May, 2019

Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

Life Cycle of a House: How Houses Age Gracefully


I’ve been inspecting homes for more than 45 years. During that time, I’ve noticed many things about the way homes age, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you. 

o doubt, no matter what your age, you are familiar with the aging process. When I reached 40 years old, my body started to change. My chest dropped down to my stomach, and I must have started to grow again because my head poked through my hair. These are but a few of the changes that a human body may go through as it ages. 

Houses, like people, go through an aging process as well. If the home is cared for, the aging process can be both normal and graceful. If the house is not cared for, the aging process can be abnormal and unattractive.

The First Five Years

In the early life of a house, nail pops may become visible on the walls and ceilings. For the most part, this is a cosmetic issue, but if this damage is not repaired properly, it will reappear. Today, screws, instead of nails, are primarily used to secure the drywall materials. In addition, some drywall taping may pull loose and give the appearance of a settlement issue, but this issue is also mostly cosmetic. Fractures may become visible above doors and windows and in the corners of a room.

Doors and windows may not work as smoothly as they once did. Sliding patio doors may rub along the top due to settlement of the header above. Some interior doors may have to be refitted. Keep in mind that some of these early signs may be the beginning of more serious issues.

In addition, there may be some settlement of the soil around the foundation perimeter, which can create a negative pitch, directing surface water toward the foundation of the house. This is one of the leading causes of water seepage into the basement area. Adding soil against the foundation to restore the positive pitch and direct water away from the building is a preventive measure that can be used to help keep water from seeping into the basement.

There can be a lot of moisture entrapped in the building materials of a new home and this moisture must dry out until the building materials reach the ambient level of moisture in the new environment. During this period, homeowners may see some of the wood joinery shrink and open a little. If the humidity level gets too low, other items (for example, flooring, furniture, cabinetry and other wood items) may shrink. Homeowners may get an electrical shock when they touch metal objects and their hair may stand up. In general, people feel comfortable with about 30% to 50% humidity, but if a home could feel, it would likely prefer that the humidity would be a little lower than that. Among other things, high humidity levels can cause decay and mold problems.

During its first five years, a home goes through many “tests of time.” Rain gutters and leaders are important components for keeping water seepage out of the basement. Rain gutters may have to be reset and rain leaders should be extended as far away from the foundation as possible. Also, rain gutters and leaders should be kept clean and free flowing at all times. 

It’s important to remove any dead trees or limbs that threaten the home if they were to fall. Siding materials might require some minor adjustments. Patios, masonry entrance walks and retaining walls may start showing signs of settlement and may need adjustments or repairs. 

The house will probably need repainting at the end of the first five-year cycle. Decks will probably also need refinishing during this time. 

Cabinetry doors and drawers may need some adjustments, as well as the interior doors, windows and window locks. 

Any minor electrical and plumbing problems should have surfaced by now. These problems should need only a limited amount of maintenance. By this point, homeowners also have become aware of any flaws in the heating and air conditioning systems, and if the home uses well water, the homeowner should be aware of any issues with water flow or capacity.

In general, electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems should still be in good condition, assuming that proper installation and maintenance work was conducted. This work includes cleaning or changing the filters on the air handlers, as well as cleaning or changing the filter for the fan in the exhaust hood of the stove in the kitchen. 

The five-year mark is a good time to check and clean all exhaust fans in the bathrooms and other areas. The clothes dryer vent should have been inspected and cleaned every year because built-up lint in the vent pipe and exterior exhaust damper is a leading cause of fires.

The basement and garage floors may show signs of settlement cracks, but it could be a latent sign of something to come. This is usually cosmetic and of no structural consequence. 

If cheaper grades of appliances were used or if they were not properly installed, service calls may be required. 

In general, most repairs and maintenance work needed during the first five years of a home’s life can be done at a minimal cost. 

The first five years of the home’s aging process is like the break-in period of a car. In the home, any major issues that are going to occur will have, by now, poked their head out of hiding. In the next five years, there should be no unexpected surprises.

From Five to Ten Years
When a home is five to 10 years old, signs of major settlement will become evident. If abnormal movement has occurred, it should be visible by now on the foundation and interior walls. Most major settlement should have subsided, and what you see is what you get. Depending on the severity of any movement, major structural repairs may be needed, but typically this does not occur very often, and homeowners can get away with covering it up in some cosmetic way.

Repairs or replacement of certain smaller items may be required, but likely nothing major. Of course, this assumes that the homeowners have been diligent about maintenance, such as changing or cleaning filters, servicing equipment and repairing minor plumbing as needed.

Homeowners should not experience any issues with on-site sewage disposal systems during this time. Once again, however, this assumes that the homeowners have kept up the required care of the system. 

Also, homeowners will know by now if there is any chronic water seepage condition in the basement area.

Depending on the type of water heater that was installed, the homeowner may be looking at replacing it soon if it has not already been replaced. Electric water heaters have a shorter life span than gas or oil-fired water heaters.

If a well is present, the well pump should still have some useful life left, but it may require replacement in the near future. Homeowners should plan ahead and put some money aside for this future maintenance issue. 

Some minor repairs to the plumbing system will be required in the form of leak and fixture repairs. Ongoing maintenance is a must, but major systems and components should still be functioning properly.

From Ten to Twenty Years 
Ten to 20 years represent several milestones in a home’s aging process. Most systems and many components of the home have a design life of about 20 to 25 years. 

By the end of this time frame, roof coverings will show wear and will be approaching the need for resurfacing. Homeowners should consider putting money aside for this significant expense.

In many homes that are currently 20 to 30 years old, we often find decay in exterior wood trim such as window frames. The wood used in these components, especially during those “building boom” years in the 1990s and 2000s, is more porous than the type used in older homes; therefore, it’s important to keep these components well painted to prevent problems later. Any noticeable decay should be addressed as soon as possible.

Heating systems should still be operational, but at the end of this time frame, they may be approaching the end of their design life and will require more frequent repairs. Obtaining replacement parts may become difficult. Replacement is inevitable, particularly if the system has not been regularly maintained. Most central air conditioning systems will need major repairs or replacement.

If a private, on-site sewage disposal is present, some repairs might be needed to that system, although most will continue to function, if the system was adequately designed and maintained. 

During this time frame, a homeowner may already be using the house’s second generation of water heaters. If the well pump has not been replaced, it may be time to set money aside for a new one.

Some minor repairs to the plumbing system (for example, fixing leaks and fixtures) will be required. During this period, ongoing maintenance is a must. The major components should be functioning properly, however.

Electrical systems, although probably still safe (assuming “Uncle Louie” has not done any work to the system), might need some upgrading. 

The good news for a home of this age is this: If proper maintenance, repairs and replacements have been done, the inspector might be looking at an older home with everything in new or like-new condition—a home that is passing the test of time! 

Other elements beyond our control can influence the value of a home as well—these include changes in building codes, new government regulations, new technology and special interest groups, to name a few. For example, in 1973, energy conservation took on a whole new meaning to Americans and their living environments. In the 1970s, almost-daily media messaging encouraged people to save energy by tightening up their homes. In some cases, people made their homes so tight that the home could no longer breathe! The problem with this is that could cause condensation to form in wall cavities and under roof structures, which then could cause heavy decay and mold to occur. 

Around the 1950s, the installation of underground fuel oil storage tanks became popular. Now, we are going through the expense of removing these underground tanks and installing new ones underground that are designed for this purpose, or installing different types for above-ground use. 

The use of solar energy became popular and the U.S. Government even gave tax credits to install solar equipment. Much of the early solar technology did not prove to be practical in colder climates. Solar technology has improved over the years, however, and some government subsidies still exist to encourage its use.

High-efficiency furnaces, boilers and heat pumps were also developed many years ago. This technology has improved over the years, and today we have some of the most efficient heating and air conditioning equipment available. With the use of high-efficiency equipment and fewer air changes per hour in our homes, our consumption of energy has lessened significantly. Whether this has improved indoor air quality, however, is questionable. 

From Twenty Years and Beyond
If the home has been properly maintained, many of the systems mentioned already will have been replaced or repaired at least once by the 20-year point. Basically, the “replace and repair” cycle repeats itself every 20 to 30 years. 

After 20 years, the following major components can be expected to fail:

Having gone through the aging process, older homes should be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. The occupants of older homes have been given a stewardship of trust to look after them properly so that future generations can enjoy their beauty and architecture.

Like people who have increased in age (and wisdom, of course), these more “seasoned” homes also have passed the test of time and should be considered to be the senior citizens of our housing stock. Treat them gently and enjoy them!

Ron Passaro is the founder and first President of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). He founded RES-I-TEC, Inc., a home inspection company, in 1973 and has since served as inspector, president and CEO. He has personally conducted more than 15,000 home inspections, and he voluntarily served for 15 years as ASHI’s National Spokesperson for news media interviews and meetings with home inspectors.

He was a senior trainer for American Home Inspection Training Institute, teaching new home inspectors nationwide. He teaches continuing education and other programs throughout the country, and conducts educational programs for home inspectors, real estate professionals and homebuyers. He has been a speaker at the Connecticut Association of Realtors conference, Northern Fairfield County Association of Realtors conference, National Association of Realtors conferences in California and Washington, and the “Triple Play” conferences in Atlantic City, as well as national conferences for ASHI, the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI) and others.
Contact Ron at (203) 948-7953.