If your home is like mine, family and guests alike seem to gravitate to the kitchen, but how much time do you spend in this popular room when you’re inspecting a house? Sure, you may check the appliances, and maybe that’s where you go over your report with the client and get paid. But I’m talking about the time you spend inspecting kitchen cabinets — those boxes on the floor and affixed to the walls that hold some of the occupants’ most precious and necessary items, such as mother’s best china and a stock of food staples, neither of which looks or tastes good splattered on the floor.
Because kitchens get a lot of wear and tear, I’m not surprised when I open the door of the kitchen-sink base cabinet, only to have it fall off in my hand. Substantial abuse and low-quality cabinets are prime reasons for the
problems I find on my inspections. The quality of the cabinets is way beyond the scope of a home inspection; however, commenting that the cabinets are in need of repair or replacement is not.
Photo: Dove-tail drawer with superior strength.
While home inspectors have no nationally recognized certification process, kitchen cabinets do. Those
certified by the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (kcma.org) undergo a series of tests that meet ANSI A161.1-200 and the HUD Minimum Property Standards-Housing 4910.1 Sept.8, 1986, not the least of which are the following:
Weight Test: The cabinet is installed and gradually loaded to 500 lbs. of weight to see if the joints or cabinet box fail in any fashion.
Base Front Test: The base front joints are tested with a 250-lb. weight to see if they fail.
Door Panel Test: A 10-lb. sandbag is slammed against the center of the closed cabinet door. The door is opened to a 45-degree angle and slammed again. The door, stiles and rails must not fail.
Drawer Test: A 3-lb. steel ball is dropped from 6 inches to see if the drawer fails.
7-day Test: All shelves and bottoms are loaded to 15 pounds per square foot for seven days to ensure no deflection or joint separation occurs.
Whether or not they are certified, all wall cabinets must be firmly attached to the wall. The fasteners preferably must penetrate the wall stud at least one inch. When studs are not available, molly fasteners work exceptionally well. The correct fasteners, along with the friction fit, provide adequate attachment of the cabinet modules to the mounting surface. Center-island cabinets require anchorage to the floor, directly into the floor joist system.
The minimum industry standard for cabinets with a 3/4-inch plywood back is 3-inch screws with a button head or countersunk screws, minimum four per cabinet, screwed directly to the wall stud. Those with 1/4-inch plywood backs and mounting rails on the inside top and bottom need a #8 or #10 screw at least 2 1/2-inches long for minimum penetration; again, at least four per cabinet.
Photo: Left screw is acceptable for attachment. The right screw has no shear strength at the shank and head; it is unacceptable.
To provide maximum pressure, a washer of adequate design is required with the countersunk screws. Cabinets with no mounting rails will have sudden failure due to the lack of adequate pressure and attachment to the wall, and to an inspector’s eye, these would be uncertified cabinets. The plywood/particleboard backing will stay in place and the remainder of the cabinet will move southward with all deliberate speed.
On occasion, I still see ceiling-mounted cabinets. When I find they are screwed to the sheetrock or wood lathe, I’m amazed they have not fallen. As an inspector, if you move the insulation away from the attach point in the attic, you can determine the fastener method. These need to be fastened to the ceiling joists or to sufficient bridging to retard cabinet departure or sheetrock cracks.
Voids in the walls for plumbing, vent duct or wiring must be sealed so that fire stops are not voided and to prevent cold air, rodents and insects from entering. Duct tape is not an acceptable material for any of these issues.
Photo: An unsealed cabinet opening.
According to the International Residential Code (IRC), the cabinet above the range top must have at least a 30-inch clearance. Watch for this with under-cabinet-mounted microwave ovens. This is a very combustible installation.
My personal experience is that not many installers know what they are doing. Many refaced cabinets have plastic or a laminate-type, fully adhered material applied. Failure is generally due to substandard workmanship. This would include limited adhesive application, incorrectly cut and fitted replacement panels, incorrect surface preparation and missing fillers on sunk panel doors.
I have seen a number of installations with recycled and handmade leaded glass inserts and door glass. According to the IRC, this glass is required to be safety-glazed. Accordingly, safety glazing is required for “Glazing within fixed or operable panels that are within 24 inches of either edge of a door in the closed position and the glazing is less than 60 inches above the adjacent floor.”
Photo: Non-rated glass subject to shatter on impact .
Each pane of safety glazing is required to be permanently labeled.
Above illustration: Attaching upper cabinets
Above illustration: The anatomy of kitchen cabinets
The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Residential Construction Performance Guidelines Homeowner Reference was specifically designed to define the acceptable levels of quality for the builder’s transfer of ownership to the buyer. Recognize that these guides may be slanted toward one party as opposed to
another. The Guide depicts the following defects as noteworthy:
9-21 Observation: Cabinets do not meet the ceiling or walls. Performance Guideline: Gaps in excess of 1/4-inch are unacceptable.
9-22 Observation: Cabinets do not line up with each other. Performance Guideline: Cabinet faces more than 1/8-inch out of line and cabinet corners more than 3/16 out of line are unacceptable, unless the owner and contractor agree to disregard the guideline in order to match or otherwise compensate for pre-existing conditions.
9-23 Observation: Cabinet is warped. Performance Guideline: Cabinet warpage shall not exceed 1/4-inch as measured from the face frame to the point of furthermost warpage, with the door or drawer front in the closed position.
9-24 Observation: Cabinet door or drawer binds. Performance Guideline: Cabinet doors and drawers shall open and close with reasonable ease.
9-25 Observation: Cabinet door will not stay closed. Performance Guideline: Catches or closing mechanisms for cabinet doors shall be adequate to hold the doors in a closed position.
Photo: Gaps in excess of 1/4-inch are unacceptable.
Photo: Cabinet door will not stay closed.
In addition to those listed by the NAHB, I use the following indicators to assist me in determining what comments are needed about the installed kitchen cabinets:
Rat-proofing: Duct tape is not rat-proofing.
Fire-stopping: Duct tape and steel wool are not fire- or draft-stopping.
Delaminated panels: Composite cabinets (aka particleboard) are difficult to repair.
Pulled fasteners: Difficult to permanently repair in composite cabinets.
Sheet rock screw: Not designed for this application; these will fail.
Food stains: Clean with Murphy’s oil soap or mild detergents.
Liquor stains: Professional refinishing required.
Non-level bases: Shim the entire base of the row of cabinets.
Attachment to metal studs: Sheet metal or Sheetrock screws will fail. Wood blocking between the wall studding is required.
Broken drawer fronts: Typically can be repaired by an average homeowner.
Split stiles: Require a bit more expertise; professional repairs suggested.
Misaligned with ceiling: Refit the entire bank of cabinets or crown-mold the mistake.
Missing glass panels: Contact manufacturer or fabricate with safety-rated glass locally.
Leaded glass: Not safety-rated, will shatter; replacement encouraged.
Delaminated shelving: Replacement due to repeated water exposure.
Leaning upper cabinets: Refit and reattach the entire cabinet set.
Non-aligned doors and drawers: Careful adjustment by a professional required.
Missing door center overlap strip: Professional replacement encouraged.
Buckled cabinet box: Replace the cabinet.
Delaminated cabinet base: Replace the cabinet.
Installation damage: Call the general contractor or cabinet installer for replacement.
Photo: Missing glass door panel.
Photo: Missing door center overlap strip. Professional
replacement is encouraged.
We all learned our profession by observing and reporting, and we continuously sharpen our skills in both areas. I hope I’ve motivated others to spend the time I do inspecting the kitchen cabinets for defects. After all, besides the bathroom, the kitchen is usually the most viewed and the most used room in the house.