We home inspectors come across all kinds of improper, incomplete or totally makeshift installations and repairs on a daily basis. In fact, my team and I see something we’ve never seen at nearly every home we inspect. You’d think we wouldn’t be surprised by any of the improper fixes we see after seeing so many, but as the old adage goes, “Just when you think you’ve seen it all…”
While the funny list of so-called “fixes” we’ve seen is nearly endless (diapers being used for water control in a basement, socks being used to fill open mortar joints, nails being used to plug holes in PVC drain lines, a burlap bag being used to trap dryer lint in an attic, and on and on…), there are several common – and, frankly, lazy – improper repairs we see far too often. These are usually the result of contractors not wanting to go to the trouble of finishing a job properly and knowing that the average homeowner won’t know the work wasn’t done properly, won’t bother to check, or won’t notice until enough time has passed that calling the contractor may seem like a waste of time.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have plenty of contractor friends, and many are highly skilled professionals who are committed to excellent workmanship, quality and customer service. Unfortunately, though, plenty of people market themselves as experienced contractors but aren’t really as skilled as they claim, and others are so busy and backed up that the priority becomes finishing a job as quickly as possible in order to move on to the next one. Needless to say, any types of shortcuts will result in a less-than-desirable result and may leave you, the homeowner, with a future headache.
I’d like to go over a few of the most common shortcuts we come across and explain why they are a problem so you can check these items in your own home, whether now or for jobs you pay to have done in the future. This is the first of what will likely be a few posts on this topic, so keep your eye out for more to come.
#1. Bathroom vents in attics. More often than not, we see bathroom vent ducts terminating right into unfinished attic spaces. After installing a vent fan, which can be a fairly involved process, the last thing a contractor wants to do is run it through the roof where it will require getting on the roof, cutting a penetration, and ensuring the vent is adequately sealed. Not to mention, most electricians aren’t expert roofers (and vice versa). The duct can be run to a soffit vent (which is a less ideal option), but why bother crawling into a tight space, and likely through irritating insulation? The contractor knows that the homeowner probably doesn’t know the vent needs to terminate outdoors, probably won’t crawl into the attic to check, and probably won’t notice any issues until long after the job once mold growth or wood deterioration have occurred from all the hot, moisture-laden air that will frequently enter the attic and condense on the wood roof structure or insulation. Fortunately, the check for this is simple… just peak into your attic and look for any rigid or flexible pipes that have an exposed end above a bathroom. The vent will likely be white flexible vinyl or rigid or flexible metal like what you’d see at a dryer.
#2. Unsecured utility sinks. On average, about 9 out of every 10 utility sinks we inspect are not secured. Maybe closer to 99 out of 100, actually. They are attached to supply and waste piping but are free-standing and move easily. Once a contractor hooks up the sink, chances are it won’t be used very often and probably won’t be hit hard enough to cause any pipes to detach and leak. The typical homeowner would never tolerate an unsecured kitchen or bathroom sink, but a utility sink is another story. The problem, though, is that the sink not being secured can lead to problems, and fortunately the fix is simple. If the utility sink is in a basement, special masonry screws called tapcons can be used. The sink legs come with holes at the base for securing, and a masonry bit can be used to drill pilot holes into the concrete floor that can then be screwed into.
#3. Upper cabinets secured with drywall screws. The vast majority of upper cabinets we come across are secured with drywall screws. Why? Because they’re plentiful and cheap, and in most cases they work fine even though they aren’t designed for upper cabinets. Drywall screws are used for many applications they aren’t designed for, but upper cabinets are of more concern than most because they usually hold quite a bit of weight and are used very often – including by children. To fix this, you don’t need to remove the existing screws. Just purchase some cabinet screws and install them directly into studs (which should be where the other screws already are), in addition to the existing screws, to ensure a strong and safe connection.
#4. Inadequate caulk. After doing the hard work of a bath or kitchen remodel (plumbing, wiring, setting fixtures, tiling, finish work, etc), the last thing a contractor wants to deal with is the more simple, but messy and tedious job of caulking. After all, the homeowner will likely be so thrilled with a much nicer looking space that something as apparently minor as caulk could easily go overlooked or seem trivial. Yet while it may seem like a minor detail, caulk plays a very important role in protecting what you can’t see – especially the subfloor and concealed wall areas. Without caulk, water can leak into crevices and slowly but surely cause damage over time – most of which you won’t notice until the rot is severe and demands immediate attention. Fortunately, caulking is another simple job, although it does take some diligence in finding the appropriate caulk for the particular area and some skill to apply it in a way that looks good and doesn’t make a mess. A couple tips are to use painters tape to create perfectly straight edges, cut your nozzle at an angle and not too large, keep your gap small and don’t overfill it, apply evenly at a 45-degree angle, and use a wet finger to smooth the bead and a wet rag to clean your finger and any stray caulk as you go.
#5. Missing access panels. This one is often done intentionally for appearances rather than the sake of ease, but access panels ideally exist at tubs/showers so that the rough-in plumbing (concealed supply and drain pipes) can be quickly and easily accessed in case of leaking or necessary repair work. It doesn’t take much extra work for a contractor to create a wall access, and pre-made panels are readily available to easily install right into drywall. If you aren’t sure if you have access panels, just look at the wall your tub spout and shower head are against. If a panel exists, it will be on the other side of that wall – often in a closet or hallway. If one doesn’t exist and the wall is closed off, consider having one installed. You won’t regret it when a problem arises, even if it diminishes appearances a bit.
#6. Improperly installed insulation. This one is very important when it comes to energy efficiency and cost, and unfortunately the vast majority of insulation jobs are not well done. One common mistake we run across often is faced fiberglass insulation in drive-under garage or basement ceilings that has been installed with the faced side visible. This is done for comfort, familiarity and ease since it’s much more comfortable to handle the paper face than the itchy fiberglass and contractors are used to installing batts in wall stud cavities where the paper face should be facing them. In addition, the paper side has flanges that fold over to easily staple to the bottoms of joists, although this is really intended for studs in a wall. The problem with this is that the face is a vapor barrier and can cause vapor to become trapped between the face and subfloor where it can condense and lead to unseen mold growth or even possible wood rot over time. For this reason, the rule is that the faced side of the batt should always face the conditioned side of the home. If you have faced fiberglass batts in your basement or in a garage that’s beneath living space, make sure you see the fiberglass, not the facing. The same is true in an attic, by the way, where the faced side should be down. If you see an improper setup, gently pull a few sides of batts downward to look into the space above. If you see apparent mold or other signs of excess moisture, you know the insulation has caused some problems by being improperly installed.
#7. Garage door sensors on ceilings. Since the early 90s, garage door openers have been required to include photo-electric (AKA “red eye”) sensors for safety. The sensors should be installed at the base of the door tracks within 6 inches of the ground, and their purpose is to detect obstructions and cause the door to auto-reverse (stop and reopen) if any obstructions are detected. Unfortunately, it can be a bit tricky to get the sensors perfectly aligned to work properly and they have a tendency to sometimes move slightly and cause annoying malfunctions. To get around this problem, some door installers simply mount the sensors right above the opener in the garage ceiling where they are right next to each other, won’t move and will “trick” the opener into thinking they’re in place as intended since the opener can’t tell where they are. A professional garage door installer actually admitted to me a while back that he installs all sensors this way, knowing it’s not allowed, to avoid callbacks from clients who may become frustrated with nuisance malfunctions and save himself the extra work of installing them properly. It goes without saying, this isn’t only ethically wrong but it could actually lead to injury. Imagine a small child or pet standing directly beneath the door with nothing to stop the door from closing on them! If you have a garage with an overhead mechanical door, make sure your red eyes are where they need to be and that they cause the door to reverse when you close it and kick out between the sensors.
These are only a few of the many common but potentially harmful shortcuts we see on a regular basis, and I strongly encourage you to check these items at your own home. Doing so is extremely quick and easy, and any problems you may identify can likely be remedied fairly easily. For that matter, consider sharing this article with your friends and family so they can be on the lookout for some of these common but problematic shortcuts in their homes as well!
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