, the
corrosion causes the pipe to spring leaks—usually the first
place being in the ground under the home’s concrete floor slab
or near the water heater, due to an electrolytic reaction to cop-
per fittings speeding up the corrosion.
The photo at left shows the end of an abandoned section of
galvanized pipe in a laundry room wall, where it was cut off at
the juncture with a washing machine faucet. As you can see,
the water flow was severely reduced from the buildup of rusty
crud in the pipe. Surrounding it is the cream-colored plastic
pipe that replaced it, called CPVC.
Some insurance companies will not insure an older home
(over 40 years) with original galvanized water piping still in
place. Others do not require replacement. The cost of re-
plumbing the average home’s water supply piping starts at
about $3,500 and, usually, the new piping is run through the
attic, then down to the plumbing fixtures, leaving the original
galvanized pipe abandoned in place.
How old is that
water heater?
Some of the newer water heaters clearly state the year they
were built on the manufacturer’s info label. But usually it
won’t be that simple.
More often, the year of manufacture is embedded in the se-
rial number of the water heater, and each company has a dif-
ferent “code” that you have to decipher. We confirm the year
of manufacture of a water heater as part of your home inspec-
tion but, if you want to try to figure it out yourself, the process
is pretty straightforward.
The first step is to ignore the brand name logo at the top of
the water heater and look closely at the info label for the name
of the manufacturer. Each major manufacturer has multiple
brands, some of which are simply created for a particular re-
tailer. Kenmore, for example, is made by State Industries for
Sears; and, if you look closely, you will see that GE water heat-
ers are made by Rheem.
Here are the specs for each of the
major manufacturers:
• American Water Heater Company is the easiest. The first
four digits of the serial number tell all. First two digits are the
year, and second two digits indicate the week of manufacture.
• Rheem and Ruud water heaters tell the story in the first four
numbers of the serial. First two digits is the month, second
two digits is the year.
• A.O. Smith and State Industries use the first letter in the se-
rial number to indicate the month of manufacture (A thru M,
excluding I), and the following two numbers are the year.
• At the other extreme are Bradford-White and Lochinvar wa-
ter heaters. You need your secret decoder ring to figure them
out. The year of manufacture is indicated by the first letter of
the serial number, using the full alphabet except for I, O, Q, R,
U, and V. It’s a 20-year cycle starting in 1964. So, for exam-
ple, “A” can mean it was made in 1964, 1984, or 2004. The
general condition of the water will help you to figure out
which year it is and, also, looking for the date of the ANSI stan-
dard on the yellow EnergyGuide sticker will give you the clue
that it was manufactured after that date. Here’s a key to the
A - 1964, 1984, 2004, B - 1965, 1985, 2005, C - 1966, 1986,
2006, D - 1967, 1987, 2007, E - 1968, 1988, 2008, F - 1969,
2989, 2009, G - 1970, 1990, 2010, H - 1971, 1991, 2011, J -
1972, 1992, 2012, K - 1973, 1993, 2013, L - 1974, 1994, 2014.
M - 1975, 1995, N - 1976, 1996, P - 1977, 1997, S - 1978, 1998,
T - 1979, 1999, V - 1980, 2000, X - 1981, 2001, Y - 1982, 2002,
Z - 1983, 2003.
After you’ve figured out when the water heater was manufac-
tured, if it’s more than 12 years old, consider these sobering
statistics from the Insurance Institute for Business & Home
Safety, an insurance industry research organization:
#Most water heater failures occur when the water heater
has reached its life expectancy and the tank begins to rust
and corrode.
#The average age at failure is 10.7 years.
#More than two-thirds of all water heater failures are due to
a slow leak or sudden burst of the tank.
#Water heater failures cost the insurance company an aver-
age of $4,444 per incident, after the deductible is paid.
Because water heaters corrode from the inside of the tank
outward, there is often no external sign of deterioration. The
water heater in the picture at the beginning of this article is 28
years old. Other than a little dust and some discoloration of
the EnergyGuide sticker, it doesn’t look it’s age—and that’s the
problem. It is a proverbial accident waiting to happen.
When insurance companies request a four-point inspection
for older homes, as they are doing more often lately, if the wa-
ter heater is over about 20-years old they will likely request
that it be replaced as a requirement for coverage.
There are several things you can do to extend the life of an
older water heater, such as draining the sediment from the
bottom of the tank every couple of years and replacing the sac-
rificial anode as the tank ages. But the best way to avoid a wa-
ter heater failure and the inevitable subsequent water damage
is to just replace it.
Sacrificial anodes are the unsung heroes of long water heater
life. Essentially, they corrode—sacrificing their metal—to avoid
corrosion of the steel tank material during the unavoidable
electrolytic reactions in a water tank.
One minor problem that a sacrificial anode creates, though,
is the “stinky” water smell that sometimes occurs when the wa-
ter heater has been sitting unused for a while, and then you
turn on a hot water faucet. It doesn’t matter whether the
heater has been kept on or turned off during the idle period.
Anaerobic bacteria, which exist in many water systems, cause
the stinky smell when they react with the sacrificial anodes,
which are long magnesium or aluminum rods that protrude
into the steel water heater tank to protect it from corrosion.
The reaction creates hydrogen sulfide gas—the classic rotten-
egg odor.
The smell is barely noticeable when the water flows regu-
larly through the tank while the home is occupied, but builds
up if it is unused for an extended period of time. You can open
a hot water faucet and let it run for a while to make it dissi-
Why is polybutylene pipe
considered defective?
Polybutylene piping (also
called “PB” in the trades)
was used in residential water
supply piping from 1978 to
1995. It was billed as “the
pipe of the future” at first,
and its low cost and easy in-
stallation made it an alterna-
tive to traditional copper wa-
ter piping. PB was especially
prevalent in mobile homes
manufactured during the 1980s and early 1990s, but we also
see it installed in site-built homes of the same era—occasion-
ally even including upscale, estate-type homes.
But throughout the 1980s, lawsuits (claiming that defective
manufacturing and installation had caused hundreds of mil-
lions of dollars of water damage from ruptured pipes) began
to mount into the thousands. Although the manufacturers
never acknowledged that PB pipe is defective, they eventually
agreed to fund a class action settlement for just under a billion
dollars to resolve homeowner claims. The period for filing a
claim ended in 2007.
While the exact cause is uncertain, it is believed that the oxi-
dants (such as chlorine) in public water systems react with the
plastic, causing it to flake and become brittle. As the integrity
of the piping deteriorates, tiny fractures develop, which can
expand over time and cause a sudden failure of the pipe and
resulting water damage.
Your home inspector will check for PB piping during the
home inspection and advise you if it is present in the water
supply system. To check for yourself, look for flexible pipe
that is gray, with copper-colored band connections, like in the
photo at the top of the page. Gray is the most common color,
but polybutylene can also be
blue or black in color. It is
usually stamped with the
marking “PB2110.” The pip-
ing is 1/2” to 1” in diameter,
and the easiest places to ob-
serve it are at the pipe feeds
coming out of the wall to the
water heater, the sinks, and
the toilets. It is not used as
drain piping.
Replacement of the water supply piping in a typical home
costs $3,000 to $4,000, and is the only remedy available for
PB pipe. Because of the public awareness of the risks involved
with PB piping, its presence may reduce a home’s value in the
marketplace. It can also cause higher homeowner insurance
premiums or denial of coverage.
Leaking polybutylene
Staying In The Comfort Zone
Heating and air conditioning systems and their maintenance.
The fireplace doesn't have a
chimney. Is that all right?
We are seeing more ventless fireplaces, also known as “duct-
free” fireplaces, in homes over the last few years. They have
several advantages over a regular fireplace:
#Nearly 100 percent energy efficiency. A traditional,
ducted fireplace, sends much of the heat up the flue/
chimney, while a ventless fireplace retains the heat in the
#Releases fewer harmful gases than some other heating al-
#Builders like them because they don’t have the design limi-
tations or additional cost of configuring a flue to the exte-
rior. A ventless fireplace can be located almost anywhere in
the home.
However, there is a downside to the convenience and ease of
installation of these fireplaces. Here’s an excerpt from an arti-
cle about the controversy regarding the safety of ventless fire-
places by the International Association of Certified Home In-
spectors (InterNACHI):
Despite their name, they vent unburned combustion byprod-
ucts directly into the living space. Traditional fireplaces, by
contrast, are equipped with a flue that vents to the outdoors,
saving humans and their pets from exposure to the bulk of
the carbon monoxide (CO) and airborne particulates created
by the fire. As a less serious yet still important side note,
ventless fireplaces create high levels of water vapor, which
can lead to mold growth and a variety of other moisture-
related building problems. Mold can be a serious health
hazard for at-risk individuals, and it can damage fabric, pho-
tographs, books and building materials.
To mitigate CO dangers, manufacturers instruct customers
to keep a window open while ventless fireplaces are in opera-
tion —advice that is easy to ignore, as an open window al-
lows the entry of cold air, defeating the efforts of the fire-
place to warm the living space. Many manufacturers also in-



stall an oxygen-detection sensor (ODS) in their ventless fire-
places that will automatically shut down the appliance if oxy-
gen levels in the home become dangerously low. Critics point
out that this sensor is typically located at the lower part of
the unit near the floor, where it detects cool, fresh, oxygen-
filled air and misses hot combustion gasses as they rise and
pool toward the ceiling. And if the sensor fails, any CO-
producing abnormality experienced by the fireplace will con-
tinue unnoticed and potentially harm building occupants.
Massachusetts, California, and a number of other states in
the U.S., as well as Canada and other countries, have out-
lawed ventless gas fireplaces due to the aforementioned
safety concerns. Many individual municipalities, too, have
outlawed these appliances in states where they are otherwise
legal. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Develop-
ment bans ventless fireplaces in their housing, and advise-
ments against the use of these appliances have been issued by
various watchdog groups, such as the American Lung Asso-
ciation, the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental
Protection Agency, and even the Mayo Clinic. In particular,
these organizations warn against exposure of individuals
who are particularly vulnerable to CO, namely, the elderly,
pregnant women, small children, those with pre-existing car-
diovascular difficulties, and small pets. To be fair, though,
there have been no documented cases of fatalities caused by
ODS-equipped ventless fireplaces, according to the U.S. Con-
sumer Product Safety Commission.
In summary, ventless fireplaces, while attractive and port-
able, suffer from a design flaw that may allow dangerous
gases to enter the living space.
By the way, not all fireplaces without chimneys are un-
vented. There is a type of manufactured fireplace, specifically
for use with a gas log, that uses a blower to exhaust the com-
bustions gases out a wall vent.
How is a factory-built
fireplace different from
a regular fireplace?
Gathering around the fireplace on a cold evening is one of the
most satisfying rituals of winter. Our customers are evenly di-
vided between the more primal wood-burners—who meticu-
lously follow the steps of the “right” way to build a fire,
handed down by generations of dads—and the no-fuss gas-log
aficionados. For the ultimate in effortless fires starting, some
newer gas-log fireplaces come with a hand-held remote that,
with a click from across the room, ignites a roaring fire in sec-
The traditional site-built fireplace is based on a design by
Count Rumford. The count was born Benjamin Thompson in
Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1753. Because he was a British loy-
alist, Benjamin left abruptly for England in 1776, where he ap-
plied his knowledge of thermodynamics to design a smaller,
shallower fireplace, with a widely angled back to better radiate
heat into the room. Also, he restricted the throat of the chim-
ney to make it draw smoke more efficiently.
Count Rumford’s designs for an improved fireplace were
widely published and, by the 1790s, his “Rumford fireplace”
became a state-of-the-art standard, with the principles he es-
tablished still in use for fireplace design. Incidentally, he
spent most of his career as an employee of the Bavarian gov-
ernment, where he received the title “Count of the Holy Ro-
man Empire.”
Fast-forward to today: about 75 percent of all new fireplaces
are factory-built units, with components that are easier and
less expensive to install than a site-built masonry fireplace.
Your home inspector will tell you whether the fireplace has tra-
ditional masonry construction or is factory-built. There are
several differences between the two, and you should know
which type you’re getting.
The fundamental difference between the two types of fire-
places is that a traditional fireplace is integral to the structure
of the home, whereas a manufactured fireplace is essentially



an installed appliance. And, just like a washing machine or a
refrigerator, it has a serviceable lifespan—usually 20 to 30
The primary component of a factory-
built fireplace is a firebox enclosed in a
steel cabinet, which is fitted to a steel
chimney or flue. The whole assembly is
lightweight, inexpensive, and efficient.
These fireplaces are often called “zero-
clearance” because of the minimal safe
clearance distance required around
them for installation. An insulating air
blanket is a key part of the design that
keeps the outer wall of the fireplace
cool and enables the fireplace to be set
in close proximity to wood framing.
All factory-built fireplaces are tested
to rigorous standards set by Underwrit-
ers Laboratories (UL) and the Ameri-
can Gas Association. They have an ex-
cellent safety record when properly in-
stalled and maintained; but, like any ap-
pliance with an open flame, there are
several safety rules to follow to avoid a fire hazard:
The fireplace should sit on a non-combustible material. If
the floor is wood, then it should rest on a metal or tile panel
that extends the length and width of the fireplace.
Any combustible flooring must be a safe distance from the
fireplace opening.
The grilles for inlet and outlet air
should be unobstructed.
The same fire-safety precautions used
for a traditional fireplace should be ob-
served for a manufactured fireplace.
Regular maintenance and cleaning are
required. The chimney should be in-
spected monthly during the heating sea-
son for creosote buildup (the black, oily
residue from wood-burning), and an an-
nual cleaning by a professional chimney
sweep is recommended.




How much life is left in
that air conditioner?
According to the Social Security Administration, the typical
65-year old American can expect to live to the age of 83. Some
will depart this world
sooner, and about 10
percent will live to
95. Old air condition-
ers, along with the
other replaceable
components of your
home, are much like
that. It’s easy to find
out the average life-
span, but pinpointing
the day when the service van will pull up to take away your old
unit and cart in a new one is just not possible.
While not an exact predictor, average lifespan is still a valu-
able piece of information. For example, let’s say you are buy-
ing a 20-year-old home with its original shingle roof, air condi-
tioner, and water heater. If you look at the listing of expected
lifespans below, you’ll see that all three of them would be ei-
ther right at, or past, their average life expectancy.
And while it is possible that one of those three costly replace-
ment items may have a surprisingly long life, it’s also true that
the likelihood of one of them requiring replacement soon is al-
most 100%.
So average lifespan charts (as listed below) help you to esti-
mate what big-ticket replacement expenses you can reasona-
bly expect in the first years after you purchase a home. Condo
association managers also use the charts to prepare detailed
budgets for expected replacement cycles for each building
component. This forms the basis for part of the monthly assess-
ments—setting aside an amount each month for the estimated
future date of a roof replacement for the entire complex, for
example. You can do the same thing on a smaller scale, as a
buffer against the inevitable future expenses of owning a
Split system condensers (outside unit) - 10 to 16 years
Split system air handler (inside unit) - 14 to 20 years
Package units - 10 to 16 years
Gas furnace - 14 to 20 years
Asphalt shingles, 3-tab - 15 to 18 years
Asphalt shingles, Architectural - 19 to 25 years
Galvalume (metal) - 30 to 45 years
Concrete tile - 35 to 50 years
Built-up or modified bitumen - 10 to 16 years
EPDM (rubber) - 10 to 16 years
Copper - 60 to 80 years
Galvanized steel - 40 to 50 years
CPVC and PVC - 40 to 50 years
Polybutylene - Undetermined
PEX - Undetermined
Cast iron - 50 to 65 years
Galvanized Steel - 40 to 60 years
Copper - 60 to 80 years
PVC - 40 to 50 years
Water heaters - 10 to 20 years
Faucets - 15 to 25 years
Sinks, tubs, toilets - 40 to 80 years
Above-ground pump - 10 to 20 years
Submersible pump - 15 to 20 years
Steel pressure tank - 20 to 30 years
Fiberglass pressure tank - 25 to 40 years
Aluminum - 25 to 40 years
Vinyl - 25 to 40 years
Wood or wood composition - 20 to 40 years
Plywood siding (T-111, RB&B, etc.) - 20 to 40 years
Cement/fiber siding (such as Hardi-Plank) - 60+ years
Brick - 100+ years
Stucco - 60+ years

Kitchen cabinets - 50 years
Closet shelves - 60+ years
Medicine cabinets - 20 to 30 years
Wood Decks - 20 years
Termite ground treatment - 12 years
Sprinkler systems - 20 years
Gas and electric ranges - 15 years
Washers and dryers - 12 years
Refrigerators - 13 years
Dishwashers - 9 years
Microwave ovens - 9 years
Mica - 20 years
Cultured marble - 25 years
Natural stone - 50+ years
Fiberglass and steel doors - 50+ years
Wood doors - 40 to 50 years
Garage doors - 30 years
Garage door openers - 10 to 15 years
Wood - 35 to 60 years
Aluminum - 25 to 40 years
Vinyl - 25 to 40 years
Insulated glass - 20 to 30 years
What does the “SEER” rating
of an air conditioner mean?
SEER is an acronym for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, and
it’s expressed as a number that typically ranges between 10
and 20, which is a ratio of the cooling output during a typical
cooling-season divided by the electric energy input during the
same period. Because it is a ratio, there is no unit of measure
after the number; however, it could also be termed as BTUs
per watt/hour.
SEER is comparable to the miles-per-gallon rating for a car
and, essentially, a higher SEER rating means better energy ef-
ficiency. A yellow sticker on the condenser (outside part of an
a/c system) is affixed at the factory stating the SEER rating of
the unit. Starting in 2006, the federal government has re-
quired that new residential air conditioning systems have a
minimum SEER of 13. Pre-2006 systems have SEER ratings
mostly between 8 and 12, with the older units being the least
A minimum SEER of 14 is required to garner an ENERGY
STAR rating, and possibly qualify for a tax credit or rebate
from your local utility. Window a/c units, at the other end of
the spectrum, are exempt from the mandate, so their effi-
ciency still hovers around 10.
According to the EPA (creator of Energy Star), the perform-
ance rating is a type of external benchmark that helps you as-
sess the energy efficiency of both appli-
ances and buildings. The rating system’s 1
to 100 scale allows everyone to quickly un-
derstand the performance rating—a rating
of 50, for example, indicates average en-
ergy performance, while a rating of 75 or
better indicates top performance.
We are often asked if it is cost-effective to replace an older,
low-efficiency air conditioner system with a new high-SEER
system. Generally, from an accountant’s total-cost standpoint
and allowing for the time-value of the delayed expenditure for
a new system, it’s less expensive to nurse your existing a/c
unit until it dies. But one other factor may tip the scales to-
ward earlier replacement: already-inefficient air conditioning
systems get even less efficient as they get older, especially af-
ter about 20 years. The compressor draws more amps as it
ages, and the temperature split (difference between the ambi-
ent room air and the cold air coming out the ducts) tends to
decrease, too. Your a/c service tech can give you a rough
evaluation of the system’s current efficiency as a guide when
you’re trying to decide whether to repair or
replace. If your current SEER is 9 or below,
then a new system will be at least 50 percent
more efficient.
When it is time for replacement, systems
with SEER ratings up to 20 and beyond are
available. Each notch of efficiency means
more initial outlay and, for the very-high-
SEER systems, more maintenance because
of the more complex components. For most
situations, the minimum or near-minimum
SEER is the most cost-effective choice, but
the length of the cooling season and cost of
electricity in the region can change the equa-
tion. At the southern tip of Florida in Key
West, for example, where the cooling season
is longer and the cost of electricity is higher
than normal, a high-SEER system makes
both environmental and budget sense.
Another measure of the efficiency of your HVAC (Heating
Ventilation and Air Conditioning) system is the AFUE rating.
It’s yet another techno-acronym for an evaluation of furnace
efficiency that is monitored by the U.S. Department of Energy
(DOE), and stands for Annual Furnace Utilization Efficiency.
The rating is a percentage and, for example, a furnace with an
82 percent AFUE converts 82 percent of the fuel used into
heat, with the other 18 percent wasted—typically up the flue
and into the atmosphere, or lost in startup and shutdown of
the system.
The DOE mandated in 1992 that all furnaces sold in the U.S.
have a minimum AFUE of 78 percent, with
mobile homes allowed a slightly reduced
AFUE of 75 percent. Mid-range efficiency
furnaces have an AFUE of 78 to 82 percent,
and high efficiency systems are AFUE-rated
at 88 to 97 percent. A high-efficiency gas fur-
nace is easy to spot, because so much heat is
extracted and the exhaust gases have cooled
down enough that a white-plastic PVC pipe
is used as a flue.
It’s important to note that the AFUE is a
measure of fuel efficiency, not fuel usage.
Also, the DOE’s calculation takes into ac-
count the on/off cycles and changes in load
over the course of a heating season. While
the AFUE rating is also posted as a yellow
sticker on furnaces, it does not get as much
consumer attention as the SEER rating.
Your home inspector will likely note the SEER rating of the
HVAC system in your report, if it is marked on the unit. Also,
it is possible for the inspector to give you a rough estimate of
the SEER rating on unmarked, older systems, based on a com-
parison of the amperage rating of the compressor to its BTU
Shocking Tales
Understanding the electrical system and potential problems.
Do you check the
wall plugs?
We call them electrical receptacles. Some people call them
electrical outlets and, yes, home inspectors check them. Not
every single one because receptacles are often behind furni-
ture or stored items that are not readily movable, but home in-
spectors spot-check at least one in each room.
We use two circuit analysis tools, one low-tech and one
high-tech: a simple three-light tester that checks wiring con-
figuration and a more sophisticated circuit analyzer that
checks voltage, voltage drop under load, resistance to ground,
GFCI and AFCI receptacles.
Before we go into what defects the electrical receptacles are
tested for, let’s review the basics of receptacle wiring. A mod-
ern receptacle that accepts a three-prong plug has a specific
designation for each opening: the shorter of the two narrow
slots connects to the “hot” wire (the one that can shock you),
and the taller slot is the “neutral” (which completes the cir-
cuit), and the round hole is the “ground” (an alternate safety
route for electricity that has gone astray, which is not found in
pre-1960 2-slot receptacles). Each of the three wires in a typi-
cal 120-volt electrical cable must be connected securely to the
right receptacle terminal for it to function correctly.
Here’s some typical defects we find:
Reverse Polarity
If the wires going to the hot and neutral terminals are
switched, you have reverse polarity. While this defect does not
affect the operation of simple appliances like a lamp, it can
make them more dangerous. In the correct wiring configura-
tion, the hot wire is connected to the button at the bottom of
the light socket and the neutral is connected to the socket
threads. When replacing a bulb in lamp that is connected to a
receptacle that is wired properly, it is difficult to be shocked
by the small button at the bottom of the socket. But a reverse
polarity receptacle electrifies the threaded socket, making it
more likely that you will be shocked when changing a light
Older Two-Slot Receptacle
Two-slot receptacles, the ungrounded type that were typical in
homes before 1960, are considered safe and we do not list
them as needing repair. However, they are noted, because
two-slot receptacles will not accept the three-prong plug on
the cord of many new appliances (which require a ground con-
nection to work properly), and this may prove to be an incon-
Homeowners in older homes sometimes succumb to an easy,
but unsafe, solution of plugging the three-prong cord on their
new refrigerator to the two-slot receptacle behind it. They use
a conversion gadget we call a “cheater plug.” It has two prongs
on the back side and three slots on the front, along with a
short wire for connection to the screw at the front of the recep-
tacle box cover—although the receptacle box is rarely actually
grounded. We always call out cheater plugs for repair.
No Ground at a Three-Slot Receptacle
Another shortcut for upgrading older homes with ungrounded
wiring to accept three-prong plugs is replacement of two-slot
receptacles with three-slot receptacles, even though there is
no ground connection available. This is a typical defect in
older homes that have had a quick, cheap remodeling to be
“flipped,” and it is a serious safety defect.
False Ground
Yet another shortcut to installing three-slot receptacles in an
older home with ungrounded wiring is a “false ground,” where
the ground slot is connected to the neutral terminal of the re-
ceptacle. Again, no ground connection exists and we call it out
for repair.
No Neutral
When our circuit tester indicates no neutral connection, it usu-
ally a loose wire in the receptacle box or the main panel.
High Resistance to Ground
In order for the ground to work properly as a safety device, it
must have a low resistance to the flow of electric current so
that a breaker is tripped quickly when electricity starts flowing
to the ground. Electrical resistance is measured in ohms, and
1.0 ohms is the recommended maximum resistance.
Low Voltage
The nominal voltage for household receptacles is 120 volts,
but between 110 and 130 volts is acceptable. We note if the
voltage at receptacle is outside this range.
Excessive Voltage Drop Under Load
Voltage is a measure of electrical force, which is comparable
to water pressure in a plumbing system. When a standard 15-
amp load (approximating a large household appliance or sev-
eral smaller ones) is applied to a 120-volt household circuit,
the voltage drops somewhat. The maximum acceptable volt-
age drop is 5 percent according to the National Electric Code.
More than that indicates poor wire connections, damaged, or
undersize wires.
Non-Functional GFCI Receptacle
We “pop” and reset GFCI receptacles to test them. Like any
mechanical device, they begin to fail as they age. GFCI is an
acronym for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, meaning sim-
ply that when a “ground
fault” occurs it interrupts
(trips) the circuit. It is in-
tended to provide shock
protection to occupants of a
home in wet areas, such as
the bathroom and kitchen,
where it is possible for elec-
tricity to flow through your
body to a wet area con-
nected to the ground or
grounded material. Most
GFCI-protection in a home is provided by wall receptacles
with two buttons marked “TEST” AND “RESET” on them. But
for an appliance such as a jacuzzi tub, where the receptacle
that it’s plugged into is deep in a compartment under the tub,
placing the GFCI-protection in the panel provides an easier
way to test and/or reset the GFCI-protection. Also, older pre-
1980 homes often have GFCI-breakers in the panel because
the wall GFCI’s were not readily available when the home was
Dead Receptacles
Any receptacle that is not supplying current is marked for re-
Missing Receptacles
Sometimes they just aren’t there. For example, pre-1960
homes often had a two-slot receptacle built into the base of
the wall light over the bathroom sink, and it was the only
power source in the room. Those combination light/receptacle
fixtures aren’t made anymore, so when the bathroom gets
modernized with a new light fixture, the sole convenience re-
ceptacle is lost—unless the remodeler spends the extra money
to have an electrician install a wall receptacle. Having a recep-
tacle in the bathroom wasn’t a big deal 50 years ago, but it is
Too Few Receptacles
The maximum spacing between receptacles, according to the
National Electric Code, has been set at 12 feet since 1956—
with no point along a wall being more than 6 feet from a recep-
tacle. The logic behind that number is that an appliance with a
standard length cord could then be plugged in anywhere along
the wall. The prior maximum spacing was 20 feet.
Several other standards also come into play: each wall more
than 2 feet long needs a receptacle, and hallways more than 10
feet require one. Also, kitchen counters now have a more strin-
gent standard: no point along the back of the counter can be
more than 2 feet from a receptacle, and any counter more
than 1 foot long requires a receptacle.
These tighter standards have developed over the years in re-
sponse to the increasing use of plug-in electric appliances
around the home. Home electric consumption has been in-
creasing at a rate of about 5 percent per year for a while now.
And, obviously, older homes have fewer receptacles. It’s not
uncommon to have one receptacle per bedroom in a 1940s era
bungalow, and only one receptacle at the kitchen counter.
Receptacles in the Wrong Place
Equally important, though, are locations where an electric re-
ceptacles should not be placed:
!Receptacles should not be placed lower than 18 inches above
a garage floor. Gasoline fumes from a car parked in the garage
are heavier than air, and accumulate at the floor. The slight
arcing that happens when a cord is plugged in can set off an
!Although one receptacle should be placed near each bath-
room sink, it should not be placed behind the sink, to avoid
the possibility of the cord drooping into a sink full of water.
!Receptacles directly over a baseboard electric heater are a
no-no. The cord could come in contact with the top of the
heater and melt.
!A receptacle should not be flush-mounted on a horizontal
surface where it may have water splashed on it, like at a
kitchen counter. And a floor receptacle in a dry area, like a liv-
ing room, should have a special “rated” cover that protects the
slots when not in use.
As electric technology has evolved over the years, so have re-
ceptacles. The latest improvement is a receptacle that only
opens to allow standard cord prongs—but not any metal ob-
ject that a curious child may try to stick into it.
Is the electric panel big
enough for this house?
Although most people ask about the size of their electric
panel, what electricians evaluate is the size of the “service.”
The service is defined in amps (short for amperes), which is a
measure of electrical current-carrying capacity; in other
words, how much electrical power is available through the
main service panel.
In a modern home, the service size is easy to determine: you
look for the large switch located either at the top or bottom of
the panel and separated from the two rows of other switches
(circuit breakers). It will have a number on the side of the
switch or very close to it—typically 100, 125, 150, or 200. This
is the rating of the electrical service to the home in amps.
One exception to this method of determining the size of the
electric service is the “split-bus panel,” shown at left, a design
that was only manufactured from the 1950s through the end
of the 1960s. Instead of a single main breaker, there is a clus-
ter of four to six breakers at the top of the panel (inside red
box in photo), all of which are marked “MAIN” and each one
must be shut off to disconnect all electric service to the
house—but none are rated at the size of the electric service.
For this type panel, an inspector looks for the manufacturer’s
info sticker inside the panel or judges the service by the size of
the service entrance cables.
While it may appear that 200-
amp service is “better” than
100-amp service, that is not
exactly true. The 200-amp
service is simply larger. If the
electric appliances in the
home don’t require the addi-
tional current, then all that ex-
tra capacity is unnecessary.
The minimum electric service today is 100 amps. If your panel
looks like the one in the picture above, with screw-in type
fuses, then you likely have a 60-amp service. While pre-1950
60-amp service may be adequate for a small home with a gas
range, water heater, and furnace, it is problematic for home-
Split bus panel
Screw-in fuse panel
owners insurance. No insurance company will insure a home
with 60-amp service, and many will not insure a home with
even 100-amp service if the panel is a screw-in fuse type.
The question we are often asked when explaining the insur-
ance issue facing homes with older fuse-panels is this: “But
the current owner has insurance. Why can’t we just go with
their company after we buy the house?” The difference is that
insurance companies are slow to check up on current policy-
holders and require them to upgrade but, when issuing a pol-
icy to a new owner, they want the home to meet their latest
minimum underwriting standards.
When a home is first built, the designer calculates the re-
quired size electric service based on the square footage and
electric appliances planned. Electricity usage has been grow-
ing at a rate of approximately 5 percent per year for a while
now and, as TVs keep getting bigger and kitchens fill up with
more and more countertop appliances, the trend is likely to
continue, even in this era of fluorescent light bulbs and EN-
ERGY STAR ratings.
So a healthy-size electric service is a good idea. But 200-amp
service is not necessarily the gold standard for homes, even to-
day. For a small home or condo, 125 amps is adequate, and
150 amps is quite satisfactory for many average-size family
homes, especially if they have any gas-powered major appli-
If an inspector feels that the size of the electric service is ques-
tionable during a home inspection, he may recommend that a
licensed electrician calculate the estimated loads in the home
and advise if a service upgrade is recommended. More often
than not, though, the electrician will say that the service in an
older home—dating back to about the mid-1960s—is still ade-
Modern panel with main breaker
Why are generator
hook-ups often tagged
as defective?
There are several different ways to properly connect a genera-
tor to a house electrical panel for use during a power outage.
All of them have one thing in common: they are configured in
way that makes it impossible to have both the generator con-
nection and the electric utility connection to the panel
switched on at the same time.
We sometimes find a breaker in an electrical panel marked
“generator” and connected to a nearby wall receptacle config-
ured to accept a connection cord to a portable generator. This
is called “backfeeding” the panel. In a power outage, one of
the breakers that would ordinarily be wired to feed electricity
out to receptacles or appliances around the home is, instead,
wired to backfeed electricity into the panel bus bars for distri-
bution out through the other breakers out to the home. Bus
bars are the metal strips at the back of an electric panel that
the circuit breaker and branch wiring are attached to.
While backfeeding a panel is, in itself, not unsafe, it becomes
unsafe when there is no foolproof safety device to lock out the
electric utility service when the panel is being backfed by a
generator. Sometimes we see printed instructions posted on
the panel to first turn off the main breaker before turning on
the generator breaker. But printed warnings are not sufficient.
Connecting a generator directly to the electrical system of a
building in this manner has the potential to feed through the
building’s electrical system to the outside utility service lines,
and can kill or injure a person repairing service lines if the in-
structions are overlooked—which is easy to do in the clamor
and confusion after a major storm event.
Also, if your electric utility’s line crew restores electrical
service while the generator is connected to the incoming util-
ity service, you could start a fire or seriously damage the build-
One safe solution to this problem is shown in the photo
above. The metal plate slides up and down between the lower
breaker (main electric service breaker) and the upper breaker
(backfed generator breaker) in a way that makes it mechani-
cally impossible to have both breakers in the “ON” position at
the same time.
Another solution is a separate subpanel that feeds only se-
lected circuits in the home, with a double-pole double-throw
transfer switch to connect the generator panel to the build-
ing’s electrical system. Connections must also meet the local
ordinances and building codes. A minimum of #10 AWG wire
is typically required.
And a third solution is an automatic transfer switch, like the
type that often come installed with larger, permanently
mounted generators providing 12,000 watts or more of
The most important thing is to have a qualified, licensed elec-
trician do your generator connection system installation. They
will know the right way to do it to keep you and your family
safe in the aftermath of a storm or other power outage event.
Do you check the ceiling
Yes, ceiling fans get a look-
over and brief test as we
work our way through the
house. Here’s a few of the
defects that a home inspec-
tor looks for:
1. A non-functional
fan—when none of the
wall switches or the pull-
chains on the fan will activate it. Sometimes, the problem is
just that the fan has a remote-control that is no longer
2. Fan blades are too low. The accepted standard is that
the blades should not be lower than 7 feet above the floor to
prevent inadvertent contact while they are spinning. Most ceil-
ing fans sold today can be mounted with a downrod (like in
the picture above), or surface-mounted in rooms with 8-foot
ceilings. A ceiling fan with a downrod in an 8-foot ceiling is
usually a problem.
3. Wobbling fan, usually caused by a blade that is not se-
curely screwed to the motor disc, or an imbalance of the blade
material. While annoying, it is not really dangerous unless the
wobbling is severe--caused by a missing blade, for example.
4. Exposed electrical wire splices sticking out of the ceil-
ing junction box. Also, a ceiling fan should be mounted to a
properly braced box rated for ceiling fan installation. This can
be difficult to determine in a visual, non-invasive home inspec-
tion, however.
5. An interior-rated
fan at an exterior loca-
tion. This is a common
defect, and easily ob-
served because the blades
of an interior-rated fan
droop from the humidity
in the outdoors. Interior
fans also rust prematurely and the motors fail within a year or
so when put outside. The fan should be rated for a “damp” lo-
cation when installed on a porch.
6. Missing light globes or damaged light kit below the fan.
Globes, especially, tend to get whacked off by accident.
By the way, unlike air conditioners, ceiling fans do not actu-
ally cool the air, so they are a waste of energy in an unoccu-
pied room. But the breeze under a ceiling fan on a warm eve-
ning sweeps the body heat off everyone in the room in a pleas-
ant, nostalgic way.
Does this place have one of
those “bad” electric panels
I've heard about?
The brand known for its problematic electric panels is Federal
Pacific. The company went out of business in the 1980s,
largely due to lawsuits regarding their “Stab-Lok” line of pan-
els. The breakers in these panels failed to trip consistently
when overloaded or short-circuited, causing fires and other
property damage. There were also arcing problems within the
panel box and double-pole (240-volt) breakers that failed to
shut-off the electric current even after tripping. We recently
experienced that last defect in a local home with a Stab-Lok
panel: a tripped breaker continued to keep a 240-volt circuit
All electrical equipment must rated as acceptable for its in-
tended use by a recognized national testing laboratory in or-
der to be accepted by the building codes. The largest and best-
known testing lab is Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) and, as
a result of one of the lawsuits, it was also determined that the
company obtained UL approval with fraudulent data. But
there is currently no compensation available for replacement
of these panels; the limited settlements that were once avail-
able are now closed out.
Most experts consider Stab-Lok panels to be a “latent de-
fect”: in other words, an accident waiting to happen. The Con-
sumer Products Safety Council (CPSC) noted in its study a
higher-than-normal rate of failure to trip in an over-current
event. And other private evaluations since the 1980s CPSC
study have confirmed the original findings.
If you open the door of an electric panel in a house you are
considering buying and find the words “STAB-LOK”—like in
the photo you see here—it’s reasonable to expect that the
panel poses a potential safety risk and will likely decrease the
value of the home in the current marketplace. Also, some in-
surance companies will not write a homeowner’s policy on a
house with a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok panel. To view a report
by about the history and hazards of Federal Pacific panels by
J. Aronstein, a consulting engineer that specializes in mechani-
cal and materials testing, click on this link:
Aronstein’s evaluation of the panels is that they represent a
“safety defect” and that replacement is the only practical and
safe solution.
I heard that aluminum
wiring is a problem. Do
you check for it?
Multi-strand aluminum wiring is approved by building codes
and regularly used for service cables (the main electric wires
coming into the home’s panel) and for wiring to major appli-
ances, such as air conditioning condensers. It is easily recog-
nized by its color and the anti-oxidant paste applied over the
bare metal strands at connection lugs.
The problematic aluminum wiring that you heard about is
singe-strand aluminum wiring of a particular alloy that was
manufactured in the mid-1960s, when copper prices spiked. It
was a lower-priced alternative to copper, and installed in
some homes up to 1972.
Aluminum’s high coefficient of expansion caused wiring con-
nections to loosen, and started numerous electrical fires. For
while, a number of special replacement connectors were tried,
in an attempt to alleviate the problem and still leave the wir-
ing in place. Most did not function adequately. Ultimately,
one obtained UL-approval, but many insurers simply would
not issue a policy on a home with the older aluminum wiring,
so virtually all of it has been replaced over time.
We check for aluminum wiring in the electric panel as part
of a home inspection, but have not found any for several years
now. There is a type of house wiring that looks similar to alu-
minum, but is actually a tin-coated copper, and predates the
era of problematic aluminum wiring. It usually has a cloth
sheathing, and we typically find it in pre-1950 homes that still
have some of their original electrical system intact.
Things Your Mother Warned You About
Mold, lead, asbestos, termites and other contaminants
What if mold is found
during the inspection?
If your home inspector discovers what appears to be a mold-
like substance during the course of the home inspection, he
will likely refer you to a mold inspector for further evaluation.
Mold inspection is now a separate, licensed occupation in
many states; however, some home inspectors have both li-
We note our findings in the inspection report as a “mold-like
substance” because the confirmation of mold is done by a
laboratory-microscope examination of a sample taken from
the area. Like many other home inspectors nowadays, we use
an infrared camera as part of every home inspection, to look
for hidden moisture in the walls or ceiling that may not be visi-
ble yet, because the resultant staining and/or mold growth
has not started to develop or is contained within the wall.
These areas may require further invasive inspection, such as
removal of a section of wallboard to determine what’s going
on in the wall.
But what if the suspected area is actually verified as mold?
First thing: the seller should remove the source of the mois-
ture that allowed the infestation to begin. A microbiologist
will tell you that molds are actually fungi (neither plant nor
animal), and they require three things in order to grow: mois-
ture, warmth, and a food source. Remove any one the three
elements and the mold cannot survive. Usually, moisture is
the easiest to tackle.
Mold on duct interior
Mold on wood framing
Typical sources of moisture in homes are roof leaks, plumb-
ing leaks, and air conditioning duct or condensate line leak-
age. Once the source of moisture has been identified and re-
moved, and the area dried up, the next step is to determine
the square footage of the problem. The EPA advises that an
area of less than ten square feet can usually be safely remediat-
ed—a technical term for “fixed correct-
ly”—by the homeowner. Cleaning of the
area with a detergent and water solution
or removal or replacement of the moldy
material are the two options.
Larger areas require professional reme-
diation and, typically, the mold inspec-
tor or an industrial hygienist will specify
how the area is to be remediated, and
will inspect and sign off on the job at
completion. This can be very expensive
but, particularly when there is extensive
and/or long-term mold infestation, you
will need to know that the seller used a licensed professionals
and the completed job has documentation.
Unfortunately, if you are simply told that the problem was
“taken care of” and the area is now freshly painted, you may
find after closing that you were stuck with a handyman-fix of
spraying the area with a bleach solution or, even worse, sim-
ply painting over it.
The use of a chemical biocide (chlorine bleach, for example)
that kills organisms such as mold is not recommended as a
routine practice during mold cleanup. There may be in-
stances, however, when professional judgment may indicate
its use, such as when immune-compromised individuals are
But in most cases, it is not possible or desirable to sterilize
an area; a background level of mold spores continue to re-
main. But the spores will not grow if the moisture problem
has been resolved. If you choose to use disin-
fectants or biocides, always ventilate the
area and exhaust the air to the outdoors.
Never mix chlorine bleach solution with
other cleaning solutions or detergents that
contain ammonia because toxic fumes
could be produced. Also, dead mold can
still cause allergic reactions in some peo-
ple; so it is not enough to just kill the mold.
It must also be removed.
Here’s the ten things that the EPA says
you should know about mold:
1) Potential health effects and symptoms associated with mold
exposures include allergic reactions, asthma, and other respi-
ratory complaints.
2) There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold
spores in the indoor environment; the way to control indoor
mold growth is to control moisture.
3) If mold is a problem in your home, you must clean up the
mold and eliminate sources of moisture.
4) Fix the source of the water problem or leak to prevent mold
Mold on cabinets
5) Reduce indoor humidity (to between 30 and 60 percent) to
decrease mold growth by: venting bathrooms, dryers, and
other moisture-generating sources to the outside; using air
conditioners and de-humidifiers; increasing ventilation; and
using exhaust fans whenever cooking, dishwashing, and clean-
6) Clean and dry any damp or wet building materials and fur-
nishings within 24 to 48 hours to prevent mold growth.
7) Clean mold off hard surfaces with water and detergent, and
dry completely. Absorbent materials such as ceiling tiles, that
are moldy, may need to be replaced.
8) Reduce the potential for conden-
sation on cold surfaces (i.e., win-
dows, piping, exterior walls, roof, or
floors) by adding insulation.
9) In areas where there is a perpet-
ual moisture problem, do not install
carpeting (i.e., by drinking foun-
tains, by classroom sinks, or on con-
crete floors with leaks or frequent
10) Molds can be found almost any-
where; they can grow on virtually
any substance, providing moisture
is present. There are molds that can
grow on wood, paper, carpet, and
For more information about mold in the home, we recom-
mend the EPA publication “A Brief Guide to Mold, Moisture,
and Your Home” at:
Mold in drywall
I signed a lead paint
disclaimer in my real
estate contract. What’s
that about?
A lead paint disclaimer is a formal notification that’s required
to be part of the sales contract for homes built before 1978, ad-
vising you that there may be lead paint present, which is a
known health hazard.
According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commis-
sion, lead was used as a pigment and drying agent in alkyd oil-
based paint. Latex water-based paints generally have not con-
tained lead. About two-thirds of the homes built before 1940
and one-half of the homes built from 1940 to 1960 contain
heavily leaded paint. Some homes built after 1960 also con-
tain heavily leaded paint. It may be on any interior or exterior
surface, particularly on woodwork, doors, and windows. In
1978, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission lowered
the legal maximum lead content in most kinds of paint to 0.06
percent (a trace amount). Consider having the paint in homes
constructed before 1978 tested for lead before renovating or if
the paint or underlying surface is deteriorating. This is particu-
larly important if infants, children, or pregnant women are
There are do-it-yourself kits available; however, the U.S.
Consumer Product Safety Commission has not evaluated any
of these kits. One home test kit uses sodium sulfide solution.
This procedure requires you to place a drop of sodium sulfide
solution on a paint chip. The paint chip slowly turns darker if
lead is present. But there are problems with this test. Other
metals may cause false positive results, and resins in the paint
may prevent the sulfide from causing the paint chip to change
color. Thus, the presence of lead may not be correctly indi-
cated. In addition, the darkening may be detected only on very
light-colored paint.
Another in-home test uses X-ray fluorescence to determine
if the paint contains lead. It is done only by professionals
trained by the equipment manufacturer and who have passed
a state or local government training course, since the equip-
ment contains radioactive materials. Because the equipment
is expensive (currently about $20,000), few home inspectors
offer this service. But your home inspector can refer you to a
Wikipedia Commons
professional lead inspector to check your pre-1978 home for
the presence of lead, and the cost for the inspection is typi-
cally between $250 and $350. The inspector will check each
wall and trim surface in every room and around the exterior of
the home and provide a detailed report of the findings.
You also have the option of removing small sections of paint
about 1-inch square, cut out all the way down to wall material
surface, from several locations in the home and sending the
chips to a lab for analysis of lead content. This method is con-
sidered the most reliable. But, because it is an intrusive test,
which leaves a small gouge in the wall or trim surface, along
with a section of paint missing, you will need written permis-
sion from the seller or the seller’s authorized representative to
take the samples. Also, lab testing of chip samples is limited to
a few samples by the high cost, so it does not test every wall
and trim surface like an X-ray fluorescence inspection.
To better understand the health hazards of lead paint in an
older home, along with what your can do
minimize the exposure of your family to
lead ingestion, we suggest reading the
EPA guide “Protecting Your Family
From Lead In Your Home” at:
The radon test came back
high and the house needs
mitigation. How do they
do it?
Radon mitigation is defined in
Wikipedia as “Any process that
is used to reduce radon concen-
trations in the breathing zones
of occupied buildings.” To un-
derstand how a radon mitiga-
tion contractor reduces radon,
let’s start by reviewing what
causes an elevated radon level
in the first place.
Radon is a colorless and tasteless gas that results from the
radioactive decay of naturally occurring uranium and radium
in the soil. As the gas is created and rises up out of the ground,
it enters a home through any openings in the floor slab, such
as where pipes come through it or at shrinkage and settlement
cracks in the slab that occur over time. After radon enters a
home, it decays into radioactive particles that have a static
charge, which attracts them to particles in the air. These parti-
cles can get trapped in your lungs when you breathe and, as
the radioactive particles break down further, they release
bursts of energy which can damage the DNA in lung tissue. If
the lung tissue does not repair the DNA correctly, the damage
can lead to lung cancer.
It’s important to understand that a low level of radon is in
the air we breathe every day. But if there are higher levels of
radon coming out of the soil directly under the home, the ra-
don can collect in the enclosed space of the residence and
reach levels that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) has determined are unsafe.
The two primary ways to reduce the radon level are to 1)
seal openings in the floor where radon is entering and 2) cre-
ate a system that uses negative-pressure (low-level suction) to
draw the radon to a pipe under the floor slab—before it can en-
ter the house—and vent it out above the roof. Most contrac-
tors use a combination of both techniques, and each vent pipe
is placed in an unobtrusive location, like the corner of a closet.
Radon mitigation typically costs between $2,500 and
$4,000, with the variables that determine the cost being
square footage of home, the shape of the footprint of the
home, and how high the starting radon reading is. Sometimes
a contractor is unable initially to bring the radon below the
level of 4.0 pico-curies per liter of air level that the EPA con-
siders acceptable with their initial work, and they have to
come back and do more. So it’s a good idea to get a price from
the contractor who guarantees that, for the agreed price, they
will bring the level below 4.0 without additional charge.
Electronic radon monitor
To learn more about radon in the home, reducing radon, and
building a home to reduce radon infiltration, we suggest read-
ing the following EPA reports:
Building Radon Out -
Home Buyer’s and Seller’s Guide to Radon -
Consumer’s Guide To Radon Reduction -
Consumer’s Guide
To Radon Reduction
How to üx your home
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
EPA 402/K-10/005 | September 2010 |
United States EPA/402-K-01-002
Environmental April 2001
Protection Agency
Office of Air and Radiation
Building Radon Out
^ 5:cç-|¸-5:cç Cu|cc ´c ¬c. 1c
|u||c |~ccc-|c-|-:~c: ¬ccc-
United States 402-K-00-008
Environmental Protection July 2000
Air and Radiation (6609-J)
Home Buyer’s and
Seller’s Guide to Radon
How can I tell if a home
is a former marijuana
Several times a year we inspect a home in our North Florida
area that was used to cultivate marijuana. The home is usually
in a rural location, but not always, and is a foreclosure—be-
cause after the growers were arrested and stopped making the
mortgage payments, the bank took the property back. Or it
has been confiscated by the government.
The problems related to former grow-houses revolve around
the excessive humidity required in the growing environment,
such as mold and wood-decay rot hidden behind wall sur-
faces. Sometimes the bank’s property management company
will do some clean-up on a grow-house, but it is hard to dis-
guise one without completely remodeling it. To understand
what to look for, let’s review what’s involved in running a mari-
juana grow operation.
Growing marijuana indoors uses a lot of electricity.
The high-intensity grow-lights suck up the power and gener-
ate heat, which requires even more power for air conditioning
to remove the heat generated by the lights. An extra a/c sys-
tem is often installed behind a privacy fence against the back
of the house. Since a normal residence would not use this
much power, the huge bills would be a tip-off to drug enforce-
ment agents that something is going on at the location. So it’s
necessary to steal the electricity by splicing into the main elec-
tric service cable before the meter. Usually this is done under-
ground, and by the time we arrive the splice has been dug up
and removed, with a hole in ground under the meter remain-
ing. Also, there may be the remnants of a second electric panel
and switches, all mounted on a big sheet of plywood on the
wall, again with the cables snipped and grow-lights removed
by the time we arrive.
The heat and light generated must be concealed. So,
insulation is applied to the walls and ceilings, and windows
are light-sealed behind the residential window blinds. Some-
times the insulation has been ripped out as part of the clean-
up, but bits of it always remain, along with residual wall dam-
age. Some growers leave the living/dining and kitchen area in-
tact, so that a visitor at the front door will see what looks like a
typical family home. And the homes always look perfectly nor-
mal in a photo from the street.




Marijuana plants require lots of water. Growers douse the
plants regularly, with the water running across the floor.
Where the floor is a wood structure and elevated off the
ground, they drill holes through it and the water drains into
the crawl space. With concrete floors, it puddles around the
baseboards. There is always mold in the drywall of the rooms
used for growing, especially on the inside surface, along with
wood rot at the baseboards.
The plants are grown in a potting-soil mixture with
lots of vermiculite. Eventually the growers get tired of cart-
ing all the used soil mixture away, and start spreading it in the
backyard, so you will typically see lots of white specks of ver-
miculite in the grass or in a pile of soil in a shed.
Most former grow-houses are buyable for someone who
wants a challenging remodeling project in exchange for a
cheap purchase price. Wood rot and wall damage are easy to
quantify when evaluating the work that needs to be done, but
mold remediation can be difficult to put a price on until the
walls are opened after the closing. If you buy a former grow-
house, you should also be on the lookout for strange stuff in
the attic and expect a few hurdles to jump through to get the
electric service reconnected.
There are thousands of marijuana grow-houses across the
U.S., and they’re reported to be an even bigger problem in Can-
ada, where law enforcement officials estimate that there are
currently 50,000 grow operations. Homebuyers are some-
times very surprised when we review the evidence of the
home’s prior wild life with them.
What about former meth labs? It is less likely that a
home formerly used as a drug-manufacturing site to produce
methamphetamine (also known as “crystal meth”) will be on
the market without being decontaminated. But it is possible.
Carpeting, drywall, and fabrics in the home may have ab-
sorbed spilled or vaporized chemicals, which remain embed-
ded for years, potentially poisoning future occupants of the
home. Here are some of the signs—other than the obvious
ones of chemical bottles, beakers, rubber gloves, and lab equip-
ment—that would indicate a possible former meth lab that has
not been decontaminated:
$Yellow or red stains on sinks or bathtubs, the result of phos-
phorous or iodine spillage.
$The presence of unusual bitter or sweet chemical smells.
Some people have described the odor as similar to burnt pop-
$Excessive rust on metal surfaces, caused by corrosive gasses
such as hydrochloric acid.
Some inspectors offer meth testing services, which include
sending samples of materials in the home to a lab for evalua-
tion. A search online for a meth lab evaluation specialist, who
can both evaluate the problem and make recommendations
for remediation of the property, is also an option.
There’s asbestos siding
on the house. What
should I do?
Asbestos cement siding is probably the longest-life, lowest-
maintenance siding around. It was widely used on houses
from the 1940s thru the 1960s, and is still found in many of
the older neighborhoods. The siding on some of the earliest
houses often still looks almost new.
But during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the news media
began to report on the health hazards associated with asbes-
tos. As reports increased, concern grew, so the federal govern-
ment took action. In 1973, the EPA (U.S. Environmental Pro-
tection Agency) banned the use of asbestos in building prod-
However, asbestos-siding is not considered a problem un-
less the asbestos fibers separate from the cement bonding
agent in the siding and become airborne. There are two ways
that this can happen: 1) cutting, drilling, or removing sections
of the material or 2) by surface deterioration/weathering. So if
you don’t disturb it and keep the surface painted, asbestos sid-
ing should not be a health risk. Most experts, including the
EPA, agree that it should not be removed, but simply left
Some of the new fiber-cement siding materials are manufac-
tured to match the look of older asbestos siding, but your
home inspector will be able to tell you which material you
have. We recommend that, if you do have to remove or dis-
turb the siding for any reason, you never do the work yourself.
Have an asbestos abatement contractor do it for you.
There’s an old fuel oil tank
underground in the yard.
Is it a problem?
If you see two pipes sticking out of the ground in the yard that
look like the picture above, then an abandoned fuel oil tank
lurks in the ground below. There may still be functional fuel
oil-fired furnaces in the your area, but we haven’t seen one in
ours for a long time; natural gas and electricity provide heat
The top pipe in the photo is the filler pipe, and sometimes a
hinged cover flap sits on top of it, but here it has gone miss-
ing; and the bottom pipe (with the mushroom cap) is the vent.
They are easy to miss, especially in an overgrown yard, and we
once found the pipes the hard way—by tripping over one of
The bad news about an old in-ground fuel oil tank is that it
may have been abandoned while still holding oil, and the sub-
sequent rust-through of the tank shell would allow contamina-
tion of the soil in the immediate area. Also, even an empty
tank represents a risk: when it eventually rusts through and
structurally fails, the soil will collapse in around it. We recom-
mend that you ask the seller for documentation that the tank
has been properly decommissioned, or for removal of the tank
and testing of soil by a qualified professional service.
Good news is that residential oil tanks are not governed by
federal or even many state environmental protection agencies,
their statutes cover commercial tanks only. So there is no bu-
reaucracy to deal with, unless a significant contamination is
However, your local Department of Environmental Protec-
tion may offer free testing of abandoned residential fuel oil
tanks to determine if they still contain any oil. Also, if oil still
remains in a tank, many will remove and recycle it at no
charge to the homeowner.
I saw a little termite damage
on the baseboard. Should I
be concerned?
Yes, definitely. The photo above is from an actual recent ter-
mite inspection. By the time that a termite colony’s galleries
(the tunnels they eat through the wood) become visible as lin-
ear cratering of the surface of the wood, they can already have
done a tremendous amount of damage to the structure of the
home. Because they eat the wood right up to the surface of the
paint, but not through it, damage is usually first noticed as
long soft areas that, when probed, collapse and drop out bits
of debris, as seen in the photo.
A little probing of the area of visible damage at that base-
board led us to suspect a significant infestation in the wall. At
our request, a contractor removed a small section of wall-
board near the floor that showed damage to the framing. He
then continued removing wallboard to determine the extent of
the damage. It extended up to the ceiling, the length of the
wall, and into the adjacent room!
The next two photos show what the inside of the wall above
that small area of visible damage looked like. The second
photo is a close-up view of one of the wall studs that has been
completely destroyed by termites. Because the termite-eaten
wall was a bearing wall (structural components above de-
pended on it for support), the damage represented a threat to
the structural integrity of the home.

It’s important to know that termite damage uncovered could
also have only been a small area. The only way to tell for sure
is further probing and evaluation.
Also, only a licensed pest control operator can verify
whether damage has been caused by termites, or by one of sev-
eral other wood-destroying organisms.
I think I saw a termite.
What do they look like?
Termites cause an estimated $11-billion in
damage to wood structures every year in the
United States, which exceeds even the annual
damage caused by house fires. They look like
tiny, but plump, white ants. “Teeny-tiny white
gummi-bears” is another description. Consid-
ering how much damage they do, termites are
much smaller than you might expect.
Because most photos of termites are taken under high magni-
fication, like the one above, you would expect them to be the
size of household ants—which is why people often think they
have observed termites in a home.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that you will see a termite, even
in a home with a large infestation. They are susceptible to
death in dry open air, and stay within wood or construct mud-
tube tunnels as passageways to maintain the moist, humid en-
vironment they need to survive.
Even termite inspectors only see “live” termites occasionally,
and then just when probing areas of damaged wood. Instead,
we look for “evidence and damage” to confirm their presence:
wood with galleries (eaten-away tunnels in wood, like in the
photos below), mud tubes (which look like sandy varicose
Termite galleries in
wood window trim



veins running up a wall), fecal pellets (with a distinct, identifi-
able shape under a magnifying glass), kick-out holes (through
which they discard fecal pellets) and discarded wings from
swarming termites in the spring.
Although concrete block construction reduces the amount
of wood used in the house structure, there is still plenty of
wood concealed in the attic and walls, and extending down to
the floor slab for them to munch on. Vertical wood strips,
called “furring,” which are installed on the inside surface of
the home’s concrete block walls to provide a nailing surface
for application of drywall, provide pathways for subterranean
termites (the ones that live in the ground, but enter the home
daily to feed on the wood) to go from the floor to the ceiling--
and the wood roof trusses above that.
New homes constructed in termite-prone areas are required
by the building code to have the ground under the structure
treated with a liquid termiticide before construction begins.
The treatment provides approximately 8 to 10-years of resis-
tance to termite infestation, but by subterranean termites
Drywood termites, another species that also thrive in warm
states of the U.S., don’t need a connection from the ground to
the lumber in a house in order to begin gnawing away. While
not as rapidly destructive as subterraneans, drywoods can en-
ter the home through an attic vent during the spring swarm-
ing season, then begin their wood-digesting activity from the
attic, working downward into the walls of the home. They are
also harder to detect that their ground-living cousins, which
leave those telltale vein-like mud tubes between the ground
and the house structure.
If you suspect a termite infestation in a house you are look-
ing at, it is more productive to look for evidence of their pres-
ence rather than trying to locate a live termite. However, the
signs of termite infestation in the structure of a home are of-
ten too subtle to recognize for the untrained eye, so it’s best to
have a licensed pest control operator, like us, examine the
home for you if you are worried about a termite problem.
Subterranean termite mud tube on
wall (scraped away at bottom area,
with residue clinging to wall)
Why is the inspector
calling out rotten
wood on my termite
inspection report?
A termite inspection is officially known as a “WDO” in the real
estate industry, an acronym for Wood Destroying Organism.
The WDO inspection process is strictly regulated in most
states, and the inspection report must be completed on a
state-approved form. Plus, there are specific guidelines as to
what organisms that cause wood damage can—and can-
not—be included.
While termites are the big menace that most homeowners
fear, there are a number of other pests that cause wood dam-
age and must be reported, including several types of wood-
boring beetles and the fungi that cause wet wood to rot and
Wood decay may seem like just a nuisance, but advanced de-
cay can cause structural failure and, once the process begins,
the affected areas allow more moisture into the structure and
the decay accelerates. Replacement wood needed to repair de-
cay damage accounts for 10 percent of the annual wood pro-
duction in the United States, according to an Ohio State Uni-
versity study.
How Wood Decay Gets Started
All wood decay is due to fungi, which reproduce by manufac-
turing single-celled spores, similar to microscopic seeds.
Spores are tough; they are able to resist extreme conditions of
temperature and humidity and, under adverse conditions,
they may go dormant for long periods.
Wood rot
Wood rot, with soft, temporary repair using caulk
Spread primarily by air currents, they collect on horizontal
surfaces. Decay fungi feed on the cellulose and lignin of which
wood cell walls are composed. Their hyphae, which are thread-
like tubes that penetrate the wood, secrete enzymes which dis-
solve at least part of the wood cell being fed upon, changing it
into a form which can then be absorbed as food. Spores re-
quire a moisture content higher than the Fiber Saturation
Point (FSP) of the wood species upon which they rest, typi-
cally about 30%. Once sufficient water and favorable tempera-
tures are available, spores germinate and develop by extend-
ing a hyphal tube. As more spores germinate, fungi multiply
to form a colony. Under the right conditions, colonies can ex-
pand quickly.
Three Common Types Of Wood Decay
Brown rot - This type of decay causes the wood to break
down into brown cubes that split against the grain. It is some-
times called “cubic wood rot.” Advanced stages of brown de-
cay result in dry, powdery wood that is unable to support
much weight, and crumbles easily.
White rot - This type of decay appears whitish, stringy, and
mushy, and tends to be more common in hardwoods.
Dry rot - A misnomer, this term has been used to describe
decayed wood that has since dried and ceased decaying. Some
people may erroneously assume that the wood is still in the
process of decay. Moisture is required for wood decay to oc-
cur, so no literal “dry rot” exists.
The Cure For Wood Decay
Wood decay is located visually by a WDO inspector, then
probed with a screwdriver or other blunt probe to confirm
that the area has softened. Fixing it is simple: remove and re-
place the areas of rotten wood. That’s all that is required to get
a “clean” follow-up WDO after wood decay fungi damage has
been noted by the inspector. In the long term, however, find-
ing a way to avoid the recurrence of wood decay is necessary.
Things You Can Do To Prevent Wood Decay
$ Keep wood sealed with a coat of paint in areas of direct
weather exposure.
$ Avoid installing wood in a configuration where rain water
will sit on the surface of the wood for extended periods of time
instead of draining away. These spots are called “water traps”
in the carpentry trade and professional builders try to avoid
$ Maintain adequate ventilation in the crawl space under a
home. Moisture arising from the soil will create a humid
under-floor environment unless adequate cross-ventilation
openings are installed.
$ Install preservative-treated wood in contact with, or near,
the ground.
$ Make sure the grading of the soil around your home slopes
away from the walls, to avoid water puddling under or next to
the home.
The Big Decision
Negotiation and purchase strategies
What’s your best advice for
a homebuyer?
If we had to pick just one thing to tell a homebuyer, it would
be: “Don’t let the list of defects in the home inspection report
keep you from buying the house.”
We make a point of never telling our customers whether
they should buy—or not buy—a house, because a home inspec-
tor’s job is to provide you with information to help you make
that decision yourself. And, while we sometimes wish we
could tell a customer some version of “run, don’t walk, away
from this house,” more often we see a buyer balking at a per-
fectly good home because of a list of relatively minor defects
we uncovered.
No home is perfect, and we have never done a home inspec-
tion that found zero defects. There are always at least a few lit-
tle things that need fixing. And some homes have a longer-
than-usual list of annoying repairs that are required. But it’s
important to consider the home’s condition as just one part of
of the matrix of requirements you have for your next home. Lo-
cation, price, floor plan, neighborhood amenities, school dis-
trict, and proximity to your work are just as important.
We suggest that you take the estimated cost of the necessary
repairs and calculate it as a percentage of the total cost of the
home. Would you cancel a contract when all the repairs equal
only 2 percent of what you are paying for the house?
Also, do all the repairs have to be done right away? For exam-
ple, if the home inspector says that the roof is near the end of
its serviceable lifespan, that doesn’t mean you need a roof
right now. You probably have a couple of years to recover
from the dent the down payment made in your bank account
before you will need a new roof.
And, last, we always suggest that you take at least a day to
make your decision. Sleep on it overnight. Unless the inspec-
tion is an unmitigated disaster, don’t cancel your contract on
the spot.
Will the home inspector
help me battle the seller to
get the price down?
The short answer is: no. A home inspector’s job is providing
an accurate, unbiased report on the condition of a home you
are about to buy; and we explain our observations, along with
our opinions on conditions and defects, to you in a written re-
port format with photos.
You can use the report in several ways:
1) To decide whether to buy the house, or walk away. If you
decide to walk, the report can provide ammunition to con-
vince the seller that there were enough defects to warrant
canceling your sale contract.
2) To attempt to convince the seller that the home has such
a significant amount of defects that the price needs to be
adjusted downward accordingly.
3) To request repairs be done to home by the seller to fix de-
fects that were not disclosed, as a prerequisite to complet-
ing the sale.
Choice number one should be made after reading the inspec-
tion report and discussing your concerns with your realtor. Al-
though we may present you with a laundry list of defects for
repair, the issues are often minor and the repairs not too ex-
pensive. These problems should be weighed against the many
intangibles that a home inspector does not report on; such as
the quality of the neighborhood and school district, distance
to work and shopping, how well the floor plan, finishes, out-
door spaces, and landscaping fit your lifestyle, and how bad
your spouse really wants that particular home.
Choices number two and three are negotiations, which is un-
familiar territory for a home inspector. Your realtor is a
trained, experienced negotiator. And realtors amaze us regu-
larly with their ability to hammer out a deal for their custom-
ers—sometimes when all hope seems lost. Tell your realtor
what you want, then let a professional do the messy back-and-
forth negotiation for you.
The inspection report can certainly be used as part of that
tussle, but pulling the home inspector into the process never
seems to work well. We generally avoid talking with the par-
ties on the other side of the deal and, when absolutely neces-
sary, do it in writing only. Your realtor will tell you, and we
agree: keep the home inspector out of the negotiation and you
will be better off.
Horseshoe Beach, Fla.
Why does the insurance
company need a four-
point inspection before
binding coverage?
Insurance company statistics show that homes more than 30
years old have more claims than newer homes. Plus the claims
are often due to the deteriorated condition of older building
components. So, as a loss-prevention measure on older
homes, most insurance companies now either require an in-
spection of key home components before they will issue a poli-
cy—to see if they are in serviceable condition or have been
replaced/upgraded since the home was built—or they offer a
discount for a successful voluntary inspection.
Because most areas have homes dating back to the early
twentieth century and beyond, plus a plentiful supply of 1950s
and 1960s era houses, inspectors are often asked to prepare
four-point inspection reports for homebuyers. Also, homeown-
ers who are changing insurance companies sometimes need
Because the inspection is provided for the benefit of the in-
surance company, not you, it only covers the areas they are
concerned about. The four points are 1) roof, 2) plumbing (in-
cluding water heater), 3) electrical, and 4) heating/air condi-
tioning system. Recently, some insurance companies have
started requiring the inspection of a fifth point: windows.
The four-point is not a full home inspection and should not
be relied upon to determine the condition of a home you are
considering buying. In essence, it is an abbreviated inspection
of the key components of a home whose failure will likely lead
to an insurance claim. Occasionally, realtors use both the
terms “four-point inspection” and “home inspection” inter-
changeably when talking to homebuyers, as though they are
basically the same thing—but they are not.
You cannot do the inspection yourself. It must be completed,
and signed-off on, by a licensed building contractor, home in-
spector, architect, or engineer. If the inspection uncovers defi-
ciencies, sometimes the company will go ahead and issue the
policy, giving you a grace period to complete the necessary re-
pairs. Then again, they may also refuse to issue a policy until
they are satisfied with the condition of the home, and reinspec-
tion may be necessary.
Each insurer has its own standards, and what one company
accepts, another company may require to be repaired or re-
placed. So there are no set standards, but almost all insurance
companies require certain deficiencies to be repaired. Here’s
our “Top 10” list of problems:
1. A roof with any leaks at all, or an older roof, typically
over about 15 years old for a three-tab asphalt shingle
roof, for example. An estimated additional roof life of
three to five years is the usual standard for a roof to be
2. An electric panel with screw-in type fuses.
3. Newer three-slot type electric receptacles connected to
old wiring that does not have grounding.
4. An older water heater, typically more than about 20
years old.
5. Lack of an installed heating system. Window a/c units
or plug-in portable heaters are not considered “in-
6. Any evidence of plumbing leaks or other water intru-
sion into the home, even previous ones.
7. Older knob-and-tube wiring that’s still “live.”
8. Exposed, amateur electrical wiring, especially open elec-
trical splices.
9. Deteriorated, damaged, or unvented plumbing piping.
10. Deteriorated rubber washing machine hoses.
If you are purchasing a home and have already had a home
inspection done, unfortunately you cannot submit the home
inspection report as an alternative to a four-point inspection
(also sometimes called a four-point letter). And it is not in
your best interest to submit a complete home inspection re-
port to an insurance company: it’s too much information for
them. But the good news is that many home inspectors, includ-
ing us, offer a discounted price for a four-point inspection re-
port done at the same time as a home inspection.
And the inspection is not as daunting as you might think.
About 50% of the older homes that we inspect have no defi-
ciencies that require repair, and a significant portion of the
rest of them need only minor repair or replacement work.
The big-ticket item and number-one obstacle to getting a
good four-point report is an older roof that needs replace-
ment. If the roof is in good condition, you will likely have little
or no problem with an insurer that requires a four-point in-
The seller has to fix
everything that’s
wrong with the house,
Not exactly. The real estate contract between you and the
seller defines what, if any, defects that we uncover will need to
be repaired. We use the word “defect” to describe anything we
find that is not acceptable in the home, and that includes a
wide range of house problems--from something minor such as
drooping ceiling fan blades to much bigger issues, like a leak-
ing roof or foundation damage.
Every defect or “area of concern” that the inspector calls out
will not necessarily to be a defect as defined in the real estate
contract. For example: a roof that is not leaking but is near the
end of it serviceable life, with only a year or two before it has
to be replaced, is not deemed to be a reason for a new roof
courtesy of the seller. An active roof leak would kick it over to
the repair list, but then it would further require a licensed
roofer (or two) to state that repairing the leak would be a
waste of time, based on the overall condition of the roof, be-
fore a simple roof repair at the leak area would be eliminated
as an option for the seller.
Sometimes a homeowner’s insurance company will require
that the roof has to be inspector-certified to have three to five
years of life remaining before they will issue insurance for the
home. Because insurance is necessary for financing, and ac-
quiring reasonable financing is a contract contingency, a new
roof may be necessary in order for you—or anyone financing
their purchase—to buy the home. This scenario can help you
get a new roof, for example, but will likely require some negoti-
ating give and take between both sides of the deal.
There is one simple parameter that applies to most real es-
tate contracts regarding seller’s obligation for repairs: if it’s
functional, it is acceptable. A cosmetic defect (usually defined
as any problem that is unsightly by does not affect the func-
tionality of the home) is normally excluded from the seller’s
repair list. A rusty cabinet of the a/c condenser unit, or some
dings in the baseboard are typical examples. Occasionally, a
defect can ride the line between cosmetic and functional. An
insulated window that has become slightly fogged over due to
loss of the seal between the double panes can be argued as
merely cosmetic. Or, since the loss of the inert gas reduces the
insulating quality of the window, it can be considered a func-
tional defect.
There are also often dollar-limits in the contract for the re-
pairs in different specified categories. If the cost of the repairs
exceeds the dollar-amount of the seller’s obligation, the rest
will come out of your pocket or remain undone until after you
close and take possession of the home.
And, of course, if you have signed an “as-is” contract, then
the seller is not obligated to fix anything. The purpose of the
inspection is for you to determine whether the cost of any nec-
essary repairs is affordable, when factored into the buy price
of the house.
The point of all this is that 1) it’s a complicated issue and 2)
it’s a negotiation. The process of determining what repairs the
seller will make, or price concessions the seller will give you
for the repairs, is what an experienced, professional realtor is
good at. Your inspector provides you with a list of defects,
then you and your realtor sort through the list, determine
what your priorities are, and your realtor negotiates the best
deal possible from your prioritized list.
After You’ve Done The Deed
Maintaining and improving your new home
Can I take that wall out?
Is it load-bearing?
It’s always possible to re-
move a wall, or part of a
wall, in a home. It’s just that
some walls are more expen-
sive—sometimes way more
expensive—to remove than
others. The expensive walls
to remove are the load-
bearing ones, because some
sort of structural element,
usually a beam, has to be installed to transfer the weight, now
sitting on the wall you want to remove to an adjacent support
A wall is defined as load-bearing if it is supporting some por-
tion of the roof or ceiling in a home, and determining for sure
whether a wall is load-bearing requires an evaluation by a con-
struction professional or an engineer.
But there a few guidelines that can help you figure out with
reasonable accuracy whether the wall is load-bearing or not.
Poke your head up in the attic and do the following:
Look for trusses. Most trusses only require support at the
two ends of their span at the exterior walls, so a home with a
truss roof would rarely have interior bearing walls. However,
if you see a truss that has an end inside the exterior perimeter
walls, then there may be a bearing wall underneath it.
Look for where the ceiling joists lap. A roof that is con-
structed with rafters (instead of trusses) will have horizontal
ceiling joists to support the drywall ceiling of the rooms be-
low. The ceiling joists rarely span all the way across the home,
and they will bear on an interior wall, with one rafter slightly
overlapping the next one side by side at the bearing point. The
wall under this lap is a bearing wall.
These two checks are meant for preliminary evaluation only.
We still recommend that you consult a construction profes-
sional or engineer before tearing down any interior walls or
ceilings. There are sometimes secondary engineering issues
that may need to be worked out. When a homeowner takes
out the ceilings in a living room, for example, to expose the
roof rafters and create a dramatic cathedral ceiling, there’s a
new problem that must be solved: the ceiling joists act as a
stiffener (by triangulation) to keep the roof rafters from splay-
ing the tops of the walls outward where they bear. Alternate
stiffening members must be installed, such as collar ties.
You also need to consider electric receptacles and switches,
along with plumbing, that may be in the wall to be removed
that have to be considered. Sometimes removing the plumb-
ing or electrical is a straightforward job, especially if the re-
moved material is at the end of a run. But if the pipes or wir-
ing are in the middle of a transfer of electricity or fluids to
other points in the home, the work becomes more compli-
You should also be prepared for the possibility of a few mi-
nor cracks around the area of a removed wall, even one that is
not load-bearing. This is because, although a wall is not de-
signed to be load-bearing, it still ends up transferring some of
the weight above it to the ground, and when you remove the
wall, the load distribution shifts and the structural members
adjust a little. Any cracks that occur will happen in the first
few months after the work is done and, once repaired, should
not happen again.
Many home inspectors are willing, during your inspection,
to take a few minutes to check on the load-bearing status of a
wall you want to make disappear, and discuss what the wall
removal process entails.
How do I find a good
remodeling contractor?
When you are ready to do re-
pairs or improvements to
your home, the best way to
find a good contractor is to
ask your friends and neigh-
bors if they have used any
contractors with whom they
were satisfied. Your home in-
spector can sometimes make recommendations for you, and
so can your realtor. But if you’re searching for a contractor by
any other method, be careful. A warning bell should sound in
your head if you encounter any of the following when inter-
viewing a potential contractor:
! A contractor whose business card says only “licensed and in-
sured.” A local painter who has these words on his business
card once laughingly told us “Yeah, it means I have a driver’s
license and truck insurance!” Real licensed contractors are re-
quired to list their license number on their business card and
other advertising. In Florida, you can verify licensing by visit-
ing, and other states have similar
license-check websites. Many states also allow you check on
any complaints filed with the state against the contractor.
! A contractor who appears at your door with a pitch about
how he’s doing another job in the neighborhood and wants to
offer you a bargain price because he has leftover materials or a
last-minute cancellation on another job.
! A contractor who has no business address listed on his busi-
ness card and only a cell phone listed. Where do you find him
if there’s a problem after the job is done? Not all contractors
have an office, but they should at least be able to give you a
home address and phone number that you can verify in the
phone book.
! A contractor who can’t—or won’t—give you names, ad-
dresses, and phone numbers of satisfied customers in your
area that you can actually call and talk to.
! A contractor who promises to do your job “at cost” but will
not provide a specific price or, at least, a guaranteed maxi-
mum amount.
! A contractor who provides a Workmen’s Compensation ex-
emption form instead of a Workmen’s Compensation Certifi-
cate of Insurance. The exemption is perfectly legal, but applies
only to the one person listed on the form. Sometimes an un-
scrupulous contractor will show you an exemption in his
name, but send over other people to do the actual work. Work-
men’s Compensation Insurance covers workers for injuries
they may sustain while working on your home—and guaran-
tees that they will not sue you for their injuries. Your contrac-
tor is required by law to carry this insurance on anyone he em-
ploys to do your work who does not have an exemption card.
! A contractor who uses any high-pressure sales tactics, or
threatens to rescind a “special price” if you don’t sign a con-
tract on the spot.
One final note: we recommend that you get several recom-
mendations and interview at least two candidates for any ma-
jor home-improvement project. Don’t simply take the recom-
mendation of someone whose judgement you trust. A few
years ago we referred a customer to a small remodeling con-
tractor who we knew well, and received a call a couple of
months later that they were very unhappy with him. Sloppy
work, not showing up every day, and not finishing on the
agreed timetable were all part of the list of complaints. As it
turned out the builder was going through a divorce and his
personal turmoil spilled over into his working day.
Needless to say, that contractor is no longer on our list. Our
customer said she sensed something was amiss when she first
interviewed him, but proceeded based on our recommenda-
tion. Trusting a combination of your personal instincts and
good recommendations from friends when evaluating contrac-
tors is your best bet.
Where do I turn off the
water in an emergency?
It’s a good idea to familiarize your-
self with the location of the water
shut-off valve at your home for any
plumbing emergency that may
arise. As one of my aunts always
said, “God forbid something should
happen!” Trying to hunt for the
shut-off valve for the first time
while water is gushing across your
kitchen floor from a broken pipe under the sink can be a hu-
miliating experience.
First, find the water meter box in the ground. It is usually a
black plastic box more or less flush with the ground at a newer
house, and a cast-iron one at an older home. The box is typi-
cally located near the left or right front corner of property or
sometimes near the middle at the front, or between the side-
walk and the street, in older neighborhoods.
Lift the lid and look for the small disc shape with a raised
slot on top of it, like at the arrow in the picture above. It will
be on the street side of the meter dial. If the raised slot aligns
with the pipe to the house, the water is on. To turn the water
off, use a pair of pliers (or any other gripping tool available) to
turn it 90 degrees clockwise so that it is perpendicular to the
water service pipe.
Older valves may require some muscle power to close. There
is a tool you can buy at a hardware store or one of the big-box
home improvement centers which has a tall T-shaped handle
and tip that fits around the raised slot, to give you extra lever-
age for a stubborn valve.
Sometimes it gets more complicated, because soil migrates
into the meter box over time. When you open the cover you
may see nothing but dirt, because the meter dial and shut-off
valve have become buried under a layer of soil. So dig away
the dirt to locate the raised slot.
Condominiums often have a water shut-off valve located
somewhere around the wall behind the water heater. Also,
some homes have a separate valve, often buried inside a 6-
inch diameter vertical plastic pipe that protrudes from the
ground a few inches near front of the home, that can be used
to shut off the water. If it hasn’t been used for a while, you
may have to reach in and pull out a layer of leaves and debris
to reach the valve.
Homes with a private well typically have a shut-off valve near
the well head, in the ground just before the supply pipe enters
the home or, if the well equipment is inside the home in a ga-
rage or utility room, the shut-off valve may be located there.
Because there are sometimes several valves in a cluster at well
equipment, it’s a good idea to mark the one that controls wa-
ter to the house.
The coils on the heat pump
are coated with ice on cold
mornings. What's wrong?
Probably nothing, as long as the ice is just a thin layer. In or-
der to understand why the ice is forming, let’s start with the
basic principle of how a heat pump works. It does not create
heat; instead, it collects and moves it. In the summer, a heat
pump absorbs heat from inside the home and moves it out-
side—thereby lowering the inside temperature. Then, in win-
tertime, it does the reverse, absorbing heat from outside and
moving it inside.
A heat pump air conditioner operates in three modes: cool-
ing, heating, and defrosting. When the system is in heating
mode, the condenser coils are in what is called “evaporator”
status. They get quite cold and, under some combinations of
outdoor temperature and humidity, frost will form on the sur-
face and begin to build up. A sensor at the coils recognizes
when this occurs and switches the system into defrost mode,
which reverses the flow of the refrigerant for just a minute or
two to warm the coils and melt the accumulation of frost/ice.
The fan at center of the unit shuts off while the defrost is hap-
pening. You may see some water vapor/steam rising off the
coils too. When the temperature of the coils reaches about 57º
F, the defrost cycle is complete and the system returns to heat-
ing. A defrost cycle will occur about every half-hour to hour
during very cold weather.
If the frost buildup on the coils is so thick that it looks like
they are encased in a block of solid ice, then the system is not
turning on the defrost cycle as necessary. This will decrease
the efficiency of the heat pump and possibly damage the equip-
ment, and it means the unit requires service. At the other ex-
treme, if the system is switching to defrost mode every few
minutes, it would also indicate that the system needs repair.
But the accumulation of a thin layer of frost/ice, and the sub-
sequent defrost cycle, is a normal for a heat pump during the
coldest nights of winter months.
What does the MERV rating
on an air conditioning filter
When it’s time to buy air
filters for your new home’s
HVAC system, MERV is the
word to know. It’s an acro-
nym for Minimum Effi-
ciency Reporting Value,
and the standard was cre-
ated by ASHRAE (Ameri-
can Society of Heating Re-
frigeration and Air-
Conditioning Engineers) in 1987. MERV rates the size of parti-
cles that the filter will trap, with higher numbers indicating
smaller particles are trapped by the filter.
A rating below 4 gives minimal filtration and is typically a fi-
berglass throw-away filter, and the 5 to 8 range is disposable
1-inch pleated filters with a cardboard frame. As the rating
tops 8 and heads towards 16, you are in the range of large box
filters—the kind that only have to be replaced every 6-months
or so—and are capable of removing mold spores, very small
particles, and cigarette smoke.
Unfortunately, as filters approach the holy grail of HEPA
status (High Efficiency Particulate Air), the resistance to air
flow also increases, and this can both put an excessive load on
the air handler blower and reduce air flow through system. So
the higher levels of filtration come at a cost: reduction in sys-
tem efficiency and lifespan.
One air-conditioning contractor we know recommends us-
ing no more than a MERV 4 (minimal residential filtration)
filter. As he puts it, “if you can’t see through it, don’t buy it!”
We think that number might a little low, especially for home-
owners with allergies and asthma problems. Plus, a system
can be designed to accommodate higher MERV filters. But we
do agree with the philosophy of installing a filter with the low-
est MERV number that accomplishes the level of air filtration
you require. More is not necessarily better.
And the filter combo in the picture above is clearly “over the
top” as far as we are concerned: a MERV 12 box filter in tan-
dem with a pleated filter that’s unmarked, but probably a
Overdue for a filter change
Ready for a new filter
Double filtration
MERV 7. The homeowner was not present at our inspection to
explain his logic for this combination, but the problem it cre-
ated was immediately obvious. There was a noticeable lack of
air flow at the registers. And, while the MERV 7 filter in-
creased the load on the a/c blower and reduced the air flow
through the system, it did not do the one thing for which it
was likely intended: better filtration.
We also occasionally see homes where double filtration has
been created by installing a filter at the base of the a/c air han-
dler and also behind the return air register. Like the previous
example, this combination creates reduction in air flow with-
out any additional filtration benefit, and we recommend re-
moval of one of the filters.
We suggest that you talk with your a/c technician next time
you have a service call, and ask for a recommendation for the
MERV rating right for your particular HVAC system.
It’s also a good idea to examine the outside edges of your fil-
ter while it is secured in the air handler to make sure that it
fits snugly all around, with no gaps. Give the filter a light tug
in the direction of the air flow, to simulate the suction action
of the blower when operating. If the filter easily pulls away
from the the mounting frame, that means unfiltered air is go-
ing around the edges, and you should ask your a/c technician
to reinforce or replace the securing mechanism for the filter.
Then again, sometimes just installing a filter with a stiffer
frame will solve the problem. One-inch thick filters with a
high MERV rating and a lightweight cardboard frame tend to
buckle slightly as soon as a little dirt/dust accumulation in-
creases their resistance to air flow.
Dirt/dust accumulation in return air duct
What can I do to prevent
mold in my home?
Moisture control and ventilation are the two best mold-
prevention strategies. First you want to stop moisture from
getting in and then exhaust any moist air that is created in the
home to the exterior right away. Most people think of water
intrusion only in its most dramatic forms: a roof leak staining
the ceiling or a puddle of water spreading across the floor
from a leaking water pipe. But the slow and barely noticed
forms of water accumulation in your home can do just as
much damage.
Cooking, bathing, heating with natural gas or propane, tiny
holes in an exterior walls that let in outdoor air, and even peo-
ple breathing—all add gallons of water to the air in a home
each day. Because mold requires a moist environment to
grow, moisture control is the most effective form of mold pre-
vention. Here are some places to check:
• Check the caulking around bathtubs and showers and
retouch as necessary to keep a good seal.
• Use the bathroom exhaust fans when showering and
make sure they actually exhaust the air to the out-
side—that the ducts are not blocked or crimped and don’t
terminate in the attic.
• If the hood fan over the range exhausts to the exterior
(not recirculating), check to make sure that the air is actu-
ally blowing out at the termination point at the exterior
wall or roof. If the range hood fan is recirculating, con-
sider opening a window when cooking.
• Clothes dryers produce and exhaust a tremendous
amount of hot, moist air. Verify that air is blowing out at
the termination point and, if it is not, check to make sure
the dryer duct isn’t damaged or clogged with lint.
• Check the caulking around the exterior doors and win-
dows every four or five years, and repair any cracked or
missing areas.
• Clean the gutters and downspouts each season, and
keep them clear of debris. Downspouts should end at
splash block or extensions that divert the water away
from the base of the house.
• Poke your head up into the attic at least once a year to
look around with a flashlight and sniff the air for any sus-
picious smells.
• Adjust away from the walls any irrigation sprinklers
that are spraying onto the house.
• Keep the condensate drain line from the air condition-
ing system flowing freely to a location away from the
walls of the house. Flush the line at least once a year and
check for any leaks at the pipe connections.
• Make sure you know where the main water shut-off
valve for your home is located, so you can turn off the wa-
ter quickly in the event of a pipe leak.
When a water leak or spill does occur, clean it up promptly.
Mold growth can begin with 48 hours on wet surfaces.
Preventing Mold in a Vacant House
Muggy summers in the Sunbelt can also cause problems in
the closed-up houses of snowbirds gone for the season. Plus,
oceanfront or lakefront homes, and homes in low-lying areas
with heavy tree cover, can be especially humid. When the in-
door relative humidity (RH) exceeds about 68 percent, mold
can start growing. There are several different ways to keep hu-
midity down while you’re away for the season:
A humidistat, which responds to changes in indoor relative
humidity instead of temperature, is the first way to prevent
mold. You can have an a/c contractor install one next to your
home’s thermostat and set it to override the thermostat when
you are away for the season. Set the controls of your humidis-
tat to 60 percent RH to maintain acceptable humidity and al-
low some leeway for any inaccuracy of the sensor.
If you don’t want to invest in a humidistat, another way to
control mold when you’re away is by setting the air condi-
tioner thermostat to around 78º to 80º F, with the fan set at
“auto.” While it requires no additional investment, using the
thermostat to control humidity is less energy-efficient than a
And last, the most economical way to prevent mold in a va-
cant home is by using stand-alone dehumidifiers instead of
your central air conditioner. The rule of thumb is one for
every 1,000 square feet. This option, however, requires the
most initial investment. It could pay off in the long run,
Should I put some more
insulation in the attic?
This is one of our most often-asked questions during a home
inspection. Several different considerations go into making
that decision:
What insulation does the house have in the walls
and, if it’s an older house with elevated floors, under
the floor? As part of an infrared evaluation of the building
envelope, a home inspector with an infrared camera can deter-
mine what insulation you have in these areas--without having
to probe in the wall cavity. If none, then adding insulation
where it is missing will be more effective for the overall energy
efficiency and comfort in the home. However, floor insulation
is more difficult and expensive to install than attic insulation,
because it must be secured in place—often in a difficult, tight
workspace. And retrofitting insulation into an existing wall is
the most expensive option. So adding more attic insulation is
usually the cheapest, if not the best, solution.
Is the existing attic insulation adequate? The effective-
ness of insulation deteriorates as it compresses over time and
from workmen climbing over it. Many home inspectors will
give you an estimate of the R-value of the current attic insula-
tion as part of your inspection. R-value is a measure of “ther-
mal resistance.” Another way to define it would be that R-
value is a measure of the ability of the insulation to resist the
movement of heat across it from one side to the other. Since
heating and cooling account for 50 percent to 70 percent of a
home energy bill, it’s always a good idea to learn the R-value
of the insulation in the ceiling, walls, and (sometimes) floor of
a home you are considering buying. A higher R-value trans-
lates to better insulation quality and lower energy bills.
Newly constructed homes are required to have a placard just
inside the attic access hatch certifying the R-value of the insu-
lation in place, and often have a measuring plate nearby (like
in the photo at left) for blown insulation, showing the thick-
ness of the material. On older homes, we make an estimate of
the R-value, based on the the thickness, type, and condition of
the insulation, for two reasons: 1) it is usually not marked,
and 2) insulation deteriorates and collapses down over time,
which reduces the R-value from what it was when originally
One of the things that we also do during each home inspec-
tion is an infrared scan of a home’s insulation envelope, look-
ing for areas of missing insulation or gaps in the insulation
coverage. Many home inspectors now have this technology.
One defect we find, for example, is a former back porch that
has been enclosed into a conditioned interior room, but has
no insulation in the walls or ceiling—because
it was not necessary when the room was built
as a screen porch, and the remodeler did not
retrofit insulation into the walls and ceiling
during the conversion to an interior space.
The lack of insulation is clearly visible to our
infrared camera.
It’s important to note that the R-value of in-
sulation is reduced if it is crushed or dam-
aged, which can happen when workmen in an
attic trample it down while doing a repair.
Consider exploring all your alterna-
tives with an insulation contractor.
There are reflective foil panels, rigid insula-
tion that can installed under new roofing, at-
tic ventilation improvements, and other solu-
tions besides just blowing more insulation in the attic. A quali-
fied insulation contractor can give you choices.
Homeowners expect a higher insulation level today, so add-
ing some blown insulation over the original material pushes it
up to today’s standards. However, when the new insulation is
being installed, make sure the the contractor does not ob-
struct the the soffit vents at the edge of the roof. Blocked vents
will stop the necessary ventilation of the attic and end up ne-
gating the gains from the new insulation.
Here’s a chart for estimating R-value of various insulation
materials, based on their thickness
How can I improve the
energy efficiency of my
not-so-new home?
The number one, do-it-yourself energy reduction device is
cheap and easy to install, but definitely not glamorous. It’s
caulking. Plugging those little cracks and crevices around
doors, windows, and other wall penetrations provides an im-
mediate reduction in your en-
ergy bill—especially during the
winter months. Experts esti-
mate that your energy savings
will pay back the cost in just one
year. It’s also a project that you
can start and stop easily, mak-
ing it possible to work on the
project for a few hours at a time
on weekends. So we recom-
mend that you buy a case of
caulk and a good caulk gun—one that costs more than $5—
and get to work.
While not expensive, caulking is labor-intensive and re-
quires some trial-and-error practice. A tube of premium latex
caulk is our choice and it’s cheap: less than $3 at the big-box
home improvement stores. Plus, latex is likely the best choice
for do-it-yourselfers, since mistakes wipe away with a little wa-
ter and a wet cloth and, once hardened, the surface takes
paint well.
The primary thing to understand when beginning a caulking
project is that it involves more than just squeezing out a line
of goo. Here’s two basic techniques you can use to make a
good caulk joint/seam:
The tip of the caulk gun should be positioned so that the
caulk is pushed slightly into the opening it is filling as it is run
along, rather than just sitting on the surface. Most pros cut
the tip of the caulk gun at about a 45º to 60º angle, with a
slightly smaller opening than the size of the bead of caulk you
want to lay down, then hold the gun at a similar angle while
running the bead line, so that the angled cut at the tip forms a
hood over the top of the bead as it comes out of the caulk gun,
pushing it a little downward.
Lightly wipe over the line of caulk after it is laid down, with
an index finger that has been dipped in cool water. This cre-
ates a concave surface at inside corners and smooths the edge
to blend into the adjacent surfaces. Water keeps the caulk
from sticking to your finger. Be careful not to wipe away most
the caulk. The objective it to gently smooth everything out.
This is the part that takes some practice and, of course, re-
member to rewet your finger after each stroke or two.
The mark of a good caulk job is that it becomes invisible
when painted over at completion, pulling everything together
into one seamless piece—which is also a good way to judge
your work when you’re done.



Exit Strategy
Preparing for a home inspection when you’re the seller.
What projects can a seller
tackle beforehand to get a
better home inspection?
There are plenty of small projects you can tackle to reduce the
number of defects a home inspector presents to your buyer.
But if you are not comfortable on a roof, on a tall ladder, or in
an attic, some of these jobs may be better done by a handy-
man. Here’s our checklist:
Clogged gutters - Remove leaves from gutters and downs-
pouts, and repair any loose connections or sagging sections.
Debris on the roof - A low-slope or flat roof collects tree de-
bris over time that can hasten the deterioration of the roof sur-
face and discolor it. Clean off
the roof. We do not, however,
recommend pressure-washing
an older shingle roof to make it
look better. If it is not done cor-
rectly and at low pressure, you
end up with a good looking roof
with no tab adhesion and areas
of granule loss. A better solu-
tion is to install copper or zinc strips near the ridge, which will
kill any fungus or mold on the roof over time. Hard-surface
roofs, like tile and metal, can be pressure-washed however.
Just beware: wet metal gets very slippery.
Overgrown landscaping - Trim back tree branches that are
touching or near the roof. The wind will cause a scraping ac-
tion that wears away roof surfaces. Also, cut back foliage grow-
ing up against the walls of the home, especially on the north
face, where it can promote mildew growth.
Peeling Paint - Faded paint
is not considered a defect. But
when it starts to peel, the
wood below becomes exposed
to water intrusion, and rot fol-
lows shortly afterward. Prep
and paint those areas. But first
probe spots that look soft with
a screwdriver, especially at win-
dow sills and trim, and repair
or replace any rotten wood you find. Buyers who are financing
with a loan guaranteed through FHA, VA, or USDA will need
all wood rot repaired to get their mortgage approved.
Cracked caulk - That bead of sealant that wraps around the
doors and windows of the exterior walls is absolutely neces-
sary to keep water out. Look closely at the condition of the
caulking, and repair any areas that are cracked or flaking
away. Sometimes homeowners miss a problem location be-
cause the caulk is completely gone, so double-check to make
sure there is a snug bead of caulk in place around all the wall
Bad grade - Ideally, the soil should slope away from your
home on all four sides. This isn’t always possible on a hillside,
but you can add extensions to the gutter downspouts to carry
water further away from the house in areas where water pud-
dles near the house after a rain. Also, add some soil to any
area where it has visibly washed away from the base of the ex-
terior walls and exposed the top of the footing.
Termite tubes - Mud veins that are pencil-thick running up
a wall indicate subterranean termites have moved in. They
can appear on interior walls too. Break one of the tubes. If
miniature white ants (termites) spill out, call an exterminator.
Leaky roof - A small
roof leak will not always
drip down and create a
stain on the ceiling, but it
can be enough to rot the
roof sheathing and allow
mold to grow around it.
So we recommend poking
your head up in the attic hatch opening after a heavy rain to
look around. Scan the underside of the sheathing for stains,
especially around roof penetrations like skylights, plumbing
vent pipes, and chimneys. Then repair as necessary.
Truss trauma - Any tampering with an engineered roof
truss—even just cutting out a small section—dramatically re-
duces its strength and can be dangerous. If you notice any
pieces of a truss that have been cut away, typically to make
more headroom or to create a clear area for storage, you have
a serious problem. Call a structural engineer for a repair plan.
Insulation issues - Look for areas where the insulation has
been pulled away, perhaps to make a minor repair at the ceil-
ing, but not replaced. Also, check to make sure that the insula-
tion isn’t obstructing the soffit vents around the perimeter of
the home. Typically, cardboard or plastic baffles are installed
over the close edge of the soffit to keep insulation from cover-
ing it, which assures that air can flow up through the soffit
vents and out the ridge vent to cool the attic in the summer.
Make sure the baffles are in place.
Attic stair safety problem - Pull down the folding attic
stairs and read the installation diagram printed on the frame
or inside of cover panel. It typically specifies 16-penny nails or
lag screws at specific locations. Are they there? Is any of the
folding hardware loose or damaged? Does the ladder seat
properly in the opening when closed, so attic air doesn’t leak
into the house? A stair tune-up may be necessary.
Vents to nowhere - Bathroom vent fans are supposed to ex-
haust the moisture-laden air to the exterior after a bath. But
sometimes the vent ends just above the ceiling in the attic or,
even worse, is plugged under a layer of insulation. Turn on
your bathroom vent fans, then go up in the attic and check
where all that air goes. If it does not make it to the outdoors,
you have another repair project.
Stuck windows - You already know which doors are hard-
to-close or off-their-track, but when was the last time you
tested your windows? A shot of sili-
cone spray can work wonders with a
sliding window that’s a little stiff.
But windows that are jammed or
have cracked panes indicate a possi-
ble structural problem.
Loose railings - Give your porch railings and stair handrails
a good tug. Fix or replace where necessary.
Bad wall plugs - Buy a three-light
plug tester for about three dollars at
a hardware store and check the recep-
tacles around your home to make
sure they are wired properly and
none are dead.
Lights out - Check the switched
light fixtures around the house to
make sure they wall work. Most of
the time a dead bulb is the only problem.
Shoddy splices - Any electrical
splices that are visible, whether
made with wire nuts or just tape,
means an amateur electrician has
been at work. All splices should be
concealed in an electrical box or in-
side the fixture for safety. Call an
electrician for this repair.
Missing cover plates - All electric receptacles and switches
should have a solid cover plate that is securely attached.
Smoked alarms - Push the test button on each of your
smoke alarms. Replace the battery or alarm as necessary. At a
minimum, you should have one smoke alarm at each hallway
or access room to every bedroom.
Water heater rumbling - If you hear the water heater gur-
gle, rumble, or make popping sounds, it’s time to drain the
sediment from the bottom of the tank. Louder sounds usually
indicate it’s time to replace the heating element on an electric
water heater.
Clanging pipes - When the air cushion built into home pip-
ing dissipates over time, the pipes shake and make a banging
noise when you shut off a faucet. See the instructions in the
plumbing section of the book a the simple fix.
Wobbly toilet - When the bolts holding a toilet to the floor
work loose over time, the wax seal between the toilet and
drain piping can break, leading to water damage in the sur-
rounding floor. Stand over the toilet bowl with it straddled be-
tween your knees and do a “wiggle test.” If the bowl moves
with you, repair it. Sometimes, just tightening the bolts is
enough; but any evidence of moisture around the base of the
toilet means it’s time to replace the wax seal too.

Any last-minute things I
can do to prep the house
for a home inspection?
Home inspection is not a
pass/fail proposition.
Every home, even a
brand-new one, typically
has a few defects that
need repair. So you
should expect that the in-
spector will find a few
things. But you can re-
duce the list of defects, and shorten the time required for the
inspection, by doing a little prep work beforehand. Here’s our
ten-item checklist:
1) Make sure that the electric, gas, and water utilities are on,
and gas pilot lights are lit. This may seem obvious, but is some-
times overlooked when the home is not occupied. Utilities off
means a rescheduled inspection and an aggravated buyer.
2) Clean or replace the HVAC (air
conditioning) filter if it is dirty.
Make sure the filter is secured in
place (not loose).
3) Check the installed light fixtures
and replace any burned-out bulbs.
Inspectors do not trouble-shoot
lights that don’t work, and simply
call them out as non-functional.
4) Move any furniture or stored items that block access to the
electric panel(s), HVAC equipment, water heater(s), attics and
crawl spaces. If extensive stored items around the attic hatch
opening prevent access to the rest of the attic, clear an area for
access. Also, remove any cars from the garage for the duration
of the inspection if the home
has an automatic garage door
operator. The inspector can-
not test the pressure-activated
garage door stop with a car in
the garage.
5) Unlock any areas the inspec-
tor must access: storage clos-
ets, attic hatches, fence gates,
and crawl space access panels.
6)Arrange for your pets to be secured or removed from the
premises during the inspection.
Blocked doorway
7) Trim bushes away from the walls of the house and tree
limbs away from the roof.
8) Remove stored items from the foundation walls or base of
exterior walls of home.
9) Test the smoke and carbon
monoxide alarms. Replace any
dead batteries or missing alarms.
10) Catch up on any minor re-
pairs needed for doorknobs and
locks, damaged windowpanes,
missing or damaged screens, and
clogged gutters and downspouts.
When you’re all done getting ready for the inspector, you
will be justifiably proud of your home, and probably also curi-
ous, and a little nervous, about what the buyer’s inspector
might find. If you are tempted to stick around for the inspec-
tion, please try to stifle that urge. You will only end up aggra-
vated, and possibly make it difficult for the buyers and their
inspector to have a frank, open conversation about the condi-
tion of your home. But, if you can’t resist sticking around, re-
member never to say this to the inspector: “I don’t think you’ll
find anything wrong with this house!” It’s like waving a red
flag in front of a bull.
More To Know
Resources for further reading
Helpful Websites
Searching for a good
home inspector?
We suggest starting at the
websites for the major home
inspector associations. All of
them have a search engine for
finding inspectors nearby the
location of the home you are
buying, based on its zip code; and each national association
has a set of standards for joining that weeds out the totally un-
qualified. Membership alone, however, does not guarantee
you are getting the best qualified, most experienced inspector;
but it’s a good beginning point for your search.
We belong to the International Association of Certified
Home Inspectors (InterNACHI), which is the largest national
Next, the oldest and best-known association is the American
Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI):
And a third, and also well-respected group is the National As-
sociation of Home Inspectors (NAHI):
Need to know what internet service providers are
available to a house?
The FCC maintains a data-
base of internet providers
serving any address in the
United States—which can be
helpful, especially if you re-
quire high-speed internet
and want to be sure that your
future home can provide it.
Here’s the link to the website:
Type in your new address and it will tell you which providers
serve it and what range of speeds they offer, so you will know
what service is possible to get at your new address. But it will
not, of course, necessarily be the provider to which the seller
of the home is currently connected.
Want to improve the energy efficiency of your home?
You can do it, but the first step is an energy audit. An audit
by a accredited professional utilizes a “blower door” to pressur-
ize the home and an infrared
camera to look for moisture
and heat anomalies. Another
alternative is the U.S. Depart-
ment of Energy’s free, interac-
tive program online that re-
quires you to answer a series
of questions about your
home, then explains the ap-
proximate level of your home’s energy efficiency and what you
can do to improve it. It’s called “Home Energy Saver” and,
while not as thorough or accurate as a professional energy
audit, it’s still a valuable tool for energy-saving. Here’s the
Trying to find out how old the home appliances are?
Looking for a lost appliance manual?
There is an online database
that makes the process fairly
easy. “” is
an excellent resource for do-
it-yourself research on the ap-
pliances that come with your
home; and—in case there’s
no manuals in the kitchen
drawer—they also have a
page with links to manufacturers’ websites for downloading
appliance manuals.
One limitation is noted at the website: “Unfortunately only
modern appliances made after the 1970s or 1980s are possible
to date this way (and sometimes not even then). This service
will not date antique models nor even those built in the 1950s
or 1960s. Those will need manual intervention of a product
knowledgeable specialist to date them...if possible at all.”
Locating the tag with the model and serial number can be
frustrating because they are sometimes in unexpected loca-
tions. The tag for some refrigerators, for example, is placed be-
hind the louvered kick plate below the door(s). So a good
place to start your search is at the page
with instructions and diagrams for finding the likely tag loca-
tion for your particular brand and model:
Or, if your have already located the tag, here’s the page for a
date code search:
Want to check for recalls on your home appliances?
The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has an
interactive page on their website that makes it easy for you to
search all their recalls and warnings back to 1973. Here’s the
You can search by manufacturer, product name, product
number, type of product, or type of safety hazard. The time-
consuming part of the process is not the online research at
the CPSC website, but collecting the product data, including
product model and serial
number, from the appli-
The CPSC website
homepage also has safety
news, a video tour of their
product safety testing lab,
and a consumer opinion
forum at:
Our Favorite Books
Here’s a short list: the top three books about home inspection
that we have enjoyed reading and that have helped us learn
our trade over the years. There are plenty of good texts on resi-
dential construction and inspection,
but these are our personal favorites.
Inspecting A House (Rex Cauld-
well, Taunton Press, 2001). The
author covers the basic principles of
home inspection, along with plenty of
practical tips for each part of the
work. Well illustrated, with lots of dia-
grams and checklists. Probably be-
cause Rex is also an electrician, the electrical section is espe-
cially thorough. A good first text for anyone considering a
home inspection career.
Diagnosing and Repairing House Structure Prob-
lems (Edgar O. Seaquist, Professional Equipment, 1980).
Long out of print, but still available
online through used book websites,
the book explains techniques for ana-
lyzing structural problems in houses
in complete, step-by-step detail, in-
cluding issues related to older, pre-
1940 types of constructions. Warn-
ing: the author’s thoroughness can be
a little overwhelming in some sec-
tions, but it is well worth the effort.
He was a consulting engineer to two
large insurance companies in the eastern U.S., and the book is
a distillation of his years of experience evaluating hundreds
residential structural problems for insurance claims.
Code Check Complete (Kardon,
Hansen, & Casey, Taunton Press,
2007). A carry-along book for us and
many other home inspectors. Quick
access to current building code stan-
dards in an easy-to-search format,
with extensive illustrations. Updated
every several years by the authors.
We hope you enjoyed looking at houses with
us. Any comments or suggestions you have
about the book would be appreciated.
Send them to: