Electric Heaters: Are They Safe?

Photo of a floor-board , built-in electric heater

Electric Heaters

According to the National Fire Protection Association, heating equipment was responsible for over 50,000 structure fires in 2011. Roughly half of those fires were due to storage of personal items such as curtains and furniture too close to a heater and roughly half were caused by failure to clean heating equipment. With the heating season upon us, I thought it would be a good time to go over some important simple maintenance that can keep your house safer; for this blog we will focus on electric heaters.

Personal Experience

I was inspecting a small condominium unit one day and I entered a bedroom and turned up the thermostat to test the electric wall heater. I was discussing, ironically, smoke detectors with my client when I noticed acrid white smoke billowing from the metal cover of the electric heater I had just turned on. In a flash I turned off the thermostat, the circuit breaker, and sprinted to my car for my fire extinguisher. Luckily, the smoldering fire dissipated and I did not need to douse the heater with my fire extinguisher, however, this story points to the important maintenance that is needed to the often-neglected electric heater.

Types of Electric Heaters

Electric heaters come in two basic types: those that you plug in (space heaters) and those permanent heaters that come installed in your house such as a baseboard heater or a wall-mounted heater.

This article will focus on the heaters that are built into your house:

Photo of a baseboard , built-in, electric heater

A typical baseboard electric heater.

Photo of wall-mounted, built-in electric heater

A typical build-in, wall mounted, electric heater

Installed electric heaters are generally either baseboard heaters, wall-mounted forced air heaters or some type of ceramic / radiant heater. The most common electric baseboard heaters and wall-mounted heaters tend to run at the hottest temperatures and are therefore less safe than the ceramic and radiant type heaters that run at cooler temperatures. These are also generally the least expensive electric heaters to buy. To understand how these heaters work, visualize a toaster with an element – that is basically how these basic resistance electric heaters make heat.

Ceramic heaters and some baseboard heaters, by contrast, run a liquid through a radiator or heat up a radiant ceramic surface; these heaters are safer than the electric element type of heater as they do not get as hot.

Recalls on electric heaters

Some electric heaters have been recalled: most notably some Cadet models from 1978-2000: http://getscribeware.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Cadet-Recall.pdf

To check your heater, find the brand, model number and serial number and do an internet search.

Critical Care and Maintenance

Every manufacturer of electric heaters requires some amount of care and maintenance to safely operate the heater. While every manufacturer may differ slightly, some good basic rules of thumb are listed below:

  • Clean heaters every 3-6 months. To clean, follow manufacturers’ directions, but I like to turn the power off to the heater and use compressed air to blow dust off the heater.
  • Do not store stuff in front of the heater. Electric heaters can run very hot. Keep curtains, furniture and personal items at least three feet away from these heaters.
  • Do not let electrical cords hang over or in front of heaters. An older construction practice was to allow electric receptacles above baseboard heaters. This is no longer permitted and is unsafe.

In the case of the heater that nearly caught fire, it turned out that a cat liked to sleep in front of the heater. When I pulled the cover off to look inside I found the heater was literally full of cat hair.

I hope this blog helps you understand a bit more about electric heaters and safety. Be safe and keep your heaters clean!

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Blistering Paint

Exterior house wall with large paint blisters

Blistering Paint: Solving the Problem

I was raised in several colonial and Victorian era homes on the New England coast and from the moment my father first taught me how to paint our house, my summers consisted of more hours behind the brush than I care to remember.

As anyone knows who has scraped and sanded paint from a house, applied primer to house and then lathered finish coats onto house, there is no more frustrating feeling than watching your hard work blister and peel off prematurely the following summer.

Exterior house wall with large paint blisters

Large paint blisters indication failure due to moisture

One of the things I see regularly during my home inspections are older homes that appear to have been painted recently but seem to be suffering from a premature blistering paint problem. Sometimes you can even poke one of the blisters with a knife and water will ooze out of the paint pocket; an alarming moment to a prospective home buyer.

 

When I see this, I like to survey my clients about what they feel is happening. Some of the usual suspects are:  the siding was not properly scrapped and primed, the seller was using cheap paint or they painted in the rain without allowing the building to properly dry. While all of these causes are plausible, there is a more likely reason that often goes over-looked. To understand, let’s think about the difference between old houses and new houses.

Why is this happening?

For the purposes of this article, I would consider an old house any house built prior to our energy codes – think late 1960’s and earlier. These homes are not very air tight compared to our newer homes so there is generally more air moving through the walls. This is both good and bad. The drawback is heat loss and higher energy bills. The upside is the resulting dry potential – the air moving through the walls helps keep the building dry. This is one of the things that makes older homes less susceptible to rot and wood decay than modern homes.

Photo of blistering paint on heavily painted exterior wall

An alternate type of blistering paint on exterior walls with many coats of paint

So, when you see blistering paint on the outside of an old house, there is a pretty good chance you are witness to the effects of heat loss – air moving through the wall, carrying moisture in the form of vapor. This does not usually hurt your building but it does create expensive and frustrating on-going painting costs.

Why is this a new phenomenon?

In the old days, this was seldom a problem. The reason is twofold. First, we used to paint our buildings with oil based paint, which does not trap moisture as effectively as latex paint. Also, they used to fasten siding to homes using nails with rounded heads – back when siding was hand-nailed and not applied with a pneumatic nail gun. These old nail heads created a slight gap between boards – a place where moisture could escape. Today’s older homes have many layers of paint and the bottom edges of the siding are now sealed by successive layers of latex. The result: there is no place for that moisture to escape so it bubbles off the finish paint in blisters as moisture does what it always does – goes from concentrations of more to concentrations of less.

How can I fix this problem?

To fix this problem, start outside by cutting open the paint on bottom edge of the lap siding with a razor knife. In a few places, try using a cedar shim to open up the siding slightly to let the wall breathe. Inside the house, be mindful of relative humidity: try and keep the interior dry using kitchen fans and bath fans to vent moisture outside. Aim for indoor relative humidity below 55%. More extensive air seal-up repairs can also help. This will make the home more energy efficient as you slow heat loss through the house.

I hope this helps explain an unusual phenomenon we often see when out looking at houses. Remember: knowledge is power when looking at homes. Enjoy your house hunting.

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What Are These Black Stains On the Walls?

Dylan Chalk photo of ghosting, dark shadows on wall and ceiling

Eliminate Ghosting in 4 Steps

 

Understanding Ghosting

Dylan Chalk photo of ghosting, dark shadows on wall and ceiling

These dark shadows on the wall and ceiling are “ghosting”

“I have strange black stains on my walls and ceilings and I’m afraid I have a mold problem, can you help?” This request came from a nice older woman who was inquiring if she could hire me to evaluate a mold problem recently developing in her home. When I asked for more details she described the mold patterns as black stains on the walls and ceilings; the stains seemed to be following the framing of the house. Even over the phone I recognized the symptoms.

The good news for my caller is that the stains are not mold and they are unlikely to cause an indoor air quality problem for the occupants or a structural hazard to the building. The problem she was describing is called ghosting, or thermal bridging, and though innocuous it can be a nuisance. It is helpful to understand why this happens and what can be done to correct it. If you are out looking at houses to buy, you may very well see this.

Dylan Chalk photo shows ghosting - or black stains - on ceiling indicating heat loss

Black stains – or ghosting -on ceiling indicate heat loss and a poorly insulated ceiling

Understanding the problem

To visualize thermal bridging and the resulting ghosting patterns that emerge, let’s think about a house in the winter time. You are inside your cozy warm home; you are cooking and cleaning and breathing and showering and this creates humidity inside the home. You might also be having a wood fire or burning candles or incense; the stage is set for ghosting. Now let’s look at what happens.

In the winter, the insulation in your house, if it is doing its job, will help keep the cold out and the warm in. Insulation is installed in the stud bays inside the walls and on the floor of the attic. The limiting factor for insulation in traditional code-built applications is that the insulation does not cover the wood framing of the building, just the empty spaces between the framing. In today’s houses the attic insulation is sufficient to cover the framing in the ceiling but often not in older homes and not in some vaulted ceilings. The result is that roughly 30% of your walls and ceilings are not really insulated other than the marginal insulating value provided by the wood framing.

Ghosting happens when this mildly damp, warm and possibly sooty interior air hits the mildly cold sections of walls and ceiling that are un-insulated because they are where the wood bits hold up the house. The result: black sooty stains on your walls and ceilings which follow the framing of the house; sometimes you can even see the nails in the sheetrock which, because they are metal, are even colder and more prone to becoming a condensing surface. Typically, the amount of condensation is not enough to cause a mold problem or a structural problem but it does make these irritating lines on your walls and ceilings. So….. How do you fix it?

Understanding the repair

1. Eliminate indoor air particulate:
  • Stop burning candles and having wood fires or burning incense.
2. Monitor your relative humidity inside the house:
  • Buy an inexpensive temperature / relative humidity gauge and try and keep your indoor relative humidity below 55% during the cold winter months. You can typically do this by turning on bath fans – this will have a drying effect on your building as you vent moist warm air to the outside and replace it with dry cold air.
3. Re-paint effected surfaces
  • Use a stain-killing paint to seal up the stains and then re-paint the walls and ceilings. This is the expensive and inconvenient part.
4. Improve insulation where you can
  • If the ghosting is happening on a ceiling or a place where you have the ability to access an attic space and insulate the ceiling joists, this would insulate the cold wood bits and help prevent this from happening again.

Important note

Occasionally, you will see this problem inside the stud bay of a wall or ceiling. If you see this you know that the bay here is not correctly insulated. The repair in this case is, unfortunately, to open up the wall or ceiling and insulate it. The difference between these two issues is where you see the black stain marks:

  • Black stains on the framing and you are dealing with thermal bridging which can be difficult to correct with insulation.
  • Black stains inside the bays and insulation is missing – generally more of a construction defect.

The attached photos show you some examples of ghosting.

I hope this helps you better understand what to look for as you explore potential homes. Enjoy your house hunting! Remember, knowledge makes it fun.

Dylan Chalk photo of ghosting

Photo showing ghosting due to missing insulation in vaulted ceiling

Dylan Chalk photo of ghosting on wall

Ghosting indicates possibility of no insulation in vaulted ceiling

Infrared photo shows missing insulation

Infrared photo shows missing insulation in vaulted ceiling

 

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Water Pressure is Tricky to Understand

Dylan Chalk photo of water pressure reading

Does This House Have Good Water Pressure?

A common question that my clients ask during home inspections is: “Does this house have good water pressure?”

What they actually want to know is whether the flow from the showerhead will be strong enough for a quality shower, and whether someone flushing a toilet will interrupt that shower. Questions like these can’t be answered by examining water pressure on its own. Instead, we have to look at the combination of water pressure and functional flow.

Dylan Chalk photo of water pressure reading

Water pressure gauge showing slightly elevated pressure

  • Water pressure is the amount of force from the water main into your home. Water pressure is measured in pounds per square inch (PSI), and normal, good waterpressure is typically between 30 and 80 PSI.
  • Functional flow is the volume of water flowing through your pipes and arriving at individual fixtures. A house can have satisfactory water pressure and still have lousy functional flow if, for example, pipes are occluded with rust, pipes were not sized properly or other restrictions are blocking the flow of water.

Perfect Pressure

You don’t want your home to have water pressure that is too low, but water pressure can also be too high. Piping systems are designed to have no more than 80 PSI. When you exceed this pressure it can cause problems. High pressure will rarely cause pipes to burst, but it stresses the weak links in your piping system such as rubber hoses and gaskets, making them vulnerable to leaks and failure.  Ideal water pressure is between 40-80psi.

Achieving good water pressure

You can correct high water pressure by installing a pressure reducing valve. This is a bell-shaped device that reduces the water pressure.

If the house has low pressure, you first want to determine if the house is on a public water supply system or a private well system. Most public systems are required to deliver a minimum of 30 PSI to your house, so inadequate pressure on public water systems is rare.

  • If the house is on a public water supply and the utility cannot improve your pressure, the solution involves installing a pressure tank and a pump. This gives your supply piping system a pressurized boost.
  • If the house is on a private well, poor pressure could indicate a problem with the captive storage tank and/or the pump and you should have the well system serviced by a qualified well expert.

    Dylan Chalk photo of a steel pipe occluded with rust

    Steel pipe occluded with rust

Flaws in the Flow

Poor functional flow is a common problem in old houses with galvanized steel pipe. This type of pipe was commonly installed until the late 1960s and early 1970s. This pipe was manufactured with a coating of galvanization that was designed to prevent corrosion of the steel pipes. When this galvanization wears off, the pipes occlude with rust. The result is a restricted piping system that will not deliver adequate water to the fixtures even with all the pressure in the world. To fix the problem, you’ll need to replace the pipes.

Another common cause of poor functional flow is unprofessional water piping systems. Good plumbers know how to size the pipes correctly so that adequate water is delivered to each fixture. An amateur mistake is running too many fixtures off of pipes that have too small a diameter. The result is inadequate water supply to fixtures or poor functional flow. This can be difficult to repair without piping replacement.

Other factors affecting functional flow

Just because a fixture has poor flow, don’t assume anything about the pipes yet. Other factors in the piping system can result in poor flow. Sometimes an angle stop (one of those shut offs below the sink) may be partly closed. Fixture aerators (the little screens inside the faucets) can become restricted. The main water shutoff to the house could be party closed or restricted. Supply connector hoses could be kinked or restricted. These problems can be easily checked and repaired by a plumber.

Dylan Chalk photo testing functional flow

You can test functional flow by running water in the sink and shower, then flush to see if the flow diminishes

Field Test

To determine whether a home has enough functional flow, go to the bathroom and turn on the sink and the shower. Wait for a satisfactory water temperature in the shower and then flush the toilet. See if the flow diminishes. You can go to other fixtures and run water too, but at some point every system will diminish flow if you open too many fixtures at once. One sure way to kill the flow is to open up an exterior hose bib (the spigot where you connect a garden hose) during testing. I like to keep it simple and test flow by opening up every fixture in a given bathroom.

I hope this clears up some common misconceptions about water pressure and functional flow. Remember, informed homebuyers are happy homebuyers.

 

 

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Infrared Cameras for Home Inspection

Dylan Chalk's infrared photo of exterior wall showing temperature levels

Using Infrared Cameras on your home inspection

Dylan Chalk's infrared photo of exterior wall showing temperature levels

Hot and cool temperature levels revealed by infrared camera

What do infrared cameras do?

The first thing you need to understand is that infrared cameras are just fancy thermometers; they translate surface temperatures of objects into colors thereby creating an image comprised of temperature differentials. That is all they do. Fancy thermometers.

How can this fancy thermometer be used on a home inspection?

The benefits and limitations for infrared cameras on home inspections can be confusing, so let’s look at an example of how an infrared camera could be used on a building inspection to see if this brings some clarity.

If you took a thermal camera and pointed it at a hot surface, say, an exterior wall of a building that is being heated by a hot summer sun, do you know what your image would look like? A mostly yellow and red blob of heat. This is because everything is hot. There would be almost no temperature differential so the whole image would be a wash of heat. Do you suppose this image would help you see behind this wall or find a latent moisture problem? The answer is clearly no!

Now let’s go back to that same wall at the end of this hot summer day. When the sun goes off the wall and the building starts to cool, it is possible that the camera could reveal a latent moisture problem. If parts of the wall were wet, these parts would cool more quickly due to evaporation. This would create a thermal anomaly or a change in temperature which could be “seen” by a thermal imaging camera and could lead you to a possible hidden moisture problem. In this case, the image taken from a cooling, partly wet wall assembly could be very useful.

Now let’s look at this same wall and assume that it does have a moisture problem when it is raining in the winter, but your home inspection is done in the summer, when it has not rained for over a month. You take your image of this dry wall assembly cooling off at the end of the day: what will this image look like? Well…. Hard to know. If the moisture problem has caused rot in the wall, it could create a thermal anomaly as the damaged wood heats or cools differently than the sound wood. But what if this were a newer moisture problem that had not yet caused damage to the wood? You may not get an image that is very helpful. You could even be misled into believing the wall had no moisture problems when in fact, it does. There are other wild cards at play as well. What is the exterior wall made of: brick, stucco, wood, synthetic stucco? These different siding materials would present different thermal challenges and could limit the usefulness of this tool.

So, what if your home inspector told you that their camera sees behind walls and finds latent moisture problems; would this be true? Not really. If you are lucky, and conditions are right, you might be able to get a useful image that leads you to a latent or concealed moisture problems, but it is far from a guarantee and this tool does not see behind walls.

How does Orca Inspection Services use an infrared camera on a home inspection?

I use my infrared camera for five primary functions. The first two are services for which I charge an additional fee because these procedures add significant time to my home inspection. The last three are included in my home inspections as the camera is employed as any other tool, as another way of looking at a building. This list below will help you better understand the types of questions you may be able to answer about your prospective building using a thermal imaging camera.

Thermal image of cooling patterns in a wall

Thermal image shows a poorly insulated wall – green spots are gaps between batts of insulation.

5 Primary ways to use an infrared camera in a home inspection

  1. Insulation verification and heat loss or air leakage
  2. A complete interior scan for thermal anomalies
  3. Checking radiant floor heating systems
  4. Shooting ceilings below 2nd floor plumbing to look for signs of hidden leaks
  5. Spot checking areas I am concerned about due to other visible red flags

Infrared camera use: details

  1. Infrared camera photo revealing heat entering at the top of a vaulted ceiling

    Infrared image shows heat entering the building from the top of a vaulted ceiling – this is typical and normal.

    If a well-insulated wall or ceiling assembly and or a tight-house is important to you, you may want to pay for this additional service. It is important to understand that most old homes are not well insulated and leak a lot of air. Retrofitting wall insulation is complicated and likely not very cost-effective depending on where you live. As such, most home buyers do not want to pay for this additional service during a home inspection. This type of inspection is generally done as part of an energy audit.

  2. A thermal camera inspection is well-suited to newer homes and especially new construction where the builder could repair poorly insulated wall or ceiling assemblies prior to close. It is also a great diagnostic if you are trying to retrofit your house for energy efficiency.
  3. The complete interior scan for anomalies is an additional inspection that can be done on any house. It is rare for these scans to reveal significant findings that are not uncovered during a complete visual home inspection; but you don’t know if you don’t look.

    Infrared camera photo showing floor heating elements

    Visualizing heating elements in floor heating can be very helpful.

  4. Radiant floor heating systems can be difficult to inspect, especially on hot summer days when ambient temperatures are similar to the temperatures on a heated floor. The thermal camera can help you see if the in-floor heating system is operating correctly.
  5. Using a thermal camera to scan the ceiling below plumbing is a nice way to check for hidden plumbing leaks in the ceiling; I perform this inspection after running all plumbing.
  6. Sometimes I find areas in a house that I am concerned are having moisture problems or insulation problems or even over-heating problems such as over-heating wire in the electric panel. The thermal camera can help a home inspector add more information to a given red flag.

I hope this article helps you understand how a thermal camera can both help and mislead you during a home inspection; and I hope you get a sense of the types of questions you want to answer during a home inspection if you are requesting thermal imaging. Remember that thermal cameras can be an effective tool but they have significant limitations.

 

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Home Inspections Kill the Deal?

Dylan Chalk photo of carpenter ants swarming under sub floor

 

The 3 Most Common Reasons a Home Inspection Kills the Deal

 

One of the many difficult parts of being a home inspector is delivering bad news. Nobody enjoys delivering bad news. But when you are hired to evaluate the condition of a building for a prospective home buyer, and there are many tens of thousands of dollars at stake, as well as emotional turmoil, it is critical that you perform this job thoroughly and objectively…. Even if the discoveries made during a home inspection lead to a home buyer terminating their contract.

Experienced home inspectors work hard to be both thorough and clear; we do not want our clients to be scared out of buying a perfectly good house that has routine maintenance issues – at the same time, we want our clients understand what they are getting into with the purchase of any given house.

In my experience, there are three primary reasons why information uncovered during a home inspection causes a home buyer to rescind their offer and look for another house. Hopefully this article helps you identify one of these houses and can save you both time and anguish in your house hunting.

1.The house is not what it looks like

The most common example of a house that looks like one thing, but in fact is something else, is the flipped house.

Dylan Chalk photo of carpenter ants swarming under sub floor, could this kill the deal?

Carpenter ants swarming underneath sub-floor insulation

Understand that when homes are purchased to be flipped, they are often bought at auction and seldom have inspections done prior to purchase. This means a company gets the house and decides what to update based on what they can sell it for and not what the house needs in terms of updates and repairs. During the home inspection I sometimes find flips in need of structural repairs or discover chronic moisture problems that were covered up in an effort to sell the house. On the outside, everything looks new and shiny, but in actual fact, there may be deep dysfunction lurking in the bones of the house.

Photo of a complex roof line

This roofline is not logical and belies a house that has had random and hodge podge work done to it.

Another example of houses that are not what they seem are houses that began as vacation homes and have been added onto and remodeled multiple times over the years as the once rural and inexpensive setting on which they were originally built grows up to become a sought-after place to live. One way to ferret these out is to think about what a given neighborhood was like when the home was built. Older homes like this were often constructed with small budgets and with a humble point of view and may not have been built with the expectation that they would last for hundreds of years or sell for many hundreds of thousands of dollars. These houses may look bright and shiny and fancy after dozens of additions and remodels but underneath there may be a hodge podge of foundations, additions and rooflines that can make them fundamentally different than they appear.  These are not “bad houses,” but they are often quirky and present risks that some buyers may not have been anticipating. One tip that often gives these homes away is a quirky roofline that looks like a hodge podge of additions.

Dysfunctional and quirky rooflines often belie dysfunctional and quirky houses.

2.The client’s expectations are not in alignment with the house

The best example of this problem is the 20-year-old house that has not been updated. I can hear the refrain from my clients, “but it’s only 20 years old!”

In fact, most 20 year old homes are not bad houses but they often require expensive systems updates. This is because many house systems only last 15-20 years. A common list of systems that require replacement after 20 years is: roof, deck, furnace, and appliances. I also find that after 20 years carpets are stained and worn thin, hardwood finishes are scratched and interior paint needs updating.

These are all disposable systems and they are in no way indicative of a “bad house,” but if the owner you are buying from has not been picking away at these systems you can be left with some expensive updating. Add to this the fact that many 1990’s era homes were sided with a Hardboard siding system that may be failing by now and the 20-year-old home often ends up with a maintenance list that surprises the unprepared home buyer.

3. The fixer house has bad bones

Buyers often go into fixer houses knowing that they need to renovate. Common expectations include the need for a new roof, gutters, furnace, kitchens, bathrooms, flooring, paint and appliances; these are often fairly self-evident.

This moderate to large crack in the foundation is the result of moisture undermining the foundation

A large to moderate crack is the result of moisture undermining the foundation

Dylan chalk photo of possible drainage problems in foundation, serious moisture problems can kill the deal

Photo shows signs of possible drainage problems – see tide line

Problems arise on fixer homes when too many discoveries are made about the bones of the house that buyers were not anticipating. I think of the bones as the core systems of the house: foundation, frame, roofline, floorplan, drainage and access. If for example, the home inspection finds that a house has structural problems, expensive damage from wood destroying organisms and drainage problems, this can add a great deal of cost, uncertainty and complexity of a fixer project. It may even push the house out of a price that was agreed to prior to the inspection. These problems can be more difficult to find on your own and often require a professional home inspection.

 

I hope this helps you in your house hunting. It is important you develop skills for looking at houses so you are a prepared home buyer: prepared home buyers are happy home buyers.

 

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Limited Pre-Inspection?

Photo of Puget Sound Journal story on housing shortage

Are You Considering a Limited Pre-Inspection?

Photo of Puget Sound Journal story on housing shortage

Too many buyers, not enough inventory – Dylan Chalk answers your questions.

With record-low levels of housing inventory, historically low interest rates and swarms of eager buyers in bidding-wars over the same house, getting a home inspection done on a property these days is harder than ever.

One method prospective home buyers are using to compete in this hot market is doing a pre-inspection prior to even making their offer. This allows them to waive their inspection contingency, strengthening their offer to a lucky home seller who is culling though multiple offers from which they can choose.

This has become such standard practice in the Seattle market that many home buyers stand virtually no chance of winning a house without waiving their inspection contingency and trying to get the inspection done during a narrow window of time between listing and a deadline by which time offers will be reviewed by the seller.

A Little History

As a home inspector I first encountered the pre-inspection in the roaring 2005-6 market and it was not long before buyers grew weary of paying for complete home inspections on homes for which they were getting out-bid.

In response to the demands from buyers and Real Estate professionals in the 2005-6 market, there developed something called the “verbal walk-through.” This was not a real home inspection, just a cursory look at the property so that a buyer could waive their inspection contingency without paying for the full inspection fee.

In Washington State, home inspectors are now licensed by the Department of Licensing, a new development since that hot 2005-6 market when Washington State home inspectors were regulated by the Department of Agriculture as pest inspectors.

The idea of licensing seemed logical; to insure the public that state -licensed home inspectors would be performing inspections to meet or exceed a set of standards: All home inspections performed in the state should meet these standards and come with a written report.

However, according to the state licensing law: WAC 308-408-010, Washington State Licensed Home Inspectors are allowed to do a pre-offer verbal consultation as defined below:

  • (10) A “Pre-offer consultation” is a verbal report that is limited in scope performed by a licensed home inspector. A pre-inspection agreement must be signed by the client and describe the limited scope of the consultation. This pre-offer consultation is conducted only prior to mutual acceptance.
  • State law contrasts this pre-offer inspection with a standard home inspection.
  • (14) A “Standard Home Inspection” is a prelisting or presale written report that contains all or most of the components listed in the standards of practice. The components must be listed in the pre-inspection agreement. This standard home inspection report cannot be delivered verbally and must be in writing.

The important thing to understand if you are a home-buyer is that the state does not actually define the scope of this pre-offer inspection. The scope of this inspection is defined by the pre-inspection contract you sign with your home inspector.

Some Real Life Experience

About a year ago, I had the uncomfortable experience of being one of two inspectors inspecting a house for sale at the same time. My competitor was doing a pre-offer consultation and I was doing a standard home inspection. The other inspector informed me that he had been inspecting for over twenty years and proceeded to spend an hour with his clients talking about the house while I also met with my clients and spent almost three times the amount of time inspecting the same house.

After he left his clients were loitering about measuring and evaluating the house when they overheard me discussing the abandoned oil tank in the back yard with my clients.

My client’s wife had a previous experience with buried oil tanks.

Bainbridge Island home inspector Dylan Chalk offers helpful tips to home owners and buyers on his blog at Orca Inspection.com

Exterior Oil Fill Valve: a detail easily missed in a limited Pre-Inspection

“She is not going to like this one bit,” my client said rather loudly.

When the other buyers over-heard this tone of voice they came over and started asking about abandoned oil tanks and my client launched into a horror story about his wife’s $40,000 experience and when their complexion lost a few shades of color it became apparent that they had no idea about buried oil tanks nor the one that was lurking in the backyard of the house they were measuring to buy.

I tell this story not to disparage this other home inspector but to point out the discrepancies in what we were paid to do. I was paid to spend 2-3 hours looking at a house. I was paid to follow 40 years of carefully developed national standards regarding the scope of a home inspection and he was paid to come out and spend an hour looking at the house and talking to his clients.

When I hear things like, “Just check the big stuff,” I become alarmed.

That is what a standard home inspection is! The idea that a standard home inspection can be arbitrarily cut in half because the fee is inconvenient is shortsighted and does not respect the complexity of the houses we are living in.

If you think that a standard home inspection is not already cursory, review the ASHI Standards of Practice.

http://www.homeinspector.org/Standards-of-Practice.

In addition to these national standards, your typical standard home inspection contract might read something like this regarding excluded items:

…..pool, hot tub, and spa systems; pool, tub, and spa bodies and underground piping; building code or zoning ordinance violations; geological stability or soils condition; structural stability, adequacy or engineering analysis; asbestos, mold, radon, formaldehyde, lead, water, soil, air quality or environmental issues; electromagnetic radiation or any environmental hazards; building value appraisal or cost estimates; specific components noted as being excluded; private water and sewage systems; yard/lawn sprinkler systems; saunas, steam baths and their fixtures and equipment; radio-controlled devices, automatic gates, elevators, lifts, dumbwaiters; thermostatic and time clock controls, low-voltage wiring, security alarm systems; water softener/purifier systems and solar heating systems; furnace heat exchanges, freestanding appliances; adequacy or efficiency of systems and components; prediction of life expectancy of any item; and personal property

 

What You Should Do

If you are a home buyer in this market and you have been told to ask your home inspector for a limited pre-inspection, you need to understand what you may not be getting;

  • You are not getting a standard home inspection and you may be getting an arbitrarily abbreviated version of a standard home inspection.

I am certain there are good home inspectors doing thorough verbal inspections where they follow their complete inspection process and omit the report to lower the inspection fee in exchange for the time saved in preparing a report.

However, asking your home inspector to discount their fees significantly is asking your home inspector to spend significantly less time looking at your prospective house and here’s the funny thing:

  • Looking takes time; and looking leads to seeing and seeing leads to understanding and understanding leads to the type of professional knowledge that a home inspector is presumably being paid to deliver.

I can think of dozens of homes where I was staring at a big problem but I did not see it the first time. It took several perspectives and points of view before looking brought me to understanding. A quality home inspection takes time; it is a journey into discovery and the discipline involved in preparing a quality written report facilitates that discovery.

Not all big problems in homes are obvious; they don’t come with neon signs.

My advice to homebuyers is contained in this bulleted sequence:

  • You have never taken a class about how to look at or understand houses, because such classes do not exist.
  • Your house is the place you will live the rest of your life; if not this house then another house or 5 different houses.
  • Your house is likely the most expensive thing you will ever buy in your life and maintaining a home is almost as expensive as buying a house.
  • Take some time out of your busy schedule to be with your home inspector and learn about houses.
  • Use the home inspection as an educational opportunity that will make you an informed homebuyer and homeowner.
  • Make each inspection you do a part of your educational journey.
  • The total sum that you invest in this education will be a small pittance compared to your university education and it will prepare you to be more informed about the most expensive thing you will ever buy and the place where you will spend most of your time in your life.

I hope this helps to clarify a complex subject that comes up regularly in today’s frantic home-buying market. Remember that rash decisions in real estate lead to the kind of problems we had in the 2008 housing bubble. Buying a house is not like signing a lease. Houses are complex and expensive and repairs can cripple the ordinary homeowner’s budget.

Take your time; be methodical. Build a strong team around a great real estate agent, lender and home inspector and you will be successful. You don’t need to sacrifice your standards to buy a house, but understand that the process is expensive and requires fortitude.

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Condominiums: Full Inspection or Interior Only?

Condominium Purchases: Full Inspection or Interior Only?

Photo of high-rise condominium building

It is vital to understand the details of your condo investment.

Knowledge You Need When Buying a Condo:

Buying real estate involves risk. The purpose of a home inspection is to help you, as a home buyer, reduce that risk by providing perspective on the overall condition of the building you are proposing to buy. This is tricky enough on a house, but how do you go about inspecting an entire condominium when they range from a sprawling group of buildings along a golf course to tall towers of glass and steel?

“Full inspection or interior only?” is an interesting question. But, before discussing the types and scopes of home inspections that are available for condominiums, let’s take a moment to better understand how condominiums work and identify your areas of greatest risk. There is a condo-specific vocabulary you need to become familiar with.  To prepare you for the process of buying a condo, I have inserted bold type for important condo-specific vocabulary that you should become familiar with.

 Condo-specific vocabulary to be familiar with:

Photo of condo exterior with scaffolds

The HOA is responsible for everything outside your unit.

The most important thing to understand about a condominium is that the homeowner’s association (the HOA), is responsible for maintaining the parts of the building that are outside the walls of your unit. They cannot print money when problems arise that require repair.

  • If you buy into a condominium that has low reserves of money saved and low monthly dues and a backlog of deferred maintenance, you may be buying into a maintenance liability.
  • Most HOA’s have no assets other than the money they collect from you as a member of their collective building.

HOA’s typically make up unfunded maintenance liabilities by assessing individual owners of a condo unit. The special assessment* is a onetime charge to collect money so that the HOA can proceed with needed building maintenance. If there is a serious backlog of maintenance needed to the buildings – outside the walls of your unit – assessments can be expensive. They can even be a significant percentage of the value of each unit.

So when you are buying into a condominium, your greatest risk is usually the overall condition of the buildings combined with the overall, “health,” of the HOA, not the interior of the unit. The interior of the unit may have problems and require updates, but this is often self-evident and can typically be discovered easily during a home inspection.

Making a condo purchase, what to look for:

When you make an offer on a condominium, you will have an opportunity to review a resale certificate. This is your moment to try and assess the overall health of the HOA. Buried inside this mountain of paper, there lies some important information.

  • Look for the reserve study: the document in which the HOA projects the costs associated with capital improvements needed to the building. Try to understand how detailed this reserve study is and if the maintenance budget is well-funded.
    • HOA’s that have not done a reserve study or disclose little information about building maintenance are generally at greater risk for an assessment.
    • HOA’s that demonstrate good reserves and a proactive approach to building maintenance generally present lower risks of a special assessment.
  • Look for an envelope study; this is when the HOA has hired an engineering firm to perform a detailed inspection of the outer skin of the building. An envelope study shows a proactive effort to understand the scope of needed exterior maintenance to expensive building systems such as siding, decks, roofs and windows.

What type of inspection should I do?

Full Inspections or Interior Only inspections? Most home inspectors offer two types of home inspection services on condominiums.

medium photo of condo with balconies and window washing

Read the reserve study carefully

  • Interior Only Inspections just cover the inside of the unit and do not include attics, crawl spaces, exteriors, roofs, parking garages or other common areas.
  • Interior only inspections are best suited to large towers where it can be difficult for a home inspector to contribute much to the knowledge of building maintenance; there is just too much that is inaccessible in these large towers.
  • Full Inspections are recommended in most other cases. A full inspection includes inspections of any attics or crawl spaces that attach to your unit and include walking around the exterior, getting onto the roof if possible and walking parking garages and basements.

Full inspections should be distinguished from commercial inspections. They are not that cohesive. But they will give you a good general sense of the overall condition of the building or buildings. You can take the information gleaned from a full condo inspection and hold it up to the disclosure you get from the HOA and try and assess the overall, “health,” of the condo.

 

*A note about special assessments

Just because a building is having a special assessment does not condemn the building. Some HOA’s prefer low dues and then periodic assessments to deal with maintenance. One way to visualize this is: imagine you are buying a condo that you feel is worth $200,000 and there is a special assessment of $20,000 / unit and you end up paying $160,000 for the condo. Good deal right? Special assessments are not the end of the world, however, they can make it complex to gauge the value of what you are buying. Better understanding the overall value of the condo you are proposing to buy is why I recommend full condo inspections in most circumstances.

I hope this helps explain a commonly asked questions about condo inspections.  Remember: happy homebuyers are informed homebuyers.  Good luck house hunting!

 

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Liability of Buried Oil Tanks

Bainbridge Island home inspector Dylan Chalk offers helpful tips to home owners and buyers on his blog at Orca Inspection.com

Buried Oil Tanks

              A hidden liability?

 

On a scale of good to bad, buying a house with an abandoned and leaking oil tank falls distinctly onto the bad side of the ledger. The good news: properties with tanks in this condition are rare. The bad news: they do exist and oil remediation clean-up work can be very expensive.

To give you some idea of potential clean-up costs; the Washington State based insurance program, The Pollution Liability Insurance Agency (PLIA) offers $60,000 of free insurance to anyone in the state who registers their active oil tank with the program.  That type of liability is not something you want to discover after you buy your new house, so here are a few helpful tips and things to look for to avoid an expensive mistake weather you are a homeowner or a homebuyer.

Active Oil Heat

If you are a homeowner and you have active oil heat (meaning your current heating system runs on oil), and you live in Washington State, make sure your tank is covered by the PLIA insurance. You can register your buried oil tank @ http://www.plia.wa.gov/heating/insurance.htm.

If you are a homebuyer and you are purchasing a property with active oil heat, you want to make sure that the current owner has registered the tank. If they have not, you should register the tank as soon as you take ownership of the property.

As a general rule, the longer the history of coverage the better; this allows less opportunity for the insurance program to claim a pre-existing condition if a claim is filed.

Inactive Oil Heat

A dramatic shift away from oil and towards natural gas as the fuel used to heat houses occurred over the last four decades. The reason for this shift is twofold:  oil is more expensive than natural gas and oil prices are volatile and subject to spikes.

Keep in mind that natural gas is a relatively new product. In the Seattle area, natural gas started to be piped to our homes in the 1960’s. Therefore, most homes that were built prior to the 1960’s likely had oil heat at one time, even if they now have natural gas.

You could put these homes into two categories, those with:

  1. A properly decommissioned buried oil tank. In my experience most oil tanks have been properly decommissioned. This is when a professional contractor empties the tank and either cleans and fills the tank or removes it.
  2. An abandoned oil tank. Beware of the property with active natural gas heat and an abandoned oil tank. Such a property would not be covered under the PLIA insurance program. If the heating system is now fueled by natural gas and if oil contamination is found on that site, the owner of the property could be liable for expensive cleanup work.

What to Look For Outside

Orca Home Inspection Services recommends thorough look at active gas meters and inactive signs of previous oil heat systems

Exterior Gas Meter

On the outside, I look for presence of BOTH a gas meter AND an oil tank fill valve and / or breather tube: see attached photos for what these look like. If the oil tank has been properly decommissioned the breather tube and fill valve will usually be cut off, so there will be no signs of an oil tank on the outside of the house. Presence of BOTH a gas meter and an oil tank outside indicate there may be an abandoned tank on the property.

If a breather tube is still visible Dylan Chalk recommends further examination on how oil heating system was dismantled

Oil tank breather tube

Ask for a decommissioning report on the buried oil tank

Exterior Oil Fill Valve

 

 

 

 

 

 

What to Look For Inside

Dylan Chalk says this is a warning sign that an oil tank could still be buried on the property.

Interior: Oil tank split lines

On the inside of the house, go to where the furnace is installed and look for small copper lines. They often come as a set and the copper tubes will usually be pinched on the ends. This tells you the house was once heated using oil and may have a buried oil tank.

This photo shows typical copper split lines inside a basement. This indicates the house was once heated using heating oil.

 

What to Do

If you are concerned that the property has an abandoned oil tank that has not been properly decommissioned, have the property evaluated by a contractor who specializes in oil tank location and decommissioning.

  • If you are buying a house like this, try to have the tank decommissioned by the seller prior to your taking ownership of the property; that way if problems arise in the decommissioning, you are not the owner of the property when it happens.

If you do not see evidence of a buried oil tank outside, but you find evidence inside, do not just assume the tank has been decommissioned.

  • Ask the seller for a copy of a decommissioning statement. I would add this to the title of the property so if you lose the statement, there is a permanent record of the decommissioning. When you go to sell the house, you want to have this statement to pass along to the new owners.

Please note: these guidelines and principals will vary regionally. This article is limited in scope and does not cover some of the more complicated scenarios that can arise with oil tanks such as soil testing. Be sure to seek the advice of local experts in your area when buying a house.

I hope this helps explain some commonly asked questions about oil tanks.  Remember: happy home buyers are informed home buyers.  Good luck house hunting!

 

Dylan Chalk is a home inspector and the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC – www.orcainspect.com. He is also the founder of ScribeWare software offering innovative and simple report writing solutions. Follow his house-hunting tips from the field on Twitter @ https://twitter.com/dylanchalk1. Or see his blog @ http://getscribeware.com/blog

 

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Tile Shower Surrounds

Bainbridge Island home inspector Dylan Chalk offers helpful tips to home owners and buyers on his blog at Orca Inspection.com Tile Showers

Elegant, Beautiful…. but Costly to Repair?

A stunning tile shower surround can be a homeowner’s dream and even the cornerstone of the home as part of a master bath suite that leaves everybody talking; but when tile shower surrounds are not installed well, they can fail and leak and lead to expensive, nightmare repairs.

Tile shower surrounds can be one of the more difficult systems to evaluate during a home inspection. This is because the reliability of tile depends almost exclusively on what the tile was mounted on and what it was mounted with. As you might imagine, this is not visible once the tile is installed. The following article will provide some insight into how tile systems work and what to look for so you can see for yourself if your tile shower surround is really as good as it looks.

Mortar Set Tile

In the old days, tile was mounted in a bed of mortar. We called this tile, “mortar-set,” tile and I will sometimes see homes from the 1930’s with the original Pepto-Bismol colored tile that is still in fantastic shape.  This was a beautiful way to set tile, even if the color palates of the day left a little to be desired.

Modern Tile

Fast forward to today and it can be anybody’s guess as to what products were used to set and mount your tile shower surround. Lots of homes in the 1980’s and 1990’s had tile set on “greenboard” – this is a type of sheetrock rated for wet locations, but by many accounts this was not well-suited to being inside shower surrounds. Good installers today use some type of a cement board backing system on which to mount their tile.

When it comes to adhering tile, there are dizzying arrays of products available. While a hardware store might carry dozens of brands of products, the adhesives come primarily in three types:

  • Mastics are essentially liquid glue systems and though some are rated for wet locations, many experts agree that mastics are not well-suited for the inside of a shower enclosure
  • Thin-set products more closely resemble a traditional mortar and are the most common adhesive system used in showers
  • Epoxy resin systems can be difficult and unpleasant to install (because they set so quickly and smell horrible),but they are very durable when done right

The sheer number of different products seems to invite mistakes, especially if you are not an experienced tile setter.

Inspecting your Tile Shower Surround 

When inspecting tile, I like to break down my inspection into a series of red flags. The first thing to evaluate is how professionally the tile seems to be laid. Does the overall presentation look professionally set? Off-set tile, crooked tile, pans that are not sloped to drain, drains that are poorly set, and tile that does not layout in a clean pattern are all indications of amateur installation. They make me wonder about what I cannot see behind the tile and I wonder how these will perform.

The next red flags to look for are first stages of failure. These red flags include stains on tile and grout and white mineralization stains leaching from the tile – these could indicate that water is getting behind the tile but its possible that all you need to do is clean and re-seal the tile.

The next set of red flags to watch for are signs of genuine tile failure, these red flags include cracked tile and loose tile. These could indicate a need for complete tile replacement and may conceal hidden water damage.

Orca Home Inspection Services outlines potential signs of failure in tile shower surrounds

Mineralization can indicate the first stages of water retention.

Cracked, loose and discolored tile are signs of water damage behind the tile

Cracked, loose and discolored tile is a sure sign of failure

Dylan Chalk of Orca Home Inspections is experienced with the use of moisture meters

High moisture meter reading in a pattern that indicates moisture combined with discoloration in the tile

Testing Procedures

I will often use a screw driver to gently, “sound,” the tile to see if I can hear loose tile.

I will also use a radio wave moisture meter to look for signs of water retention behind the tile. These are expensive instruments that can give false positives, so they are a diagnostic tool best left to those with experience using them.

What should you do?

If you own a tile shower surround already, be sure to clean and seal the tile; this is important annual maintenance to slow the movement of water through the tile and grout and prolong the useful life of the tile.

If you are going to install your dream tile job in your house, my advice: do it right or don’t do it at all.

  • Take time and research the best products to use
  • Prepare the job right and use reliable backing materials
  • Set the tile with materials that have a proven track record

One of my favorite alternatives to tile is the old, “cultured marble.” Think of thick slabs of plastic made to look, however modestly, like stone. While this product will not win beauty contest, I cannot tell you how many old cultured stone shower surrounds I see from the 1970’s that still seem to be working well. Sometimes, function over form is not such a bad idea, especially if you are on a budget.
Another option is using tile on the floor of the bathroom, where everyone will see the tile, and using cultured marble inside the shower where it is often obstructed by a shower curtain anyway.

I hope this helps explain an expensive maintenance item I see frequently on home inspections. Remember: knowledge is power when it comes to house hunting and home repairs.

Dylan Chalk is a home inspector and the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC – www.orcainspect.com. He is also the founder of ScribeWare software offering innovative and simple report writing solutions. Follow his house-hunting tips from the field on Twitter @ https://twitter.com/dylanchalk1. Or see his blog @ http://getscribeware.com/blog

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