Radon Testing – No Basement

I’m writing this article in the hopes of clearing up what I’ve come to realize is one of the most common misconceptions among homeowners, home buyers and even realtors pertaining to the many services we provide. In fact, this misconception is so commonplace that if I had to choose only one topic to teach on to clarify something we do, this would probably be it. For some reason, this misconception has been so widely accepted and frequently regurgitated over time that it is now considered basic truth in the minds of many people, and that’s no small issue when the subject at hand deals with health.

I can’t even begin to count how many times we’ve heard clients or agents tell us that a home doesn’t need to be tested for radon because there is no basement. Some people believe that testing for radon is still important if there is a crawlspace, but hardly anyone views it as necessary when a home is on a slab. How this notion ever became so widely accepted is a bit of a mystery, but it probably stems mostly from the fact that many radon tests are conducted in basements and that certain areas of the country that have higher average radon levels (like here in Pennsylvania) are in climate zones that tend to have homes with basements.

So, let me take a moment to set the record straight, and I hope the following information will shed some valuable light on this very misunderstood issue. Here are a few facts that debunk the “only houses with basements need tested for radon” myth…

1. The EPA does not distinguish between foundation types when it comes to radon testing. According to A Citizen’s Guide to Radon, which is an informational EPA publication, “Any home may have a radon problem. This means new and old homes, well-sealed and drafty homes, and homes with or without basements” (pg. 4);

2. Some of the highest average radon levels we have obtained from short-term testing for real estate transactions have come from homes on slabs (please read this fact again);

3. While radon comes from uranium in soil and soil exists around and below basements, a home on a slab is located directly above soil and may still be very prone to a high average radon level;

4. Although testing is frequently done in basements of homes that have them, the rule is simply that testing should be conducted on the lowest livable level. For a home on a slab, this would simply be the first floor which, like a basement slab, is located directly above soil.

I noted earlier that this topic is important because it pertains to health. To put that in proper perspective, you should know that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, next to smoking, and it is invisible, odorless, colorless and tasteless. The only way to know your home’s radon level is to have it tested. Naturally, if your home has a slab or crawlspace foundation and you have bought into the myth that no basement means no need for testing, you’ll likely neglect to have your home tested, will never find out whether or not you have an elevated level, and may unknowingly be at risk.

If you’ve neglected to have your home’s radon level tested, I strongly encourage you to do so. If you’re a realtor who has assumed that testing is only necessary for homes with basements, please commit these facts to memory to help better educate your clients. It’s easy to assume something is true when it is widely accepted, but this issue is important enough that it warrants a course correction if you’ve accepted the “no basement means no test” rule – especially when that myth should never have evolved in the first place.

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com

Solid Aluminum Wiring

At our afternoon inspection today, we came across a pretty rare find – solid aluminum branch circuit wiring. The term “branch circuit wiring” refers to the wiring that runs from breakers in the electrical panel to electrical devices throughout the home, such as outlets, switches, fixtures, etc. Solid aluminum branch circuit wiring has a known history of posing a potential fire hazard in homes, and we’ll review the primary issues here in case your home is a rare house that was wired with it.

Solid aluminum wiring was installed in a number of homes over the course of about a decade from the mid-1960s to the mid 70s. Some builders and electricians opted for aluminum over copper during this time period because of its lower cost, and the issues that are now known with solid aluminum were obviously not so well known then. But what, exactly, are those issues?

Aluminum wiring expands and contracts at a much higher rate than copper, and that slight movement causes pushing and loosening forces at connection points that can lead to loose connections. Once a connection is loose between a wire and screw, arcing and excess heat can occur that could ultimately lead to an unexpected fire hazard. Furthermore, since copper branch circuit wiring is far more common than aluminum, someone could join the two dissimilar metals and cause a reaction that leads to increased electrical resistance. In short, solid aluminum branch circuit wiring has “possible fire hazard” written all over it.

The term possible here is key, though. A home with solid aluminum wiring is not guaranteed to have a fire or other electrical defect at all, and the wiring in the home we inspected today has been present for over 50 years with tight connections (of those we checked) and no signs of overheating or other prior damage. Prior condition is not a sure indication of future performance, however, and the wiring in the home we inspected today could cause a hazard at any point in the future.

If you aren’t sure what type of branch circuit wiring exists in your home and you aren’t comfortable removing your electrical panel’s cover to check the wire ends at breaker connections, you can look at the wire sheathing right outside your panel or quickly pull an outlet (with caution, of course). The wire sheathing should contain writing that indicates it is aluminum, and the aluminum wire ends at outlet screws are easily identified by their silver color.

Be sure to not confuse any silver colored wiring with older tin cladded copper wiring that is typical of knob and tube in old houses. Distinguishing between the two is fortunately pretty easy, as solid aluminum will contain rubber sheathing that looks newer, whereas knob and tube will have more brittle, cloth based sheathing that is obviously old. Aluminum wire sheathing will likely also be lighter in color, and tin cladded copper sheathing will be dark.

If you do discover solid aluminum branch circuit wiring in your home, consult a qualified electrician to have it thoroughly evaluated – especially at connections. For complete peace of mind, strongly consider having it replaced with modern and safer non-metallic (NM) sheathed copper.

*For more information, visit our main website at http://www.hillinspections.com

Solid aluminum wire sheathing
Solid aluminum at outlet

Thinking of Waiving the Home Inspection?

In recent months, the real estate market has experienced an unprecedented, nationwide surge in sales as an apparent result of pandemic related economic changes causing more homeowners to sell, more people to buy and more workers to work from home. Even here in the Northeast where houses have historically sold for under their asking price, the new norm has been multiple offers, subsequent bidding wars, and sale amounts above the asking price. To say the real estate market has been “hot” is an understatement, to be sure.

If you’re placing an offer on a home and going up against multiple other buyers, one of the most tempting options to make your offer more appealing is to waive the home inspection and agree to purchase the home “as is.” After all, what seller would happily accept your offer over another that is equally enticing but doesn’t require an inspection that could uncover defects that would then have to be disclosed? In fact, even your realtor may advise you that waiving the inspection is one of a few things you can do to have a greater chance of your offer being accepted; and guess what… he or she would likely be right!

BUT, you have to ask yourself an important question: Is waiving the home inspection ultimately in your best interest, long-term? Or you might ask, “Is making this large investment over many years still worth it even if major, costly problems may exist that I have no way of knowing about without having the home first thoroughly evaluated by a qualified professional?”

If you’re confident that it’s still worth it and that your apparent dream home won’t actually turn out to be a nightmare in disguise, then you’ll likely opt to take your chances. As an inspector who finds major defects in even the most seemingly nice houses, though, I want to warn you that waiving the home inspection is never a good idea – period. As the old adage goes, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. And some of the most significant problems we’ve found have surprisingly been in some of the most high-end and expensive houses we’ve inspected, which are often not immediately apparent to the typical client (or realtor for that matter).

You don’t get to test drive a new home like you do a vehicle, despite the fact that for most people a home is a far bigger investment. You probably wouldn’t agree to buy a car without at least having it first thoroughly looked over by a qualified mechanic, and you certainly shouldn’t buy a home for far more money without first having it inspected by a certified professional inspector. Yes, you may miss out on a home you were hoping for, but you’ll also have peace in the knowledge that you were wise and didn’t commit to a major investment with incomplete information. View the home inspection as an absolute must, and don’t back down from that commitment under any circumstances.

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com.

Smart Thermostats: A No-brainer

Nowadays, just about anything in a home can be controlled remotely or hands-free with “smart” devices, from lights to outlets, garage doors, doorbells, and beyond. While smart devices offer obvious advantages, few are as advantageous as smart thermostats – at least in terms of saving money.

For houses we inspect that have an older mechanical thermostat, we often include a “tip” comment in our report and encourage the client to consider upgrading to a smart thermostat, such as the popular Google Nest (although many manufacturers now make similar models). With an older, mechanical thermostat, the stat has to be physically changed, in the home, as desired. With a smart thermostat, however, the device can be set to automatically adjust the temperature setting at predetermined times, eliminating the need for in-person operation, or remembering to actually do it for that matter. The thermostat adjusts on its own, allowing for a true “set it and forget it” experience.

Programmable thermostats, which have been around for quite a while, offer this feature; but unlike a modern smart thermostat, they do not allow you to adjust settings remotely with a cell phone, tablet or computer from nearly anywhere. Maybe you’re gone on vacation, hours from home, and realize the thermostat is still programmed to normal temperatures that aren’t needed while you’re away. With a standard programmable thermostat, you’re stuck with some wasted energy and a higher heating/cooling bill while you’re gone; but if you have a newer smart thermostat, you can simply alter the settings right from where you are with a few clicks on a screen.

You may assume that this type of convenience and potential cost savings comes with an initially high and cost-prohibitive price tag, but the cost is surprisingly low – especially when compared to the payback time relative to your initial investment. On average, purchasing a smart thermostat and having it installed will set you back about $400-$500 in most areas, but you’ll quickly earn that money back in energy cost savings – often in less than a year. This is especially true for systems that run on fuel that tends to be expensive or that fluctuates somewhat dramatically in price, like fuel oil for example. Not only that, but a smart thermostat actually learns your temperature setting habits and tracks data related to your energy usage to provide at-a-glance feedback you can monitor to make the most of your system’s efficiency.

If you don’t already have a smart thermostat (or at least a programmable model), do yourself a favor and get one installed as soon as possible. Regardless of the specific type and model you choose, be sure to actually program it and track your cost to make the most of its cost saving benefits. You’ll earn your money back quickly and will enjoy savings long into the future.

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com.

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To!

Most home buyers we work with would prefer to purchase a newer home, but many simply can’t afford it. Those who feel as though they have to “settle” for an older house are usually happy to become homeowners but plan to eventually upgrade to a newer, supposedly “better” home at some point in the future. If you feel you can relate, read on because this post will hopefully provide some real encouragement from an experienced professional who has “seen it all” and can attest to the pros and cons of both options. In short, purchasing an old house is often a very wise investment, contrary to popular opinion.

It may come as a surprise, but many of the older houses we inspect are better constructed than newer ones. In fact, if I had to pick a decade that seems to be the worst overall for poorly built homes, I’d probably have to say the 1990’s based on everything we’ve seen, and that’s not long ago… only about 20-30 years as of the date this article is being written. That’s probably due to the fact that many changes in code requirements were coming about around that time, as well as newer products, so the builders aren’t entirely to blame. I tell clients often that “our great-grandfathers really knew how to build houses.” Much of the work decades ago was done by hand and without the many modern advancements in tools and other technologies builders have at their disposal today. Foundation walls were often built 18 inches thick with stone, framing members were actually 2 inches thick, and the craftsmanship in woodwork and other finishing details is practically a lost art at this point. Much of this occurred during or shortly after the Industrial Revolution when workers and companies took great pride in their work and prioritized quality over quantity. Unfortunately, that isn’t so much the case today.

Today, homes are built with less substantial materials, but they are much more energy efficient. Advancements like spray foam insulation have revolutionized the building industry and allowed owners of new homes to benefit immensely from substantial cost savings in energy and much better sealing. In an age when the average homeowner works away from home and needs to depend on more automated systems, it makes sense that most homeowners need the ability to rely on HVAC systems that function on auto-pilot versus, say, an old coal furnace that required manual labor to load the coal, stoke the furnace, clean and dispose of ash, etc. Not only that, but the same system can now be controlled remotely from nearly anywhere in the world via a “SMART” thermostat, like a Google Nest. One could certainly argue, though, that there’s a real sense of value and satisfaction in having to continually work to maintain your home – one of your most valuable and important assets – and the folks we come across who are still doing things the old fashioned way take great pride in their old homes.

Appliances have followed this same trend, and this is something with which all of our clients completely agree because many have had firsthand experience with a newer appliance that’s quickly failed or an older unit that has lasted far longer than anticipated. Older, American made appliances were simply built to last. We often run across old water heaters, boilers, dishwashers and other units that are clean and still going strong with no indications that they’ll “crap out” any time soon. On the contrary, we’ve encountered several newer appliances – even as new as only 6 weeks old – that are leaking terribly and already beyond repair. In fact, many of the appliances that fail much earlier than expected are brands reputable for having previously produced long-lasting, reliable products over many decades. Here in our area of Johnstown, PA, a company called the National U.S. Radiator Company used to manufacture rugged boilers, and nearly every one we are fortunate to come across is still in great working order, largely free of defects, and likely to last many more years with minimal maintenance. Sure, they aren’t as efficient, but they may actually save money in the long run by outliving a newer boiler that is more efficient.

Now, many of the older houses we inspect do have several defects that you’d expect of any older home. Even then, though, those deficiencies aren’t as concerning as they may appear to an untrained or inexperienced eye. For example, most older homes have several floor joists that have been significantly notched or contain large bored holes that were carved out over the years to accommodate wiring or plumbing during remodels, repairs or other work. These are defects we inspectors have to note, but these joists are usually sound overall and have existed that way for a long time with no concerning signs of movement or failure at all. Old stone foundations are also usually prone to some degree of moisture intrusion, contrary to newer houses that are often constructed with modern and very effective waterproofing systems, but they rarely show alarming signs of failure or other significant problems.

Old houses definitely warrant a thorough inspection from an experienced professional, but the fact that a house you are considering buying is old should not, in itself, be a major deterrent. Take some time to research older building techniques and materials versus newer ones, and you’ll quickly discover that purchasing an old house may in fact be a wise decision, not a way of settling as you merely hold out and save for something newer.

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com