Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

Home inspections can be extremely scary for several people involved with a real estate transaction. The buyer, who is excited about purchasing a new home, may be worried that defects will be uncovered that make the home less appealing. Realtors may worry that the process will lead to an unhappy client or a killed deal. Sellers, especially, tends to worry that the inspection will lead to costly repairs, loss of money on the home, or their sale falling through.

While these can all be valid concerns, the reality is that most home inspections do not lead to a worst case scenario. Typically, a couple or few defects may need to be addressed, but most transactions do not completely fail as a result of a home inspection.

Still, there are times when an inspection does lead to some headaches or additional expense. When this happens, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, frustrated and even angry. After all, a lot is at stake for all parties involved with the sale of a property, and everyone wants the process to go as smoothly, inexpensively and amicably as possible.

Here at HPI, we make it a priority to present a home’s condition in a realistic way so that everyone involved remains as stress-free as possible. A home that is a hundred years old cannot be held to modern standards, and that’s something a buyer needs to understand. The seller also needs to rest assured that while we are required to objectively report on defects based on strict guidelines, our goal is not to dissuade buyers. I can’t personally speak for every home inspector, but we are very careful to not exaggerate defects or influence buyers one way or another. We simply report objectively, provide (hopefully) useful education, and allow each client to make their own determination based on the information provided.

As the occasional bearers of bad news, we inspectors are naturally not everyone’s favorite people at times… and that’s understandable. When a client experiences unwanted stress because of an inspection, it’s only natural to feel some animosity toward the inspector who identified the problems that are now an unexpected burden. As with all professions, it’s important that we are prepared to be understanding of what others are going through and not take their reactions personally.

If you are a new inspector, be prepared to develop “thick skin,” to be understanding of clients’ stress, and to not take the frustration of others too personally. If you’re a seller, understand that the goal of the inspector inspecting your home is not to hinder your sale or cause an otherwise negative impact on you in any way. If you’re fortunate enough to have a good inspector, he or she will be careful to communicate in a way that is more calming than alarming and ultimately more helpful than damaging. Try not to “shoot the messenger,” so to speak; but it’s understandable if an excess amount of stress leads to some temporary frustration. At the end of the day our goal is to help, not to cause more stress!

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In-Ceiling Radiant Heat

A home I inspected today had in-ceiling electric radiant heat, which many people aren’t aware exists. I’ve inspected several homes with this type of heating, and I’d like to review how this type of system works as well as its pros and cons.

In-ceiling radiant heat was most commonly installed from the 1950s through the 70s, when electricity was a cheaper fuel source than it is now. That’s not to say that this type of heating can’t still be relatively cost-effective, but it no longer has quite the financial appeal it once did.

There are several pros, as well as cons, to in-ceiling radiant heat. For one, electricity is 100% efficient, meaning it converts all of it’s power to heat. Modern high-efficiency gas furnaces and boilers can come close to that number, but electricity reigns supreme when it comes to efficiency. Like all radiant heat systems, electric ceiling heat functions by radiating heat into living space, which means a nice even heat, no drafts, no noise, and no disturbance of dust and other particles into the air.

It seems counterintuitive to have a heat source overhead when heat rises; but energy also always travels from warmer to colder areas, so the heat from the ceiling will still make its way down into the cooler rooms below. As the heat radiates to objects, the objects retain heat and radiate it out into the surrounding space. The result of this natural effect is a feeling similar to being gently warmed by the sun from above, and the temperature difference between the floor and ceiling is generally only about two degrees Fahrenheit.

Electric ceiling heat, like many electric heat systems, is often zoned. That is, it’s controlled by several thermostats – typically one for each room or area. This provides the added benefit of being able to separately control energy usage across different areas of the house to save energy costs and control individual comfort levels. Last but not least, radiant ceiling heat is essentially maintenance free if it’s properly installed.

With so many positive features, there are, of course, a few drawbacks as well. Installation of these systems is somewhat detailed and tricky and is not recommended as a do-it-yourself job. The temperature differences between the warm ceiling and colder interior below tends to cause cracks in drywall ceilings, which, although not a major structural concern, can be unsightly. In fact, hairline ceiling cracks have been present (and usually abundant) in every home I’ve inspected with in-ceiling radiant heat.

Furthermore, while electricity was less expensive during the couple decades when this type of heating was more commonly installed, its cost has since risen quite a bit. Depending on your area, the available fuel sources and their costs will likely determine how good of a long-term option this or any other type of electric heating system may be for your home.

Another slight drawback to this type of heating is that it has a slow recovery time, meaning it will take quite a while to heat up a space that has fallen to a low temperature. This is in contrast to forced air systems that are capable of quickly heating air and blowing it through ductwork and supply registers into the living space.

Like everything, in-ceiling electric heat has its own unique set of pros and cons. If nothing else, it’s certainly an interesting and unique way to heat a home that is pretty fascinating to learn about.

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Ceiling Access Panels

Many homes have access panels for the rough-in plumbing of showers. The access panel is an opening, usually covered with a rectangular piece of wood, and sometimes surrounded with decorative trim for aesthetics. The purpose of the opening/panel is to provide fast and easy access to plumbing in the event of an emergency or for other work that may need done at any time; and most homeowners attempt to make the access as visually appealing as possible since visible plumbing isn’t exactly attractive.

The balance between concealing things that are unsightly while still providing easy access to them is a difficult but important one. If you have an unfinished basement, a majority of your plumbing is exposed and accessible. This may not look good, but it’s very practical. Likewise, an access panel on a first or second floor may be a slight aesthetic drawback but may prove vital if quick access is ever necessary.

As a home inspector, I generally consider practicality more important than looks while recognizing the importance of attempting to balance the two as best as possible. And what I’m about to suggest is not a common practice but is one I would encourage you to consider to prevent unwanted problems at any point in the future.

A while back, the second floor bathroom toilet in my own home leaked due to an old rotted flange. The drain exists above a dining room, and I ended up replacing the entire drywall ceiling in the dining room with a wood ceiling (after first repairing the toilet). In addition to that work, though, I decided to also do something else to make life easier moving forward. I created a small hinged access panel in the new wood ceiling beneath the toilet so that if a leak occurs again in the future I can quickly access the area and provide an opening for water to drain through, as opposed to water damaging the ceiling with no easy way to escape.

Now, most homeowners wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of having a visible access panel in a first floor ceiling. In fact, that’s the main reason they aren’t nearly as common as shower access panels that exist in walls, and often in relatively concealed areas like closets. You may be surprised, though, by how inconspicuous ceiling access panels can be with thoughtful planning and good installation. Most of our visitors never notice the access panel in our dining room ceiling because it blends in very well and the hardware is very small. Granted, this is more easily achieved with wood than with drywall, but ceiling access panels can still be added in a way that doesn’t greatly diminish appearances.

I wouldn’t recommend carving out sections of ceilings beneath drains just to have access. After all, you may never have a leak that causes noticeable damage and couldn’t be identified and repaired quickly. If you do have a leak that requires repair work to the ceiling below, however, I would encourage you to consider installing an aesthetically appealing access panel at that time while the area is already open so you can lessen or remove future trouble.

Beyond being fairly simple to install, drop ceilings are popular – especially in basements – because ceiling tiles can be quickly removed for easy access to plumbing. Some homes have dropped ceilings on the first or second floors, but most homes have fixed ceilings – typically drywall – so access requires removing a section of the material that would need repaired rather than simply removing a panel or two that can easily be put back in place.

We all want an aesthetically appealing home, but it’s important to also ensure that your home is practically designed to enable quick access to areas and components that are prone to possible defects. Achieving this goal is easiest and makes the most sense during the time when a repair is actually being made. If you ever encounter a leak from a second story, consider installing an inconspicuous access panel beneath the drain in the ceiling at that time. It will likely go mostly unnoticed, and you’ll be very glad you did it if and when another leak occurs.

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Common Defects: Detached Garages

Detached structures are not normally as important to homeowners as their primary dwelling (and for obvious reasons). We don’t live in detached structures, and they don’t directly affect our house.

Still, detached structures are valuable pieces of property that shouldn’t be overlooked. They often house important and valuable items like cars, motorcycles, lawnmowers, expensive stored items and other valuables. Taking care of detached structures should be a top priority, but it’s easy to neglect or overlook structures we don’t actually live in. However, doing so is a mistake.

Some common defects with detached structures are missing gutters and downspouts, significantly deteriorated mortar joints of concrete block walls (if the walls are masonry), missing photoelectric “red eye” safety sensors for overhead, mechanical garage doors and inadequate sealing that allows pests easy access to the interior.

Of course, some of these defects may be acceptable to most homeowners with detached structures; BUT, fixing these deficiencies is usually fairly easy and inexpensive, and making these repairs is a wise investment to ensure that these structures (which are quite valuable) remain in a good state of repair.

If you have a detached garage, shed or other outbuilding, I encourage you to take some time to perform a simple check on your own. See if gutters and downspouts are present, if mortar joints are intact or deteriorated, if garage door safety sensors are in place, and so forth; and make the time and financial investment necessary to remedy any defects. You won’t regret this small investment in the additional structures on your property.

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Post-Winter Checks

Spring is upon us, and spring cleaning isn’t the only job you should be performing on your home during this exciting time. Winter can cause numerous forms of damage, and in this article I’ll cover a few of the common defects you should look for once the winter weather has cleared.

#1: The roof. During the winter (at least if you’re in a climate like ours in western Pennsylvania), your roof has likely been the brunt of substantial snow accumulation multiple times. The thick layer of snow acts as an insulator, and if your roof and/or attic space aren’t adequately insulated and ventilated ice dams may have formed, which weigh down gutters and can lead to roof leaks (as well as a potential safety hazard). Once the weather breaks, thoroughly check over the underside of your roof – especially near the eaves – and the roof covering (if possible) to verify that no damage or leaks have formed.

#2: Driveway. If your driveway is asphalt or concrete, the snow and ice may have caused some new holes, cracks or other forms of deterioration to form. Thoroughly look over your driveway to make sure no new holes or displaced sections have developed, as these areas would need repaired to prevent tripping hazards and possible damage to tires or the driveway surface itself. Having your driveway periodically repaired and sealed as needed is much less expensive in the long-term than waiting till the driveway is beyond repair and has to be dug up and repaved.

#3: Exterior wood. Wood on the exterior is exposed to the elements and is always prone to weathering, deterioration, and even rot. Come spring, be sure to look over exterior wood, and you should replace any rotted wood and clean and repaint any weathered/deteriorated sections.

#4: Windows: If your home isn’t continually and properly conditioned, excess moisture levels and temperature variances can lead to ice buildup from condensation. This is especially true if the windows aren’t adequately caulked and sealed. Ensure that your home is temperature controlled and that moisture levels are kept at bay to reduce the likelihood of problems. And come springtime, you can easily seal any areas that need work.

#5: Supply piping. If you’ve been the victim of frozen burst pipes during the winter, you’ll know about it and would have had the pipe(s) immediately repaired. Still, checking your plumbing supply lines for damage from the winter is a good idea. If your supply piping is metal, you may want to consider eventually upgrading to plastic piping, like PEX, which is rated to withstand a much lower temperature and will likely never freeze.

The spring season is a great time when we all want to be having fun, enjoying the weather, and not worrying about extra work. But if you take a small amount of time to check over these few items you’ll have greater peace of mind and will be very glad you did some extra “work” if you find winter related defects that require repair for the safety, durability and functionality of your home.

Of course, nothing can take the place of a Certified Home Inspector checking over your home in a situation like this, and I highly recommend hiring someone like myself to perform this all too important job on your home – your biggest investment.

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Easy Energy Upgrades

Often times, energy upgrades can be very costly. Adding insulation, replacing entire heating or cooling systems, and other big jobs can be extremely costly and often take many years to pay for themselves. Because of this, many homeowners opt to never perform any upgrades that would improve their home’s energy efficiency and comfort, increase its value and decrease their energy costs over time. Fortunately, there are several smaller energy upgrades you may not be aware of that offer a fast and significant return on investment, and I’d like to review a few of those here so you can take action and begin saving money and increasing value with your own home now.

The first simple thing you can do is replace any incandescent light bulbs with much more efficient LED bulbs. LEDs use far less wattage to produce the same amount of light, which translates to bulbs that cost much less to operate and last much longer. In addition, LEDs emit far less heat than incandescent bulbs so they don’t pose the threat of a potential fire hazard. LED bulbs do cost a little more, but they pay for themselves in hardly any time at all. They’re far more efficient, much cheaper over the long run, and safer. Not only that… you can replace the bulbs yourself, so there are no labor costs and no waiting period for a contractor. You can drive to the store this evening, purchase the bulbs, and go home and install them. What could be better!?

Another relatively simple upgrade is replacing an old mechanical thermostat with a programmable thermostat that allows you to program different temperatures for different time periods. The cost of the thermostat is quite low in comparison to other energy upgrades, and the ability to program your thermostat means that energy is only used at necessary times based on your particular needs and preferred comfort level. The return on investment for this upgrade isn’t quite as fast as the first recommendation, but it is still much faster than many other options. If you have a non-programmable thermostat, make upgrading it a priority and you’ll reap the benefits very quickly.

Another inexpensive and simple upgrade is ensuring that your ductwork or boiler piping is well sealed and insulated. The cost of this insulation job is obviously far less than the cost of other insulation jobs (like insulating an entire attic), and it will instantly produce better efficiency of your heating and/or cooling system and help ensure that the system remains in a good state of repair. The return on investment for this upgrade isn’t amazing, but it’s still worthwhile in the long run.

This last simple recommendation will not pertain to everyone right now but could pertain to anyone in the future. If you’re in the market for a new water heater, washer, dryer or other appliance, be sure that the new unit you purchase is Energy Star rated. These units are manufactured, tested and proven to consume less energy (often much less) than their older counterparts while accomplishing the same task. For example, an Energy Star rated dryer will possess a sensor to run only as long as necessary rather than for a set time period that may be longer than needed. Along those lines, if your dryer’s vent duct is flexible tin you would benefit from replacing it with rigid metal ducting, which is less prone to damage and lint clogging and improves the efficiency of your dryer.

Do any of these things and you’ll see improvement in your home’s energy efficiency that leads to quick cost savings, greater comfort and an increase in your home’s value and safety. If you can’t afford to do all of them at once, prioritize doing them as you’re able over time. These upgrades are simple but are very worthwhile, and you won’t regret doing them!

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Here at HPI, we provide all home inspection clients with a free and very valuable service called RecallChek. During the inspection, we gather information on all appliances with visible data plates and then submit the information to RecallChek to ensure no appliances have any outstanding safety recalls. RecallChek’s appliance database is enormous, and the recall details they possess on appliances is equally impressive, down to the number and types of incidents reported and even the stores, brand names, time period and price ranges an appliance was sold under.

When a vehicle has a recall, the manufacturer goes to great lengths to ensure you know about it. In fact, I’d guess that if you’re reading this you’ve likely received at least a couple or few letters in the mail about vehicle recalls. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with appliances. If you don’t look up appliance recalls, you’ll likely never even know they exist.

The best thing about RecallChek is that if you do have a recalled appliance, the manufacturer is required to do a free in-home repair or replacement. This also alleviates all fear from the seller and buyer since neither has to pay to fix or replace the appliance. But that’s not all… RecallChek is a free lifetime benefit! Your appliances may not have a recall now, but they eventually could at any time in the future. For this reason, RecallChek notifies you immediately in the future if any new recalls develop, and if you purchase a new appliance you can easily add it to your list with RecallChek via a monthly digital newsletter.

Many of our clients have benefited immensely from RecallChek. Several have even received brand new appliances for free! Needless to say, in almost every case those clients have saved more in the value of their repaired or replaced appliance than they had to pay us for their inspection services. Talk about great value and a wise investment!

On average, about one out of every ten houses we inspect has a recalled appliance. That may not seem like many, but it’s actually a fairly high percentage; and as I said before, not having a recalled appliance now doesn’t mean you won’t at some point in the future – especially as your appliances age.

Whether you’re searching for an inspector here in Pennsylvania or another area of the country, be sure to look into what additional services (if any) inspectors offer. Free services like RecallChek cost nothing but give you peace of mind and amazing protection.

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