Observations of a Home Inspector, Part 4

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.

“General Description”

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.

Michael Connolly

Certified Home Inspector