February, 2018
Feature
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



Crawl Space Inspections: Practical Information and Tips for Inspections

RICK BUNZEL

Whenever I mention that I’ll be going into the crawl space at an inspection, clients roll their eyes and let out a groan. However, on the plus side, the crawl space is where I’m most likely to find important foundation issues, plumbing leaks and pests, among other things.

I live in the Pacific Northwest and due to groundwater issues, builders here favor crawl spaces over basements. So, about 80% of the time, my inspections include going into crawl spaces. 

Come along with me on a crawl space inspection... 

At the start of the inspection, I begin by doing a 360-degree survey of the home. This allows me to scope out what’s included and the general locations of things, like the crawl space. If I find a crawl space with an exterior hatch, I open it and take a quick peek inside.

According to the ASHI Standard of Practice (SoP), the hatch opening must be at least 16 inches by 24 inches for it to be considered accessible. I also look for standing water and any immediate hazards such as cut-off rebar stubs or electric lines in the opening. Many inspectors will exceed their state’s standards or the ASHI SoP by squeezing through a smaller opening, but each inspector must judge what’s safe for them to do and what’s not. (See the supplemental information about confined crawl spaces below.)

During my 360-degree survey, I also look at the layout of the foundation. I normally save the crawl space inspection for last, as I want to preemptively run water through the home’s waste lines and identify the plumbing locations on the first floor. By doing these things first, I get an idea of the state of the floors around the toilets and I can mentally build a plan for how to inspect the crawl space. 

Once I’m fully in the crawl space, I try to get into each corner of it. I do this by going in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction, whichever makes most sense in that particular space. My actual path may deviate as I negotiate around obstacles such as cripple walls, duct work, plumbing and standing water, but my goal is the same: to get into each corner of the space. 

Looking for important items
As I move through the crawl space, I inspect and look for the following: 

  • foundation walls
  • sill plates
  • ventilation (is it adequate?)
  • signs of pests (for example, termite mud tubes, carpenter ant frass, powderpost beetles, rodents and other animals)
  • signs of water intrusion (especially under sliding doors)
  • plumbing (for example, waste lines, supply lines)
  • damaged subfloor
  • cripple walls, stem walls, columns and piers
  • amateur repairs
  • electrical wiring
  • insulation


Getting in there

Taking photos, photos and more photos 
As I move, I take pictures of everything. I want my pictures to document the condition of the crawl space as I am going through it. If I see issues or defects, I take pictures of them. During a typical crawl space inspection, I shoot 20 or more pictures. If there is a section of the crawl space that I deem inaccessible, I take a photo that shows why it was inaccessible. 


Preparing for the biohazards

Preparing to encounter biohazards
Every crawl space is full of biohazards. For example, a typical home built in the 1960s has over 57 years of dust, rodent droppings, possible asbestos and dried sewage in its crawl space. I really don’t want to be exposed to all of that, so I “suit up” each time I go into a crawl space. 

I wear disposable, zip-up polypropylene coveralls with a hood and booties. I also wear a half-face respirator and gloves. I’ve tried full-face respirators and safety glasses for eye protection, but they tend to fog up or obscure my vision. 

I carry an 800-lumen spotlight, a waterproof camera, and a rock pick or hammer. In my pockets, I carry a backup flashlight, a cell phone and a folding knife. If I have to move insulation, I try to position myself to the side of it to avoid being directly under whatever might start to rain down. 

After the inspection, I roll up my coveralls and put my knee pads and gloves in a bag. I clean my mask with an alcohol wipe and store it in a separate cloth bag. If the crawl was really bad, I discard my coveralls in a trash can, and wash off my gloves and kneepads before storing them. This helps ensure that I don’t contaminate my car or my respirator with whatever toxic materials I crawled through. I also clean my hands with hand sanitizer. 

Striving to do the best inspection—every time
By having a process for inspecting crawl spaces, I ensure that I do the best inspection possible every time. If I wing it, the chances that I might miss an important defect statistically increase. Again, for me, it’s important to document even what I can’t inspect. This way, if I receive a call later, I can look at my documentation and know exactly what I inspected and what I couldn’t inspect. 

Rick Bunzel is the principal inspector with Pacific Crest Inspections and an ASHI Certified Inspector. He holds a BA in Business Marketing and in the past, he chaired the marketing and public relations committees for a national home inspection organization. Locally, he is an active member with the North Puget Sound Board of Realtors and has been a firefighter for 42 years. Visit his website at
http://www.paccrestinspections.com


Confined Crawl Spaces: Accessible Verus Inaccessible
By Rick Bunzel, ACI


 
Photo courtesy of Charles Buell

The question at hand: Is it safe to access the crawl space? 

This topic has been debated frequently over the years. The contract I use when booking an inspection is very clear in that I (the inspector) will determine whether a roof, attic or crawl space is accessible. Clear and simple, right?

Well, the issue can really become problematic if an inspector doesn’t clearly document why the area wasn’t accessible. In my experience, I’ve seen multiple crawl spaces in which a person is not able to inspect the entire area. For example, I recently inspected a home in which almost all of the insulation was pulled down and hanging vertically, forming walls (see photo). I was able to crawl around this to see behind the “walls,” but I was concerned that the insulation still could be blocking something important. I was able to document this situation by taking photos.


A wall of insulation 

To squeeze or not to squeeze
In older homes, the size of the hatch and the height within the crawl space can greatly restrict the inspector’s ability to completely inspect the crawl space. Also, plumbers and HVAC contractors often hang pipes and ducts right where we would want to crawl. My general rule of thumb is that if I have to inhale to squeeze around a pipe or a duct, I should not be trying to go around it. Also, it’s important to remember that the potential to damage an older home’s infrastructure is pretty good and because the inspector is “the last one who was in crawl space,” he or she might bear the most responsibility for any damage. 

Inspect via vent?
I’ve read that if you can’t access the crawl space, then you should inspect it from the vents. In my experience, this provides a very limited view of the crawl space and could instill in the client a false sense of security about the space. Most cameras will not take a picture through vent mesh, so how can an inspector fully document his or her observations? My opinion is this: If I can’t get into it, it’s inaccessible. 

Telling a client about an inaccessible crawl space

If I can’t access the crawl space, I use the following statement in my report: 

This home’s crawl space was deemed inaccessible due to the crawl space hatch being undersized [include measurements here]. The [Washington] Standards of Practice call for a hatch of 18 inches x 24 inches. We recommend that you request the sellers install a hatch of the requested size and contact our office to schedule an inspection when that is done.

If I can enter the crawl space, but I find that there are areas inside that I can’t access, I use the following statement: 

Portions of this home’s crawl space were deemed inaccessible due to standing water, low clearance, bio hazards, etc. Please refer to the pictures or the diagram of the areas deemed inaccessible. We recommend that you request that the sellers remediate the issues and contact our office to schedule a follow-up inspection when that is done.

Safety first!
To those inspectors who enter the smaller openings, please consider this: If you were to be injured, have chest pains, shortness of breath or become dizzy, could you get yourself out of the crawl space? 

Most fire departments are not equipped to do confined-space rescues, so the first responders may have to call on another department to help. Just think: If you find yourself suddenly struggling to breathe or having a heart attack, it will take that much longer for emergency technicians to extricate you from the space. Is putting your life on the line really worth pushing into that tight space during an inspection?

Resources about confined-space rescues

http://www.firehouse.com/article/10545453/confined-space-rescue-operations

http://www.ohsonline.com/Articles/2015/11/01/New-OSHA-Rescue-Requirements-for-Confined-Space-Retrieval.aspx