The “Small” Stuff

Without fail, nearly all of my home inspection clients tell me the same thing as I’m going over a home’s defects with them. They tell me, “I’m not concerned about the small stuff; I’m just concerned about anything major.” At times, I can’t help but feel like my job should consist of only inspecting what most people consider to be “major” problems (a bowed or collapsing foundation wall, an active roof leak, a major electrical hazard, etc. And my job would certainly be much easier if that were all it entailed! BUT, then I realize how important the so-called “small stuff” has turned out to be to many of those same clients, and I’m reminded of the incredible importance of what we inspectors actually do in providing our clients with a detailed and comprehensive overview before they make such a major and long-term investment.

It’s not until after you’ve moved into a home and started actually living in it that you realize how significant those seemingly “minor” issues can actually be. You may think nothing of a missing handrail at a stairway, until you happen to fall and instinctively reach for a handrail to quickly discover there isn’t one. That slightly misaligned window that won’t quite fully close and seal shut may seem like no big deal, until a bitterly cold day strikes and you’re the victim of a constant and uncomfortably cold draft. Deteriorated caulk in a bathroom may seem like a mere unsightly annoyance until you discover that the underlying wall or floor structure has been slowly rotting away over a long period of time and will now cost a lot of money to repair. The missing lock on a bathroom door may seem like something you can easily put off, until someone accidentally walks in on you while you’re using the bathroom!

The list of supposed “minor” defects goes on and on, but sufficed to say that most people end up actually being far more concerned with the small things than they imagined they would be once they’ve started living in a new home day in and day out. It’s certainly good to focus on defects that are obviously major and that diminish the safety, durability or function of a home; but it’s typically a mistake to ignore the many other defects listed on your home inspection report. They may just prove to be more significant than you anticipated after all!

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House Numbers

Something most homeowners never think of is the appearance of their house numbers. By house numbers, I mean the numbers displayed for the home’s address. Often times, house numbers aren’t present at all, and it isn’t uncommon for at least one number to be missing, loose or otherwise damaged.

House numbers are very important because they are how first responders (firemen, paramedics, etc) identify homes in an emergency situation. Missing, hidden, damaged or incomplete numbers can make a big difference when it matters most.

Many local authorities have begun passing ordinances with certain requirements for house numbers; but even if your municipality hasn’t, you should be diligent about it yourself to ensure your family’s safety.

So, here are some general guidelines to follow for your own house numbers. First, the numbers should be located in a clear location at the front of the house (such as a porch pillar) that is facing the road that the home’s address is listed on. This may seem obvious, but some homes that exist on corner lots have their numbers on a side facing another road – especially when the driveway and/or most common entrance is connected to the side road. In terms of size, each number should be at least 4 inches high – and preferably at least 6 inches high – to ensure they are readily visible. The width of each number should be at least a half inch, although wider is obviously better. The color of the numbers should contrast with the background they are against – again, to ensure they are clearly visible. If the siding is dark, for example, the numbers should be white or another light color. Along those lines, the numbers should either be capable of being lit or have a reflective surface so they are visible at night. Lastly, it is important to ensure that vegetation (bushes, trees, ivy, etc) is not covering any portion of the numbers from any visible angle.

It’s easy to forget about seemingly small things like our home’s house numbers because we wouldn’t have a need to identify our own home. We need to think, though, about all the factors that could come into play, especially in emergency situations. Take a moment to go outside and look at your house numbers to ensure they meet the guidelines listed here. If they don’t, take the time to make them visible and secure. Doing so may make all the difference at some point down the road.

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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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