Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What are you buying?

There's a lot of things you don't get to know before signing a contract to purchase a house—as a buyer, you don't get much information about the electrical system (did the seller actually know what he was doing on that DIY work, or did he just grunt and claim to know?), the plumbing (are there roots in the sewer line, or is the sewer line broken?), the heating and air conditioning system (why is the carbon monoxide detector beeping?), or many of the other systems which make up a house

Simply put, a buyer cannot not sign a contract to purchase a house—a buyer can only sign a contract to purchase what he or she believes a house to be. If the buyer believes that all of the systems of a house are in good condition—and bids accordingly—then the buyer deserves to know if the house actually is what he or she believes it to be. There's a lot of money on the line.

That's not the same as “making sure that everything is okay.” Not even close. Making sure that everything is okay requires that everything is okay to begin with, and even then there's still a catch: the definition of “okay” varies from one person to another. A buyer's definition of “okay” is almost always higher than that of anyone else involved in a real estate transaction, and that's why inspections are an important part of real estate transactions. Whether everyone else in the transaction is honest, a crook, or simply ignorant of their merchandise, the satisfaction of the buyer should be the goal of every real estate transaction, and an inspection can go a long way towards ensuring that satisfaction.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Everything is not okay, but that's okay

As a buyer in a real estate transaction, why is it important to have an inspection?

The answer is not “to make sure everything is okay.” In all of the homes I've looked at, not once has everything been okay. Not in the half-million dollar homes, not in the $50,000 homes.

In a perfect world, an inspector's job would be to confirm that everything is okay—that is, to confirm that the contractor of this new house installed everything properly, or to confirm that the seller of this old house maintained everything properly. I would like to live in that world.

But I don't.

Since this is the internet, let's start this discussion with a black-and-white example: would you bid $100,000 on a house that needs $10,000 in roof work that you don't know about? You would, but only because of what you don't know. If you knew that it needed $10,000 in roof work, wouldn't you bid $90,000? Would you even consider buying it at all?

In many cases, you don't get to know all about the roof's condition before signing a contract to purchase a house. The seller may tell you that the shingles were installed last year, but do you know if they were installed properly? Do you know if last month's hail storm did any damage? Do you know if there are any manufacture defects which could cause insursability issues?

And that's just the roof.

Part 2: What are you buying?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Then and now

Things have been busy, so the blog slowed down. Time to get things going again with a short picture post, which shows part of why things have been busy.



Deep stuff. More later, inquiring minds!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chimney removal

Steve Nordheus, the City of Norfolk's structural inspector, knows the road between his office and my house quite well. The fact that the two are only separated by five blocks doesn't hurt, but he's been here quite a few times.

The first time he came out, Steve commented on the chimney in my house. The house is a bungalow design—basically a square, prior to multiple additions. The chimney runs up through the center of that square, which determined the location of all of the walls—and, consequently, the doors—in the house. The wall which divides the bedrooms (north) from the living and dining rooms (south) is off-center because it was built next to the chimney. The wall which used to divide the living room (east) from the dining room (west) was built on the west side of the chimney, resulting in a slightly larger living room space.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Monday, September 19, 2011

Rotted sill plates?

This is one of the things I try to help people avoid—replacing rotted sill plates (the board with the nails is a temporary replacement). Not a fun job!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Don't like code requirements?

Now for part 3. From Alan Pickrel, Building and Electrical Inspector for the City of Columbus Building and Development Department:

As far as the ice shield, we don't enforce it—the builder's association went before the city council and got it opted out. However it is a strong recommendation to [install] it from the building department. It's just that they took that part out of the code.

Fantastic—the builders are determining code now. Nothing new, but what's the point of setting regulations if those regulations can be modified by those whose actions are subject to the regulations? Let's try that with DUI laws and see what happens.

In the installation instructions for their shingles, Certainteed and Tamko call for the installation of ice and water barrier. GAF and Owens Corning highly recommend it—possibly because they manufacture their own ice and water barrier products, but certainly because it results in a superior roof system. Unfortunately, many roofers don't appear to care about producing superior results.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Acceptable vs. wrong: the difference and relevance

The question: as an inspector who is looking at a new house, you encounter a roof which is installed in the following order: sheathing, tar paper, drip edge, shingles. (The correct order is sheathing, drip edge, tar paper, shingles). What do you say?

The real answer: why did the professional roofer not install ice and water barrier? And if a professional roofer wouldn't use ice and water barrier, then why would you want a professional roofer doing your roof inspections?


Dealing with deal chippers

On Monday, I was visiting with the Realtors at Century 21 Realty in Columbus, NE. Valid questions were asked. Among them (paraphrased):

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Downspout extensions done right

While out walking or riding my bike, my route often takes me past a house whose owner clearly understands drainage issues. Or perhaps its a home in which the wife repeatedly told the husband that he needs to fix the downspout extension, the husband overreacts to what he feels is nagging, and thinks to himself “I'll show her, ha ha ha...” as he installs a forty foot long extension. Ha ha ha indeed—now he has to mow around it.

In any case, after inspecting house after house where the downspouts either end right at the foundation, the downspout extensions are not connected, or (worse yet) there are no gutters, it's fun to see someone taking the issue to the less-popular extreme. The further the downspout extends from the foundation, the better!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Products to avoid: attic vent covers

I'm not a big fan of negative talk, but one product that I have seen at a few homes during inspections always gets a mention: attic vent covers. Don't use them.


The theory behind these products is that trapping even a small amount of heat in the unfinished attic space will help lower one's heating bill. That theory may prove to be correct, but the downside can be far more expensive to fix: keeping heat in the attic equal keeping moisture in the attic.

Moisture condenses on colder surfaces--such as roofing nails which penetrate the roof sheathing. The moisture freezes. Then the surface warms up, the ice thaws, and the water drips onto the surface below. Repeat this process for several years, and the consequences can range from moldy insulation to rotten attic structures. The expenses of fixing these issues will far outweigh any utility bill savings that were gained from using vent covers.

Leaving the attic vents open during the winter months helps to remove the moist air. Let them do their job.

Friday, August 19, 2011

From InterNachi: Evaluating Problems with Fasteners

By Nick Gromicko and Kenton Shepard 

The term "fasteners" typically refers to nails, screws, bolts, and sometimes anchors. Fasteners may directly join together two pieces of material, or the material may be held together by connectors that are, in turn, held in place by fasteners.  A good deal of the difficulty in evaluating fasteners is the fact that most home inspectors inspect existing structures, as opposed to homes under construction, so, by the time the inspector sees a fastener, there’s usually not much visible except its head. Certain problems affecting fasteners, such as corrosion, may be visible, but other problems may be apparent only to inspectors who understand their properties and those of the materials they join.  In addition to becoming aware of visible issues, inspectors should understand some of the basics about fasteners that will help them spot less obvious problems.

Proper fasteners for treated lumber

Building a deck? It's not as simple as going to the hardware store and buying a box of regular nails anymore. If you're using ACQ or AC2 treated lumber, the use of bright or uncoated fasteners can have disastrous consequences.

The copper used in the aforementioned wood treatments corrodes standard fasteners—how fast the corrosion occurs is not a given, but there is no question as to whether the treatment is corrosive.

To illustrate this, consider the following pictures. Click on each image to enlarge!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Installing a wood stove: anchoring the hearth structure

For the structure of my hearth, I chose what is becoming a more common material: metal studs. They're easy to work with, provide a non-combustible base and backbone for the hearth, and are pretty cheap.

To hold the studs to the walls, I located as many of the metal studs over the actual studs inside the walls. You can use a stud finder to find the studs on your walls if you need to. Unless you're sizing your hearth based on the studs in your walls, though, you won't be able to screw all of your metal studs directly to the studs inside your walls.

But that's okay, because 3M makes Command strips. Ha ha ha ha.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Installing a wood stove: location in the home

If you've ever subscribed to a handyman magazine only to realize after the third month of your five year subscription that every single article is going to sadistically skip over every single detail that matters to you and your situation, then this series of write ups (I'm guessing there will be four or five parts) on one specific installation of a hearth and wood stove is for you. It's already a given that you want to install hearth and wood stove, because wood stoves are awesome. Wait, did I already skip over something? Ha ha ha.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Defining highlights

Initially, I'm sure the near-universal reaction to our house on the selling date would have been “what a piece of ….” Some would likely use a stronger last word than others, but most would have been fairly accurate. The house was a piece.

But—like any house I've inspected—it wasn't without highlights.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

How not to dig a 48” deep trench

My backyard, July 2007.

I'll never forget it. Not because I don't want to, but because I won't be allowed to. When it came time to have the new electrical service (cables/conductors) installed between the power pole and our house, my wife and I decided to bury the line rather than have it strung overhead. There was even a time when we were going to help our neighbors to the north and south have their lines buried as well, but that fell by the wayside when the electrical company told us that the house to the north would need to be changed from a 60 to a 200 amp service. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Starting in the bathroom...

Today is July 7 and the fireworks tents are coming down, but the mood at the house is far different in 2011 than it was in 2007. In July of 2007, my wife and I were still tearing out walls, wiring, and plumbing. And no, we didn't actually start in the bathroom, but sometimes you just have to go there.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Are you handy?

Kathie Means, ftw. That line still gets tossed around. Four years later, I'll go ahead and say it: I'm handy. Really handy.

I had no idea what I was getting into at the time, though. I just took what I knew, applied it to what I didn't know, and hoped for the best. And while the best may be the result—the jury's still out on that one—it seems to be working out so far.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Risk or danger?

A risk is a risk. Within the context of a property inspection, a risk is not a danger. A risk is something that has the possibility of hazard or loss. A danger is more immediate and should be treated as such.

The difference is that a risk requires action to become a danger. A house without occupants can be full of risks without being dangerous. But houses are generally built so that people can live in them. People bring action. Action converts risk to danger.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thermal fuses: Often the symptoms, rarely the problems

* I would tell you not to try this at home, but that's pretty much the only place you can try it. So I will tell you to turn the power off at your circuit breaker panel if you decide to try this at home.

** Turn the power off at your circuit break panel if you decide to do this at home.  If you don't, then you might as well consider this to be a manual on how to possibly kill yourself.

*** I really didn't set out to create that kind of manual, so turn the power off at your circuit breaker panel if you decide to do this.

Late last fall, I noticed that the air coming out of our heat registers was not overly heated when the auxiliary heat strip—the heat element located inside the furnace—was called for by the thermostat. When the day came that it took the furnace more than three hours to bring the house up to 70 degrees from 62, I decided it was time to figure out what was going on.

Being an inspector, my first action was to measure the air temperature as it came out of the heat registers, and to compare that reading to the temperature at the cold air return register. With the house temperature at 70, the cold air return measured right around 70.  That makes sense.  Unfortunately, the air gently coming out of the heat registers was only a few degrees warmer. When the heat strip was working properly, that air had previously been around 120 degrees. Obviously something was amiss.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A good night

Some nights are just good nights. A good night in my mind involves a 650 degree stove top temperature and a 720 degree stack temperature. Those numbers are usually closer to 600 and 900, respectively—not near as good in terms of heat output. 50 degrees can make an extraordinary difference on the top—like, for example, the difference between a 72 degree house and a 76 degree house on an eight degree night.

Blankets are for many things in this house: folding, putting away, pushing off, and looking at. I prefer to look at them. Looking at them implies they weren't needed in the first place, and are already folded and sitting in their proper place. Folding, putting away, and pushing off all suggest that blanket use was necessary in the first place, which begs the question: why? Is the user sick? Would 80 feel better?

One time I'm told the place got up to 90. But I wouldn't know because I was asleep at the time, and you know how these stories grow—in reality, it may have been a far more reasonable 88. Anyway, this night happened during our first year of using our wood stove—back when we would turn the act of loading the stove into a 3D version of Tetris, packing every possible inch of the stove's firebox with wood. A fun game, and winning meant getting an overnight burn and waking up to a warm house in the morning. But this was not a terribly efficient way to burn the stove, as it required choking the stove's intake to the point that the chimney would smoke and the glass in the stove's door would turn black—creosote-building time...

Nowadays we're much more conservative in our stove-loading technique. Three pieces is the magic number—the stove runs much more open, the smoke is almost non-existent between reloads, and the glass stays nice and clean. All is well, and every now and then, the efforts are rewarded with a 650+ stove top temperature. Some nights are just good nights!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Website of the week!

It's good to be recognized. The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors—or interNachi, for short—has recognized www.nebraskainspections.com as the association's website of the week winner for the current week. Selection is the association's way of highlighting inspection websites that offer accessible information in a unique, easy-to-use layout, and the association's selection of Nebraska Inspection's website is an affirmation of these attributes.

Nebraskaispections.com can be found at the top of interNachi's website list here. It will be on the list indefinitely, but will only be on top as long as it is the website of the week. So go over and bask in website of the week glory while you can!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Coal in your stocking?

There was a day when you would have wished for such a gift.

It was this week back in 1912 that Nebraska experienced its lowest temperature on record: 39 degrees below zero. A thought for those of you who live in old houses—like those built around the turn of the century—imagine what that had to be like. No insulation in the walls, single-pane windows, and likely plenty of fresh air via the multiple air leaks that were inherent to the building process of the day. It's enough to make me want to blow up an air mattress and sleep next to my wood stove tonight.

What was it like the night of that record low? Let's do some oversimplified math to stay warm and paint the picture.

The house is a 800 sq. ft. bungalow with the nine foot ceilings that were common back then. Each exterior wall is 28.3-ish feet long, so the total exterior area of the walls is 28.3*9*4=1,018.8 sq. ft. The area of the ceiling (28.3*28.3) is roughly 800 sq. ft., as is the floor. So the total exterior area of the house (walls+ceilings+floors) is basically 2,618 sq. ft.

We'll be generous and say that the uninsulated walls, ceilings and floors have r-values of 3.

And we'll say that the inside of the house is 50 degrees while the outside is -39 degrees, meaning that there is a temperature differential of 89 degrees from one inside of the wall to the outside.

To figure out how many btu's it would take to maintain this temperature differential, you multiply the total square footage of the outside surfaces of the house by the temperature differential, and then you divided that by the r-value. So...(2,618*89)/3=77,667 btu's.  Just to keep the house at 50 degrees.  To keep it at 68 degrees would require 93,375 btu's.

Either way, good luck finding that many btu's in 1912. It was a cold, cold night!