Common Causes of Chimney-related Leaks

By Lawrence Englehart, GPI Franchise Owner, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Chimney_shutterstock_159544304Most people would be surprised to know that Nova Scotia gets an average precipitation of 1,388 mm per year — which equates to more than 54 inches of water hitting the ground, roof and chimney each year — so keeping water or excessive moisture out of our homes can be a constant battle.

Regardless of where you live, when it comes to typical penetrations of the roofing system, the chimney offers the most opportunities for water to make its way into the home. Here are examples of the four common causes of chimney-related leaks:

Rain Cap
Flue pipes come in many sizes, but 8”x8” or 8”x12” clay liners are typical, providing a large opening for water to get inside. If rain is allowed to freely flow down an open flue pipe, it will mix with soot or creosote and can create unsightly stains. A properly designed rain cap will not only minimize water entry, but it can help keep leaves and critters out.

Masonry Cap or Crown
The chimney cap or crown is a cement cover placed on top of the masonry chimney in an effort to shield the top of the bricks from the elements. A properly designed masonry cap should overhang each side by at least two inches and should gently slope away from the clay liner. Visible cracks or a poorly designed masonry cap could allow water in.

Deteriorated Mortar/Brick
The mortar between the brick will naturally deteriorate over time and will eventually need repointing. Repointing is the process of replacing the old mortar with new. Any visible gaps or cracks in the mortar will allow water to enter these voids and can cause significant damage through multiple freeze/thaw cycles.

Flashing Failure
Chimney flashing is designed to prevent water intrusion from where the chimney passes through the roof. Visible signs of excessive tar cover usually suggest past problems with leaks and nonprofessional installation. Sometimes the best place to inspect for flashing failure is from inside the attic space.

The inspection of a masonry chimney is part of a typical home inspection, but once they take possession of their new home, most homeowners never think about regular chimney maintenance. Your masonry chimney should be inspected each year by a qualified masonry contractor. And, if there are any wood burning stoves or fireplaces attached to the chimney, then your chimney it should be cleaned and inspected by chimney sweep. In Canada, your chimney sweep should be a WETT-certified.

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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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What You Need to Know About Structural Damage in a House

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

RE0057When a home inspector notes structural damage or defects in a house, home buyers often panic — and with good reason. Structural problems can be costly to repair. But how can you tell whether structural problems are minor or normal for the home’s age, or major and problematic? Houses settle over time, and a slightly sloping floor or unevenness should not cause alarm. However, if other changes are noted, and the sloping floor becomes more prominent, then this raises a red flag.

When you are having a home inspected, your inspector will check for signs of structural problems. Structural movement in a house may be caused by poor design, poor workmanship during the construction process, unstable soil, foundation issues, substandard materials, or a new driver mistakenly accelerating instead of braking and hitting the house.

Movement of the foundation is one of the most common structural issues. Recognizing early warning signs that may point to foundation issues and having these signs or problems verified and repaired in a timely manner can reduce the cost of repairs significantly.

There are four basic interior warning signs of structural problems in a house:

  • Cracks open in vinyl or ceramic tile.
  • Doors rub or do not latch properly.
  • Windows begin to stick or do not open or close properly.
  • Cracks appear in walls, usually over door openings or windows.

Inspecting the Foundation
On the exterior of the house, your home inspector will look down the walls to see whether the foundation or the framed walls are straight. A curve in the foundation could be evidence of foundation wall movement. The inspector will check for cracks in the foundation wall, as well as determine whether water is draining away from the foundation, as excessive water against the foundation can put more pressure on the walls and cause them to bow.

A foundation system includes the perimeter wall but may also include posts, beams and concrete pier supports. Posts should be straight, as well as secured at the base, the top and under the beams they support.

If concrete foundation walls are visible, the home inspector will check the walls for cracks. Concrete and block foundations usually have a few cracks, and not every crack is cause for concern. (Click here to read more about foundation cracks.) When concrete cures, it shrinks. If it does not shrink evenly, then it tends to crack. Minor hairline cracks in the mortar of a block foundation are not usually a concern. They should, however, be monitored for additional movement and addressed if they become larger.

  • Vertical cracks in foundation walls that are small and generally even in width are usually a low risk. A vertical crack that is larger at the top or the bottom is evidence of structural movement, either settlement or uplift.
  • Diagonal, or step cracks, are usually signs of movement. If these cracks are slight and consistent in width, then there may not be need for alarm. But if the cracks are larger at the top or bottom, or if they change over time, there may be significant movement occurring, which will need to be addressed.
  • Horizontal foundation cracks located in the upper third of a wall, if most of the wall is below grade, are usually caused by moisture freezing and thawing, creating pressure on the wall that can cause the wall to fail.

If a home inspector suspects major structural or foundation problems in a house, he/she should recommend an inspection by a foundation specialist or structural engineer to help determine whether there is structural damage that needs to be addressed or just normal settlement that should be monitored. Most foundation and structural movement can be stabilized and repaired if addressed before considerable damage occurs.

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Aluminum Wiring: Hazardous or Not?

By Randy Yates, Technical Supervisor and Technical Training Administrator, NPI/GPI Corporate

Aluminum WiringAs we in the home inspection industry know, the discovery aluminum wiring should be noted in a home inspection report. But as a home owner or buyer, you may wonder if there is cause for concern. Aluminum wiring was introduced as a result of a shortage of and escalating costs of copper in the late 1960s up to mid-1970s. It is estimated that aluminum wiring systems were installed in 1.5 million homes, and for these homes aluminum wiring systems are at the end of what is generally considered aluminum’s useful life, which is about 30 years.

In houses with aluminum wiring, some home owners discovered overheating was occurring, and this was attributed to the expansive and corrosive characteristics of aluminum wiring within the circuit connections. As a result, the National Electrical Code (NEC) declared aluminum wiring to be a potential fire hazard, and its use ceased.

The following are signs of premature failure of aluminum wiring observable to a home owner:

  • Unusually warm cover plates on switches and outlets
  • A burning plastic odor in the vicinity of a switch or outlet
  • Sparks, flame, smoke or arcing at switches or outlets
  • Flickering lights
  • Electrical features and appliances suddenly stop working and no circuit breakers have been tripped
  • Incandescent lights momentarily dim or brighten when a motor starts

If you have aluminum wiring in your home, you may wonder whether it is safe, legal or needs to be replaced. Here are some things to consider.

Is Aluminum Wiring Safe?
It can be, if the right components have been installed with the aluminum wiring and the system is in good condition.

Is It Legal?
The electrical codes don’t say that you can’t use aluminum wiring. In fact, it is recognized in the NEC. However, in some areas, insurance companies either won’t cover a house with aluminum wiring or will charge a higher premium to cover it.

Do I Need to Replace Aluminum Wiring in My House?
Maybe not entirely, but maybe in part. It really depends on whether the system is in good condition or you notice any of the signs listed above. However, to be certain the system is safe, you should have it inspected and evaluated by an electrician.

The NEC recognizes the use of aluminum wiring as long as all components used in installing the electrical system and components — switches, receptacles, fixtures and connectors — are rated for use in aluminum electrical wiring systems. Splice connectors also must be rated for use with aluminum wiring. Any component used must have an AL or AL/CU rating. (AL represents aluminum and CU represents copper.)

Only a thorough, invasive inspection — meaning removal of all electrical covers on junction boxes, all outlet and receptacle covers, and all receptacle and switches — can confirm that all components are rated for use in an aluminum wiring system, and this is outside the scope a home inspection.

The bottom line is that whenever a single-strand aluminum electrical system is discovered during the course of a home inspection, the inspector should recommend that the system be fully inspected by a qualified, licensed electrician.

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Home Inspector Solves HVAC Mystery

John Nelson, NPI Franchise Owner, Manassas, Virginia

John Nelson, NPI Franchise Owner, Manassas, Virginia

Sometimes home inspectors do more than inspect homes for home buyers and sellers. Sometimes they are called in as sleuths to solve a home owner’s mystery. This story comes from NPI franchise owner John Nelson in Manassas, Virginia. It’s a good reminder that a home inspection is always a good idea, even on brand-new houses. Here’s what John told us:

Last August, I got a call from a distraught home owner. He bought a brand-new home from a well-known builder in September 2013. He didn’t have an inspection performed before buying the house — what could possibly be wrong with a brand-new home, right? After the weather turned cold and winter set in, the home owners found themselves in in a serious situation: It was cold on the upper floor (the bedroom level) of their 3,500 sq. ft. beautiful new home. So cold, in fact, that the heating system was running nonstop.

“Something must be wrong with the heat,” the owner thought. He called the builder, who promptly sent out the HVAC installer that put in the system during construction. The home actually has two HVAC systems — one in the basement, for the basement and first floor, and another in the attic for the bedrooms. The HVAC installer went to the house, went into the attic to check the system, did his thing and proclaimed, “The system is working fine. No problems found at all. It’s operating completely within the manufacturer’s specs.”

So the home owners suffer through the winter — thankfully it was not a bad one for temperatures. Spring arrived and everything seemed fine. Then June starts to heat things up. By the beginning of July, this poor home owner and his family are sweating up a storm. This poor guy has gone out and bought four window-mounted air-conditioning units for his brand-new home just so they can sleep at night!

He calls the builder again, knowing something isn’t right. Instead of going to the home to see what’s happening and investigate this poor guy’s situation, the builder calls Mr. HVAC Installer to find out why the HVAC system is not cooling the bedrooms. The HVAC installer returns, does his thing, whatever that is, and again proclaims that the system is working perfectly, completely within design specs …

The home owner is mystified. He has Googled HVAC systems, read everything he could about how the systems work. He came up with no answers. Then he finally decides to have a third party go to the house to investigate. “Forget the builder,” he thinks. “I need a home inspector!” The guy calls me and says, “John, I need your help!” He relays to me the entire story of what’s been going on with his HVAC. It’s now the first week of August, and in the Washington, D.C., area that means 95 degrees and 100 percent humidity.

I arrived at his house and went upstairs to the main bedroom hallway, and I stopped at the top of the stairs. The heat was oppressive. It was so hot that you could feel it on the back of your neck, like you’re outside and the sun is cooking your neck. Now, I haven’t been in the house more than two minutes at this point, and I look at the home owner and proclaim, without even looking at anything, “I know exactly what the problem is!”

I got my ladder and entered the attic to verify my suspicion. Keep in mind that the builder’s HVAC installer has been inside the attic three or four times over the course of the winter and summer and never noticed: THERE IS NO INSULATION IN THE ATTIC. None, nada. The attic is clean as a whistle. This poor family has been through a complete Washington, D.C., winter and the worst part of a Washington, D.C., summer with no attic insulation. The builder completely forgot to install it, and I guess an HVAC installer is not trained to notice little details like the fact that the attic was so clean.

I walked out of the house no more than 15 minutes after arriving. The homeowner was so grateful that he paid me double my fee. I feel like I really helped someone who needed it desperately and made a difference. And I never even had to check the HVAC system.

A few days went by and the home owner called me back. He said, “The builder has fully insulated the attic, and my AC is actually turning off all by itself sometimes! John, I feel like such an idiot for not having the house inspected before we bought it, I need you to come out and do a complete inspection. My wife and I discussed it, and we want you to go over the whole house.” I found a few more small issues, and the home owners were happy. I also ended up inspecting the neighbors’ houses on both sides of him within the next month. I guess the word got around.

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Barbecue and Fire Pit Safety for the Summer

By Jon McCreath, NPI Franchise Owner, Emerson, Georgia

Photo by gargoylesoftware

Photo by gargoylesoftware

Throughout the United States, the summer months are those months when millions of us find ourselves enjoying the outdoors or chilling in the backyard. With summer come barbecues and evenings outside, sitting beside the fire pit. It’s important to remember that barbecues and fire pits require a certain amount of safety when in use. To keep your summer celebrations safe, keep these tips close by when using a barbecue or fire pit this summer.

Barbecue Tips
Grilled food is a true treat, especially when you don’t want to cook indoors during the warm summer months. Grills should always be used outside, in a well-ventilated area. To ensure safety, grills should be stationed away from the home, deck railings, and any low-hanging tree branches or plants.

The most important thing to remember is to never leave the grill unattended, especially if you have children and pets. The second most important safety item is to remember to keep the grill clean by removing grease and fat buildup. You can also clean or replace any trays that sit below the grill and collect food waste, oil and other grill debris.

Propane Tips
Propane can be found in both liquid and gas form. Because it is naturally odorless, an additive is added to the gas to give it a distinct odor to help people identify when the gas is around. Propane, when stored under pressure, is a liquid. When you hook up a propane tank to a gas grill, the tank is opened, which allows propane gas to leave the tank and power the grill. Liquid propane is very cold — so cold that it can cause freeze burns if it comes into contact with skin.

The way you store propane is important. A propane tank should always be stored and transported upright, and proper propane storage requires the tank be in a temperature-controlled area. If you store a propane tank in an area that’s susceptible to high temperatures, there is a risk of the pressure-release valve opening and releasing gas, which creates a fire hazard.

When transporting propane, make sure the pressure-release valve is closed and that there is cap or plug over the valve outlet. Tanks should always be transported in an upright position, sitting on the tank’s foot. During transport, the tank should be secured, even if it’s empty. You can secure the tank with a safety strap, seat belt or some kind of other container to prevent the tank from tipping over.

It’s important to remember not to transport more than four propane tanks at a time inside an enclosed vehicle. It is safe to carry more than four if you are transporting the tanks in the bed of a truck and they are secured to prevent escape.

Fire Pit Tips
Sitting beside a fire pit, enjoying a drink, roasting marshmallows or just listening to the crackle of the wood can be some of the most enjoyable and memorable moments of the summer. Fire pits are a great outdoor accessory, but they do require an amount of safety to operate.

A fire pit should be at least 10 feet away from any structure or combustible surface. Unless the owner’s manual says it’s OK, do not put a fire pit on grass, a wood deck, or in an enclosed deck or porch.

When it comes time to light the fire, be sure to always burn dry, seasoned wood that was cut at least six months earlier. In order to prevent sparks, keep logs no longer than three-quarters of the pit’s diameter. When starting the fire, don’t use gasoline, lighter fluid or kerosene, as these are not meant for fire pits! Use a fire starter or newspaper and kindling.

Do not light a fire in windy conditions, and it’s important to remember to stay up-to-date with burn bans or burn ordinances in your area. If the pit is located in an area near trees or bushes, pick up any leaves or combustible material from around the pit before starting your fire. Keep a bucket of sand, a fire extinguisher or a garden hose nearby in case things get out of control.

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It’s Time to Check Your Deck

DeckWith the generally nice weather, now is the time to check your wood deck for deterioration and make any repairs necessary. It’s also time to reseal the deck, if necessary.

First, you should use a pressure washer to wash the deck and remove any dirt and debris. Make sure to keep the pressure stream moving to prevent it from gouging the wood. Let the deck dry overnight.

The next thing you’ll want to do is fix nails that have worked loos and repair split wood. For nail pops, remove the nail, then reattach the board with a screw that is longer than the nail. Repairing split wood is more complicated. Click here for instructions on how to repair deck boards that have split.

Sealant protects wood decks from the sun’s damaging rays. If you’re happy with the color of your deck’s wood, just apply a clear sealant with a UV protectant. If you want to change the color of your deck, stain it before applying the sealant. For a step-by-step guide to sealing your deck, which requires three sunny days, click here.

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Consider the Credentials of Your Home Inspection Company

Inspector + Realtor or client + Folder10You’ve found your first home or the home of your dreams. The next step is to order a home inspection on the house, and you should feel comfortable with your home inspection services. You’ll want to do some research on the company you anticipate inspecting your potential investment. Your Realtor may recommend up to three inspectors that they regularly use, but you can choose your own inspector. The most important thing is that you work with an inspector you like and who has professional and well-trained. You might consider the inspector’s years of experience, affiliations, locations and reputation.

You can search the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for reports on home inspectors, or you can solicit recommendations from your family and friends, social media and the Internet. Home inspection reviews are available at your fingertips on sites such as Yelp or Angie’s List.

You can also look for your local inspector with a well-known home inspection company like National Property Inspections or Global Property Inspections. Founded nearly 30 years ago, NPI and GPI are highly regarded and offer home inspections throughout the United States and Canada. NPI/GPI inspectors undergo thorough and extensive training, and they have technical support available seven days a week. Moreover, our inspectors will provide you with a comprehensive report on the home you are about to purchase, and you can accompany your inspector on the inspection.

Before your home inspection, make a checklist of concerns or questions about the home, and be sure to ask the inspector what the inspection will entail. NPI/GPI encourages you to be part of your inspection in any way you’d like.

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Home Inspection 101: Inspecting a Home’s Grading

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

New House + Landscaping_iStock_000002119557SmallAn important component of a home inspection that is not always obvious to the home buyer is the grading of the yard. I have seen homes that are meticulously maintained inside but have poor grading, even holes in the yard. Unfortunately, grading is often considered a low priority, but the effects of improper grading can be disastrous.

Rainwater ponding outside, or worse, running toward the house, can wreak havoc. Basements can flood, damaging items in the basement, as well as drywall, carpet and more. Even a slab-on-grade house with no basement is susceptible to water damage, as it could develop mold from water seeping into the walls, and the moisture could attract termites. Furthermore, standing water in cold climates can freeze and damage brick paver decking and other hardscapes.

The ideal grading that the home inspector should look for is for the ground to slope away from the house in all directions a half inch per foot. Other factors besides the slope of the ground can cause problems, including downspouts that disperse water right against the building, instead of directing it away, and vegetation that holds water and keeps it from draining away.

If the property looks like it has drainage problems, then the best way to know for sure is to check during or immediately after a rainstorm. When this is not practical, the inspector could try running a hose in the questionable area.

While the best and most foolproof way to remedy the grading is to build up the ground to slope away from the house in all directions, it’s often just not possible. Small lot sizes, the elevation of the house, where the house transitions from foundation to framed wall, the elevation of the neighbor’s land, existing vegetation, hardscape and accessory buildings, and especially cost are all factors in the equation.

Remedies for improper grading include connecting downspouts to a pipe to direct the roof rainwater further away from the house and French drains, which are basically a trench filled with gravel or perforated pipe that catches the water in the yard and directs it away from the house.

For more information about grading, read our previous post, “What’s Your Grading Grade?

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