Observations of a Home Inspector, Part 3

LIVEVALUATION , September 2010 Issue Submitted by Michael Connolly, CI  Smart Move Inspections, Inc.

Last month’s installment touched on how a home inspector might address sections of the Uniform Residential Appraisal Report “URAR.”.  Having already reviewed the “Subject”, “Contract” and “Neighborhood” sections, we continue to the “Site” section of the report.

SITE

Home inspectors do not evaluate lot shape or dimensions, and typically ignore any improvements to the lot, such as fountains, ponds, playground equipment and storage barns.

However, the topography of the lot and the elevation of the house are always evaluated to determine if there is adequate drainage of surface water away from the home.  I once inspected a new home where the lender asked for a final inspection prior to releasing payment to the builder.  The home was a ranch on a crawl space and had been built in the middle of what was once a cornfield.  The home looked fine and was nicely built, and the yard had not yet been seeded and was extremely muddy.  In reviewing the topography of the lot, I noticed that the sides, as well as the front and back of the lot, sloped down towards the middle of the lot where the home was situated.  Basically, the house sat in the bottom of a lot, which was shaped like a bowl.  While it was difficult to get to, I trudged through the mud to the crawl space access, which was located on the rear exterior side of the house.  When I looked under the house from the crawl space access, I first illuminated the floor of the crawl space.  Instead of seeing a gravel or dirt floor covered with a poly vapor barrier, I saw a perfect reflection of the subfloor of the house.  Like a mirror, the three feet of water that had accumulated in the crawl space was reflecting the image of the wood framed subfloor of the main house!  The crawl space was flooded and would continue to flood every time it rained.  The entire ten acre lot directed surface water to the very spot on which the home was constructed.

As for Zoning, many times the inspector does not have knowledge of, nor has researched the zoning of a property, or even determined the highest and best use.  However, it is not uncommon for a buyer to ask or discuss planned improvements with their home inspector.  Many new buyers are purchasing homes with the intent of immediately modifying or remodeling.  This can be a bathroom refreshing, a kitchen remodel, or as extensive as a room addition or the building of a barn or other outbuilding.  In these cases, if I have knowledge of specific zoning or building requirements, I may discuss possible issues related to such work.

Not always does a buyer share his plans for the home with his home inspector.  I once inspected a 100 year old farm house on a beautiful fifty acre lot for a local doctor.  The seller, Realtors, and my buyer all attended the inspection.  The home was old and had many issues, which took a good part of a day to evaluate and report to my client.  My client listened intently as I explained every issue and asked about the methods and costs to repair these issues.  A week after the inspection, I followed up with the client to ask him about the inspection and to see if he was continuing with the purchase of the home.  He said he was proceeding and thanked me for the great inspection.  He went on to say that he had negotiated over $30,000 off the original purchase price due to all the needed repairs.  I felt great at having served my client so well and knew he would be happy in his new home.  Six months later, I found myself on the same road doing another inspection.  As I drove down the road, I could not find the house I had inspected for the doctor.  Finally, checking the mailboxes, I stopped in front of a newly constructed home on the exact location of the old farm house.  The doctor had bought the farm house without telling anyone, including his inspector, of his plans to knock it down.  The inspection was simply a means of negotiating more money off the purchase price!  What a lesson I learned that day… As an inspector, one should never think they know what the buyer is thinking or what intentions they have for a home.

Utilities to the home are certainly within the scope of a home inspection.  The home inspector is obligated to identify all the utilities in the home and report whether they are public or private, and regarding their capacity.

In my area, most homes have public utilities.  Some more rural areas will have private waste systems and/or wells.  The inspection of the private systems such as wells and waste disposal systems is outside the scope of a typical home inspection, however, these systems are critical and a home inspector should always advise his client to have them evaluated by a professional.

The electric to a home usually enters in one of two ways.  First, it could be through an overhead connection (called a service drop) from a utility pole.  But it could also be underground to the home, which is referred to as a service lateral.  The minimum service amperage to a home should be 100 amps, however, it is more common in our area to have 150 and 200 amp services, while some older houses still have a 60 amp service.  This is considered inadequate by today’s standards and would always be identified by an inspector as an item to upgrade.  It is difficult in the scope of this article to explain the many ways to determine the amperage rating of the electric service supplied to the house.  One quick tip: if the home is supplied through a service drop (overhead), look at the wires strung across from the utility pole.  If there are three separated individual conductors, this is an older system and should be evaluated for adequacy and condition. If the service drop has two conductors twisted around an uncovered aluminum wire, then this is a more modern service and may be adequate for the home.  It should be noted that just looking at the rating stamped on the main service breaker is not a guarantee of the actual service rating.  Breakers can be installed on any size service and it is common for people to install larger size breakers than the actual service to the house.  It is necessary to determine the size of the service conductors, the capacity of the main panel, and the main breaker size.

If a house is supplied with natural or propane gas, it is important to note the location of the gas meter and equipment.  Is it protected from physical damage?  For example, a gas meter located next to a parking pad could be subject to damage if bumped by a car.  Propane tanks should be adequately secured if next to a house and the gas lines should be protected from damage.

A municipal water supply to the home is usually metered.  This meter can be on the exterior of the home, in the yard or inside the house.  If there is no meter, the home may have a well or cistern and this should be mentioned in the report.

Some main incoming water lines are prone to damage or leakage.  One such pipe is a blue plastic (polybutylene) pipe called by its trade name of “Blue Max.”  This pipe is notorious for leakage in the yard, or as it passes through the foundation.  A large class action suit was in place (now expired) for this material.  When I note a blue colored plastic pipe entering the home as the main water service, I always advise my clients to have the pipe evaluated for leakage.  Furthermore, a depression in the yard, in line with where the main water line extends from the house to the municipal connection point at the street may be indicative of a leak in the pipe underground.  Further investigation may be warranted.

A main water line which enters the home may be PVC.  While not common, I do see this.  PVC is generally used for waste water lines and may not be approved for potable water.

A dull silver water line entering the home with bends instead of angled fittings and a ball on the end of the pipe (where it connects to the main water shut off) is probably a lead pipe.  Lead in drinking water can have adverse health concerns and should be noted.

Sanitary sewer connections can become blocked and allow waste water to back up into the home.  If the home is older, the connection pipe between the house and the public sewer can become cracked and tree roots can block the pipe.  While the main sewer connection cannot be visually inspected (without a camera and a sewer snake) there may be clues as to the condition of this line.  Chemicals designed to clean out root from sewer lines can often be seen stored in the garage or basement.  The clean out plugs for the main building drain or sewer connector may be newer or show signs of prior wrenching.  These may indicate recent repairs or cleaning to remove roots or blockage in the main sanitary building drain.  The cost of repairs or replacement of the main sanitary drain connector are very high and any observations concerning possible blockage or repairs to the drains should be noted.

As an inspector, I always advise my client to determine if a driveway, alley or street is private (not dedicated) and to obtain all information concerning maintenance agreements with other owners.  It is important to note the elevation of the street and/or alleys, and the drainage relative to the subject property’s lot and improvements.

Flood maps are not used by home inspectors, however, the inspector would always evaluate the lot for any creeks or rivers adjoining the lot, which might flood.  Signs of high water marks on the foundation walls in a crawl space or basement may indicate prior flooding.

As a professional inspector, I will often turn down inspection assignments that are not within my market area.  This is not because I have so much work that I can afford to turn down business.  It is not because I do not want to drive far outside my market.  It is because I have developed a knowledge base of my market area.  I have learned about different cities, areas, neighborhoods, and even streets that have negative external influences.  Some neighborhoods have city sewers, which chronically overflow and flood houses after a hard rain.  Other areas have creeks or rivers, which can swell way out of their banks, flooding entire neighborhoods.  One neighborhood in my service area was once a gun target range and elevated lead levels have been discovered in the soil.  To take an inspection outside of my service area means I would have little to no knowledge of the external influences, which may be affecting the home I am inspecting.  This would be a disservice to my client.

I do a Google search of the street, which may reveal any stories of flooding on the street or neighborhood.  If I see a neighbor in the yard or walking down the street, I will stop and talk to them about the neighborhood.  I am often surprised at the information a neighbor is willing to share concerning the neighborhood and the subject property.

In the next installment, I will delve into the “Improvements” section of the report.  We will discuss many of the techniques used to ascertain the condition of the subject property improvements.

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