Today’s Tip: Uneven Floors Could Be Cause for Concern

Wood Floor Brick Wall_shutterstock_153154325Does your home have uneven floors? If it’s an old home, then it could just be a result of normal settling of the house. But if you have a newer home (and even in some older homes), it could mean trouble. Here are some common causes of uneven floors in homes:

  • Support Problems. Your house has a system of support columns and floor joists. The columns support the weight of the house, and the joists support your floors. If there are too few columns supporting the joists, then your floors may sag. How to tell if this is a problem? Check out the area where the floor meets the walls. Gaps or squeaky floors could mean this is your problem.
  • Foundation Settling. Some settling is certainly normal, especially in older homes. But uneven floors could be a sign of foundation problems, so you may want to have your foundation checked by a structural engineer.
  • Moisture Issues. If you have ongoing moisture in your basement or crawl space, mold could develop, and it could cause damage to the foundation, resulting in uneven floors. It’s best to call in an expert to find the cause of the moisture and to resolve the problem sooner rather than later.
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Before You Buy, Find out if House Is Well-insulated

Submitted by Ken Roleke, NPI Franchise Owner, Tucson, Arizona

AtticBefore World War II, energy costs were low, and homes were usually built without insulation. Some houses were built without insulation as late as the early 1970s. As the fuel most commonly used for home heating went from wood to coal to oil and natural gas, it changed from locally sourced to an internationally traded commodity. Prices spiked with the OPEC oil embargo in 1973, leading to increased awareness and energy conservation.

There are U.S. Department of Energy codes and International Code Council codes that serve as guidelines, but energy codes are regulated at the state and local level. One exception is manufactured housing, which is subject to federal energy standards. The guidelines create climate zones, with higher R-value wall and attic insulation stipulated in the colder northern zones.

A home inspector inspecting an older house will check if, indeed, the house is insulated. The attics of most older houses have been insulated or had extra insulation added over time because the attics are usually accessible. Insulating the walls is more complicated and expensive. And, if there is no vapor barrier, moisture could get trapped in the wall cavities. It is easier to make sure there is a proper vapor barrier, insulating the exterior wall at the same time the exterior cladding is replaced, as opposed to blowing in insulation to stud cavities. An inspector will look for signs of moisture, mold, peeling paint and even rotting wood where the wall insulation retrofit was not done properly.

One insulation material seldom used now that an inspector may run across is vermiculite. Vermiculite mined before 1990 could contain asbestos and should not be disturbed. Sometimes foil was installed to reflect heat back into the house. Other older materials an inspector might see are slag wool, mineral wool, and even straw and old newspaper.

Today, a variety of insulation materials are used. Rigid insulation is made in a variety of sizes and materials and most often installed on the exterior wall side. There are SIPs, structural insulated panels, which are structural building panels made of boards with foam insulation sandwiched inside. There are spray foams that go in stud cavities, in the form of open-cell and closed-cell foams. There are ICF, insulated concrete forms, where rigid insulation serves as the stay-in-place forms for poured concrete walls. But those materials are more likely to be used in commercial, specialty and custom home construction, as they are more expensive than the two insulation materials that dominate house insulation.

Fiberglass is used in the form of plain batts and blankets, or faced with kraft paper or foil as a vapor barrier, and as loose fill. Cellulose is usually blown in as loose fill. Fiberglass has a higher R-value per inch than cellulose.

Home inspections are normally noninvasive, so an inspector will not always be able to identify the insulating material, although sometimes there will be an open wall cavity or hole that will allow him to do so. More often than not, there will be either visual or actual attic access, in which case the inspector will check the type of insulation used and check for proper installation. A common problem he will see is insulation missing or not evenly distributed. Using an infrared camera during the inspection can identify gaps and missing insulation that might not otherwise be detected in the walls and inaccessible areas of the attic.

With everything going on in the home-buying process, insulation is something the home buyer is probably not thinking about. A home inspector can determine whether a home is properly insulated, another facet of the home inspection that can save the home buyer from unexpected future expenses.

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Today’s Tip: Solar Panels Can Reduce Energy Use

Couple + Inspection Report_shutterstock_173724578With energy costs continuing to increase, many home owners are looking at alternative sources of energy to save money on their energy bills. One of these alternative sources is solar energy.

The average home owner saves $1,000 a year on energy costs by installing solar panels on the roof of their home, and that includes the cost of the solar panels. Your federal government also may give tax credits for installing a solar energy system. Moreover, when your solar system generates more energy than your home can immediately use, the system can either store the excess energy for use later or send the energy back to the power grid, which most utility companies will pay or credit you for.

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Cracks in Plaster or Drywall: OK or a Bad Sign?

Q. The house I plan to make an offer on has some hairline cracks in the plaster walls. Is this bad? Should I walk away from this house?

Man in Empty HouseA. Cracks in any circumstance are never really a good thing to happen to plaster in older homes and drywall in newer homes. The big question that always comes to mind is what caused the cracks to occur? Is it settlement, or a structural problem? Is it just poor finishing and workmanship in installing the drywall? Is any crack ever acceptable?

Any home is subject to settlement that is typically caused by poor water remediation that lacks a good gutter and drainage system to carry water away from the home, as well as proper positive-to-negative grading around the home. Without these key elements water accumulation can cause settlement, which eventually can lead to cracks in plaster and drywall.

Homes in their early stages of completion within the first year can typically settle just as a result of new construction, from shrinkage of materials — for example, wood framing shrinkage and concrete foundations cracking. As you know, concrete always cracks, but is it minor, moderate or severe? This leads to the guide of determining size of cracks and what to do when they occur. A minor crack is typically classified as hairline up to 1/8 of an inch. A moderate sized crack is classified as 1/8 to 1/4 inch. Cracks 1/4 inch or larger should be further examined by a qualified structural engineer, especially if they involve foundational issues, which will lead to probable severe cracking in plaster and drywall.

Cracks in plaster and drywall are never really a good thing, but the severity of the crack might be the telltale signs of something more problematic. It is best to always have cracks looked at by a qualified inspector, contractor or even possibly a structural engineer.

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Has Your Home Ever Flooded? Here Are Some Solutions

Submitted by Dale Senkow, GPI Franchise Owner, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan

Senkow2In some homes, water may make its way into the basement. There are, however, ways to prevent this from happening. A home inspector will look to see if the landscape (grading) slopes away from the home (positive grading) and make note of the downspouts — downspouts need to extend out and away from the home. Checking the grading is something that does take a bit of a trained eye like that of a home inspector. You also want to make sure there are no holes in the ground around the outside perimeter of the home, as these areas could fill with water that seeps into the ground and could make its way into the home.

Sometimes positive slope and good drainage may not be good enough. Water may, in fact, be working its way through the home’s footing, which is located under the basement walls. Linoleum can soak up water, and sometimes after water has entered the building mold can be noticed on the back side of the linoleum. A possible solution for this type of water intrusion could be a sump pump and pit with an exterior or interior weeping tile or French drainage system.

A contractor may suggest an interior weeping tile system if there is too much concrete around the home. An exterior waterproofing system is typically the best practice for a leaky foundation: Generally, a basement can be about 8 feet deep. The contractor will use a backhoe to dig down this deep. The building will need to be dug around the exterior. The outside of the foundation needs to be very clean and then the cracks can filled with hydraulic cement or other approved methods. Once dried, the foundation walls can be sealed and waterproofed, and an exterior weeping tile system can be placed around the exterior of the home.

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Introduction to Housing Variety

Submitted by Ken Roleke, NPI Franchise Owner, Tucson, Arizona

ȦPA home inspector in Tucson, Arizona, where I live and work now, will seldom see a basement. In Queens, New York, where I moved from, one would seldom see a house without one. Houses built before 1900 may have their original shells, but they’re probably very different on the inside, as plumbing, electric, windows and more have been updated over the years.

Houses throughout the United States and Canada may all have a roof, a foundation, walls, windows and doors, HVAC, plumbing and electrical systems, but there can be substantial variations. GPI and NPI home inspectors inspect a stimulating variety of houses daily. We find houses built in different eras, using the architecture, technology and materials available at that place and time. There are houses built in a range of sizes, with a wide variety of styles. There are multifamily and single-family houses. And houses are built to fit in the conditions dictated by the diverse climates, temperatures and soil conditions the United States and Canada encompass.

Home inspectors encounter variety in every building system, more than can be mentioned in one blog post: There are flat roofs, sloped roofs, composition roofs, tile roofs, metal roofs. There are basements, slabs, crawl spaces. We see wood frame, steel frame and load-bearing masonry, as well as a variety of siding, including stucco, brick, block, exterior plywood. There are oil, gas and electric furnaces. There’s hydronic, hot air and radiant heating. For cooling, we see evaporative coolers, air conditioning, whole-house fans. And there are lead, iron, ABS, PVC, PEX, polybutylene and copper pipes.

You get the picture — and we’re only scratching the surface. That is why each month my blog article will cover a different building system to show how each system has evolved over time, and how it varies by region.

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Insulation Tips

AtticMaking sure you have the proper amount of insulation in your attic can save you money on energy bills. Energy.gov has some great tips for insulating:

  • Consider factors such as your climate, home design, and budget when selecting insulation for your home.
  • Use higher R-value insulation, such as spray foam, on exterior walls and in cathedral ceilings to get more insulation with less thickness.
  • Install attic air barriers such as wind baffles along the entire attic eave to help ensure proper airflow from the soffit to the attic. Ventilation helps with moisture control and reducing summer cooling bills, but don’t ventilate your attic if you have insulation on the underside of the roof. Ask a qualified contractor for recommendations.
  • Be careful how close you place insulation next to a recessed light fixture—unless it is insulation contact (IC) rated—to avoid a fire hazard. See the Lighting section for more information about recessed lights.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions, and wear the proper protective gear when installing insulation.

For more information about the type and amount of insulation recommended for your area, visit http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/tips-insulation in the United States and http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/co/grho/grho_010.cfm in Canada.

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Pinpointing Source of Moisture Can Be Tricky

Submitted by Lawrence Englehart, GPI Franchise Owner, Halifax, Nova Scotia

EnglehartQ. The buyer for our home had a home inspector with an infrared camera, and he showed them what he thought was a leak in the kitchen ceiling, which is directly below the upstairs bathroom toilet. Obviously we wanted to get it fixed right away, so we hired a plumber to remove the toilet, but they could not see anything leaking or any water damage. How is it possible the home inspector got it wrong?

A. I’m not sure if I can properly answer your concerns without knowing the full details of the situation you describe. However, it might be possible that the home inspector was not wrong. As an example, several years ago I had a similar experience following an inspection of a home that had a jetted tub in the master bathroom. As part of my inspection process, I filled the tub with cool water to just a bit over the jet nozzles, ran the tub for several minutes and then drained it.

In fact, part of my inspection procedure is to test all of a home’s water fixtures by turning on each of the faucets, flushing toilets, testing showers, etc.

Following the inspection of the various plumbing fixtures, I used my infrared camera to scan this property and noticed a thermal anomaly in the living room ceiling which, in my professional opinion, indicated a possible water leakage from the bathroom above this area. To more accurately diagnose the problem, I then used a moisture meter on the identified area, which confirmed the presence of an active water intrusion/leakage (>58.1%).

The inspection report included pictures of this area and described these findings as: “The infrared camera identified a thermal anomaly in the living room ceiling, which appears to be directly below the jetted tub in the master bathroom. The moisture meter also confirmed the presence of an active water intrusion/leakage. Further intrusive investigation will be required by a licensed plumber to confirm the exact cause of the water intrusion, as well as a cost estimate to repair.”

Just like you, the seller was diligent and hired a qualified plumber to repair any problems, but they could not find the leakage associated with the jetted tub. Because their plumber did not have an infrared camera or a moisture meter, and the sale of this home was in jeopardy, I agreed to meet the seller and their plumber the following day. At that meeting I showed what the thermal anomaly looked like with the infrared camera, as well as what the moisture meter was measuring. Since the access panel on the side of the tub offered minimal viewing, the seller authorized the plumber to cut a hole in the living room ceiling where the high moisture area was identified. It was then discovered that the slip joint nut above the P-Trap had become loose. The minor leakage finally stopped once this fitting was tightened.

Now this is an example of how not all water leakage can be easily identified from a basic visual inspection. Those professionals who use an infrared camera know that when water comes into contact with drywall it will eventually evaporate into the surrounding air. The effects of evaporation will cause a slight cooling of that area, which should then become visible an infrared camera or to a person who is trained on how to use an infrared camera. However, it is important to note that an infrared camera does not see moisture directly, but can only see minor temperature variations. That is why a moisture meter must be used to further identify whether the material has been cooled due to a lack of insulation, or possible air intrusion or as we know from this situation, from water leakage.

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For Maximum Comfort, a Heat Source in Every Room Is Necessary

Submitted by Roland Bates, President, NPI/GPI

Family in living roomEvery livable space in your home should have its own heat source. You can have electric radiant heat in the floor or ceiling, hot water circulating systems and the like. For simplicity sake, the following pertains to a forced-air gas furnace:

Ideally, each room will have a supply and a return. The supply carries warm air to the room, and the return carries it back to the furnace to be reheated. Typically kitchens and bathrooms would not have returns to lessen the possibility of recirculating unpleasant odors and possibly moisture throughout the house. Although a furnace can be located in the garage, there should not be a supply or return register (for the purpose of heating the garage) located in the garage because car exhaust fumes could find their way into the home.

Supply registers are usually located on the outside wall and the return registers on the inside wall. If the house resides in a colder climate, it would be preferable to locate the registers in the floor to take advantage of the rising heat. If the house is located in an area where there are more hot than cold days, then it might be preferable to locate the supplies in the ceiling to take advantage of colder air dropping when the air conditioning is running.

As inspectors, we occasionally find homes that have room additions but for whatever reason, the contractor did not tie into the existing ductwork and simply hoped that heat will migrate into that new space. Following inspection standards of practice, a home inspector would write that up as an issue. (If tying into the existing duct work is not practical, then adding an electric baseboard heater might be a solution.)

To check the air flow from a supply, an inspector might use a digital or infrared thermometer, and/or an anemometer to measure air flow. Occasionally, we find a supply register present but not connected. Again, this is an issue that should be included in the report.

Put on your thinking caps for a parting question: Imagine a home in a cold climate, and it’s the dead of winter. The house has a bedroom located over a garage. This bedroom has a supply but no return. Otherwise, the furnace works properly. Will that room be warm or cold?

Answer: That room will be cold. The supply brings warm air to the room where it dissipates, but if the air is not carried back to the furnace to be reheated, then this room will be cold. This is especially true if the door to the room is closed.

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