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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Common Defects: Missing Kickout Flashing

One of the most common deficiencies we encounter at nearly every home we inspect is missing kickout flashing. To understand its importance, we should first define what flashing is in general. The term flashing refers to any impervious material (usually metal) that is installed – especially at roofs – to prevent water or moisture intrusion that could damage underlying materials, like wood wall sheathing. Most flashing is always installed because it’s simply a given that it must be to prevent fast and widespread damage. Kickout flashing, on the other hand, is usually not installed, despite the fact that it is extremely important and fairly easy to put in place, and the damage caused is often concealed for quite some time before it is discovered.

Kickout flashing is designed to be installed at the base of roof-wall intersections, along the bottom of the wall where the roof eave and wall meet. A common example would be a lower garage roof joining a wall of a higher second story. The kickout flashing is typically L-shaped and is installed at the base of the wall with one edge angled toward the downspout. The purpose of the kickout is, as its name suggests, to “kick” (divert) rainwater coming down the wall into the gutter rather than onto the wall material below. The end of the gutter in this same area should also be at least one inch from the adjoining wall rather than directly against it. Here are a couple of example illustrations of kickout flashing and where it should be installed:

Kickout flashing is often neglected because it is viewed as a mere add-on and is small. When a roofer has to install an entire roof with long pieces of flashing in multiple areas, it is easy to forget about the much smaller and seemingly less significant kickouts. Unfortunately, though, that error can result in quite a bit of damage that will likely go unnoticed for quite some time. In fact, I would wager that if the siding below corners without kickouts were removed on many homes, water damage would be evident on the wall sheathing beneath more often than not. Here’s an example of wall damage beneath a roof-wall intersection that didn’t contain kickout flashing after the siding was removed:

In cases like this, evidence of damage is usually visible on the siding itself, but no one would know that this level of damage was present on the wall sheathing without doing some invasive work. And needless to say, this damage would only continue to worsen if not located and repaired.

Take a look at your roof and all areas where the roof surface meets a sidewall. If no kickout flashing is present (and it likely won’t be), consider contacting a qualified contractor to have kickouts installed. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to also have them take a look at the surrounding wall areas for signs of water damage that may be hidden and need repaired.

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Flipped Houses: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

House flipping has become very popular in recent years. Networks like HGTV and TLC dedicate entire shows to the concept. If you’re a house flipper you’re likely already aware of what is and isn’t appealing to potential buyers; but if you’re looking to buy a flipped house you may not be nearly as well versed in the secrets of the flip trade. Knowing some of those secrets and what to look for can be a life-saver, and I’d like to take a moment to review some of the things we typically encounter when inspecting flipped houses. While this article will focus on some of the downsides to flipped homes, we will also review several of the benefits of buying a flipped house… assuming the flip is done well!

So first of all, what exactly is a “flipped” house? The term “flip” is obviously slang but refers to a home that is renovated – usually quickly – in an effort to transform the home into a much more appealing one. When we hear “flip” we think of something being turned upside-down quickly, and that’s the gist of the term when it comes to real estate. Flipped houses are usually bought at a low price, updated, and then sold for a fairly large profit. How large of a profit depends on the amount of cost in materials and labor to update the home and the time it takes to make those updates, but flippers obviously attempt to make as much money as possible with the least amount of work and expense on their own part. And obviously, it benefits the flipper to sell as quickly as possible.

The need on the flipper’s part to sell quickly and with the best profit margin they can leads to some inevitable realities, although not all of these are bad for the buyer. For one, flippers tend to use inexpensive materials that look nice but are often not very durable, rather than pricier materials that also look nice but are made to last longer. For example, a flipper may use faux tile panels in a bathroom instead of real tile or thin stock carpet instead of thicker, more durable carpet. A typical flip house will have a fresh coat of paint on the walls, but the paint will usually be of lesser quality than more expensive name brands, making it less durable and sometimes harder to clean. Yet, while these materials are less expensive they are often perfectly functional and are in some cases almost identical in appearance to their much more expensive, but authentic, alternatives. A flipped house we recently inspected had faux tile panels, and I had to look very closely to realize they weren’t real tiles with grout. The only clear indication was that the grout lines were too perfect to be natural. In truth, faux materials have come a very long way in recent years and offer a more affordable, but still nice, alternative to the “real” thing.

But how, exactly, do house flippers determine what to update and what to leave alone? To answer this question, you need look no further than typical real estate trends. As a general rule, kitchens and bathrooms sell houses. Aside from location, which has always been the single most important factor in real estate, agents usually advise sellers to update their kitchen and bathrooms before focusing on other areas… and for good reason. It’s a well established fact that buyers care more about kitchens and bathrooms than most other rooms in a home. These rooms often feature decorative finishes and are harder to alter than common rooms because of fixtures and plumbing, so they are naturally appealing to buyers when they are already up-to-date.

For these reasons, it’s very wise on the part of the flipper to focus on these areas. Unfortunately, though, this often comes at a cost to other areas of the home that tend to be neglected as they take a backseat to the main living space. In particular, the exterior and basement are often repaired very little, if at all. In fact, probably three-quarters or more of the flipped houses we inspect look very nice on the main floors (and often at the front of the home where curb appeal is important), but the basement and the rest of the exterior are usually a whole other story. A flipped house we recently inspected was immaculate on the first and second floors: new laminate floors, new cabinetry, new ceiling fans, new carpet, fresh paint, etc. To add to its charm, the house was even staged with rented furniture, including a platter on the modern dining room table with a bottle of wine and fake grapes. Setting foot inside the front door, anyone would undoubtedly fall in love with the look of the house and feel as though they could move in immediately and fall in love with their new home.

Unfortunately, the same home had major structural problems, water intrusion in the basement, damaged siding in several areas, and a few major safety hazards. Despite its very nice appearance in the main living areas, the house possessed several serious problems that could saddle the buyer with substantial repair costs or even threats of severe injury. Not surprisingly, the prospective buyers of this home didn’t pay much attention to the basement or exterior since the laundry had been relocated to the main floor and they knew they would be living inside the home and not paying much mind to what’s outside. Needless to say, they were very glad they decided to have the home professionally inspected. They did end up buying the house, but they were able to use our report to address several of the more immediate defects that needed corrected.

It shouldn’t be surprising that many flipped houses follow this same pattern, but some are far superior to others. We come across many flipped houses where the seller has updated all of the older plumbing with newer PEX, updated the wiring and electrical panel, installed a drainage system to combat moisture intrusion, and so forth. In most cases, these homes have also had some basic updates done to the interior, so they still possess some of the charm buyers look for. The living space may not be as enticing, but the house is actually in much better condition.

Flipped houses are often a great investment for those doing the flipping, but they can be either a wise decision or a nightmare in disguise for buyers. The key to determining which is true is to simply look beyond the main living areas when you tour the home. Don’t get so caught up in the fresh paint and updated kitchen that you fail to consider structural problems that may exist at the foundation. Don’t become so engrossed in the beautiful new floors and remodeled master bathroom that you forget about the missing shingles on the roof or the heavily corroded plumbing supply lines. It’s very cheap to add fresh paint to some walls, but it’s very expensive to make repairs to correct the home’s structural integrity.

If you’re considering buying a flipped house, know that you may be getting a great home for a great price, but be sure to look beyond the mere cosmetic appeal. Consider the home’s major systems and components to ensure that it is, first and foremost, safe and durable. And of course, there’s no substitute for an experienced, certified inspector when it comes to this crucial task! On the other hand, if you’re planning to flip a house for profit, consider making some truly worthwhile updates to the home’s major systems and components to provide the future buyer with a structurally sound and safe new home. When both parties act responsibly, a flipped house can be a true win-win!

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Contractor Shortcuts – Part 2

In our last post, we discussed a small handful of the many shortcuts we come across while inspecting houses. In this post we’ll cover a few more…

#1. Unsealed roof fasteners. On nearly every roof we inspect, we locate exposed nails – mostly on ridge caps and plumbing vent stack boots. Roofers often don’t bother applying roof sealant on nailheads because they know the homeowner isn’t likely to climb up on the roof to see them and they know the metal will take a while to corrode or form small pinhole leaks. But that’s exactly what can happen. Over time, the metal will eventually corrode, and small leaks can eventually form. It’s extremely simple and inexpensive to apply some roof sealant on these fasteners, and it’s always best to do it right and know you’ll have no worries for quite some time.

#2. Flexible vinyl dryer vents. This is one we see far more often than we’d like. White flexible vinyl ducts look similar to foil dryer vent ducts, except for the fact that dryer vents are metal and vinyl ducts are white. Homeowners who install dryer vents on their own may not be aware of the fact that vinyl ducts are not intended for use with dryers, so they install them for the sake of ease because they are light, bendable and very easy to work with. Even some contractors take this shortcut to make life easier knowing the homeowner likely won’t be aware that the installation is improper. So what’s the big deal, anyway? Why shouldn’t vinyl be used with dryers when they look like they should be? Well, vinyl ducts do have a purpose, but it isn’t with dryers. They are primarily intended for use with bathroom vent fans that are mostly concealed in unfinished areas and not subjected to such intense heat. Vinyl ducts are actually very thin, fragile and prone to damage and are even flammable under high enough temperatures, so they pose a potential fire hazard or a risk of damage that could lead to leaking dryer exhaust. Many of the vinyl ducts we see at dryers are full of cracks and holes – especially when the ducts are not well protected. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to get this right and to make a quick, simple repair. Just remember that dryer vents should always be metal – flexible foil or smooth rigid metal. Of the two, flexible foil is far more common because it’s easier to install, but smooth rigid ducting is actually preferred because it is less prone to damage and even helps your dryer run more efficiently.

#3. Spray foam and silicone for every gap and crack. What could be easier than spraying some expanding foam or applying a bead of silicone to seal gaps and cracks? In short, not much! It makes sense that many homeowners, and even contractors, pull out a can of Great Stuff or Loctite spray foam or a tube of silicone to quickly seal exterior crevices and prevent unwanted moisture and pest intrusion and air leakage. And in many cases these fixes will do the job… but only for a time. And therein lies the problem. In many places where foam or silicone is liberally applied, a more permanent material like mortar would be longer lasting. All foams and caulks naturally deteriorate over time when they are exposed, so areas repaired with them will need to be periodically monitored and occasionally redone. The easiest and cheapest method is often not the best fix, so be sure to use good judgment when sealing void areas open to the outdoors.

#4. Open risers and missing balusters at decks. It’s very rare that we come across a deck that has been constructed with all recommended safety components. Of these, the most frequently missing are closely spaced balusters (spindles) in deck guardrails and riser boards at deck steps. Modern safety guidelines recommend that risers over 4 inches in height (which encompasses nearly all risers) be closed and that balusters be spaced no more than 4 inches apart. This is to ensure a sufficient barrier while simultaneously preventing children’s heads or small pets from getting stuck between boards. Fortunately, installing some additional boards is pretty simple; and if your deck is missing these components you could probably install them in a very short time. Just be sure to use appropriate exterior rated fasteners that won’t corrode and loosen shortly after you install them!

#5. Omitting joist hangers. Whether floor joists are supporting the floor structure of a home or a deck, contractors occasionally neglect to install joist hangers. Instead, they simple toenail the joist ends to rim joists. This is fine if the joists are cantilevered, as the cantilevered joists are supported where they are embedded in other structure, and their exposed ends don’t need additional support. In typical cases where both ends of the joists are against rim joists, though, the additional support of the hangers is strongly recommended. If you notice that your joist ends aren’t held with hangers, installing them is pretty simple. Just buy hangers that are appropriately sized for the depth of the joists, fit them snugly beneath each joist end and against each side, and nail into each hanger hole.

#6. Improperly routed plumbing vent pipes. Your plumbing system requires an air intake to ensure fast and efficient drainage. In fact, you can see how this works firsthand by conducting a simple test. Open a bottle of water, turn it upside down, and time how long it takes for all of the water to fully drain out of the bottle. Next, refill the bottle, but this time poke a small hole in the bottom when you flip the bottle upside-down. You’ll be shocked and amazed at how much faster the bottle fully empties with the aid of a simple hole! A slug of water needs to be followed by air as it drains, so proper venting of your plumbing system is crucial. Ideally, the vent stack terminates through the roof, and in most cases it does. Some contractors like to avoid the hassle of roof work, though, so they may run the pipe through an exterior wall or even directly into an unfinished attic space instead. Rules for this vary across municipalities, but a couple of general rules are that the pipe must terminate above the highest openable window of the home and should be at least 10 feet from any openable window. If you’re able, first check to make sure that you can even see a plumbing vent pipe on your roof or through an exterior wall. If you don’t see a pipe or it’s improperly installed, it may be time to consider calling a trusted plumber.

#7. Poorly labeled electrical panels. You may be surprised at how many electrical panels we inspect that are either not labeled or are insufficiently labeled. After going through the work of installing a panel, the last thing an electrician wants to do is take the extra time to label every breaker/circuit. After all, something as simple as writing seems almost degrading after running and connecting wire. Even at fully labeled panels the writing is often virtually illegible, so they might as well not even be labeled. Knowing which breakers control which circuits is crucial, however, if you need to kill the power to a particular area. Take a quick look at your electrical panel and make sure every breaker is labeled. The labeling will likely be either on a paper legend on the inside of the panel door or right next to each breaker. If any breakers are not labeled and too difficult to figure out on your own, call in a qualified electrician to identify and clearly label each circuit/breaker.

I hope this next set of common shortcuts has been helpful, and please be sure to share this post with your family and friends so they too can improve the safety and function of their homes!

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Contractor Shortcuts

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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