The Scariest Thing About a Home Inspection

By Tim Shuford, NPI Franchise Owner, Jamestown, North Carolina

Inspecting homesFrom this home inspector’s perspective, one of the scariest things about many home inspections is what I can’t see.  As you probably know, a home inspection is a “non-invasive” inspection of readily-accessible components and systems.  That means that the things hidden inside walls or other inaccessible areas are not inspected.  If a home inspector had X-ray vision or some other super-power, I feel sure that inspection reports would list a lot more areas of concern.  Here are a three “real life” examples of what I’m talking about.

Several hundred homes in a nearby housing development were constructed 20-30 years ago.  Almost all the homes were clad with composite hardboard (Masonite type) siding, and no re-siding has been done on approximately half the homes.  A small percentage of the homes now have cement-fiber siding, and the remainder are now clad with vinyl siding.  It’s pretty common knowledge that most 20-30 year old composite hardboard siding has some amount of deterioration, and a lot of it is badly deteriorated……maybe to the extent of allowing water to reach the structural components and cause decay and other moisture-related issues….and this development is no exception.  (Of course, there’s also plenty of decay typically found in the window sills and trim, door jambs, etc. on these homes.)   When inspecting one of these homes with deteriorated hardboard, it’s easy to report the defects and indicate that there could be structural damage due to water intrusion.  The scary homes in the development are the ones that have vinyl siding and aluminum trim installed.  You just have to suspect that the newer surface treatment was installed right over whatever deterioration and decay existed, without much thought of whether any underlying damage was present.  Unfortunately, there’s not much to report here, as long as the siding and trim is intact and installed properly, and there’s no other evidence of structural problems.

Occasionally, we’ll inspect a home with an area (such as a basement) that was obviously finished by the homeowner.  (Well, maybe they did invite some friends to join in and provide some pizza and beer.)  It seems that most of the time, we’ll find some kind of electrical deficiency (such as a spliced electrical cable not enclosed in a junction box) in an accessible area of the same home.  You just have to wonder if similar conditions exist behind the finished walls or ceilings.  Again, there’s not much to report unless you can see it.

Many homes (especially older homes) have portions of the crawl space that are inaccessible, due to low clearances, ductwork, etc.  It’s not uncommon to find structural problems, electrical problems, etc. in the accessible areas of these crawl spaces.  So, why would I think that everything is “just fine” in the areas of the crawl space that I can’t inspect?

The “gut feeling” that goes along with inspecting a property like this is not the best.  You want to make sure that the condition of the property is as accurately represented as possible, and your gut tells you that there are probably some hidden items that need repair.  I guess that the best we can do is just try and make sure the client knows that there are areas in the home that we can’t see or inspect.

 

Shuford PhotoTim Shuford is a professional National Property Inspections home inspector in Jamestown, North Carolina. If you live in the area, call 336.823.6605 to schedule your home inspection with Tim.
NPI and GPI home inspectors have the tools and knowledge to assess your home. Consult with your local NPI or GPI inspector for an assessment of your home.

What Did My Inspector Mean When He Talked About Grading and Slope Around My House?

Grading_shutterstock_135142733The exterior of your house is just as important as the interior systems when it comes to a well-functioning, well-sealed structure. Because of this, home inspectors should begin the inspection long before they ever reach the door, assessing grading, utility hookups, walkways, decks, driveways, windows and doors, roofing, and exterior cladding or siding.

The grading around your home’s exterior helps prevent water intrusion, which can cause wood rot, mold and mildew. Proper grading also prevents structural movement and damage, keeps out unwanted pests, and helps regulate temperatures inside your home.

Preventing water intrusion begins with the grading of the lot, or the way the ground is shaped around the house. For best results, the ground should visibly slope away from the structure (positive slope). Negative-sloped grading around a home (the ground slopes toward the house) can cause water to pool at the foundation and eventually soak into the walls. Positive slopes move water away from the home and help prevent damage to the foundation.

When a house is built at the bottom of the hill, swales (small ditches) may be built to direct water around the house and away from the foundation. Your home inspector should assess the property’s slope and grading, noting the specific location of negative slope or pooling water. One common problem area is the garage apron. If the flooring is not poured with proper slope, then water will run under the door and pool inside. Inaccessible or obstructed areas of the foundation will also be noted in your inspection report.

Tagged: , , , , , ,

Should You Be Concerned About Radon?

By Lawrence Englehart, GPI Franchise Owner, Halifax, Nova Scotia
IMG_0634Radon is a radioactive gas that is slowly released during the natural decay or breakdown of uranium in the earth, and it moves freely though any soil, rock and water. Because it is the heaviest gas in nature, radon can easily accumulate in high levels in the basement or poorly ventilated areas of a house or building.

Why Is Radon Dangerous?
As radon decays, it further breaks down to form radioactive elements that can be inhaled into the lungs, where they can damage the cells that line the lung, causing lung cancer.

Health Canada reports that radon exposure is linked to 16 percent of lung cancer deaths and is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. In Nova Scotia, the Department of Natural Resources has developed an amazing radon risk map; you can enter your physical address and it will show whether you are in a low-, medium- or high-risk area. In the United States, you can find a radon zone map on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website.

How Much Radon Is Too Much?
In North America, radon test results have shown that 40 percent of buildings in high-risk areas exceed Health Canada and EPA guidelines; however, even homes in low-risk areas should be tested, as this is the only way to know how much radon is in your home.

In Canada, radon is measured in Becquerels per cubic meter (Bq/m3), and the current Canadian guideline for radon action is 200 Bq/m3. In the United States, radon is measured in picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L), and the current guideline for remediation is any level higher than 4 pCi/L. In both countries, the higher the number, the higher the risk. However, even the current action level is equivalent to the radiation exposure from 30 medical chest x-rays per year (assuming radon exposure at home for 12 hours per day).

Radon levels can vary over time and especially from season to season, which is why home owners should conduct radon testing over a duration of 91 days or longer to properly determine radon levels and better understand whether remedial action will be required.

For the average home owner, a simple do-it-yourself radon testing kit can be ordered online or purchased in a hardware or home improvement store.

Should You Test Your House for Radon?
When it comes to buying or selling a house, a long-term test is considered unrealistic, so a short-term test of lasting 48 to 72 hours should be performed. Make sure you hire a certified radon inspector who has been specifically trained to an industry-recognized standard of practice and are held accountable for working to established radon testing guidelines. Your home inspector may be a certified radon tester; if not, he/she can recommend a professional to conduct the test for you.

Englehart PhotoLawrence Englehart is a professional Global Property Inspections home inspector and C-NRPP Certified Radon Measurement Professional in Halifax, Nova Scotia. If you live in the area, call 902.403.2460 to schedule your home inspection with Lawrence.

NPI and GPI home inspectors have the tools and knowledge to assess your home, and many of our inspectors hold additional certifications for radon, mold or lead testing. Consult your local NPI or GPI inspector for an inspection of your home or a home you are planning to purchase.

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

Your Home’s Foundation: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

Severe cracks in walls can signal settlement and foundation problems.

Severe cracks in walls can signal settlement and foundation problems.

Most houses are supported underneath by concrete or a stone, referred to as the foundation. It’s a simple truth that most people keep their sights on things that are at eye level. Whether you are inside or outside your house, your attention is often drawn to wall hangings, furniture, doors, windows, the siding. You may not think much about the foundation of your house, especially if it’s a slab foundation.

However, it is imperative to check the foundation of your home, as the expenses to repair it can become overwhelming if problems are left to worsen. It’s important to inspect your foundation regularly, so you can catch problems in the early stages, before they become expensive repairs.

Common Problems

There are typically three types of foundations: basements, crawl spaces and slab. Regardless of the type of foundation you have, several foundation problems are common:

  • Bulges and outward bumps are commonly caused by temperature changes and can lead to serious problems in the future, including abnormal settlement and potentially building collapse.
  • Cracking is commonly caused by soil settling and vibrations from nearby elements. Normally cracking is repairable and not seriously threatening to the structure and safety of the building. However, be sure to monitor cracks and call in a professional if you notice any warning signs.
  • Leaking occurs when water penetrates through cracks in a foundation and enters the inside of the house. Water can cause erosion and spawn a breeding ground for mold, which can ruin nearly anything, including cherished belongings like photos and keepsakes.

The Top 10 Signs of Foundation Trouble

  • Uneven and sloping floors in the house
  • Cracks in exterior or interior bricks
  • Displaced or cracked moldings around doors, windows, etc.
  • Wall rotation
  • Cracks or bowing in walls
  • Cracks in floors, floor tiles or the home’s foundation
  • Doors and windows that won’t open or close properly, doors that swing open or closed on their own
  • Separation of doors, windows or garage doors
  • Gaps or spaces between walls and the ceiling or floor
  • Walls that are separating from the house

Unfortunately these types of problems do not correct themselves, and procrastination may cost you as the problem persists and worsens.

Photo courtesy of Gustty via EveryStockPhoto

Photo courtesy of Gustty via EveryStockPhoto

Do keep in mind, however, that some amount of settlement is normal in any house. Some cracks in foundation walls are minor and do not require you to take action right away, only to monitor them. If you have an old house with evidence of minor settling, it’s probably nothing to worry about. If you suspect you have major settlement or foundation problems, you can contact your local National Property Inspections or Global Property Inspections home inspector as a first step. Your home inspector will be able to tell you whether the problem is serious and you need to call in a structural engineer.

Foundation Repair Costs

Basements are the most expensive and complicated type of foundation to construct, as the depth of a basement is commonly 8 feet. Basement repair costs generally range from $500 to $10,000, depending on the type and extent of damage.

A slab foundation is a concrete pad poured directly on top of 4 to 6 inches of gravel with a sheet of plastic between them designed to keep out moisture. A slab is the easiest and least expensive foundation for a building or house. The downside is that there is no easy access for foundation work that may be needed. In addition, sewer lines are embedded in the concrete slab. Expenses for repairs vary wildly and can range from $100 to $15,000.

Crawl spaces are similar to slabs; however, they raise the house off the ground and allow for easy access to plumbing and ductwork. The cost to build on a crawl space is comparable to that of a slab. Expenses for repairs can range from $1,500 to $15,000.

Make a foundation inspection a part of your annual spring home maintenance checklist. If you have a basement or crawl space, check the inside and outside for damage.

Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Do You Need to Add a Vapor Barrier in Your Home?

TS-77902336_vapor-barrier-crop_s4x3.jpg.rend.hgtvcom.1280.960Because common foundation materials, such as concrete blocks, are somewhat porous, adding an air or vapor barrier can be important an important step when it comes to insulating a basement, crawl space, garage or other unheated area of a house. To improve comfort and utility costs for adjacent heated rooms, home owners may consider adding insulation to the ceiling or walls of the unheated space. Another thing to consider is adding a vapor barrier.

A vapor barrier installed on the warm side of the insulation will prevent air from moving through the insulation, adding to the insulation’s effectiveness. A vapor barrier is difficult to install once insulation is already in place, so if you are planning to re-insulate an area of your home, you might want to consider also adding a vapor barrier.

It is important to avoid putting vapor barriers on the cold side of the insulation. This can trap moisture in the insulation, causing possible rot around wood framing or walls. Air and vapor barriers also should not be used to hold insulation to the ceiling of an unheated garage or crawl space.

An earthen floor in a crawl space or basement can cause elevated moisture levels in the air and promote rot in wooden structural beams, so it is advisable to add a moisture barrier like a polyethylene sheet over such floors. The moisture barrier should be sealed at the joints and around the perimeter. A layer of gravel or sand can help prevent rips or tears.

Your local NPI or GPI home inspector can provide you with a full assessment of your home’s systems and condition. To find an inspector near you, visit one of the links below.

Tagged: , , , ,

Mold: Friend or Foe?

By Todd Newhook, GPI Franchise Owner, Markham, Ontario

Newhook 1Mold in general is an important part of our ecosystem. It is all around us! Is it really harmful? Why does media treat mold as a bad thing? Is it a bad thing? Should you be concerned?

Good questions. When it comes to living in a home — an enclosed environment, so to speak — the most important issue is ensuring that you manage the environment you live in to help reduce the risk of high levels of harmful or toxic molds. Mold in general needs a food source (e.g., water or elevated moisture levels) to grow and spread.

The good: Molds eat garbage and turn it into soil. They break down dead plant and animal matter. Some of them are also beneficial to our health — do you bake/cook with yeast and mushrooms (fungi)?

The potentially bad: Many home owners don’t understand building science, the importance of managing relative humidity levels in the home, and maintaining proper room temperatures. The majority of excessive or toxic mold growth in homes is due to this lack of understanding and poor housekeeping.

Newhook 2Relative humidity levels should be maintained between 30 percent and 50 percent, with a target of 40 percent. Low levels of humidity contribute to dry air and possible respiratory problems. During dry winters, a humidifier will help to add moisture to the air inside your home — just make sure to keep the humidity level around 40 percent to avoid excess moisture in your home.

Excessive levels of humidity contribute to excessive moisture levels and may contribute to harmful mold growth and respiratory problems. Often when we inspect basements during the summertime, the insulation at the exterior walls is wet due to high humidity. In the summer, when there are higher levels of humidity, a portable dehumidifier will help to control humidity levels. Always follow manufacturer setup and operation procedures for using humidifiers.

Another common source of mold is poor maintenance of heating and cooling systems. The cooling system typically has an A-coil and an evaporator pan enclosed above the heating system. If not maintained on a regular basis, the evaporator pan that captures and drains condensation can sometimes clog. Standing water in a stale and dark environment contributes to mold growth. If you turn on your heating/cooling system you may be blowing potentially harmful mold around your house.

Leaks due to aged roofs, deteriorated caulking/seals, etc., can also contribute to excessive or harmful mold growth. Home maintenance is key to preventing leaks and the opportunity for mold to grow.

Older homes did not require ventilation as mandated today. For example, todays’ standards require that bathrooms and kitchens include properly vented systems. But if you live in an older house, you may not have a ventilation system, and that can contribute to mold growth on bathroom walls.

Newhook 3How is the insulation in your walls and attic? Ensuring that your home has proper insulation levels will help reduce the risk of heat loss and excessive condensation and mold growth.

To-do List

  1. Ensure your home includes a humidifier and dehumidifier to help manage humidity levels depending on the season.
  2. Set up an annual maintenance program with a qualified HVAC company to properly maintain your heating and cooling systems.
  3. Ensure that the exterior of your home is properly maintained to help reduce leaks (e.g., roofing, caulking/seals, siding).
  4. Run exhaust fans during, and for a minimum of 30 minutes after, cooking or showering. In bathrooms, consider installing an automatic switch that runs the exhaust fan to control humidity levels.
  5. Ensure that insulation in walls and attics is properly installed and evenly distributed.

Your local NPI or GP inspector has the tools and knowledge to assess your home. Consult with your local NPI/GPI Inspector to do an assessment of your home to help reduce elevated levels of harmful mold in your home.

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

Should You Worry About Cracks in Your Foundation Walls?

By Roland Bates, President, NPI/GPI

Photo courtesy of Gustty via EveryStockPhoto

Photo courtesy of Gustty via EveryStockPhoto.com

It’s a good idea to walk around your basement and the exterior of your house every once in a while to examine the walls of your foundation for cracks. Cracks in foundation walls are generally horizontal, vertical or diagonal. There are always exceptions to the rule, but the following generally applies foundation wall cracks and are the things NPI and GPI inspectors consider when assessing foundation cracks:

  • A horizontal crack might be caused by too much hydrostatic pressure or too much backfill pushing against the wall. Think of it like this: If someone whacked you in the back of the knees, they would push forward. It’s the same effect on your foundation walls.
  • A vertical crack could have more causes: A part of the foundation may be lifting or settling, or the foundation footer may be too small, too shallow or resting on unstable soil.
  • A diagonal crack could be caused by some of the above factors, but as a rule of thumb, if you draw a diagonal line through a horizontal crack it will point to the source of the problem.
  • A good home inspector will consider where the cracks are within the wall and whether they are above or below grade. The inspector will also consider how long, how wide and how deep a crack is, and if a crack is out of plane — if you pass your hand across the crack, is it smooth or is it uneven? Furthermore, the inspector will consider whether the home’s floors are uneven or have deflected and if the doors and windows are out-of-square, which can be signs of foundation issues.

Taking all of the above into consideration, your home inspector will typically determine whether foundation cracks are minor, moderate or severe:

  • Minor is generally not an issue; monitor the crack to determine whether it worsens.
  • Moderate means the crack is not an issue now, but will likely need to be repaired in the near Monitor the crack monthly and call in a professional soon.
  • Severe typically means the crack needs to be repaired immediately.

There are numerous and effective ways to repair and or stabilize foundations, and a professional foundation repair company can offer solutions to any problem.

Tagged: , , , , , , ,

What You Need to Know About Radon Mitigation

By Kenn Garder, National Accounts Manager and Technical Support, NPI/GPI

IMG_0620Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced by the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. Because air pressure inside a house is usually lower than pressure in the soil around the foundation, a house acts as a vacuum, drawing radon in through foundation cracks and other openings. Once inside the house, radon gas is diluted somewhat by fresh air that is naturally pulled in around windows and doors. The radon gas is then distributed throughout the house by the heating and cooling system. When a house is tested for radon and elevated radon levels — 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/l) or higher — are discovered, the EPA recommends a radon mitigation system be installed.

Reliable techniques are available to reduce radon in houses. Research conducted by public and private agencies has formed a strong knowledge base of proven mitigation systems for homes, schools and commercial buildings.

Design of a radon mitigation system is determined by the construction of the house, not the concentration of radon in the house. A state or nationally qualified contractor should be hired to design and install the system in accordance with the local, state or national standards used in the area where the house is located.

Radon mitigation or reduction requires more than just sealing cracks in the foundation. Active soil depressurization has proven to be cost-effective and reliable for reducing radon gas in a building. A depressurization system draws air and radon gas from beneath the foundation and exhausts it outside the building. The termination point of the exhaust should be far enough away from windows and door openings so it will not re-enter. A common design for the system is a plastic pipe connected to the soil through a hole in a slab floor, through a sump lid connection, or beneath a plastic sheet in a crawl space. Attached to the pipe is a quiet, continuously operating fan that discharges the radon outdoors.

Additional parts of a house or building may need special attention when designing the radon mitigation system:

  • If the return-air ductwork for a forced-air HVAC system is located beneath a concrete slab floor, then the vacuum created by the blower fan can pull radon into the system if the duct is not sealed.
  • Soil air drawn from beneath a floor or in a crawl space is commonly high in moisture. If the system is not designed and installed properly, this moisture will condense and pool inside the ventilation pipe.
  • Local building codes may require the piping for a radon mitigation system be installed during construction of the house to allow for future mitigation needs.

The cost to install a radon mitigation system can range from $800 to $1,500, with a national average of $1,200. For more information about radon and mitigation systems, visit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website in the United States, or visit the Health Canada website in Canada.

Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Slab, Basement or Crawl Space?

By Ken Roleke, NPI Franchise Owner, Tucson, Arizona

Basement_shutterstock_99750089Why are slab foundations prevalent in some areas, while basements or crawl spaces are more common in others, and in some areas you find a mix? Cost, comfort and practicality are all factors.

Basements are the most expensive part of the house to construct. They take a long time to build, and they require more labor and materials. Furthermore, basements are often home to flooding, moisture and radon gas issues.

But basements offer all that extra space. In densely populated areas, where land is expensive, basements are the norm because they offer extra square footage on the same size building lot. Normally, a house built on a slope will have a basement so that the builder doesn’t have to do the extensive excavation to make a level site needed for a crawl space or slab. However, basements may not be practical in high water table areas and where rock would have to be blasted or otherwise removed to excavate the site.

Building a crawl space involves no more excavation than a slab and could be comparable to slab cost depending on concrete and lumber pricing at the time. Often, HVAC equipment fits inside a crawl space, and they offer easy access to all utilities for repair or remodeling.

Slabs can be the cheapest and fastest to build. There will be few if any stairs in a one-story house. The biggest disadvantages of a slab foundation are that the HVAC equipment and hot water heater are either installed in the attic, or they take away from living space (and wires and pipes are not as accessible).

Cost of land, frost line, high water tables and unstable soil all are factors to weigh. Even if you want a basement, you have to consider whether it is worth the extra cost when everything else in the area is on slab. Personal preferences also factor into the decision — walking on hard concrete versus a softer, framed floor; finished floor options; and the absence of stairs all could be factors.

Tagged: , , , , ,

Water in My Basement? Never

By Roland Bates, President, NPI/GPI

Grading_shutterstock_135142733No home owner would knowingly do anything that would lead to a wet basement. “Knowingly” being the operative word.

Let’s start with the builder. Hopefully, every builder knows to grade the yard in such a fashion that rainwater will naturally run away from the house on all four sides. If that’s done, then so far so good.

Many home owners like to add flowerbeds next to the house to enhance the beauty of the property (the maintenance of which virtually eliminates any free time they might otherwise have, but that story is for another day). That flowerbed next to the house is now flat, or nearly flat, and won’t necessarily direct rainwater away from the house. Sometimes home owners go one step further and use landscape timbers to wrap or frame the flowerbeds next to the house. Now we have a framed-in, flat space next to the house that rather than shedding rainwater probably traps it. This is not a guarantee that this will lead to a wet basement, but it greatly increases the odds.

Let’s go back to the builder for a moment. I couldn’t find a picture that shows this and was too lazy to keep looking, so please use your imagination. Depending on how the builder ties a sidewalk into a patio or driveway and wraps that sidewalk back toward and close to the house, this trapped space between the sidewalk and house — just like the landscape timbers mentioned previously — can act as a dam that holds water that just might find a way into the basement.

A missing downspout is a common cause for a wet basement. It might be something as simple as the homeowner removed it while mowing the grass and forgot to replace it — and then it rained that night.

How about a wet basement and an optical illusion? My neighbor told me he got water in one corner of his basement every time it rained hard. The gutter and downspout in this corner looked fine, and the grading appeared sufficiently pitched to shed rainwater. However, when I pulled back all the mulch piled up in this corner, I found a significant depression causing negative grading. Rather than shedding rainwater away from the house, it was being funneled directly toward this corner. Once discovered, it was a relatively easy fix for my neighbor.

A point I would like to leave you with is this: A home inspector is not going to routinely pull back mulch to look for negative grading. It could be there and simply hidden by an optical illusion. A good inspector can tell you a lot, but based on the limited time on the premises, they can’t tell you everything.

Tagged: , , , , , , , ,