Observations of a Home Inspector, Part 2

The observation of recent repairs to neighboring homes can be applied to many of the exterior items on a home such as air conditioners, painting, siding and windows.  Like an appraiser, I can use these observations and other homes as “comparable” and contrast them against my subject.  If the subject property has old wood single pane windows, which are rotting, and most of the neighbors have new replacement thermopane windows, I will point this out to the client when explaining the condition of the windows.  Conversely, if the windows are older and have some issues (fogging between the glass, broken sash balances, etc.), I might mention that these are common in the neighborhood and many neighbors have similar windows (comparable).  In my service area, there are entire subdivisions plumbed with a polybutylene yard pipe commonly known as “Blue Max”.  There was a class action lawsuit concerning this material, as it has a history of rupturing or failing in the yard between the street and the home.  If I see that smany of the yards in a subject property’s neighborhood have recently been excavated (dirt, straw, newer grass or a dip in the yard

) in a straight line between the street and the house, I know that can be an indication of Blue Max replacement.  I will evaluate the subject property to determine if the yard pipe has been replaced or is Blue Max and advise the client accordingly.

The topography of a neighborhood can significantly affect the probability of moisture intrusion into a home.  If the neighboring homes are higher in elevation than the subject property, there exists a higher probability of water intrusion into below grade areas.  When driving into a neighborhood, if the street drops in elevation for several blocks before arriving at the subject property at the bottom of the street, it begs the question, “where will the water draining off the neighboring yards and streets go?”  Adversely, if you drive into the neighborhood and go up and up in elevation to the subject property, then there will be less surface water for the subject property lot to deal with, therefore less chance of an issue with moisture intrusion into the below grade areas of the structure.  Within my service area, there are several neighborhoods in a bowl: surrounding neighborhoods and topography are all higher in elevation (on the rim of the bowl).  Whenever there are flash floods or prolonged rains, the surface water runs down into the bottom of the bowl, the city storm sewers cannot handle the load, and water backs up into the basements of the homes in the bottom of the bowl.  Is the subject property on the rim or the bottom of the bowl?  Searching the internet for the subject street and neighborhood may yield articles concerning drainage issues or flooding in such neighborhoods.  Additionally, when at the street in front of the subject property, look at the elevation of the home in contrast to the elevation of the street.  Is the street higher in elevation than the home?  If so, where does the water draining off the street and the front yard go?  Does the grading of the yard allow for management of such water flow?  If not, a diligent look for signs of moisture penetration in the below grade areas is advisable.  Remember the King’s castle was always placed high on the hill and for good reason.

But, Kings have their problems too… Homes that are higher in elevation than the surrounding homes can be subject to weather exposure (sun, wind, rain, lightning and hail) as they are unprotected by the topography, trees and neighboring homes.  This is also true for more rural homes, where there are large expanses between homes and little vegetation or topography changes (such as farms).

Topography can play an important role in structural concerns with the home.  If a house is on a hillside, it may be more subject to movement and forces on the uphill side of the home, which can have a significant effect on the structure.  Cracks or bowing in the foundation walls that face the uphill side of the property may warrant further evaluation by an engineer.  If there is differential separation between the walkways, porches and decks, and the home, this could be a sign of slippage and

warrants further evaluation by a professional.  I inspected a home on a very steep hill with numerous structural cracks and bowing of the foundation wall, however the most glaring sign of something going terribly wrong was the rear deck (on the downhill side of the house). It had moved away from the house by twelve inches out and ten inches downyou had to jump from the patio door out onto the deck!

Trees are another indicator of soil slippage or movement.  If many of the trees surrounding a steeply sloped lot are pointing downhill (that is they are not growing straight up), the soil is shifting.  If grass or landscaping shows signs of scarps (differential soil movement and soil erosion), these are also signs of soil movement and/or erosion.  I note any such observations, evaluate the home closely for any cracks or movement and advise accordingly.

Not all homes that have settlement or structural failures will show obvious cracks in walls or foundations.  Some homes will settle or shift without a single crack.  The entire structure simply moves down hill.  I always walk around the exterior of the house at least twice.  Once at close range to the home, approximately three feet and once at least 20 feet or more away.  The later provides a much larger survey of the structure and its placement on the lot.  This view often yields observations of structural movement, which is not readily evident close up.  One home I inspected was on a steep sloped lot with the rear elevation overlooking a deep ravine and the front elevation overlooking a relatively level front yard.  The home had no common signs of structural issues.  All the foundation walls were free of cracks and bowing, and all the floors were level and the doors closed without binding.  However, there was a gap over four inches wide and four inches deep between the front walkway, porch and the entry into the house.  There was similar displacement of the driveway.  From the initial walk around at three feet, the gaps were noted, however it was not until I viewed the home from twenty feet away and walked all the way around that I discovered the entire house was sliding down the hill, leaving the porch, front walkway and driveway in its original position.  If I had not viewed the structure from a distance, this may have been missed in the inspection!

As with many things, one’s perspective is crucial.  It is always prudent to step back and look at the big picture as well as the details.  In the next installment, we will take a look at the Site and improvements section of the report.

Click here to read part 3 of this article.

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