Protect Vacant Properties from Vandalism

By Rodney Twyford, NPI Franchise Owner, San Antonio, Texas

Modern Building + Landscaping_HorizontalMost rental and leased commercial properties will likely be vacant at some point between tenants. Not only are vacant properties losing income for landlords, but they also become a target for vandals. According to the FBI, an estimated loss of $15.5 billion in 2012 resulted from crimes related to vandalism. Real estate property and vacant property attracts vandalism like a magnet. There are, however a variety of ways that commercial building owners can deter vandals and protect their vacant property.

Maintain good curb appeal. Vacant property should be well maintained to not only attract new tenants, but also give the appearance of activity and security so vandals think the property is being watched. This should include lawn and landscaping maintenance, as well as the keeping gutters clean, clearing sidewalks and removing fliers stuck inside doors. A new welcome mat and seasonal decorations can also help the property appear inhabited.

Don’t advertise the vacancy. Understandably, a sign advertising the availability of a vacant commercial space is typical and expected from most real estate agents; however, people passing by do not need to see that the entire property is vacant. Blinds should be installed on all windows and closed to prevent exposing vacant interior spaces.

Neighbors can help. Neighbors living or working near a vacant property can help by parking one or more vehicles in the parking lot, randomly switching parking spaces on different days. Switching a few interior and exterior lights on two to three times a week is also a great deterrent and lets people know there is activity in the building. This can either be done by the landlord, a trusted neighbor or even a timer. Installing motion-activated exterior flood lights is also a great way to prevent vandalism.

Monitor the property. The best security is always a nosey neighbor or diligent landlord who visits the property at random times during each day. It is important for the time of your visits to be unpredictable, as crimes often occur after the property has been watched for routine activity.

Install a security system. Security systems can get expensive, but they are never more costly than the damage from vandalism or burglary. Security systems have become more sophisticated, with video monitoring that could help identify the intruders. These added features will not only help protect your property from vandalism, but they will also increase the overall value of the property and give you or the leasing agent additional features to promote.

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Grow-ops: Out of Sight Should Not Mean Out of Mind

Marijuana PlantsIndoor marijuana grow-ops are more common than some people may realize. With more legalization across the world, individual cultivating may increase. Droughts, little sunlight, flooding, legalization, poor economic situations and a host of other factors can lead to individuals choosing to grow marijuana plants inside their home or commercial building. These operations result in property damages that may be minute or extreme based on the size and length of time that the indoor growing is active.

Not Your Everyday Houseplants
Marijuana plants differ from houseplants mostly due to the size and the number of plants people keep. Most indoor operations have enough plants to make up a small outdoor garden. The next difference is the massive quantities of certain growing tools needed for survival and growth of the plants. Grow-op owners need equipment such as water hoses for watering and chemicals, which are dispersed to the plants to provide the nutrients they require or enhance their normal growth. Some growers might reroute water lines to make it easier to water marijuana plants.

In a grow-op, marijuana’s needs for sunlight and humidity are mimicked by using high-voltage grow lights that are expensive to operate. Moreover, some utility companies report suspiciously high electrical use to police. For these reasons, grow-op owners often illegally bypass the building’s electrical meter to steal electricity. Such modifications to an electrical system can make the system unsafe.

The high levels of humidity that result from growing marijuana in turn create excessive moisture inside the house or building. According to Home Heroes Inc., attics in marijuana grow-ops have average humidity levels of 80 percent. A residential home with normal humidity will have a level around 55 percent. When moisture becomes prevalent inside a grow-op building, mold and wood rot can soon begin to form, causing structural damage and expensive cleanup and repair.

The plants need to breathe, though, and high humidity makes that difficult. Venting becomes necessary, and growers often cut holes in floors, walls and ceilings to help circulate air. Many people will try to paint and patch holes to hide the existence of an indoor grow-op, which can mislead an unsuspecting home buyer into purchasing a severely damaged home.

A house or building that has been used as a grow-op can become a home buyer’s nightmare. Your home inspector knows the signs to look for and will be able to let you know if he/she suspects a house has been used as a grow-op. This is just one more reason to always have a home inspected before you buy.

NPI and GPI home inspectors have the necessary qualifications to recognize the signs of a grow-op in a home or commercial building. To find your local inspector, contact National Property Inspections in the United States and Global Property Inspections in Canada.

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Monitor Cracks in Your Commercial Building’s Foundation

iStock_000000976238XSmallCracks in poured concrete foundations can appear for many reasons. Cracks that are less than 1/8-inch with both surfaces even are generally caused by the shrinkage that occurs as concrete cures. Most of the time, these cracks will be vertical in nature and occur along the joints where the foundation forms come together. These are common and usually of no concern.

Diagonal cracks, many times starting in a corner or at a window or door opening, or horizontal cracks indicate foundation wall movement. This movement is usually inward. These types of cracks are caused by pressure exerted inward from the soil around the foundation. Water, whether it be rain or groundwater, can cause the soil surrounding the foundation to expand and contract creating a hydraulic ram effect pushing the wall inward.

With diagonal cracks, even cracks less than 1/8-inch should be of concern, as they do indicate movement and should be monitored. Cracks larger than 1/8-inch should also be monitored, especially if there are signs of moisture intrusion. As a rule of thumb, any wall leaning in more than 2 inches from plumb is structurally unsound and should be inspected by a foundation specialist or structural engineer.

A small crack in a newer building is of more concern than a small crack in an older building. NPI commercial property inspectors discuss with commercial building owners and buyers the severity of the crack(s), such as location and type of crack, and advise them not to pass on a building specifically because of cracks. Unless there are structural or moisture issues, most cracks can just be monitored and, if needed, many repairs are not hugely expensive. However, keep in mind that foundation issues come in many forms, and, when in doubt, you should consult a specialist.

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How Can I Determine Energy Loss in My Commercial Building?

RbyEnergy loss in buildings can occur in many areas and through many systems. Our focus will be on the most common areas of energy loss:

  • Hot- and cold-air leaks from a building. Energy is used to create conditioned air that is used to heat or cool a building. A heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system is usually one of a building’s largest energy users. In a forced-air HVAC system, the ductwork should be sealed to reduce the air escaping into an unconditioned space. Fans and blowers on these systems — and the motors driving them — must be properly maintained. Overheated and malfunctioning motors indicate mechanical or electrical problems that lead to more energy use. Sealing ductwork and regularly maintaining the motors and HVAC equipment can reduce the amount of energy used.
  • The building envelope. The building envelope separates the outdoor environment from the interior space. Areas of energy loss through the building envelope include the following:
    • Roof. Make sure the roof or attic area has adequate insulation. Penetrations through the roof, if not sealed properly, can enable conditioned air to escape and allow moisture into the building. If roof insulation gets wet, then the insulation value is greatly reduced and more energy is lost.
    • Walls. Walls between conditioned and unconditioned spaces may not have adequate insulation, or insulation may be missing. Installing insulation can reduce energy loss in walls.
    • Doors, window frames and other wall penetrations. Doors and windows should fit properly and have weather-stripping installed to minimize conditioned air escape. All wall penetrations, including door and window frames, should be sealed where the frame meets the exterior wall surface in order to minimize air loss.
  • Electrical systems. Studies have shown that approximately 20 percent of electricity consumption is used in lighting. Commercial buildings account for an estimated 40 percent of that use. Energy consumption can be reduced by replacing older light fixtures with newer, more efficient fixtures and bulbs.

By reducing the amount of energy used in a building, the cost to operate the building is reduced. Moreover, many energy-efficient upgrades can pay for themselves over time.

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What’s a ‘Green Roof’?

Submitted by Roland Bates, President, NPI and GPI

green-rooftop-waterproofing-systemImagine a combination of grass, plants, shrubs and possibly small trees growing on top of a building. A green roof can be just about anything. It’s possible to have green roofs on residential property, but more likely they will be found on flat commercial rooftops.

One of the reasons for a green roof is to reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the top of the building, making it less hot inside the building in the summer and in warm climates. A green roof can reduce energy consumption for cooling and the like.

Depending on how it’s built, a green roof could add a lot of weight to the roof; therefore, it might be necessary to beef up the structure to carry the extra load. Naturally, this would add to the cost of the building, as would the addition of a sprinkler system to maintain all of the plants, etc.

NPI and GPI do a lot of inspections on existing commercial buildings, as well as a lot of commercial draw inspections (new construction). Green roofs are a trend that we’re not seeing much of on new buildings. One contention is that the dark green leaves from the plants absorb more UV heat than does some sort of lighter-colored reflective roof, so maybe this is why companies aren’t really buying into the idea of a green rooftop. It will be interesting to see how popular they become in the coming years.

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How Should You Decide to Hire a Home Inspector?

Submitted by Doug Kendall, Global Property Inspections Franchise Owner, Kanata, Ontario, Canada

StockShoot0390As a consumer, you should have a team of professionals you trust, call on and feel good about in the process of buying a home or property.

Start building your team before you start looking at homes or commercial properties: financial, inspector, contractors, Realtor, lawyer, moving company, etc.

You can ask your Realtor for some recommendations for an inspector, but you must follow through and interview the inspectors yourself. You also need to look on your own and check out other inspectors. An inspector should be happy to know you are checking him or her out and that they could become part of your buying team.

For your property inspector, you should consider some of the following:

  • Take time to meet some of the inspectors and get to know them like you would your Realtor.
  • Know the way each inspector delivers the report and what the report will look like.
  • Every inspector is different: Some are very analytical, some team players, etc., and you need to know which one best fits your needs.
  • Does the inspector carry E&O insurance and general liability insurance?
  • Do they have a current background review?
  • Are they part of a franchise? This does add value to you, as franchises normally have a high standard of professional ism and they want the public to be confident in their services. It is a perceived value in the world. Call the franchise and associations they belong to. Do your due diligence. A home is a big purchase and a lot of money.
  • Review the inspector’s standards of practice so you know what a home inspection is and can ask questions about the inspection process. There is also a preinspection agreement that you will be asked to sign that lays out what the inspector will be doing and his or her limitations.
  • Know how the inspector will perform the inspection. We all have a system of doing things, so knowing the inspector’s system is good. It keeps everything on track, and you may have specific areas you want them to focus on — areas like potential room expansions, where load-bearing walls are, what is really in the basement.
  • What other services does the inspector offer — radon, air quality, termite, infrared, energy inspections? These are all added value to you to have as a one-stop shop and a professional resource.
  • Building the rapport with the inspector gives you a source of help when you need information or a question answered at an open house or showing. A quick photo and email can save you a lot of time and energy — and maybe money.
  • Know what tools the inspector uses to ensure that you are getting a thorough inspection.
  • Does the inspector have a referral list of contractors if you need tradespeople to quote repairs?
  • Take time to build your property-buying team and review inspectors’ websites and referral notes posted.
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Inspectors Must Take Care When Working Around Electricity

Submitted by Garry Pigeon, GPI Franchise Owner, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Electrical BoxNPI and GPI inspectors recently read comments from Roland Bates, president of NPI/GPI, regarding an electrical shock incident relating to one of our inspection colleagues. With this in mind, I’d like to focus on electrical safety as applies to a typical NPI/GPI inspector performing a residential or commercial inspection.

First things first: electric shock refers to electrical incidents relating to human contact with energized electrical equipment that result in injury. Electrocution is an electric shock fatality. I have investigated and reported on several of the former (including my own) and thankfully, never had direct involvement with the latter.

There are several hundred sources of information if you Google electric shock or electrocution, so this blog will not go into scientific or medical detail. Suffice it to say that, scientifically speaking, electricity in the body can be interesting, oddly curious and often devastating.

As inspectors, here are a couple of things we can do to mitigate our chances of experiencing an interesting or devastating incident.

  1. Have and know how to operate good-quality electrical test equipment. I use a Fluke voltage detector and a Fluke digital multimeter. Flir and Amprobe also make excellent equipment.
  2. I test all metal components and assemblies that have the potential to provide a current path if not effectively grounded or bonded to ground. This includes all metal enclosures and covers of switchgear and distribution panels, electrical masts and meter bases, gas lines, metal water lines and any ground connections that are accessible. This may seem excessive, but many electric shock incidents are related to ground faults.
  3. Needless to say, testing also includes a representative number of receptacles and all GFCIs to determine proper wiring and presence of acceptable grounding.

As a certified electrician, I do not like to see anyone other than other fully qualified electricians access electrical equipment beyond the point of digital testing. That being said, as inspectors we are expected to provide our clients with information on the condition of electrical equipment. The ASHI and CAHPI standards of practice say that we shall inspect “interior components of service panels and subpanels.”

  • Do you know the procedure for doing this as safely as a qualified electrician does?
  • Will you be wearing the proper PPE?
  • If you are performing commercial inspections, are you comfortable with opening 600-volt three-phase fused disconnect switches and/or 347/600 V panel dead-front covers? Don’t even think of going near 5 kV gear.

Obviously this is a big topic that I believe requires further discussion, education and training at all levels within our industry.

I hope never to read a notice from Mr. Bates that refers to electrocution rather than electric shock.

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Some Days I Don’t Inspect Houses

Submitted by Paul Duffau, National Property Inspections Franchise Owner, Asotin, Wash.

Fixed-a-DSC_0321And now, for something totally different. A restaurant. They’re always interesting to inspect. Sometimes, though, you see stuff and you scratch the joint from the “favorite eateries” list. Don’t think that will happen today.

Just a note — there are no state standards for commercial inspections. When Washington passed the home inspector licensing law and the regulations were written, the limit was set at  four-unit buildings to comprise residential construction.

Commercial inspections usually follow ASTM standards but can be modified by any of the parties to include more or less information. As an example, I do American with Disabilities Act (ADA) surveys to help businesses stay in compliance with federal law. The ASTM standard specifically excludes this type of work, but nothing prevents me from performing it — or charging for it. It’s an extra fee.

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