Sometimes You’ve Gotta Get Dirty

We include footnotes on all of our home inspection reports to provide clients with helpful tips for basic maintenance. Among the many tips, one of the most important is periodically checking any unfinished spaces in your home – especially the attic. I can’t count how many houses we’ve inspected where the owners have confessed to never seeing their attic space, and many of them have lived in their homes for decades.

Aside from storing the Christmas tree and a few old heirlooms in the attic, most people never have a need to visit their unfinished (and let’s face it, often dirty and creepy) attic space. So it’s not surprising that no one makes it a habit of visiting their attic from time to time, and most homeowners would never even think of it. Unfinished attics – especially in old homes – bring to mind things like cobwebs, bats, and countless other eerie surprises. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

Well, as you probably guessed, avoiding scary spaces isn’t exactly the best idea. The same conditions that make unfinished spaces less than appealing also make them more prone to problems that demand periodic monitoring. If you’re diligent about paying these spaces an occasional visit, you’ll be far more likely to spot possible issues and deal with them quickly before they have an opportunity to turn into much bigger, more expensive defects.

The owners of a house we recently inspected learned this lesson all too well after getting news of our report. In general, the home was very nice and well maintained, so we didn’t expect to run into any major defects. Of course, I knew that if any area would have problems it would probably be the attic, and unfortunately that turned out to be true. The attic wasn’t adequately ventilated and the inspection was in the middle of winter, so temperature extremes had quickly led to condensation buildup of vapor-laden air on the rafters and roof sheathing, along with subsequent dark staining, microbial growth, wood deterioration and water dripping onto the attic floor and insulation below. See the photos below to see what I mean…

I instantly felt bad for the homeowners, knowing they had worked hard to maintain their home very well over the years, and also knowing they probably never checked their attic and had no clue that this issue was lurking above their heads all along. Had they known how important it is to check unfinished spaces and not just the main living space, they undoubtedly would have discovered and dealt with their ventilation problem far earlier. As a side note, I should also point out that this is precisely why people get home inspections. The buyers of the home may very well have never entered the attic space either, and they would have been saddled with a major problem down the road!

Set reminders for yourself to periodically check unfinished spaces in your home, like attics and crawlspaces, that you normally wouldn’t enter. Do this at least once each season (about once every three months) at a minimum, and preferably a little more often. Yes, it may require getting a little dirty and dealing with some things that are a bit creepy, but it’s far better than allowing defects to form and grow undetected and having a costly mess on your hands in the future! And if you just aren’t comfortable doing this yourself, you can always hire a professional to do it for you.

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Upside-Down Insulation

One of the most common defects we come across – and usually in nicer homes – is insulation that has been installed upside-down. In particular, paper faced fiberglass batts are always the culprit. This is the type of insulation that probably immediately comes to mind when you hear the word “insulation”… long, rectangular batts (usually pink, white or yellow) with a brown paper facing that exists as a vapor barrier. It can lead to a host of problems when improperly installed, and we’ll go over the most common issues and the basic rule for installation so you can check the insulation in your own home and (hopefully) have it corrected if need.

But first of all, let’s begin with a truth that most people either aren’t aware of or don’t want to admit. With the many innovations that have come along in the world of insulation in recent years, fiberglass batts are no longer a very good option for most applications. There are now a number of superior products – all of which can be used in areas where fiberglass batts long reigned supreme – and they should be used. As with most things, it takes quite a while for products to really “catch on”and for contractors to become completely comfortable with the installation, and that’s one of the reasons fiberglass batts are still so popular despite the availability of several far better products.

For many years, contractors and DIY homeowners have been installing batt insulation and have loved its ease of installation and low cost. Closed cell spray foam (arguably the best product available today, depending on the application) isn’t nearly as easy to install and is quite a bit more expensive, so it isn’t the go-to option for most people. Even mineral wool, which also comes in batt form and is easy to install, is a little less familiar and a little pricier. Old habits die hard, and that axiom rings true for fiberglass insulation as it does with so much else. You don’t have to go all-or-nothing with insulation to achieve a good result, though. One fairly popular method nowadays is having one inch of spray foam applied to create a water and air-tight barrier, along with increased rigidity, and then to fill the rest of the cavity with another, less expensive type of insulation.

So, back to upside-down batts and why they’re a problem… Remember how the paper facing of the insulation acts as a vapor barrier? That’s important because a lot hinges on that barrier being installed on the proper side (and it often isn’t). The simple rule for faced batt insulation is that the brown side should always face the conditioned side of the home. Think of the house as a box you’re looking at from the outside, and then envision all of the brown (the vapor barrier) facing inward. If the insulation is in an unfinished basement, a crawlspace or a drive-under garage, the brown should be facing upward and not visible when you’re inside and looking up. If it’s in an unfinished attic, the brown should be facing down and, again, not visible if you are looking at it from within the attic. If it’s in the exterior walls surrounding the main floor(s), the brown should face the interior and be visible if you were to remove the drywall. Pretty easy, right?

You’re likely wondering, if this rule is so simple, why is it so hard for people to understand and follow? Well, one reason is that many people – even contractors – simply don’t know this rule or get confused when they try to remember the direction the insulation should face. The primary reason, though, is that people are so used to installing batts in wall cavities where the brown side should be visible that they just install it that way regardless of the location. It’s also much more pleasant to touch the paper faced side than the itchy, irritating fiberglass, and the brown side has tabs that conveniently fold over to easily staple the batts to studs, joists and other framing members. Even people who know the simple rule we just went over have a tendency to take the easy road and trust it won’t lead to any major issues in the near future, and professionals know that the average homeowner will have no clue that the way they installed their new insulation is improper.

OK, so you’re probably wondering why this rule exists. Why does the vapor barrier need to be facing the conditioned side of the home, and what, exactly, can happen if it’s installed in reverse? Because the vapor barrier blocks water vapor, air that contains vapor and gets into the insulation can condense if there’s a temperature difference (as there always is between finished and unfinished spaces). Once that happens, the condensation won’t have anywhere to go since there’s either sub-flooring above or ceiling material below, so it becomes trapped and often doesn’t quickly evaporate out. Over a long enough period of time and that continually happening, the insulation can compress, lose its R-value and even become a breeding ground for mold and other contaminants. To make matters worse, the paper facing has a black coating, so you likely wouldn’t even notice this happening until it has caused the insulation to sag or fall from a floor structure or drastically compress in an attic. Vented crawlspaces that are naturally prone to high moisture levels are especially susceptible to damaged, falling batt insulation, and we unfortunately see it all too often during inspections. To make matters worse, the batts are usually just friction fitted into place without any wring or other supports whatsoever. The only saving grace to the insulation being able to fall is that it won’t stay pressed against the subfloor where the condensation can lead to eventual rot of the wood floor structure. I often think of falling insulation in vented crawlspaces as alarms… when the batts fall, you know you have a problem and may want to check out your floor structure!

Take some time to walk through your house to check the insulation. If you have fiberglass batts in your basement ceiling, crawlspace floor or attic, make sure that you can’t see the brown side. If you can, gently pry away some of the sides to look around and make sure there isn’t any mold growth or wood/drywall deterioration. You may not have a glaring issue now, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to budget for a reputable insulation contractor to evaluate what you have and to make recommendations for repairs since it’s only a matter of time before problems do develop. This won’t only prevent possible long-term damage; it will help improve energy efficiency, comfort and value. The bottom line: fiberglass batts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and you’d be wise to make sure yours are at least properly installed.

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Ice Damming & What to Do About It

We’ve had some unusually severe winter weather lately here in southwestern Pennsylvania. During our recent inspections, we’ve seen enormous icicles hanging from roof eaves, along with curled snow sliding off the edges of metal roofs (I’ve attached a few photos for your viewing pleasure). A lot of what we’ve been seeing is something you’d literally have to see for yourself to believe because it could otherwise only be conjured up in your imagination.

One of the biggest concerns with this type of weather is ice damming – especially if you have a typical asphalt shingle roof. If you came across this blog article without already being a subscriber, chances are it’s because you searched for information about ice damming and may even have active leak damage. I hope not, but at least this article will help you to understand what ice damming is, why it happens, and (most importantly) how to prevent it in the future!

So, what exactly is ice damming? Well, it’s no more than a buildup of ice along the eaves (bottom edges) of a roof. Just like a water dam that is built up to hold back water, an ice dam is a buildup of ice that also prevents water from freely flowing downward. The only difference is that traditional water dams are often a good thing, whereas ice dams are never good!

The next most obvious question is what type of damage ice damming can cause. For one, long icicles can form and hang from gutters, which can weigh them down causing them to sag or even pull away or detach. The icicles themselves are hazardous because they can break off at any time and seriously injure anyone that may be standing directly below. Remember Ralphie’s excuse in A Christmas Story when he blamed an icicle for hurting his eye so he wouldn’t get his new Red Ryder BB gun taken away?

The type of damage that people often get most concerned about, though, is leak damage from ice dams. When the perfect conditions occur, leaking can happen fairly quickly, making ice dam prevention all the more important. If ice builds up along a roof eave and a thick layer of snow exists above the shingles, the bottom layer of snow can melt and turn back into water. This happens because the thick snow above actually acts as an insulator and the warm air rising from inside the house causes the bottom layer to melt while the top layer stays cold. The ice at the cold eave prevents the water from flowing downward, so it has nowhere to go but up (hence the term “backup”). Each row of asphalt shingles overlaps the row beneath, so the water can run beneath the bottom shingle edges and seep into the roof structure below. Once this occurs, it may not take long for the intruding water to rot out the roof sheathing and make its way down onto the ceiling and/or wall below.

OK, so we know what ice damming is and why it happens, but how do we prevent it? If you’ve already had leaking from an ice dam problem, there’s unfortunately no easy (or cheap) solution. The repair work will have to be done, and it will likely be fairly involved and pricey. If you’ve had repairs made or haven’t yet had leaking, there are some pretty simple ways to offset the likelihood that you’ll experience a major ice damming issue in the future, so pay close attention to the following tips!

  1. Consider having heat cable installed along your roof eaves. This cable is often installed in a zig-zag pattern and does just what its name suggests… it heats up to melt ice and snow and prevent ice accumulation. Heat cable only needs to be powered when the weather conditions warrant it, so it won’t add a lot to your electric bill and won’t prove to be a big burden. Heat cable is most often found on asphalt shingle roofs, but it can even be installed on metal.
  2. Smack off those icicles! …but safely and only if you know what you’re doing! You obviously need to be careful when you do this, and accessing higher icicles may be difficult, but it’s a good idea to walk around and safely remove any large icicles that have formed, being certain that you’re paying attention to what’s below them. I’m not suggesting you do anything dangerous, but any icicles that are easily reachable and not directly above something that could be damaged should be removed to prevent unwanted damage. It goes without saying, but be especially sure that you are not directly beneath them and are a good distance away!
  3. If you’ve had to make roof repairs from prior ice dammage (did you like that play on words?) or you’re installing a new roof, be sure that the roofer installs ice and water shield beneath the shingles to prevent leaks from ice dams moving forward. This product is a waterproof membrane, used as an underlayment, and does its job extremely well.
  4. Be sure to check your gutters and clean them as needed – especially in autumn. Leaves and debris typically accumulate in gutters during the fall and will clog the gutters in winter if they aren’t cleaned. This will only serve to prevent adequate drainage and make ice dams form more quickly, and a little seasonal homeowner DIY maintenance can go a long way in helping to prevent large potential problems.

Ice dams can cause big problems, but they’re not a year-round issue and can be pretty easily prevented. Hopefully this article has helped you learn more about prevention, and feel free to comment if you have any questions about ice dams or personal horror stories you’d be willing to share.

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Shared Meters – Look Out!

It’s a rare occurrence, but every now and then we come across shared water or gas meters when inspecting houses. This is most often the case with duplexes or other multi-family properties that may have once been single family homes but were later converted into two or more dwelling units. It’s easier to leave the existing meters in place, along with their main shut-off valves, but this poses a major potential problem that unsuspecting buyers could easily overlook. If the home has been divided and the water or gas shut-offs exist in only one unit, what do tenants who don’t live in that unit do in the event of an emergency? If a water line bursts and the tenant occupying the unit with the shut-off isn’t home, how can the other tenant access the shut-off to prevent major water damage? If a concerning gas leak is detected and the gas can’t be shut off in-line, how can the tenant get to the main gas shut-off to prevent a potential explosion?

At our inspection this morning, we came across a shared meter situation, but the configuration was even more problematic than the examples I just gave. The gas meter and shut-off for the house behind the one we were inspecting was located in the basement of the house we were inspecting (see the image below). The meter was labeled “rear” since it serves the house located behind the home. So, two separate houses with two separate gas meters, but both meters exist inside only one of the homes. Imagine your gas meter and shut-off being located in a neighbor’s house!

Needless to say, this poses a major potential issue. If the occupant of the rear property has an emergency and needs to shut off their gas, they can only do so by accessing the basement of someone else’s home! Again, what if that homeowner is gone or doesn’t grant access to the neighbor?

We contacted the gas company to discuss this issue and were informed that the meters were intentionally set up this way. A reason wasn’t given, but it was undoubtedly done for the sake of ease, and the configuration has likely been this way for some time. And contrary to what you might assume, utility companies are often allowed to set up meters however they see fit, leaving homeowners with little or no recourse.

The buyer in this case wasn’t too concerned that his neighbor’s gas meter was located in his basement and jokingly said they’d just have to be sure to get along well after he moves in. He was very glad we made him aware, though, and said, “Had you not told me, I could have been woken up by a bang on my door at two in the morning by my neighbor wanting to run into my basement and having no clue why!”

In all likelihood, there will never be an emergency that necessitates the neighbor quickly entering the other house to shut off the gas; but it could happen, and both property owners need to be aware and have a plan just in case. So, if you’re looking to buy a home, be sure to check the utility meters. You need to know the shut-off locations anyway, and hopefully you don’t run into any strange surprises like we did this morning!

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Watch Out for THESE Bathroom Issues

Bathrooms are a major selling point with homes. I can’t even begin to count the number of times our clients have commented on how well they like (or dislike) the bathrooms in a house they are considering purchasing during the course of our inspections. When a bathroom is recently updated, it’s easy to like it; when it’s dated – well, not so much.

Beyond the looks, though, there are some fairly common issues you should look out for, as well as some features you’ll need to understand to properly maintain. Here are just a handful…

  1. Jetted tubs. If you’ve ever owned a jetted tub, you know they need to be cleaned. Unlike hot tubs that are chlorinated to remain sanitary, jetted tubs in bathrooms have no chemicals to keep them clean. A thin film of grime (usually black) forms in the jets, and it pours into the tub water once the jets are turned on. As a result, many people simply stop using their jets to make life easier (and less disgusting). But you don’t have to stop using your jets if you know how to properly clean the tub. To do so, simply fill the tub with water above the jets, pour in about a half cup of detergent or bleach, run the jets for 15 minutes, then drain the tub. Next, simply repeat the same steps but without the detergent. It’s that simple, and it will allow you to enjoy your relaxing jetted tub as intended.
  2. Carpet. Carpet and bathrooms just don’t mix. Carpet was fairly frequently installed in bathrooms several decades ago because of its comfort and warmth, but it’s rarely installed in bathrooms today… and for good reason. Carpet and the underlying pad are a breeding ground for contaminants like mold, fungus, bacteria and dirty residue. This is especially true around the base of toilets, but that goes without saying. Fortunately, replacing carpet is a rather simple task, and it’s one you should definitely consider to prevent an unwanted mess and promote sanitary conditions.
  3. Clearance Issues. It’s not uncommon for us to find inadequate clearances in bathrooms – especially around toilets, and especially when toilets have been added to small bathrooms. This may seem like a minor issue, but it’s not exactly comfortable to use a toilet when you don’t have sufficient space. Clearances around toilets should be at least 15-18 inches at the sides, which are the areas where clearance is most often lacking. Unfortunately, altering this often proves impractical, but it’s still something worth looking out for when you’re house shopping.
  4. Inadequate Ventilation. Bathrooms that have a shower or toilet need sufficient ventilation to expel hot, moisture-laden air and noxious odors. An openable window will usually suffice, but a more ideal option is a powered vent fan that more actively removes moisture and odors. Bathrooms with neither are usually centrally located and were usually added after the home was initially built. That’s because a window simply isn’t an option and it may be difficult to install a vent fan and duct, depending on the surrounding materials and living space. If it’s a simple half bath with a toilet and sink, ventilation isn’t usually as vital. If a shower exists, though, good ventilation is absolutely crucial to prevent microbial growth (like mold), loosened tiles and a host of other problems.
  5. Missing Shut-off Valves. This one usually occurs in older homes, but we still occasionally run across it in newer homes as well. Supply lines beneath bathroom sinks (and other sinks in a home) should have shut-off valves so the water can be shut off quickly and easily in the event of an emergency or necessary repair work that may come up. If you aren’t sure if your sinks have shut-offs, simply look beneath the sink in the base cabinet. The valves are very easy to spot, and it isn’t a bad idea to go ahead and test the valves to make sure they are working properly. If no shut-offs are visible, consider having them installed.

This list comprises only a few of the common bathroom issues we come across, but they are some of the most common and are easy to check on your own whether you’re touring different homes to buy or are wanting to make sure your current bathrooms are in great condition. Take a few minutes to absorb this information and you’ll be better prepared when you look over your bathrooms.

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