Observations of a Home Inspector, Part 5

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.

Exterior Description

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.

Michael Connolly

Certified Home Inspector