They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To!

Most home buyers we work with would prefer to purchase a newer home, but many simply can’t afford it. Those who feel as though they have to “settle” for an older house are usually happy to become homeowners but plan to eventually upgrade to a newer, supposedly “better” home at some point in the future. If you feel you can relate, read on because this post will hopefully provide some real encouragement from an experienced professional who has “seen it all” and can attest to the pros and cons of both options. In short, purchasing an old house is often a very wise investment, contrary to popular opinion.

It may come as a surprise, but many of the older houses we inspect are better constructed than newer ones. In fact, if I had to pick a decade that seems to be the worst overall for poorly built homes, I’d probably have to say the 1990’s based on everything we’ve seen, and that’s not long ago… only about 20-30 years as of the date this article is being written. That’s probably due to the fact that many changes in code requirements were coming about around that time, as well as newer products, so the builders aren’t entirely to blame. I tell clients often that “our great-grandfathers really knew how to build houses.” Much of the work decades ago was done by hand and without the many modern advancements in tools and other technologies builders have at their disposal today. Foundation walls were often built 18 inches thick with stone, framing members were actually 2 inches thick, and the craftsmanship in woodwork and other finishing details is practically a lost art at this point. Much of this occurred during or shortly after the Industrial Revolution when workers and companies took great pride in their work and prioritized quality over quantity. Unfortunately, that isn’t so much the case today.

Today, homes are built with less substantial materials, but they are much more energy efficient. Advancements like spray foam insulation have revolutionized the building industry and allowed owners of new homes to benefit immensely from substantial cost savings in energy and much better sealing. In an age when the average homeowner works away from home and needs to depend on more automated systems, it makes sense that most homeowners need the ability to rely on HVAC systems that function on auto-pilot versus, say, an old coal furnace that required manual labor to load the coal, stoke the furnace, clean and dispose of ash, etc. Not only that, but the same system can now be controlled remotely from nearly anywhere in the world via a “SMART” thermostat, like a Google Nest. One could certainly argue, though, that there’s a real sense of value and satisfaction in having to continually work to maintain your home – one of your most valuable and important assets – and the folks we come across who are still doing things the old fashioned way take great pride in their old homes.

Appliances have followed this same trend, and this is something with which all of our clients completely agree because many have had firsthand experience with a newer appliance that’s quickly failed or an older unit that has lasted far longer than anticipated. Older, American made appliances were simply built to last. We often run across old water heaters, boilers, dishwashers and other units that are clean and still going strong with no indications that they’ll “crap out” any time soon. On the contrary, we’ve encountered several newer appliances – even as new as only 6 weeks old – that are leaking terribly and already beyond repair. In fact, many of the appliances that fail much earlier than expected are brands reputable for having previously produced long-lasting, reliable products over many decades. Here in our area of Johnstown, PA, a company called the National U.S. Radiator Company used to manufacture rugged boilers, and nearly every one we are fortunate to come across is still in great working order, largely free of defects, and likely to last many more years with minimal maintenance. Sure, they aren’t as efficient, but they may actually save money in the long run by outliving a newer boiler that is more efficient.

Now, many of the older houses we inspect do have several defects that you’d expect of any older home. Even then, though, those deficiencies aren’t as concerning as they may appear to an untrained or inexperienced eye. For example, most older homes have several floor joists that have been significantly notched or contain large bored holes that were carved out over the years to accommodate wiring or plumbing during remodels, repairs or other work. These are defects we inspectors have to note, but these joists are usually sound overall and have existed that way for a long time with no concerning signs of movement or failure at all. Old stone foundations are also usually prone to some degree of moisture intrusion, contrary to newer houses that are often constructed with modern and very effective waterproofing systems, but they rarely show alarming signs of failure or other significant problems.

Old houses definitely warrant a thorough inspection from an experienced professional, but the fact that a house you are considering buying is old should not, in itself, be a major deterrent. Take some time to research older building techniques and materials versus newer ones, and you’ll quickly discover that purchasing an old house may in fact be a wise decision, not a way of settling as you merely hold out and save for something newer.

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com

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.

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com

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!

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com

Common Defects: Downspouts

One of the most common defects uncovered during a home inspection is downspouts that aren’t extended far enough from the foundation. The purpose of gutters and downspouts is to redirect rain water away from the house that would otherwise pool up near the foundation and possibly cause structural damage over time. Rain water hits the roof, flows down into the gutters, over to the downspouts (because the gutters slope slightly downward), and finally (hopefully!) away from the foundation.

Often, downspouts terminate with a short “elbow” near the ground and nothing else. In this case, the water will exit right next to the foundation, seep into the soil, and exert pressure on the foundation. As you can imagine, the downspouts in a case like this are doing very little, if anything, to prevent water intrusion. A popular add-on is splash blocks, which are concrete blocks designed to do what their name suggests. Unfortunately, splash blocks don’t do the best job of redirecting water away from the house. On the contrary, they often settle into the soil they sit on and eventually cause a negative slope that allows water to flow back toward the foundation.

If downspouts don’t terminate directly onto the ground, they connect to drain pipes below grade that feed into a “tile” system. This is a very popular method and can certainly work well, but from an inspection standpoint (whether it’s a homeowner or certified inspector doing the inspecting), nothing below grade is readily visible, so the exact condition and function of these systems underground can’t be determined. Furthermore, if the downspouts and/or pipes below grade get clogged, removing the debris can be difficult and costly.

So what’s the best solution? Simple! Add downspout extensions to the bottom elbows of the downspouts that redirect water at least 5-6 feet away from the foundation. This solution is the best of every world: cheap, easy to install on your own, and easy to inspect or unclog whenever necessary. The only downside is that this solution often requires moving the downspout extensions when the lawn needs mowed. This is a small sacrifice, though, when you consider the many benefits this easy option provides. If your downspouts currently terminate into a below-grade tile system and you wish to use the method described, you can cut the gutters, cap the old piping, and add elbows and extensions to the downspouts.

Last but not least… gutters and downspouts are an important part of preventing water intrusion, but they are not the only important part. Every bit as important is ensuring that the grading around the foundation is sloped away from the house. Even downspout extensions that run 5-6 feet away from the foundation won’t be effective if the soil runs toward the house. The water will simply exit the extension and flow right back toward the foundation. So, step one is ensuring that the soil around your home is sloped away from the home, and step two is ensuring that your downspouts have extensions that carry water a minimum of 5-6 feet away. Do this and you’ll be able to rest at ease knowing you’ve taken the simple and necessary steps to keep water away from your home.

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com