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.

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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.

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Ask the Inspector: What Are Weep Holes?

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Brick can be a structural component of a home, serving as the wall itself, or it can be a veneer, which is a type of siding. As a veneer, a single thickness of brick is added to the outside of a wood-framed home and serves the same purpose as any exterior siding.

One way to identify the presence of brick veneer is to look for weep holes — small openings at the bottom of brick veneer walls. Weep holes are designed to give moisture that accumulates between the home’s interior wooden wall and the exterior veneer a way out. Without weep holes for ventilation, moisture may become trapped in this cavity, causing mold, reducing the effectiveness of insulation, encouraging the formation of rot and attracting pests.

Weep holes can often be identified by open slots on a course, or row, of bricks near the foundation. The holes are typically 32 to 33 inches apart and should be kept unobstructed. It is a good idea to check and clear weep holes periodically. Do not allow dirt, mulch or broken pieces of mortar to block the holes and trap moisture inside.

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Top Five Problems Revealed During a Home Inspection

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

Purchasing a house is a major decision, and a home inspection report can be used to assist in the decision-making process. Here are some of the more common issues found during a home inspection.

Poor Grading and Drainage
Water should run away from any structure to help prevent moisture intrusion. If the soil around a house slopes toward the house, or if water pools around the perimeter of the foundation, that moisture can create hydronic pressure in the soil that can move the foundation, causing cracks and leaks that can lead to extensive damage and expensive repairs. If water wicks into the wood framing members, the wood will rot over time. This moisture also provides a haven for wood-destroying organisms (WDO) because it provides a water and food source.

Erosion around the perimeter of a house may be caused by water spilling over gutters due to clogged downspouts or downspouts that terminate near the foundation. Downspout extensions or spill ways can be installed to keep water away from the foundation.

Roof Coverings
The roof of a house is designed to withstand most of what Mother Nature can dish out, whether it be rain, wind or sun. If installed properly, the roof should keep water out of the home.

The life expectancy for roof coverings varies depending on the material. Asphalt composite shingles, for instance, typically have a life expectancy of 15 to 25 years. As the roof covering ages, it can become more susceptible to water infiltration and leaking.

Plumbing Problems
Notice a theme here? Controlling water is one of the most important issues in home maintenance.

Leaking supply water and drain lines can cause damage to walls and floors, or they can become the water source for mold and mildew. Outdated (galvanized) or problematic systems (polybutylene) can develop leaks more frequently. Wax rings under toilets can develop leaks and damage the floor around the toilet or the ceiling below.

Electrical Issues
House fires caused by faulty wiring and overloading circuits are common. It is not unusual for a home inspector find evidence of DIY additions to a home’s electrical system. Many times these additions work but were not done properly, causing safety issues.

Exposed wire connections and double taps in the panel are also common problems. If your home inspector finds these or other electrical issues, he/she will recommend that you have the system evaluated and repaired by a qualified licensed electrician

HVAC Havoc
Inadequate maintenance of the HVAC equipment is common. Dirty condenser coils on the air conditioner condenser unit and dirty furnace filters can lead to major repairs. The equipment may be at or near its life expectancy and need to be replaced. Gas-fired furnaces may not burn properly.

With proper maintenance, an HVAC system can continue to heat and cool the house, but many times heating and cooling systems are “out of sight out of mind.”

This is a sampling of typical issues found during a home inspection. These items may vary depending on the geographical location of the property and the overall maintenance of the property.

Looking for a professional, qualified home inspector in your area? In the United States, visit http://npiweb.com/FindAnInspector. In Canada, visit http://gpiweb.ca/FindAnInspector.

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Common Defects in Newly Built Homes

By Randy Yates, Training Consultant Administrator, NPI/GPI Corporate

Home under construction uid 1When it comes to new-home construction, there really is no limit as to what can go wrong or not be done correctly during building. Defects are common; in fact, it has been said that a home inspector can sometimes find more things wrong with a newly constructed home than an existing home. This is why it’s important to always have a home inspection when buying a house — even if the house is newly built.

You might wonder what kinds of defects a new house could possibly have. Here is a list of problems home inspectors at National Property Inspections and Global Property Inspections often find:

Structural Defects
Premature cracking and settlement in foundation walls can be caused when builders don’t allow the proper amount of curing time for concrete in poured and block foundation walls and slabs. In addition, improper framing techniques — which may not be apparent at first — can cause cracks to develop in drywall. These are typically hairline in nature.

HVAC Problems
Our inspectors occasionally discover that the vent pipe from a gas-fired furnace has not been connected and has come loose during the initial operation. This is a major safety hazard, as carbon monoxide may enter the residence. In one situation, the PVC pipes used to vent a gas-fired furnace were not properly glued together. In addition, our inspectors sometimes find thermostats that do not respond to normal functions. Another common problem is missing drip legs on condensate lines.

Electrical Errors
The list is long for typical electrical problems, and most would not be obvious to the average home buyer or owner. The problem with defects in your home’s electrical system is that most are a fire and/or safety hazard. Here are the most common electrical problems our inspectors find in new houses:

  • Missing switch plates or receptacle covers
  • Improperly wired outlets
  • Open grounds — ground wire is not connected properly
  • Reversed polarity
  • Open knock-outs in the main electrical panel
  • Improper wire sizes on breakers
  • Double-taps on breakers in main panels — when two wires connect to a single breaker
    Jumpers ahead of the main lugs (double-tapping) — when two wires connect to a single lug

Plumbing Blunders
Plumbing problems are something you certainly don’t want in a new house. Leaks can cause major damage and mold issues, while other defects are more of a nuisance. But shouldn’t your brand-new home be free of nuisances? Here are some of the most common plumbing issues:

  • Unglued or improperly glued PVC pipe connections frequently develop leaks — you may never know about the weak joint until standing water begins to seep through
  • Hot/cold reversed faucets and fixtures
  • Bathroom sink drain stoppers that were not connected
  • Improperly vented plumbing systems may be noisy and/or smelly
  • Drain pipes that were not connected (One of our inspectors really did find a drain pipe in a crawl space that was never connected)

Miscellaneous Mistakes
Believe it or not, our inspectors have found all of the following problems in newly constructed houses:

  • Incomplete door hardware on closet doors, cabinetry and entrance doors
  • Improper fire-rated assemblies for pull-down attic stairs
  • Missing handrails on stairs
  • Missing or insufficient insulation
  • Leaky windows
  • Siding defects
  • Improper grading, which could lead to water intrusion and foundation damage

What these defects tell us is that if you are moving into a newly built house, don’t skip the home inspection. Even the best builders in your area use subcontractors, so you can’t assume that everything in your house is top-quality just because you builder is. Plus, you have to allow for human error, which is how many of the problems mentioned here happen. So, even if you just had your house built, it’s worth the cost of a home inspection to ensure that everything was done correctly, and that your new home will be safe and worry-free.

To find an NPI home inspector in your area in the United States, please visit www.npiweb.com/FindAnInspector. To find a GPI inspector in your area in Canada, please visit www.gpiweb.ca/FindAnInspector.

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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.

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Home Inspection Red Flags

By Randy Yates, Training Consultant Administrator, NPI/GPI

“Buyer beware” is the catchphrase that often may not be given as advice to a home buyer or even to a property inspector. Certain problems that could be revealed during a home inspection would make the faintest of heart run away from a deal, but when you major issues are discovered, any buyer may run away fast. Here are some examples of red flags that could be discovered during a home inspection:

Too Many Roof Layers
Some areas now allow only one layer of asphalt or fiberglass composition shingles. Other areas allow two, but it’s rare for more than two layers to be considered acceptable. So, if you find a house that has three layers and the third layer looks like it was just installed, you may ask, “Why do I have to tear off a brand new roof?” It’s all about the weight factor, and the third layer will tip the scale and add too much weight to the home’s structure.

Foundation Issues
If your home inspector discovers a foundation that has anchoring plates installed on the inside and notes that they “may require frequent torqueing with seasonal changes,” you should know that this is not part of normal maintenance.

Electrical Issues
You inspect a home built prior to 1950-ish. Knob-and-tube (KNT) wiring all over the place. Although the National Electrical Code (NEC) may still recognize it, few insurance companies will provide coverage for houses with KNT because of the potential fire hazards.

These are just a few of the potential pitfalls to be aware of when buying a house. The good news is that every problem can be fixed, so don’t walk away just because a house has some issues. Whether major issues like those mentioned here and others are deal killers depends on a couple of things:

  • Will the seller repair the problems?
  • If the seller won’t repair the problems, will they discount the price so you can have the issues repaired?
  • If the seller won’t repair and won’t discount the price, do you have the time and money to repair the problems yourself?

If the seller is unwilling to work with you and you don’t have the money to fix the problems, then your best option may be to walk away from the deal.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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