Mike, thanks for your thorough and detailed report. We have bought and sold five houses over the past 14 years…your attention to detail as well as your presentation of findings is the by far the best we have received. Thank you, much appreciated.
K&B from Loveland – March 2013
“I wanted to let you know that we were very impressed with your
professionalism and the thoroughness of your work. It gives us such a
clearer picture of the property we are interested in as well as a good punch
list of items needing attention. Usually pictures are worth a lot but I
also appreciate the comments in the report as well.”
LIVEVALUATION , November 2010 Issue
Written by Michael Connolly, CI
Smart Move Inspections, Inc.
Observations of a Home Inspector
Last month we started into the Improvements section of the URAR form and discussed a home inspector’s observation as it might relate to the General Description and Foundation sections of the form. This installment will continue in the Improvements section. We will discuss some common issues and deficiencies an inspector might uncover if he were to be inspecting from the Improvements section of the URAR form.
Foundation walls can be constructed of many different types of materials. Determining the type and material used in a foundation can be challenging. Sometimes the basement or lower levels are finished, preventing evaluation. The vegetation and soil grade around the exterior of the house may also mask the foundation.
Masonry block foundations are often coated with stucco, giving the appearance of a poured-concrete foundation. If the foundation walls appear to be poured concrete but hairline stair-step cracks are visible in the walls, the wall is most likely masonry block with a cement stucco finish.
Stone foundations (dry-laid or mortared) are found in older houses. Some consider these inferior to modern foundations. However, the size and weight of the stones often make these foundations very resistant to movement and thus very stable. Many stone foundations last more than 150 years. Stone foundations often allow moisture penetration into the basement or crawl spaces. This is a common trait of stone foundations and can usually be corrected by proper surface water management around the house.
Wood foundations are specialized and can require someone with special training to evaluate the condition of the foundation and the adequacy of the installation. This type of foundation should always be noted and the client advised to seek the opinion of a qualified contractor or engineer.
Pre-cast concrete walls and foam core blocks are newer methods of building foundations. Pre-cast walls are manufactured and brought to the building site where they are installed and connected. Foam core blocks are usually Styrofoam building blocks that interlock. The centers of the blocks are designed with a hollow void, which is then filled with concrete at the site. While there are many different methods of construction in this category, these types of foundations are generally considered to be superior in strength, energy efficiency and moisture penetration to other common foundations.
Exterior wall coverings keep the elements from penetrating the building envelope while providing aesthetic appeal. Determining the condition of the wall coverings requires time to closely evaluate the materials, the method of installation and maintenance.
There are some wall coverings which can present as “good” in condition but are in reality failing and allowing moisture penetration into the wall cavities. One such material is EIFS (exterior insulated finishing system), which is synthetic stucco. EIFS is a system by which Styrofoam boards are mechanically attached to the exterior walls and then coated with the synthetic stucco. This material is distinguishable from real stucco by feel. If you press on the wall and the stucco feels resilient (because of its flexible nature and the fact it is backed by Styrofoam), it is probably EIFS. If the wall is solid, like concrete, then it is probably real cement-based stucco. EIFS can allow for moisture penetration behind the material into the wall cavity, causing extensive moisture-related damage. Since the Styrofoam and the synthetic stucco are not compromised by water, the exterior finish can look great while allowing moisture penetration and rot in the wall cavities. EIFS should always be noted in the report and evaluated by an inspector trained to inspect this type of siding.
Roof surfaces protect the structure from water in one of two ways. Most roofs, such as asphalt-based shingles, are designed to shed water from the structure. They are not waterproof. Some roof surfaces, such as rubber membrane roofs (often seen in flat roofs) are waterproof and are usually pitched to allow for drainage. They are designed to be waterproof with water ponding on the roof for extended periods.
Gutters and downspouts are used to manage rainwater off the roof surfaces and away from the structure. These are often the most overlooked systems in a house but are, in this inspector’s opinion, one of the most significant systems. Water management is critical to the condition of the house and performs one of the basic design needs of shelter: to keep us dry. Rain and surface water is the enemy of a house and can be the underlying cause of many issues. For example, the presence of termites, ants and other insects in a home can be linked to poor water management. Insects need water to survive and flourish. If a gutter is overflowing or directing water at the foundation, this provides a source of water and even an attractant to insects, which can then invade the home. Downspouts should adequately direct water away from the home. Gutters are often inadequately pitched or pulling away from the fascia. While they may look fine at a quick glance, poorly pitched gutters will allow water to overflow the gutter flood rim. Downspouts, which terminate too close to the home or simply direct roof water toward the foundation, can lead to moisture intrusion through the foundation walls. Suspected roof leaks are often not attributable to roof leaks but overflowing gutters. Water stains and damage on the exterior and interior facing walls are often the result of water flooding the eaves and leaking down into the walls.
Windows perform another basic design of shelter: to keep out the weather while allowing light to enter the home. Window designs are many, but all perform the same basic function and design. A largely overlooked safety issue with double and single hung windows is a defective sash balance or broken sash cords. These windows may open and stay in the open position but will quickly drop when bumped or moved. The guillotine-like drop of a sash can seriously injure a child whose fingers are placed across the sill of the window.
A home inspector rarely evaluates storm sashes and screens. However, I look at the insect screens on windows to see if they are puckered. A screen that is not stretched tight can indicate movement or crush in the window frame. This is common in new-construction homes where the builders install the windows too tightly against the brick. The framing of the house settles (shrinks) down about an eighth to a quarter of an inch per floor and will pull the window (attached to the house framing) down against the brick (sitting on the foundation). This causes an upward compression on the frame of the window that usually can be seen in the screen that deforms.
In the next installment, we will finish up the remainder of the series with the final Improvements section of the URAR.
Certified Home Inspector
LIVEVALUATION , October 2010 Issue Submitted by Michael Connolly, CI Smart Move Inspections, Inc.
Observations of an Inspector
As you would expect, the “Improvements” section of the URAR form is where the largest cross over exists between appraisers and home inspectors. The appraiser is asked to describe the improvements and generally advise on the condition, needed repairs, and deficiencies of the property. The appraiser is asked if the property conforms to the neighborhood in terms of functional utility, style, and condition. Most home inspectors follow “standards of practice,” often mandated by a professional association like the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). These standards of practice require the inspector’s description and inspection of specific areas and improvements in the home. The home inspector goes into much more detail and analysis than an appraiser would, but is ultimately asked to conclude by answering the same three questions as indicated at the end of the “Improvements” section of the URAR. 1) Describe the condition of the property? 2) Are there any physical deficiencies or adverse conditions that affect livability, soundness or structural integrity? 3) Does the property conform to the neighborhood?
In this installment, I will follow along with the URAR form in the “Improvements” section and touch on a few methods and protocols home inspectors use to evaluate the improvements (house) and to ultimately answer those three questions.
If a home is attached to another unit or building, the inspector should closely evaluate the common wall. The common walls should provide privacy and separation from a neighboring unit. However, a common wall’s most important purpose is to provide adequate fire stopping between adjoining units. It should be examined for any breaks or penetrations in the wall. If there are any breaks, these need to be adequately sealed to prevent the migration of fire. This common wall should also extend up into any attic spaces. If a wall has penetrations that are not sealed or a separation wall is missing in the attic, this should be mentioned in the report.
If a home is new construction, the home inspector should look for any signs of municipal inspections and permits. Every municipality has different procedures for posting their inspections. These are usually in the form of stickers or tags placed on the main electrical panel (electric inspection) and on the water heater or main soil stack (plumbing inspection). If no inspection notifications are present and no occupancy certificate is present, the builder should be asked to present proof that the home has been inspected and approved by the local public building department.
The design and age of a home can dictate many common problems and areas of concern for homes. The scope of this article does not allow for a full exploration of the unique attributes of each design of homes as well as age related issues.
There are three basic designs for slab foundations: monolithic, floating and supported. It is often difficult and outside the scope of an appraisal to identify the design of the slab, but this is required of a home inspector.
Most slab homes in the author’s area of the midwest are supported slabs where the floor rests on a poured foundation that is deeper than the frost line. In other parts of the country, based upon the climate and soil conditions, the slab can be monolithic and placed on grade, as the soils are more stable. Most garages and patios are a floating slab, which means they are independent of the foundation walls (sometimes tied into the foundation with steel rebar).
Slabs can crack and settle. When walking through the home, be aware of uneven floors, cracks beneath the finished floor coverings and gaps or separation between the floor and the outer perimeter walls (foundation). Most slabs have the load bearing walls resting on the foundation and the floors are not load bearing. However, any noticeable cracks or settlement of more than 1/4” should be noted and evaluated further by a qualified contractor or engineer.
Crawl spaces are generally shallow and uninhabitable areas under the main floor. These crawl spaces should provide access of at least 18”x24” to allow for inspection of the under floor area. If mechanical equipment is present in the crawl space, the minimum opening should be 30”x30.” Wood framing members such as floor joists should be more than 18” above the floor of the crawl space to minimize the possibility of termite infestation. The crawl space should be adequately ventilated (usually to the exterior, or it can be opened to the interior of the home and conditioned with the HVAC system. A vapor barrier over dirt floors should be in place and continuous to prevent the build up of moisture vapor in the crawl space which can lead to mold and fungus growth.
The very nature of crawl spaces makes them an undesirable place to visit. Most homeowners ignore the crawl space of their home and may never enter to inspect. Moisture and insect penetration or plumbing leaks can occur for years before being discovered (usually by a home inspector). By the time they are discovered, the damage to the structure can be extensive. A crawl space is the most likely place one will find issues, defects and deficiencies in a home. It should not be overlooked! I once inspected a crawl space in a thirty year old one story home that had a pin hole leak which had developed into a 1/2” water line running under the bathroom. This leak was not a “drip drip” sort of leak, but a fine mist sprayed out from the pipe spanning a nearly 10 foot radius. This misting of the crawl space had been occurring for at least 9 months (this time frame has been estimated, since the pipe had ruptured from freezing, which must have occurred in the winter;the inspection was in the summer). The misting caused rotting of the floor joists and subfloor as well as extensive mold growth over half of the crawl space area. The owners had to remove the finished floors and subfloor in all of the bedrooms and bathroom areas to effect repairs, which were over $30,000! Always inspect the crawl spaces or make sure that if you cannot inspect the crawl space that this limitation is mentioned in your report.
Full basements provide the best opportunity for moisture penetration. Most basements are eight to ten feet below grade. A hole that is ten feet in the ground will, at some time, have moisture penetration. This could be a chronic issue or a one time occurrence such as a flash flood or plumbing leak. There are a number of clues that may indicate moisture penetration such as rust stains on the carpet or flooring, which can be indicative of prior water penetration. Staining from water penetration can often be seen on the baseboards (push the carpet down to look at the bottom of the trim). If possible, view any drywall from the unfinished sides of the walls. Water will stain the paper on the drywall and it is usually not painted to cover up the staining. Floor drains in the basement (which are connected to public sewers) will be the first drains to back up if there is a back flow or blockage in the sewer connector pipe (between the house and the public sewer). Always look for signs of moisture penetration around the floor drains, as this is usually the lowest place in the basement floor. Look for any stickers from local plumbers and drain cleaner companies (usually found on the water heater or on a soil stack); this may be a sign of chronic blockage or past water penetration.
Below grade areas with outside entries provide additional opportunity for moisture penetration into the lower level past the doorways. Many doors are not adequately flashed and elevated to prevent moisture penetration. If the surrounding area of the basement is finished, the moisture penetration may not be readily visible, so closely check the adjoining walls, trim, and floor covering for moisture penetration. Open the door and look at the doorjambs and the sill for signs of rot. Lots of small insects and worms around the doorways is also a sign of moisture penetration.
Sump crocks and pumps are one of the most overlooked systems in a home. Many owners never think about their sump system until their below grade area is filling with water. Sump systems are usually connected to underground perimeter drain tiles that collect ground water around the foundation and direct it to a sump crock, then an operable pump evacuates the water from the crock (usually out to daylight somewhere in the yard). However, when the pump is inoperable, the drain tile is still collecting ground water and filling the crock. A house with an inoperable sump pump will flood much faster than a basement without drain tiles and a sump crock. For this reason, all sump pump systems should have a secondary or back up system.
Some houses may have a sump pump and an ejector system. A sump pump system handles clean ground water, while an ejector system handles either gray water or sanitary waste water. The sump discharges to daylight while an ejector system will discharge to the sanitary drain system (sewer or septic system). The two systems look similar so it is important to take a few minutes to evaluate and determine if you are looking at a system to handle ground water or waste water.
Evidence of infestation can be difficult for an inspector or appraiser unless they have specific training in inspection for such animals or insects. As such, this type of inspection is usually outside the scope of an appraisal or inspection, but some home inspectors are trained and licensed to inspect for wood destroying organisms (WDO). These would include termites, carpenter bees, carpenter ants, powder post beetles and wood destroying fungus. The two main types of termites that can be found in homes in most of the United States are the subterranean and dry wood termites. Dry wood termites live in the wood and can be found in large colonies inside a house. Subterranean termites live in the ground and only forage for food (wood) inside the house. Mud tunnels extending up a foundation or wall from the ground are a sign of subterranean termites. Any signs of termites warrant further evaluation by a licensed pest control technician.
Dampness in a basement or crawl space can represent a significant issue in a home and could impact the habitability as well as the structural stability of the house. Mold and fungus can seriously affect the health of the occupants, so any noticeable signs of dampness should be further investigated by a professional. The most likely causes of dampness in the below grade levels is water penetration past the foundation walls. This is attributable to poor soil grade around the house and inadequate management of water draining off the roofs.
Settlement is often a term used to describe any sort of crack in a foundation or walls, which is associated with building movement. A house can just as easily be rising or lifting rather than settling. Expansive clay soil, when hydrated, has enough force to lift foundations, piers and columns. Many people might see a crack in a foundation or a wave in a floor and think the house has settled (sunk) when in fact a section of the foundation or a footer has lifted due to expansive soils. Furthermore, a structure can settle or rise uniformly, often without noticeable evidence such as cracks. Differential settlement is the term used to describe uneven movement, which often results in cracks and out of square doorways. When in doubt, it would be prudent to recommend that a professional evaluate the structure.
In the next installment, we will finish up the remainder of the “Improvements” section of the URAR.
Certified Home Inspector
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.
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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Mike Connolly from Smart Move Inspections is awesome! He is incredibly knowledgeable and really puts you at ease. Will always hire and recommend him.
– Janice, Loveland
Excellent experience. Prompt, courteous service from the initial phone contact all the way through to the written report. Tremendous value – saved us thousands by uncovering needed repairs. Without a doubt the most thorough, professional home inspection I have experienced. A refreshing experience in an age where many “handymen” pose as home inspectors.
-Mary C, Hyde Park