While some concerns are universal, others are uniquely regional
Scorpions. Hilly terrain. Do-it-yourself electrical. Intense heat. Poison-laden crawlspaces. Attack dogs. Just another day on the job for home inspectors.
Across the country, inspectors face a massive array of possibilities when they approach a home. We spoke with a handful of inspectors in each of five regions to check the pulse of their business — to find out their most common issues and experiences. In some ways, their concerns are universal: homeowners who try to fix mechanical systems themselves; the dangers inherent in walking roofs; improper site drainage; chimney neglect; nasty crawl spaces and attics; moisture intrusion; electrical, electrical, and more electrical (or, as one inspector calls it, “brother-in-law with a case of beer”).
Photo: Electrical work 101: No double-lugging. Electrical issues are among the most common defects across the country. Photo by Bob Sisson.
In other instances, the issues are more nuanced. In the blistering heat of the Southeast, roofs may come with a 30-year warranty, but provide an actual working life of only 15 years — if you’re lucky. In the Northwest, water intrusion is such an issue that one state is considering requiring a certification program for all contractors doing exterior work. Some inspectors hunt for subterranean termites, while others are on the lookout for drywood termites that fly.
Photo: Moisture intrusion resulted in a serious mold
situation in this bathroom. Photo by Larry Crouch.
It’s impossible to capture every issue inspectors face in every region, but we hope to provide you with a snapshot of the most common defects across the country. (In the next issue, we’ll examine safety issues inspectors face in their regions.)
Photo: Improperly framed or poorly framed roofs create safety hazards for both homeowners and inspectors. Photo by Garet Denise.
Framing issues seem to plague the Northeast region of the United States. In older homes, says Paul Kristenson of Associated Building Services in Foxboro, Mass., the issue is underframing: “undersized members, over-spaced members … certainly nothing like we would do today.” In newer homes, says Bob Sisson of Inspections by Bob in Gaithersburg, Md., the most common issue is damaged roof trusses and
“Most framers haven’t been adequately trained on the installation and guarding of them—they treat them just like plain-old-two-by, which means I see cracked, mangled, modified roof trusses,” he says, or I-joists with boreholes or flanges cut at the ends by plumbers or electricians.
Fire retardant-treated (FRT) plywood is an issue in newer homes (especially townhomes) in the area, Sisson says. In the summer, in a 150-degree attic, the material “reacts to pressure by crumbling into sawdust” — so he inspects the attic before walking the roof. If he sees overly pristine-looking plywood, he says, it usually means it’s FRT, and “I’m going to disclaim the roof real fast,” he says. Not only is it unsafe to walk on, but a 50-year snowstorm could cause a collapse.
HVAC systems are also likely culprits in this region, no matter the age of the home. In newer homes, Sisson says many contractors don’t follow the “Thou shalt not use this as a construction heater” commandment. “Contractors
might drop in a new filter, but if you go in there, you’ll see dust, grit, empty Coke bottles.”
Gregg Harwood of Professional Home Inspection Service in Binghamton, N.Y., says HVAC issues often arise in rehabbed older homes. “Modern heating equipment is being installed in older homes using original chimneys and original vent systems,” he explains. “Antiquated chimneys were never designed for low-flue gas temperatures and the large amount of condensation that occurs,” so water stains, efflorescence, deterioration and collapse are all possible.
Photo: A chimney leaking creosote, with damaged wood surrounding it. The exterior of the chimney looked great surrounded by a new roof, but the inside look told a different story.
Photo by Bob Sisson.
According to Harwood, the problem most likely to plague the region into the future, is improper installation of siding and trim, which eventually leads to water intrusion. “A general lack of proper flashing details at doors, windows and horizontal trim [means] problems aren’t immediately noticeable,” he explains. It will take “several years or decades for damage to become apparent.”
In this warmer region of the country, roofs are primarily on the minds of inspectors and homebuyers. “In the Southeast, roofs take a beating,” says Keith Ruehl of US Inspect in Barnardsville, N.C. “The sun and heat deteriorate roofing materials quicker than in the rest of the country.”
For example, he says, a roof may be built with asphalt shingles with a 30-year life expectancy, but “in Florida, you’re lucky if you can cut that in half — by 15 years, that roof is toast.”
Andrew Polmer of Louisiana Real Estate Inspection Incorporated in New Orleans, says roofs also are in the forefront for inspectors on the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina “showed us how vulnerable the old roofs are,” he says. “We can tell people confidently, ‘if your roof is more than six or seven years old, you should replace it, because we could get a wind event in the next year and a problematic shingle might not take another storm like it took the last one.’”
In Florida, says Charles Gifford of AmeriSpec of Northeast Florida, Inc. (in Jacksonville), code authorities are behind some of the biggest issues. In some cases, he says, “code authorities are not recognizing certain provisions of the building code, or disregarding them ‘because we’ve always done it this way,’” he explains. But during a building boom between 2000 and
2005, “we were building so rapidly we were using the code authority as the code supervisor, instead of the superintendent,” resulting in numerous mistakes related to electrical, water intrusion, control joint installation and more.
Termites are also a big issue in the region, says Ruehl. “The rule of thumb in Florida and other parts of the Southeast is, if your house is 20 years old, you have termites now and don’t know about it, or you’ve had them in the past.” Not only does the region face subterranean termites, but also flying drywood termites.
New homes in the Midwest face some of the same issues as those in the Southeast, where a recent building boom meant fast-paced — and sometimes sloppy — workmanship. Larry Crouch of Metro Property Inspections in Omaha, Neb., says subcontractors sometimes assign their lowest-paid employees to do finish work, resulting in mistakes. “One or two out of 20 inspections, they forget to hook up the plumbing drain—I’ve emptied a few whirlpool tubs into people’s living rooms because of that,” he says.
Ken Goewey of Accurate Inspections in Burnsville, Minn. (near Minneapolis-St. Paul), says the newer architectural styles — the “big, chopped-up monstrosities” — have hundreds of square feet of roof area draining into one location, which causes moisture intrusion. The removal of old-growth wood in the early 1980s forced manufacturers to switch materials and, in some cases, he says, it resulted in “junky lumber” being used in windows, which exacerbates the issue.
Shane Pouch of Outlook Inspection Services, Inc. in Olathe, Kan., says water intrusion is also an issue for his area. “Wood rot is a very, very common occurrence, both in wood sills and trim, and in the siding itself.” And the region is heavily populated with basements, another danger zone for water intrusion. (In fact, Goewey says in his area, 99.5 percent of houses have living spaces below grade.)
Speaking of water, the region faces numerous plumbing issues. Pouch says it’s not uncommon to see water heaters that have been “orphaned” from a prior combination flue that served both a furnace and water heater (when the furnace is removed, the flue should be re-sized to allow the water heater to vent properly by itself). Crouch says he sees plumbing work without venting fixtures or drains; when new water heaters are installed, venting is no longer at a proper slope, resulting in backdrafting and gas leaks — in as many as 65 percent to 70 percent of older homes, he says.
Photo: A completely rusted-through furnace flue pipe in a basement is, to say it lightly, cause for some concern. Photo by Larry Crouch.
Another area of concern in the region is decks, which often aren’t attached correctly to homes, or are built by unskilled homeowners or “fly-by-night” contractors, says Pouch. In fact, across the country, decks commonly exhibit defects that are dangerous to homeowners.
Moisture intrusion issues are at the top of the list in the Northwest, says Charlie Rouse of Associated Master Inspectors, LLC, in Tigard, Ore. (a suburb of Portland). Moisture issues are impacted by drainage systems, exterior flashing components, exterior grading … and result in wet basements and crawl spaces, which can cause problems for both homeowners and inspectors.
“Builders typically don’t pay enough attention to exterior grading,” says Stan Audette of AAD Inspection Corp. in Boise, Idaho. Most of the homes in his area have crawl spaces, so there’s a fill trench next to the house that settles three to four inches within a few years of construction. Even if there is some grading original to construction, it doesn’t take long to develop a negative slope.
Photo: When settlement around the house continues, a negative slope exposes the home to moisture intrusion issues. Photo by Garet Denise.
Rouse says the moisture issues also lead to infestation by wood-destroying insects. “If we have leaking or rot, we’re going to have bugs,” he says, so moisture intrusion leads to deeper structural issues in the long run.
Another large issue in Oregon, explains Rouse, is one also faced in other regions: a general lack of good workmanship. In his state, contractors must carry liability policies, and numerous claims in recent years have led many insurers to leave the market—so the state of Oregon is considering a certification program for contractors who work on exteriors.
The topography of the region also impacts homeowners, says Joanne MacKintosh of Centennial Home Inspection Services, Inc. in Woodinvale, Wash. (a suburb of Seattle). In the hilly area, “we refer a homeowner to a
geotechnical engineer quite often if the house is built on a slope and we suspect some settlement issues,” she says. “We do have slides periodically, and heavy rains in winter.” The high density of the region means builders are now picking sites that have been ignored for years, or more remote sites with fantastic views — so moisture issues and settlement are top of mind.
“I almost always have something to say about the roof,” says Randy West of Professional Building Consultants in Prescott, Ariz. He sometimes hands out copies of the Roof Tile Institute’s Concrete and Clay Tile Design Criteria Installation Manual for Moderate Climate Regions, and says shingle roofs often have improper flashing and nailing techniques, subjecting them to long-term water exposure.
Garet Denise of Cornerstone Inspection, LLC of Littleton, Colo. (a suburb of Denver), says he also sees many issues with roofs. In his area, custom homes have to be inspected just as carefully as production homes. “Most custom builders do a better job than production builders, but the exceptions can be pretty tragic,” he says. He sees glaring framing problems, he says: “The house that I found with the greatest number of damaged roof trusses was a custom home.”
Photo: Even in newly built custom homes, serious
damage can be present, as is the case with this damaged roof truss. Photo by Garet Denise.
Denise adds that older homes often have weaker roofs with lighter-weight framing than we use today. “In 2003, we had a blizzard with greater snow accumulations than had ever been recorded here,” he says. “I know of about a dozen houses that sustained major damage. Some were repaired, but others completely collapsed and had to be torn down.”
Both West and Denise see what nearly all inspectors encounter: a predominance of issues with electrical wiring. Whether it’s GFCIs installed incorrectly, three-prong receptacles added but not grounded, or good old-fashioned knob-and-tube wiring, they’re seeing it all.
A great reminder
Reading about these common defects might serve as a confirmation of the issues you face every day, or maybe it shines a light on more issues to look out for. Either way, it’s important to remember that no matter how long you’ve been inspecting homes, the next big surprise could be just around the corner.
Says Denise: “With all this discussion of classifying houses and what defects we expect to see depending on age, location and other demographics, it’s dangerous for an inspector to go into an inspection with preconceived notions of what they’re going to find, because it’s the uncommon things that slip past you if they’re subtle.”
Fix & Flip: The Influence of DIY Shows Grows
If you channel surf, chances are you’ve landed on a DIY (do-it-yourself) show like “Property Ladder” or “Flip That House,” celebrating the big money and excitement to be had from flipping a house.
While plenty of Americans have jumped on the flipping bandwagon, inspectors say most have no idea how much work goes into a successful renovation. Ken Goewey of Accurate Inspections in Burnsville, Minn. (near Minneapolis-St. Paul) says the proliferation of DIY shows, plus a big box store on every corner, has resulted in renovations so poorly done that jobs are torn down and started from scratch.
“When somebody tells me the house I’ll be inspecting is a fix-and-flip, I cringe,” says Garet Denise of Cornerstone Inspections, LLC, in Littleton, Colo. (a suburb of Denver). “Almost universally, they address cosmetic issues but leave structural and mechanical issues untouched.”
Charles Gifford of AmeriSpec of Northeast Florida, Inc. (in Jacksonville) agrees, saying he runs across a lot of “pretty” houses with major hidden flaws. In Florida, he says, “if you buy a house to flip it, and you’re not using licensed tradesmen to do the work, you’re breaking the law—but it happens a lot.” Even with home
lending in the trough, the flipping trend continues, so expect more of the same in coming years.
New Orleans and the Gulf Coast Post-Katrina:
Growth, Safety and Quality
If you think New Orleans (and the rest of the Gulf Coast) is not springing back from the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, you haven’t been down to the Big Easy lately.
“It’s amazing to see how the value of flooded homes has risen post-Katrina,” says Andrew Polmer, an inspector with Louisiana Real Estate Inspection Incorporated in New Orleans. Buyers are mostly younger first-timers, he explains: “They’re so optimistic … it reminds me of the ‘70s, renovating houses in older neighborhoods and people would ask, ‘why are you fixing up an old house?’” That “pioneering spirit,” says Polmer, has the area on track to make a strong comeback.
Polmer has performed FHA 203K inspections (a one-time closing loan the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers to rehab existing homes) since 1995, but since Katrina their portion of his business has increased from approximately 25 percent to 75 percent. “The 203K helps people understand what they need to do to repair their flooded home, helps them get the loan, and then I do their construction inspections.”
Lack of craftsmanship
But in this case, a bustling business also means more safety and quality issues to consider. Sidney Chaisson, Jr., of Chaisson Building Inspection Services, Inc. in Baton Rouge, La., says homeowners are eager to return quickly at almost any cost, but “the quality of available craftsmen is not here, and consequently we’re taking on people who are not qualified to do the work.”
Resulting poor reconstruction work includes placing new roofs over existing roofs, placing wood floors without using a vapor retarder (most homes in the area are on slab foundations), electrical mistakes, plumbing issues … they run the gamut. This generation of rehabbed homes will have a “mass of sheetrock covering up all kinds of problems that are going to get us later on,” says Chaisson, but he stresses that as the community continues to grow, more qualified workers will return.
One of the biggest issues Chaisson sees is upgrading heating and air conditioning systems. Older homes leaked, effectively using “self-cooling” systems: air would enter the crawl space, go up the walls and exit the attic. But as renovated homes are sheetrocked and new HVAC systems installed, the floors, walls and ceilings get very cool, and with no vapor retarders, the humidity is pushed outside and reaches the dew point—resulting in condensation on the back of the sheetrock, and leading to … more mold and mildew. Homeowners need to keep a careful eye on renovations, and learn how to keep an eye out for issues once they move back home.
Safety first … mostly
Polmer and Chaisson agree that the shift in business climate has them performing inspections in tough situations. “You see a lot of houses you should not be going in, but people want you to look at everything, and you have to push the envelope to get paid,” says Chaisson. Both men are focused on their own security more than ever.
“Sometimes we get an investor who calls and says they’re buying a couple houses down there—go inspect them—and I say, ‘Who’s going to meet me?’ Personal safety is an issue.” Polmer says he won’t go solo on inspections for now. Electrical systems cause the most safety concerns, with amateur wiring in older homes the biggest culprit, but Polmer says the upside of Katrina is that flooded homes are being totally rewired. With so much upgrading going on, there are challenges, but he says the changes will “help get us out of a bad situation,” ultimately making older houses with DIY wiring safer than before the storm.