Pest Inspection (DIY)

Let me start this post by making it clear that nothing can replace a pest inspection conducted by a well-trained and experienced professional inspector. Still, there are some things every homeowner can do to periodically check for pests on their own.

When I use the term “pests” as an inspector, I am primarily referring to wood-destroying insects (WDI) that can potentially damage structure. Other pests can certainly be a nuisance, but they will not slowly but surely destroy your home. Wood-destroying insects, such as termites, carpenter ants, carpenter bees, and powderpost beetles, on the other hand, can (and do) cause substantial damage that amounts to a lot of money in repair work each year.

For starters, be sure that no wood is against the exterior of your house. People often place piles of firewood against their houses, but this is an inviting area for wood-destroying insects and should be avoided. Likewise, vegetation should not be right up against the structure because it, too, is an ideal environment for pests. So, step one is making sure that the conditions around your house are not conducive for WDI.

Next, you can check your window and door sills for any insect parts, like wings. Certain wood-destroying insects swarm (fly away to create new colonies) and their wings are often found after swarming has occurred. Tap on the wood trim around windows and doors, baseboards, and so on, and see if you can hear a buzzing sound from a group of insects. If you come across any areas of soft wood, it may be an indication of WDI damage. If you see mud tubes, which look just like they sound, you know you have a current or previous problem.

A can of compressed air is a very useful tool for checking for pests of all kinds. Place the narrow tube into the nozzle on the can and spray any areas where insects are most likely to be (the bottom of siding, trim, electrical and plumbing penetrations, etc. Use a mirror with an extendable neck to see behind hard-to-reach areas. Check areas where dampness may be an issue (under sink cabinets, in the basement and attic, and so forth) to ensure there are no signs of WDI.

If you thoroughly evaluate your home with these steps, you will have completed a pretty thorough pest inspection on your own. If you do come across any wood-destroying insects or suspect you may have, be sure to contact a qualified exterminator for immediate treatment.

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Cracks: A Cause for Concern?

Most people immediately panic when they see cracks of any kind in a home, assuming the house is on the brink of collapse. While this may be the case in rare occasions, most cracks are not a cause for immediate concern.

You would think that houses settle most as they get older, but houses actually tend to settle most in the first several years after they’re built. Think of a new pair of shoes or a baseball glove that need broken in before they have “settled” into that place of perfect comfort. Once the house “breaks in” to the soil, so to speak, the settling typically mellows out and takes much longer to occur over time.

Regardless of the age of your home, you’re likely to see at least some minor cracks in places, and you should know the basics of how to determine whether they are normal or something to be concerned about. As a general rule, horizontal cracks – especially in foundation walls – are of greater concern than vertical cracks. This is because horizontal cracks often indicate lateral movement where the foundation wall is being pressed inward from soil pressure. As the soil surrounding the foundation swells with water, pressure is exerted on the foundation walls and horizontal cracking toward the center of the wall often occurs. This is one of the reasons why preventing water intrusion at the foundation is so vitally important. If the soil beneath the corner or center of a concrete block wall experiences heaving (upward force), you may notice step cracking, which, as its name suggests, resembles a stair case pattern along the mortar joints of the cinder blocks. If a large, jagged crack is present and wider at the top than the bottom, it indicates upheaval of the soil near the center of the wall. If the crack is wider at the bottom, it indicates upheaval at the corners.

It is common to see some small cracks on interior walls above the foundation. You may see them, in particular, near corners of doorways or windows, and often running more diagonally than straight up and down. This is usually not an immediate cause for concern, but you can follow the crack down and examine the underlying structure to see if any foundation issues exist that may require further evaluation or repair. If your roof is composed of trusses, you may see some cracks near the center of the ceiling/walls from a phenomenon known as “truss lift” where the top chords of trusses expand and bow out, pulling the center of the bottom chords up and away from the center of the house.

When cracking seems severe, checking your windows and doors can also provide some additional clues. If settling is significant, your doors and windows may be out of balance and especially difficult to open and close due to movement and shifting of their frames. You can usually see and not just feel this because uneven gaps may be visible – particularly around doors.

If you see cracks, or if some arise over time, don’t panic and assume your house is bound to cave in. In most cases, that’s not the most likely scenario. However, you should be diligent about periodically examining your home for any concerning cracks and should consult a qualified foundation contractor or structural engineer if any major or concerning cracks arise. When it comes to structural issues, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, but you should also understand that every house will settle over time and not every indication of settling is a sign of impending disaster.

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Energy Efficiency: Receptacles & Switches

In a previous post, I discussed the importance of air sealing in addition to insulating for improved energy efficiency. In this post, we’ll look into that in more detail with receptacles and switches.

Believe it or not, receptacles (outlets) and switches are one of the main culprits for leaking air in most homes. This makes sense really, considering that there are usually many receptacles and switches in a house and that the wall areas surrounding them are usually insulated while these areas usually aren’t. Air can easily enter and exit the house through these many small areas, and the toll this takes on efficiency is much greater than you might assume.

A common remedy to this problem is installing foam gaskets made for the receptacle or switch plates, but unfortunately these easy fixes don’t always do the best job. A better option (and one you can do in addition to the foam) is spray foaming around the boxes that contain the receptacles or switches. This is very effective at air sealing these small spaces and helps more than you might think in stopping air leakage and improving the energy efficiency of your home.

When you can spare about half a day, take the time to complete this simple but very helpful project. It’s cheap and easy and the rewards will really pay off.

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Maintenance Tip: Chimneys

In a prior post, I discussed some common defects found with chimneys. In this post, I’ll give you one important tip to keep your chimney in good working order.

If you have a chimney, it should be serviced at least annually by a qualified chimney sweep. I have to admit that even I still think of Dick Van Dyke’s character, Bert, in Mary Poppins when I hear the term “chimney sweep,” but these professionals are all but old and obsolete! They are a very valuable resource for a very important component of your home.

Hiring a chimney sweep for annual maintenance is especially important if you own and use a wood-burning fireplace, but it is still important if you own a chimney at all. Chimneys serve a simple but extremely important purpose of removing exhaust gases from the house. Often times they have the added bonus of being a decorative focal point as well, but their pretty exterior can cause us to easily forget how they may look on the inside.

Don’t make the mistake of neglecting your chimney. Schedule annual cleanings in advance by a qualified chimney expert so you can rest at ease knowing your chimney is in good condition and performing well.

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Maintenance Tip: HVAC

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are one of the most complex systems in any home. No matter what type of system your house has, it is guaranteed to have many components that work together in a complex way to produce or remove heat from your home.

I have come to have immense respect and appreciation for knowledgeable, experienced and qualified HVAC technicians. They are some of the most regulated of all contractors and typically require a great deal of education and training to be competent in their field. These experts are truly worth their weight in gold.

That being said, it is a wise practice to have your heating and/or cooling system thoroughly evaluated and serviced by a qualified HVAC technician every year. This is especially important if your system is ten years old or older. Having an expert service your system annually (and ideally shortly before the heating season) will help it to perform more efficiently and last longer.

Schedule servicing for your system before you forget, and set a reminder for yourself to do it every year. Be sure that the technician who provides the service documents his or her name, the date, and what was done and that the service record is left at the unit for reference. This is helpful for you as well as anyone else who may own the home in the future.

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Maintenance Tip: Gutter Guards

Clogged gutters are an all-too-common problem. Houses surrounded by trees and dense vegetation are especially prone to clogging from leaves and other debris. You’ve probably heard about gutter guards, but you may not know much about the pros and cons of various types.

Several types of gutter guards exist: foam, mesh, perforated, brushes, reverse-curve, etc. The goal of each type is to allow rain water to freely flow into gutters while blocking debris from entering. Of course, some gutter guards work better than others.

Some types can simply be inserted into gutters, while others must be secured and require more work to install. As you probably guessed, “more work” in this case means “better,” as it typically does.

From experience, I can tell you with confidence that I feel reverse-curve gutter guards do a better job than the other types. They completely block the gutter, but their rounded edge (which looks like water would cascade right off of it) actually causes water to follow the curve and go right into the gutter. They allow water to flow freely into the gutter while preventing nearly all debris from entering, which is exactly what you want a good gutter guard to do.

Although other types of gutter guards can be installed easily by just about anyone, reverse-curve guards should be installed professionally because they are permanently secured to the edges of the roof rather than being placed in the gutters.

You should consider installing gutter guards if you don’t already have them. Any of the options are better than nothing, but reverse-curve guards are a great option if you can afford them. If you don’t, be sure to clean your gutters at least once, if not twice, a year to ensure they function properly.

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Common Defects: Missing Chimney Caps

Most houses I inspect – especially older homes – have a chimney. In my area, most chimneys are brick and have clay flue liners. Unfortunately, most of those chimneys do not have a cap.

Caps are necessary on chimneys because they help prevent water, debris and wildlife from entering the flue and causing obstruction or damage to the liner. If the flue becomes blocked because no cap is present to stop items from entering, exhaust gases and smoke can quickly backdraft into the house and become a safety hazard.

Ideally, the cap is fitted with a screen to help block things from entering the chimney. Screens were not common years ago, but good contractors install them regularly now.

If you have a chimney that is missing a cap, contact a reputable chimney company to have one installed. It will preserve your chimney and protect your family, and is a very worthwhile investment.

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