Tree Maintenance

Most people love having trees on their property and even close to their home. Many are stately, majestic, and add great curb appeal in addition to providing some much desired shade.

Like most things, though, trees come with many pros as well as cons. As a home inspector, I’m obviously more concerned about potential cons than pros, so I’d like to review some of the most common problems associated with trees so you can manage the trees on your own property as effectively as possible.

Large trees have large root systems, which demand a great deal of water and take up quite a bit of space underground. Large roots can suck up moisture from soil, creating an imbalance that can lead to shrinkage at your home’s foundation. Often times when trees next to homes are cut down, voids are created where their roots used to exist, and this can lead to some deflection at the foundation and subsequent cracks in mortar joints. It’s hard to believe, but your home’s foundation and the surrounding foliage actually work hand-in-hand to some degree. When roots make contact with a foundation wall they typically move along the wall rather than through it, but occasionally they can become invasive in more extreme and rare circumstances. Of course, this is very noticeable, and intrusive limbs will alert you to contact a professional immediately. These issues are often not overly concerning in most cases, unless root intrusion has actually occurred.

We often encounter tree limbs overhanging roofs or very close to the roof surface. As a general rule, we like to see limbs not directly overhanging the roof surface and kept at least 10 feet away. It goes without saying, but this guideline exists to help prevent possible damage from limbs that may fall. Beyond the obvious, though, leaves and twigs from close limbs often fall off and cover the roof surface or clog gutters which can lead to inadequate drainage or even potential leaking over time as debris gets wedged beneath shingle tabs providing an entry point for water. Close limbs also provide an easy pathway to your home for pests, such as wood-destroying insects, making keeping limbs away all the more important.

Since many trees occur naturally, it’s not uncommon for intrusive limbs on your property to be part of a tree that exists on a neighbor’s property. This obviously complicates matters, but coming to a mutual understanding isn’t always an impossible task. If you find yourself in a difficult situation, it’s always advisable to research your local regulations and consult a relevant person with authority in your jurisdiction.

So, here’s the quick run-down for properly maintaining trees close to your home… 1) Keep limbs trimmed back so that none are directly overhanging the roof or within 10 feet of the roof surface, 2) Water around large trees often to prevent their roots from absorbing enough water in the soil to create an imbalance, 3) Continually monitor your foundation walls that are adjacent to large trees to ensure no root intrusion is occurring, 4) Keep your gutters cleaned, or install gutter guards to help prevent accumulation of vegetation debris, 5) IF any trees are posing a clear threat, consider having them removed altogether. It may be hard to see that beautiful, old tree go, but keeping it isn’t likely worth the risk it poses.

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Security 101

Some people are extremely concerned about safety and home security. Others… not so much. Regardless of where you live, security is always a concern – even if you live in a neighborhood that is generally considered safe and free of crime. Your home could be broken into and your family endangered at any time, and ensuring proper safety measures are in place is of utmost importance.

Having a security system in place is definitely preferred, and many advancements have been made in recent years to systems that allow them to be controlled remotely, offer additional features, and optimize protection. For many, though, even the relatively low cost of owning a security system can be somewhat cost-prohibitive, so I’d like to review some less expensive, more simplistic options that anyone can use to help ensure your family is as safe and secure as possible.

First, ensure that deadbolts are installed on exterior doors. Contrary to the latch bolts that come with standard doorknobs and are fairly easy to pry open for people intent on doing so, deadbolts are thick and solid and have squared off edges that make them much stronger. If you don’t already have deadbolts and plan to install them, ensure that the keyed side (the side that requires use of a key for operation) is located on the exterior. The last thing you want is to have to locate and use a key in the event you need to escape during a possible emergency.

Next, check the screws in your strike plates. They typically come with short screws, but you can replace those with longer screws that will better secure them and prevent them from easily being pried off.

Windows (especially older ones) are often slightly misaligned and do not fully lock shut because the sashes are a little uneven when closed. It’s easy to overlook this seemingly minor problem when the windows still fully close, but they become a potential entry point for would-be intruders when they do not physically lock when shut. Most unlocked windows can be opened from the outside with relative ease.

An often overlooked home security feature is lighting. Statistics show that burglars are greatly deterred when lights are either already on, or suddenly come on, during a possible robbery or break-in. Dusk to dawn and motion sensor flood lights work great for this purpose. Dusk to dawn lights sense a decrease in natural light and come on when it’s dark (the time that break-ins are more likely), and motion sensors come on only when detecting motion. They also literally “flood” the area with light, providing great visibility and little room for intruders to hide. Even interior lights that are turned on are a good deterrent to potential intruders, which is why many people set lights on timers when they’re away from home.

There are other obvious security related practices that I won’t address here given varying beliefs and sensitivities. I would stress, though, that the more consequential a security measure may be, the more dangerous it may also be if not properly managed. Responsibility is vital, and any security plan should be practical, well planned and clearly communicated to all of the home’s residents.

It’s worth taking some time to evaluate your home’s security measures and to plan for improvements. This brief article provides some basic insight that will hopefully be helpful, but your own plan will likely involve numerous factors that align with your own property, your level of concern, and even your beliefs. Regardless, it is a good idea to ensure that your family and home are as safe as possible.

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CSST Gas Lines

In recent times, corrugated stainless steel tubing (CSST) gas lines have become very popular as a more user-friendly and less expensive option than other rigid metal gas lines. CSST has many benefits, but we often encounter defects with its installation when conducting inspections. Millions of homes throughout the U.S. now have CSST, so there’s a good chance your home might. If so, hopefully this article will help you identify possible flaws in how your CSST may have been installed.

First, CSST can usually be easily identified by its flexible yellow sheathing. The sheathing exists primarily to protect the underlying metal tubing from abrasion, but its yellow color makes it easy to identify. Some CSST is black, which is considered higher grade as it is more capable of withstanding possible  lightning strikes, but yellow is more commonly used.

Because CSST is metal and carrying combustible gas, it is required to be properly bonded and grounded. It should also be separated as much as possible from other electrical conductors and should not be run through ductwork, chimney liners, appliance vents or other metal-heavy components. The tubing should be kept away from sharp objects and should not be bent too much, as this could lead to damage. Parts from different manufacturers should not be mixed during installation, as each manufacturer designs their tubing and fittings to be used together. Occasionally CSST is buried, but it should actually never be buried and is conveniently rated for outdoor exposure. In areas where the tubing may possibly be damaged, it should be properly protected, such as through masonry walls where watertight conduit is required.

Only a professional certified to install the particular brand of CSST is permitted to perform installation. Homeowners sometimes attempt to install CSST on their own as a “DIY” job, but this should not be done due to the many (and sometimes varying) requirements that exist among manufacturers for safe installation.

If you have natural gas or propane appliances and have had installation or repair work done in recent years, there’s a good chance that CSST exists at your property. It’s worth taking a little time to look over your tubing to ensure it is properly installed and safe, as some installers cut corners from time to time. CSST has gained rapidly in popularity for good reason, but it’s important to make sure that yours is properly installed and not a potential danger to your family.

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Cost Estimate Resource

Most homebuyers we deal with aren’t aware of average costs for repairs. This makes sense given the vast cost differences between regions, individual contractors, unforeseen circumstances that may arise with particular jobs, and countless other factors.

It’s no surprise, then, that our clients often ask us for estimated costs for necessary repairs we uncover during inspections, knowing we will have a good idea in most cases. What most people aren’t aware of, though, is that we are legally prohibited (at least here in PA) from providing detailed cost estimates because of the many uncertainties inherent with each particular job. Home inspectors are permitted to provide a cost range, but not an exact estimate.

Fortunately, there’s a fairly reliable source for estimating repair costs that anyone can access free of charge. HomeAdvisor, a well-known company, offers their “True Cost Guide” that is specific to zip codes and pools data gathered from different reported jobs in areas throughout the country. Referencing the True Cost Guide is a good first step in getting a pretty accurate idea of what your particular job (or jobs) will cost in your specific area.

At HPI, we provide all of our clients with a link to the True Cost Guide, but I’m writing about it here for the benefit of anyone who may access this blog for helpful advice. We at HPI do not deal with HomeAdvisor in a contractual way (we do not pay them for leads, advertising, etc), but we do recognize the value of the True Cost Guide for buyers or sellers who are in need of at least a rough estimate of what repairs will actually cost before making a large and long-term investment that may involve some back-and-forth (and possibly stressful) negotiation.

Even if you aren’t buying or selling a home, you’ll likely want a good idea of what your total repair or renovation costs will be prior to hiring a contractor. By utilizing the True Cost Guide or similar online tools, you can get the answer yourself rather than having to rely on an outside source.

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New Offering: Walk-Through Inspections!

I’m excited to announce that we’re now offering an additional service here at HPI: walk-through inspections. This service is available only to clients looking to purchase a foreclosure, investment (rental), or commercial property.

If you fall into that category, the walk-through inspection may be an appealing option. Buyers interested in these types of properties are often not concerned with all the details that come along with a typical, comprehensive inspection and report. Instead, they are usually only concerned with the more “major” items (foundation, roof, HVAC equipment, safety hazards, etc). Likewise, these types of transactions often have short time restraints that make scheduling typical inspections in a timely manner difficult, and the notion of spending the normal amount of money for a traditional inspection is not appealing – especially if utilities are shut off and the inspection is already limited in its scope.

The walk-through conveniently solves these issues. Rather than performing a traditional inspection and providing a detailed and lengthy report for a normal fee, we simply meet the client at the property, perform a walk-through and verbally communicate our findings. Because this process is informal and does not require the additional time and work of writing a detailed report, the cost of a walk-through is much cheaper (about one-third) and is done for a flat fee regardless of the size, age or condition of the property.

It is important to understand that this option is certainly NOT a substitute for a traditional home or commercial inspection that is more comprehensive and provides a detailed, comprehensive and written report. But for clients interested in purchasing a foreclosed, rental or commercial property, this may very well be a practical, simple and cost-effective option.

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Dielectric Unions

This article will be a bit more scientific than most on this blog, but it’s important, so don’t let that deter you from reading. If you aren’t a trained plumber or didn’t pay close attention in chemistry class, there’s a good chance you don’t know what a dielectric union is. It’s actually not as complicated as it sounds, though, and hopefully you’ll find it interesting.

Dielectric unions are required when joining dissimilar metals to prevent a reaction called galvanic corrosion. “Galvanic” refers to electrical currents created by a chemical reaction, and “corrosion” refers to the gradual destruction of a material – usually metal. So, in layman’s terms, galvanic corrosion on pipes is the gradual destruction of the metal as a result of a chemical reaction that causes electricity.

But how, exactly, does that work? When two dissimilar metals, like copper and steel, are joined together and water passes between them, the water acts as an electrolyte and causes ions from one metal to separate and move to the other. Basically, the metals and water form a battery, so to speak. If you’ve seen older batteries, you’ve likely noticed some corrosion. This doesn’t happen immediately, but it is guaranteed to happen over time if there’s nothing done to prevent it.

So what’s the remedy for this natural occurrence? You guessed it… a dielectric union. The union contains a rubber gasket in the middle that prevents the different types of metals from touching. Unlike metal, the rubber does not conduct electricity. As a result of this non-conductive separation, the harmful chemical reaction (electrolysis) is essentially prevented and the unwelcome corrosion is kept at bay.

Joining dissimilar metals is fairly common with plumbing work, but it’s especially common at water heater fittings. This is one reason why many water heaters show corrosion in different places, and it’s one of many reasons why qualified plumbers who know how to properly join pipes and fittings need to be the ones installing water heaters (and performing other more detailed plumbing jobs). The last thing you want is a malfunctioning and potentially dangerous water heater!

When you get some spare time, it would be worthwhile to look over your plumbing and water heater to make sure dissimilar metals aren’t directly joined together and that concerning levels of corrosion haven’t formed anywhere. If you notice either of these, call in a qualified plumber for further evaluation and repair or replacement. Simple things, like dielectric unions, can do wonders to prevent potentially dangerous and costly hazards, and knowing these things – however seemingly boring – can be a real life saver.

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Open Your Windows & Doors!

Spring is here, and it’s finally that time when we can open our windows and doors. Aside from the happy feelings we get from nice weather and the ability to “let the outside in,” there are some major benefits to keeping your windows and doors open, and I’d like to go over just a few of them in case you’re the type of person who’s inclined to turn the A/C on just a little early.

First of all, open windows and doors provide great ventilation. They allow a continual circulation of air, removal of stale air and dust that are often unhealthy, and a more even pressure balance in the home. Constant ventilation also means decreased condensation, less risk for mold and mildew growth, and removal of potentially toxic indoor air pollutants. As if that weren’t enough, opening your windows and doors often means allowing additional sunlight into your home, which helps your mood and even your physical health.

The positive effects of open windows and doors are pretty obvious in terms of mood and health, but there are financial benefits as well. A steady flow of fresh air means a diminished need for running air conditioners, ceiling fans and other power consuming systems that cost money. Instead of wasting energy (and money) unnecessarily, we can reap the free benefits of nature. It’s a true win-win.

Of course, be sure that your windows and doors are screened if you keep them open to prevent insects and debris from getting in. Along those lines, it’s a good idea to take some time to inspect your screens at the beginning of the warm season, and periodically thereafter, to make sure no new tears or holes have formed in them since they’re prone to damage.

Last but not least, keep your windows and doors open as long as you can! Take full advantage of the nice season and fresh air, and don’t be in a hurry to turn on the central air or ceiling fans. You’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by how much better you feel all around, and your house will reap the benefits as well!

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