Susan West

Associate Broker

2016 

December 

November 

October 

September 

August 

July 

June 

May 

April 

March 

February 

January 


 

Inspector infringes on illegal inhabitant’s itinerary 

For my last column of the year I usually share a seasonal “war story.” But first, I do have something serious to share with you. The Arizona Board of Technical Registration regulates home inspectors, architects, engineers and security/alarm companies. The following appeared in the last BTR newsletter: 

“There have been numerous cases in which alarm salespeople deceived the public through misrepresentation. The salespeople state they are representatives of the customer’s current service provider or an Alarm Business that bought out the customer’s current service provider. They however represent their own services and generally aren’t registered with the BTR. They usually have the customer’s information, making it more plausible for the customer to believe what they say is true. Falsely thinking they were upgrading existing services, customers are shocked to find they now have two alarm service providers and are contractually obligated to both. Verifying registration numbers is a good way to avoid these forms of scams. Ask for credentials. All Alarm Agents and Alarm Businesses in Arizona must be registered with the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. ALWAYS request to see the salesperson’s BTR Card and look for the agent/business registration number. Call your service provider and verify everything the salesperson has told you. If you suspect a scam, call the Board Office at 602-364-4930 and ask to speak with Enforcement.” 

It looks like what we need is an alarm system to alert us to dishonest alarm companies. I don’t think this is a major problem in the Prescott area. We do not have that many alarm companies, and as far as I know they are all reputable. But a word to the wise … 

Now for my seasonal story. It was near Christmas and I was inspecting an older two-story home near downtown Prescott. The home was vacant, but as always when I entered I yelled “Inspector!” as loud as I could. I start “inspecting” at the exterior, but I always take one look around inside first, just to get the layout of bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. I opened a door to a second-floor bedroom to find a man in the middle of the room pulling on his pants. I instinctively mumbled an apology and pulled the door shut. It took just a few seconds for my brain to engage and remind me that I was supposed to be here and the half-panted guy probably was not. I opened the door ready for a confrontation, but all I saw was the bottom of the tennis shoes exiting the window. I went to the window and looked out. There was a shed roof just below the window, which provided easy access to the bedroom window. There were no tennis shoes in sight. 

I turned around and examined the room. The “tenant” had removed the closet rod from the closet and was using the lower shelf as a desk. There was a rickety chair, and a few candles and a notebook on the “desk.” There was a mattress and some sheets on the floor in one corner. There was an astonishing number of empty beer cans in another corner. There was a “bucket bathroom” (with a cover, but still fragrant) in another corner where he recycled all that beer. And in the last corner was a small, decorated Christmas tree. There were even a couple gift-wrapped boxes under the tree. 

I put in my report that “it appears someone may have been using an upstairs bedroom. In the Christmas spirit I did not lock the bedroom window. But I did leave an unsigned note in the room saying there would be workers in the home soon and he had better find another abode. 

By Randy West on December 30, 2016 

 

Randy readily replies to readers’ responses 

In my last column, I wrote about gas-only fireplaces. There can be a lot of carbon monoxide in the exhaust gas. Often the fireplace vent on the exterior wall is near an opening window. So I recommend a carbon monoxide alarm in any room with a gas fireplace, and any room with a window near the vent on the exterior wall. 

I received several emails from that column. Some praising my informative yet humorous columns. One suggesting that I leave politics out of my columns (although I was bipartisan – I called all politicians criminals). And some with very good questions. One person said their fireplace exhausts on an exterior wall onto a covered deck. There is a solid wall at one side of the deck, so only two sides are open. When they’re on the deck with the fireplace operating, they detect an odor. 

Carbon monoxide is odorless, but often there are other items (dust, chemicals, etc.) in a fireplace exhaust that can have an odor. If you can smell the exhaust, that you are likely breathing in some carbon monoxide. There are some exterior-rated carbon monoxide alarms, but the ones I found are pricey. One suggestion would be to buy an inexpensive indoor carbon monoxide alarm that uses a battery, and keep it on the fireplace mantel or hearth (it should not go off inside the home – if it does, call a fireplace guy). You can take this out on the deck with you if/when the fireplace is operating. 

Another email asked about a bedroom window above the fireplace vent. Most manufacturers recommend no opening within 10 feet of the exterior wall vent. (In my last column, I stated doing this was optional in our area, like using turn signals.) I would be more concerned if the opening window was above the vent. Heat rises, and the exhaust gas will be hot, so it will have a tendency to rise. 

I’m guessing that one emailer works in a store that sells gas fireplaces. He told me I should find some “real concerns” to write about, rather than scaring people about gas fireplaces that have been “proven” to be very safe appliances. He stated there is little chance of high levels of carbon monoxide in a fireplace exhaust gas, and little chance of that gas being drawn back inside the home. 

I detect over 100 ppm carbon monoxide in most fireplace exhausts, usually over 200, and at times over 400. And I’m pretty sure that air can enter a home through an open window. Why else would we have opening windows, other than to let air in and out? 

Cars have been “proven” to be safe too. But only if they are operated properly, which for fireplaces would include installed per the manufacturer’s instructions. If you operate your car properly, you likely won’t have an accident. But that is not guaranteed, which is why we wear seat belts. Because that “just in case” can have very serious consequences. Which is the same reason we have smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in our home. The chance of a fire or carbon monoxide is very low, but is something you definitely want to know about right away. 

By Randy West on December 9, 2016 

 

Politicians and criminals (but wait, I repeat myself) 

If you only read one ‘holiday tips’ column this season, read this one. 
I know there will be numerous articles and columns regarding cold weather and holiday safety tips. But none of those will be as informative or enjoyable as this one. Actually I only have one tip. Well sort of two, I guess. 

Tip 2: if your home has an attached garage or any type of wood burning or gas appliance (including a gas furnace) you should have a carbon monoxide alarm in your home. These are required in new homes in many areas. If you don’t have one, they are inexpensive and easy to install. Combination smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are becoming more common, so check all your smoke alarms before you rush out to buy a carbon monoxide alarm – you may already have one. 

Tip 2 is the result of tip 1, which regards gas fireplaces. A lot of people (including yours truly) only use their gas fireplace a few times a year, mostly to impress unwanted company or relatives (but wait, I repeat myself). Gas fireplace flames are adjusted to simulate wood fires (yellow flame) rather than to burn efficiently (blue flame, like a cooktop burner). A yellow flame produces very high levels of carbon monoxide, a blue flame does not. 

There are two types of gas fireplaces. If you have a gas log insert in a wood burning fireplace, there should be a clamp on the damper to keep it fully open. Make sure the damper is open and a clamp is in place before lighting the fireplace. If you light a wood fire with the damper closed you know immediately from the smoke entering the home. If you light a gas fire with the damper closed there is no smoke, and possibly no odor, but there will be huge amounts of carbon monoxide entering the home. 

Many homes have gas-only fireplaces. There is no damper on these, and they usually have glass fronts (not easy-to-open doors). Many of these vent through an exterior wall rather than through the roof. There is a lot of carbon monoxide in the exhaust gas, so manufacturers recommend these vents are not within 10 feet of any opening into the home, e.g. windows and doors. In Prescott that recommendation seems to be very optional, kind of like using turn signals. If I had a dollar for every time I found a gas fireplace vent near an opening window I could almost afford my health insurance hikes since Obamacare passed. Well, maybe not that, but I could buy a new car. 

Often I find a wall vented fireplace in a corner of a living room, so the exterior wall vent is near a window in a different room. And often this room is a bedroom. This installation really concerns me. I imagine mom and the kids playing Monopoly in front of the fireplace, while Dad’s in the bedroom watching the news. A criminal or politician comes on (but wait, I repeat myself) and Dad gets aggravated and opens the window, not realizing there is a vent a few feet away spewing out carbon monoxide. In this case I recommend a carbon monoxide alarm in the room with the fireplace, and in any room that has windows or doors near the fireplace vent on the exterior wall. 

By Randy West on November 25, 2016  

 

Flipping TV shows – I prefer my fiction in books 

I don’t usually watch the “flipping” TV shows. These are where people, many with no money, experience or skills, buy old homes and fix them up. They then “flip,” or resell, the house for amazing profits. They put many weeks of work in a 30- or 60-minute TV show. I prefer my fiction in books, usually science fiction which at least has a chance to come true someday. 

I find the numbers the shows use do not always add up to the profit they claim. They leave out large expenses, like loan acquisition and interest costs, Realtor fees and “payroll,” or taking enough money out to buy some ramen and mac and cheese while working on the home. Some of these “stars” would be working for free using their numbers. 

But I am man enough to admit when I am mistaken. Apparently these stars do make a lot of money. In the Oct. 30 Prescott Courier, there was an AP article regarding schools by the more famous of these flippers. Summary – you pay about $2,000 for a three-day class where these stars will show you how to flip homes. The stars never show up, just a video by them. The first day of class has homework: you must increase the limit on all your credit cards. The next two days are explaining how you need the $25,000 five-day class to really be successful. 

Of course the schools claim they require you to up your credit limit not so you can pay for the five-day class, but to pay for all the unforeseeable problems when flipping homes which the TV shows never tell you about, like running out of ramen. 

The TV stars get a percentage of this, but alas none were available for comment for the newspaper article because of their TV shooting schedule. 

I get asked if I “flip” homes, since my experience as a contractor and home inspector should be a valuable asset. My answer is “NO!” I actually did this before there was a “flipping” term for it. The first thing I learned was every project was going to take longer and cost more than even the most thought out proposal. I made sure my clients were aware of this, and we all prepared for unforeseen problems. Like removing the drywall from a wall and finding the only thing keeping the wall up was all the termites were holding hands. Or removing floor coverings and finding the subfloor was asbestos panels that been removed from a local school (and supposedly disposed of at great cost). 

As a home inspector, I have inspected many “flip” homes that had quality workmanship throughout. These were usually done by licensed contractors. But I have also inspected some flip homes that were “lipstick on a pig.” The buyers see new paint and floor coverings, often new appliances and plumbing fixtures, and sometimes new doors and windows. They think they are buying a completely refurbished home. But then the home inspector arrives, and points out the hail damaged roof shingles, R-5 attic insulation, old furnace and air conditioner, or an electrical system that needs updating to meet current needs. 

I never know, but perhaps the flippers did not get a home inspection and honestly did not know about these. Or perhaps they ran out of money. And perhaps they were totally honest and disclosed all the defects, and priced the home accordingly. 

By Randy West on November 11, 2016  

 

Top 10 defects found in new homes, part II 

Last time I wrote about a top 10 list I saw of the most common defects municipality inspectors find in homes being built. It was surprisingly similar to my list of common defects found in home inspections, which includes older homes. There were four items on the new home list that are not visible or relevant to home inspectors, such as the building plans not being on site. There were six items that home inspectors do find frequently: improperly installed or altered anchor bolts, beams/joists, deck framing, stairs, handrails and railings, and the paper on insulation left exposed. You can check the Courier online for my last column and more information on these items. 

I have four other items on my list. 

Gas appliance vent clearance: The metal vent pipes from any gas appliance – furnace, water heater, fireplace, etc., will get very hot. These vents pipes require at least one inch clearance from any combustible material, and from any insulation. I frequently find these vent pipes close to (or touching) drywall or framing members. Often in the attic the vent pipe had proper clearance, e.g. a 4 inch pipe through a 6 inch hole in the roof sheathing had an inch clearance on all sides. But now the vent pipe is pushed against the roof sheathing, often by roofers when replacing the shingles (in their defense they may be making the vent pipe plumb). In newer homes the vent pipes have sturdy braces on them in the attic so this cannot happen. No insulation should be touching these vent pipes. If there is loose fiberglass or cellulose installed a larger pipe is required around the vent pipe to keep the insulation away. 

Combustion air: Gas appliances require combustion air. This is not a new concept. If you’re as old as me you used to call this ‘make-up’ air. If a gas appliance does not have adequate combustion air it will not operate efficiently, which produces carbon monoxide in the exhaust gas. If there is very little combustion air, the gas appliance may “backdraft,” or start pulling air back down the vent pipe (meaning the exhaust gas with carbon monoxide). Combustion air is very important in a small room and/or if there are other devices removing air from the home. Many times I’ve found a gas water heater in a laundry room. I’ve turned on the clothes dryer and exhaust fan and the water heater would backdraft (easily visible with a smoke bottle). Newer homes will have a high- and low-combustion air vent. The combustion air can be from the attic, crawlspace or exterior. Often there are high and low vents in an exterior wall. I have found these vents covered up because previous owners did not understand what they were for. 

Another common defect is no damper clamp. When a gas log kit is installed in a fireplace, a clamp is needed on the damper to keep it fully open. If you light a gas log/fire with the damper closed, there is no smoke or odor, just a lot of carbon monoxide entering the home. This is another item that sellers remove because they don’t know why it’s there – they just want to close the damper. 

And a missing hi-loop completes my top 10 list. The dishwasher drain line under the kitchen sink should loop up, higher than the bottom of the sink, to avoid a cross connection (e.g. waste water getting into supply water). 

Note none of these are expensive to fix, a clamp for a hi-loop or fireplace damper is only a couple dollars. 

By Randy West on October 28, 2016 

 

Common defects in new, used homes are surprisingly similar 

The Journal of Light Construction (JLC) is a fantastic trade magazine for builders. I have been reading JLC for decades, first the magazine and now online. Recently there was an article about the top 10 code violations. 
I have been asked many times about the most common defects I find as a home inspector. So it was very interesting reading the JLC article. The JLC article is about inspecting homes under construction, so four items on the list are not relevant or visible to home inspectors: missing documentation (having the plans on site), missing blocking in walls, missing fire blocking, and air-barrier gaps. However, the other six items are all on my “top 10” list as a home inspector: 

Improperly placed anchor bolts. These are the bolts that secure the bottom of the frame walls to the concrete slab or stem wall. These are not visible to a home inspector on a slab home, but they are visible if there is a crawlspace under the home. I think often these bolts are placed in the wet cement by the concrete company, who aren’t sure where doors and windows are located. They just place them every six feet, as required. But there are other rules, such as a minimum of 2 in every sill plate, one within 12 inches of the end of every sill plate, etc. 

Weakened joists and beams. This is usually from inadequate support at the ends, most often from improperly installed joist hangers. A joist or beam has to be fully supported in a joist hanger, there should not be a gap at the end of the joist. 

Deck ledgers and braces. Deck ledger boards should be bolted to the home, not just nailed or screwed, and there should be flashing to keep water off the ledger boards. I find one or both of these missing at most decks, even on newer homes. Adding some moisture damage (no flashing) to a poorly secured ledger board (no bolts) can lead to the ledger separating from the home. Braces are often needed at the posts and beams (angled boards) or under the deck itself (angled boards or metal braces). When I inspect a deck I go to the outer edge, grab the railing and try to rack (shake back and forth) the deck. I’ve had decks that moved so much the client screamed and ran back into the home. Most racking would not be as “severe” as my test, but even minor racking from normal use and high winds can eventually loosen all connections, including ledger boards and joist hangers. 

Stair rise/run errors. I find this at many exterior stairs. The run (step width) should be at least 10 inches, and the rise (height) no more than 7 ¾ inches. And the narrowest and widest run, and the shortest and highest rise, cannot vary by more than 3/8 of an inch. 

Stair handrails and guard rails. Handrails must be 30 to 34 inches high, must be “grabbable” (flat 2-by-6 boards are not proper handrails), and must return into the wall at the top and bottom to prevent pockets or purse straps from catching (this has been a commercial requirement for a long time so fireman’s hoses would not get caught in the handrail). 

Exposed kraft-faced insulation. Fiberglass batt (on a roll) insulation comes unfaced or faced. Faced insulation has a paper face on one side. All insulation has warnings printed every couple feet on the facing stating the paper is very flammable and must never be left exposed. I have found 3,000 sf crawlspaces with every piece of insulation backwards. 

I find all six of these all the time. There are a few more items on my list, which will be my next column. 

By Randy West on October 14, 2016  

 

Dual cylinder deadbolts don’t deter doers of dastardly deeds 

I have another fan letter this week: 
“You inspected our house last week, and we heard your presentation to the buyers. You were very wrong on one issue, and you unnecessarily scared the heck out of the buyers. It is not expensive and does not affect the sale of our property, but we thought we should educate you on dual key deadbolts. These are required when there is a window in a door. Having a deadbolt that does not require a key from inside would be silly. A thief could break the glass and reach inside and quickly unlock the door. With a dual key deadbolt they won’t bother breaking the glass because they know they can’t get in anyway. Instead of pointing out the value of these deadbolts you told they buyers they would die if they didn’t replace them. You need to keep your personal paranoias and opinions out of your inspections reports and presentations.” 

Well. I am a paranoid, fear-mongering, uneducated home inspector. I’ve been called worse. 

The proper term for this deadbolt is a dual cylinder deadbolt, which I’ll call a DCD for this column. The cylinder is where the key goes in, so a DCD requires a key from the outside and inside. The vast majority of deadbolts are single cylinder, meaning they need a key from the outside but have a lever on the inside. 

You do not have to educate me about where these are required. DCDs are not “required” anywhere. Deadbolts are not required. Locking doorknobs are not required, although most people like to be able to lock the exterior doors. DCDs are more often used when there is a window in or near a door, but they are not required. 

And it would not be “silly” to not have one. You stated that a thief would not bother to break glass if he sees a DCD. The interior of the deadbolt is very rarely visible from a window near or in the door, unless it’s a very large window in the door that goes right up to the deadbolt. And, in my humble, modest opinion, if a thief is willing to break glass, he’s in. If you have a DCD, he will open a large window or a sliding glass door. 

And I don’t think I scared the heck out of the buyers. I said that a DCD can make it difficult to leave in an emergency. I could have said “most home fire deaths are from smoke inhalation, now imagine stumbling through a smoke filled house with all the smoke alarms blaring and having first to find the key and then get it into the deadbolt….” 

I have also heard that a DCD will prevent thieves from stealing large items. I guess if you had a DCD on every door, and no sliding glass doors or large windows, it could make it harder to steal the piano or pool table. I’m not a thief, but I would think most thieves would look for small stuff they could carry away in a hurry if they needed. 

I’ve also heard people say a DCD is not dangerous because they leave the key in it 24/7. Do I have to say it – why even have it then? 

By Randy West on September 30, 2016 

 

‘Muscle car’ air conditioners are not a good idea: Air conditioners should run most of the time on hot days 

I received a couple emails regarding inspectors (not just me) not operating furnaces in the summer. Below is one of those emails and my reply. 
“You did a home inspection for us last month, and you did not operate the furnace. We are very concerned about this. We are also concerned that the air conditioner is running more than it’s not, which has to be using a lot of energy. In our last home our air conditioner only ran for a short time to keep the home cool. We think the air conditioner is undersized for this home. We read the ‘disclaimer’ in your report about only contractors can determine if an air conditioner is properly sized, but now that we have concerns about the air conditioner we are more concerned that you did not operate the furnace.” 

My reply: I received your email regarding your furnace and air conditioner. It is true I did not operate the furnace. It was 100 degrees during my inspection, the sellers were home, and the air conditioner was in use. The following comment appeared in your report: 

“It was an unusually hot day, the sellers were home and the air conditioner was in use. To properly test the furnace I would have to shut off the air conditioner, wait, operate the furnace for at least 10 minutes, wait, then turn the air conditioner back on. This would have heated the home significantly, and the air conditioner would have to operate for a long time to cool the home back down. To prevent stress on the heating/cooling system I did not operate the furnace. The distribution was checked by operating the air conditioner.” 

So I checked almost all the heating system components, including the thermostat, air handler (blower), ducts, filters, registers including airflow, etc. The only thing I did not do was turn on the actual burner. This furnace was replaced less than 3 years ago with a good quality furnace, so it is unlikely there are any concerns with the burner. If the furnace was original (over 23 years old) I would have operated it. 

As far as your air conditioner running ‘most of the time’, so is mine right now. This is not a bad thing. Below is the ‘disclaimer’ in all my reports: 

“Determining if a central air conditioner is properly sized is beyond the scope of this inspection. I will only comment on the size of an air conditioner if it appears to be significantly under or over sized for the home. Heating contractors can determine this only after detailed calculations that consider heat gain, the size of the home, existing insulation, total square footage of the windows, etc. Our summer climate is moderate for Arizona, and some homes I inspect do not have any cooling systems installed. Recent research indicates that most central air conditioners are oversized (nationally). A properly sized air conditioner should run almost continuously on the hottest days. An oversized air conditioner will start and stop frequently. This uses more energy and causes more wear and tear than running for longer periods (like city driving vs. highway driving). If the air conditioner ‘short cycles (runs for only short times) it not only uses more energy, it may not properly reduce the humidity in the home.” 

So I will recommend evaluation if an air conditioner seems “significantly under or oversized for the home.” Unlike the horsepower in your car, bigger is not better with air conditioners. An undersized air conditioner will not keep the home cool. But an oversized air conditioner will turn on and off more, which is hard on the life expectancy and the utility bills. 

By Randy West on September 2, 2016  

 

What comes after the home inspection? 

My last column was about For Sale By Owner (FSBO) real estate transactions, specifically that the buyers and sellers have no professional guidance. I premised that a local Realtor can “advise a buyer what items in an inspection report are ‘common’ for this area, or this age or size home. They will explain to the buyer that a home inspection report is not a list of repairs that the seller has to improve.” 

I also stated that some FSBO sellers are unaware that home inspectors are regulated in Arizona, and are required to report on safety issues that a seller may feel is unfair in an older home. 

I received some interesting responses. Many sellers agreed with “a home inspection report is not a list of repairs that the seller has to improve.” Some buyers commented that they paid top dollar for a home, so they had a right to expect it to be in excellent condition. It is also notable that most responses were from buyers and sellers that had Realtor representation, so we’re getting off the FSBO topic. 

Some people asked me what is fair for the buyers to ask for, and/or for the sellers to agree to improve. I stated in my last column that home inspectors are not aware of what buyers usually ask for, or what sellers agree to. So I’m not a good person to ask about this. 

I know that it is common for buyers to ask sellers to fix some things. The problem with this is the sellers have no motivation to have high quality improvements; for example, they will go with the lowest bidder. 

And, even if they did want quality work, the work may have to be completed in a short time (before closing). So the seller may have to choose a contractor that can make the time frame rather than the one they feel is best. 

I think it would be better for a buyer to close on the home and choose their own contractors. But, of course, sometimes the buyers are using a lot of the their savings for a down payment and may not have a lot of cash left to make large or many improvements. 

Here is my personal opinion, that I do not share with clients or in my inspection reports: I feel if there is something that prevents me from moving into and living in the home, I will ask the seller to improve it. This could be something potentially expensive, like a non-working furnace. Or it could be something inexpensive, like the front door doesn’t lock. 

But there are other considerations. If the home is 20 years old, and the seller accepted a “low ball” offer, I may not ask for items I normally would. After all, I got a good deal and can afford to make some of these improvements after I own the home. 

But, if the home is 1 year old, owned by a contractor, and I paid full price, I may ask for items I normally wouldn’t. After all, the contractor can probably make the improvements for less than it would cost me. 

By Randy West on August 19, 2016 

 

FSBOs can be risky to sellers, inspectors 

There was a front page article in the Aug. 21 Prescott Courier concerning burglars preying on For Sale By Owner (FSBO) homes. The article stated people would knock on the front door and ask to see the home. One thief would distract the owner while another “wanders through the home.” After the suspects leave the owner discovers missing valuables. 

This is a risk all FSBO sellers have. If there is no Realtor representing the buyer or seller, the sellers have no idea who is calling or ringing the doorbell. Experienced Realtors will not waste their time showing homes to an unqualified buyer. They will ensure the buyer is serious (ready to buy) and can afford the home (has been to a lender or has enough cash). 

 I will not inspect For Sale By Owner (FSBO) homes. Buyers can sue a home inspector, and it is not unheard of for Sellers to. I feel this is much more likely if the parties do not have any professional representation and guidance. 

An experienced local Realtor has seen dozens or hundreds of home inspection reports. They know the local market, and know their clients. They can advise a buyer what items in an inspection report are ‘common’ for this area, or this age or size home. They will explain to the buyer that a home inspection report is not a list of repairs that the seller has to improve. 

I’ve had sellers upset because I reported on safety issues like large openings in deck railings, or lack of GFCI outlets in the kitchen or bathrooms. The sellers feel this is totally unfair because the railing ‘met code’ when the home was built. The sellers feel the railing is “grandfathered” and should not have to be improved. 

I am required by Arizona, in the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors, to report on these items. The Standards state home inspectors must report on any unsafe condition, and that “The risk may be due to damage, deterioration, improper installation or a change in adopted residential construction standards.” 

Home inspectors do not refer to “code.” We may not reference any source, but just state that the deck is 30 feet of the ground and children could easily fall through the 12-inch-wide deck openings. We may state that openings should not be more than 4 inches wide according to manufacturer’s specifications, or “industry standards,” or “adopted residential construction standards.” 

If a Realtor is involved in the transaction, they will explain to the seller that home inspectors are required to report on unsafe conditions, and that any report by any home inspector will mention these conditions. We are not “picking” on their home, we are complying with state law and providing a valuable service to our clients (the buyers). The home inspectors rarely know what the buyer asked the seller to improve, that advice should come from the Realtor. But we have made the buyers aware of these unsafe conditions, so they can improve them if and when they desire. 

By Randy West on August 5, 2016 

 

Hot Garages – Part II Fans and Evaporative Coolers 

Last time I wrote about hot garages. We talked about insulated overhead doors and attic insulation, both of which can help control the temperatures inside garages. 

Last year we had insulated overhead doors installed, which helped a lot. Last week we had Advantage Home Performance install R-30 cellulose insulation in our garage attic, which had no insulation. The next morning the garage did not seem much cooler to me. I think it was because the garage kept the heat it already had. I opened all the doors and windows and cooled it off with a large fan, and now we can tell the difference! The garage used to be over 90 degrees on very hot days, now it’s ‘peaking’ at about 83 degrees. 

 I had an email asking about installing a whole house fan in the garage ceiling. Whole house fans are not that common, but you’ve probably seen one. They are in the ceiling, often in an interior hallway, and usually have a two- or three-speed wall switch. They have louvers that the airflow forces open when the fan is turned on. They are quite noisy, but they can be quite effective at cooling a home. Before you start writing me, I know house fans have gone high tech. There are models with dampers or covers that open electrically, rather than louvers. The new models are much quieter, and some have a fan/blower in the attic and ducts to different rooms. 

But whether you have one that looks and sounds like an airplane propeller, or a new auto-damper thermostat controlled fan, you should not install one in your garage! The walls (common with the home) and attics in an attached garage have to be well sealed, to serve as a fire and gas (carbon monoxide) barrier. Even the door from a garage into a home should be metal or solid wood (fire resistant), and should be self-closing with weatherstripping installed. 

Installing a fan pulling air from the garage into the attic would pretty much guarantee you’ll lose the whole house if a fire starts in the garage. A fan in a window or an exterior wall would be OK, blowing in or out. There are fans designed for this with louvers to keep out hot or cold air when they are not in use. 

I was also asked about using a portable evaporative cooler in a garage. I do not have much faith in these. Everyone knows evaporative coolers don’t work in humid areas – my clients from New Jersey have never even heard of one. 

Evaporative coolers need hot dry air pulled over the media to cool the air. So an evaporative cooler in a small room that is recirculating the air, rather than pulling in dry outside air, will quickly increase the humidity in the room. The more the humidity increases, the less an evaporative cooler can cool the air. 

Common sense (and science) says eventually it becomes more of a humidifier than a cooler. (I expect some ‘feedback’ from that comment.) A window or wall evaporative cooler in a garage would work much better. 

By Randy West on July 15, 2016  

 

Hot Attics, Part I: Most people like hot cars, but not hot garages 

Happy July Fourth weekend! With the unusually hot weather recently I’ve had three emails regarding hot garages. Each had different questions and concerns. Instead of repeating the questions, I will just summarize my recommendations regarding a hot garage. 

I know some of you will find this hard to believe, but home inspectors do not know everything about everything. But fortunately I know some experts I can ask when I see something I’ve never seen before, or want to make sure I’m answering a question correctly. I would like to thank Mike Uniacke, a nationally known insulation expert and owner of Advantage Home Performance in Prescott, for taking the time to talk to me about some of my advice below. I did not let Mike review this column, out of consideration to those of you that like to correct me after every column, so any mistakes are mine. 

A quick review: heat is usually transferred by three methods. Convection – hot air rises, this is how baseboard heaters heat a room. Conduction – some materials are great conductors, like metal, and some materials are terrible conductors, like insulation. Radiation – radiant heat will warm up anything it touches. Standing in the sun is a lot hotter than standing in the shade – this is radiant heat. 

 I don’t spend as much time in the garage as I used to, but probably more than some people, and I have a full size fridge in the garage. I hate to think how hard that fridge is working in a 90-degree garage. Usually the biggest heat gain in a garage is through the overhead doors. Uninsulated metal doors are great conductors. If the outside of the door is 140 degrees, the inside is probably 139.8 degrees. This heat than radiates into the garage, heating everything in the garage. We had insulated overhead doors installed last year, and it helped a lot. There are overhead door insulation kits available for uninsulated doors. Some are pretty good, but none work as well or look as nice as a manufactured insulated door. 

Now we have the other walls. In attached garages, one or two walls are common with the interior, so there is no heat gain there unless you are running your furnace in July, in which case you have more problems that I can address here. One exterior wall is usually mostly overhead doors, which we have discussed. This leaves one or two exterior walls. These can also be a source of heat gain, since they are often not insulated. Insulating finished walls (meaning they have exterior cladding and interior drywall) is not easy, and is not a DIY project for most people. If you have stucco exterior walls, the stucco will provide some insulation. But if you have east- or west-facing walls, especially with wood siding, you may want to consult with an insulation company. 

So that leaves the ceiling/attic. Well, also the floor, but there’s usually not much heat gain from the floor, which is good because there’s not much we could do about it. Most garages in our area do not have any attic insulation. There are some exceptions. In some custom-built or very high quality homes I find insulation in the garage attic, and also in some older homes with the laundry facilities in the garage. Usually the garage attic insulation is less than the home attic, often about half. For example, the home attic may have @ R-30 insulation, and the garage attic would have R-15 to R-20. 

There is a lot of heat gain in garage ceilings with uninsulated attics. On a recent 100-degree day I checked the bottom of the roof sheathing (“plywood” under the roof shingles) with my infrared thermometer, and it was 160 degrees. The sheathing is radiating that 160 degrees into the attic. Remember that radiant heat will heat up anything it touches, so the drywall over the garage ceiling is getting very hot. That heat is “conducted” through the drywall, where it is “radiated” into the garage. 

So attic insulation in a garage is effective at reducing the garage temperature in the summer. But you don’t need as much as insulation as in the home. The attic insulation is more to reduce the radiant heat gain from the attic than to reduce heat loss in the winter. Of course, the insulation will help with heat loss too, but most garages are not heated anyway. And over-insulating a garage can actually trap heat in a garage in the summer, e.g. from pulling in hot (temperature wise) cars. 

As always, batt insulation (on a “roll”) is the least effective because there are always gaps on the sides and ends of the insulation, and it does not cover the framing. Blown in insulation is much better because it covers everything. Having loose fiberglass or cellulose insulation blown is not that much more expensive than installing batt insulation, and is a much better value because of the much better coverage. 

Since heat gain in garages is mostly from radiant heat, I have to mention radiant barriers. I see these in attics sometimes. These are basically aluminum foil rolled out in the attic, intended to reflect the radiant heat back up to the sheathing and keep it off the interior/garage ceilings. The concept is much better than the execution. I have seen this installed on the bottom of the top chords (over your head) and on top of the insulation (under your feet). In both cases, the barrier is not very smooth, and is very dusty/dirty. This lessens the “reflective” quality. And I have not noticed attics with radiant barriers over my head being significantly cooler. My first thought when I see this in an attic is there was a good salesman in the neighborhood. 

If I did not answer all your questions, don’t sweat it. Next time will be Hot Attics Part II. 

By Randy West on July 1, 2016 

 

Sharing inspection results often brings unintended results 

This week I have a question from a home inspector: 
“Is there anything in the law that says we are not to discuss inspection results with sellers, if the buyer pays for the inspection, or is that just a courtesy that you give your clients? I have had people complain about the fact that I won’t include the seller on the review. An agent told me that the inspectors in Phoenix do it and is asking why it is so different up here. Every time I have made an exception and discussed the results with the seller, it does not turn out good. The sellers tend to get angry when you describe things wrong with their home.” (Name withheld because I did not ask him to use this letter, and he’s bigger than me). 

I have some funny stories about sellers hearing what I tell the buyers. But overall I agree that the sellers can get defensive or insulted when you describe defects with their home. I tell buyers and their agents that the meeting takes too long if the seller is there, because we have to “discuss” everything I say. Part of my “at the door” presentation at occupied homes is telling the seller that I won’t be able to discuss my findings with them. I make a little joke out of it. I tell them I don’t want them to ask me “what did you find” when I’m leaving, and get a little tweaked when I say I’m not allowed to tell them. 

 Now, to answer your question, I could not find anything in the Statutes or Rules that addresses who the inspector can deliver their report to. I use a popular Inspection Agreement that is available from the Arizona Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors. This agreement, and most agreements I’ve seen, has a provision that states I will deliver the report only to the client and their Realtor. I interpret that as meaning that I will not discuss my findings with anyone else, since that would be by definition an oral “report.” So my reports, oral or written, are delivered only to the client. 

I do tell the seller or occupant if I find an immediate safety concern, for example carbon monoxide in the furnace supply air. In this case I am not ‘delivering the report’, I am simply alerting them to one immediate safety concern. I feel this is necessary because the seller is usually living in the home for a month or more after my inspection. 

Now that I answered your question, I realize I need to be careful how I state things. I have told thousands of sellers and Realtors that I cannot discuss my findings with anyone but my client. I have probably said or inferred that it’s Arizona that prohibits this, and actually it’s my Inspection Agreement. But since Arizona requires that I have a signed Inspection Agreement, and my Agreement has that language, I could technically say that Arizona prohibits discussing my findings with non-clients (yes, I want to be a lawyer if I grow up). But in the future I will be careful not to mention Arizona and simply say, “I’m not allowed to discuss my findings.” 

There have been times when the buyers or their Realtor requested that we go over the inspection in front of the seller, and I too have had unusual experiences. Once I told the buyer the master bath toilet does not flush properly. The seller insisted all 5 of us cram into the bathroom so he could demonstrate the proper way to flush a toilet. This toilet, anyway, which involved holding the handle down for exactly 5.3 seconds and then hitting the right side of the tank twice. Don’t know how I missed that. 

Once I mentioned that the overhead garage door did not reverse when hitting an obstruction. The seller went out to the garage to prove me wrong and damaged the door so severely it had to be replaced. 

Then there was the seller who stated several times that he would not have to fix anything his inspector didn’t recommend when he bought the home 10 years ago. 10 years ago his inspector said the water heater would probably need replacing in about five years. I told my buyers the water heater probably should have been replaced about five years ago. To the seller it didn’t matter if his inspector missed something, or if the conditions had changed – if he wasn’t aware of the problem then he did not have to correct it. 

But probably the funniest thing occurred many years ago. The seller was a 75-year-old woman. She sat quietly at the dining room table knitting while I spoke to the buyers and their Realtor in the adjacent kitchen. I had been talking for about 20 minutes, and the seller had not made a sound. I told the buyers there was no spark screen on the chimney for the wood burning fireplace, which can be a fire hazard outside. The seller looked up and said, “My neighbor calls me and bitches every time I use the fireplace.” We were all quiet for a moment, surprised as much that she spoke as at what she said. Then I looked out the dining room next to her and pointed down the hill behind her house. I asked if it was the neighbor down there with the wood shingle roof, and she said “yuup, that’s the grouch.” 

I could imagine the “grouch” watching hot embers from this chimney landing on his wood shingle roof. I told the seller that her neighbor really wasn’t that grouchy. If I lived in that house and she lit her fireplace, I’d be knocking on her front door with a fire extinguisher in my hand. 

By Randy West on June 17, 2016 

 

Two trees or not two trees, that is the question 

I received an email this week from an unhappy homeowner: 
“Mr. West, you inspected the home next door to me a few weeks ago. The new owners moved in, and immediately starting cutting branches off two of my trees. They showed me your report, where you recommended cutting branches off two beautiful, living trees. You are a home inspector, not a horticulturist. And you obviously don’t understand how harmful it is to cut limbs off a living tree! Especially having an amateur just cut them off wherever they feel like it. Removing limbs should only be done by a professional. How would you like it if someone cut off one of your arms? In the future I suggest you limit your inspections to ‘homes’ and not living creatures that you obviously don’t care about.” 

Wow. I admit I am not a horticulturist. I didn’t even know how to spell it. And I do consider trees “alive,” but have never considered them “creatures.” 

I reviewed the report on this home, and I did indeed recommend trimming some tree branches. Why would I recommend such a dastardly deed? It’s not just because I’m a non-caring non-horticulturalist. It’s because I’m a home inspector, and I have to report on anything that can affect the home I’m inspecting. 

Using the letter writer’s logic, if there was a huge tree right next to the home that was slowly pushing the home off its foundation, I should not report on it. After all, the tree was probably there first. And I certainly don’t want to hurt its feelings. 

At the home I inspected, there were tree branches touching the exterior walls. This can provide an entry point for carpenter ants, bark beetles, unemployed hippies, and other creatures you don’t want on your home. (Hey – if a tree is a “creature,” then a 60-year-old hippie can be one too.) I also recommended cutting off a large branch that was over part of the roof and patio cover. The branches were damaging the roof shingles, and If it broke and fell it would likely cause damage to the home. 

Arizona says I have to report on these trees. The Standard of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors (section 5.1F) states “The home inspector shall observe vegetation, grading, drainage, driveways, patios, walkways and retaining walls with respect to their effect on the condition of the building.” The Standards define “observe” as examining something and reporting on its condition. Even if a tree is a “creature,” I think it still comes under the “vegetation” category. 

I would like to think that I am not an uncaring zealot. After reading that email, on the way home I saw at least six landscaper trucks/trailers. They had weedeaters, hedge trimmers, even chain saws! And they were all vilifying vegetation. 

Now to be honest, there is one point to be taken from that email. There is a proper way to trim large branches off a tree, and I will make that point in the future if I have to recommend cutting off large branches. 

I also received an email this this week from a local home inspector: 

“I would like to file a complaint, but I’m not sure if I can. I had an inspection scheduled last week that got canceled. When I asked why, the Realtor told me I’m not on the list of approved inspectors for her office. She forwarded an email to me with a list of inspectors she is not supposed to refer, because they have not given her office a copy of their E &O insurance. I’m not going to, either. I know it is illegal for a home inspector to be on a preferred vendor list. I got a letter from the BTR stating that. I know you work for the BTR, does this fall into that category?” 

I need to explain a few things here before I offer advice. The BTR is the Arizona Board of Technical Registration that regulates home inspectors in Arizona. I do not “work for them;” I am on their enforcement advisory committee and home inspector rules and standards committee. The BTR did send out a letter to all home inspectors stating they cannot participate in preferred vendor programs . A preferred vendor program is where a home inspector pays a monthly fee to a real estate office to be on an approved list. E&O insurance is Errors and Omissions insurance that most home inspectors carry. 

You cannot file a complaint with the BTR against a Realtor or real estate office. The BTR has no jurisdiction over Realtors. Also, I do not feel this program falls under the definition of a preferred vendor. The home inspectors are not paying a fee to be on a list. Any inspector that provides insurance information can be on that list, they are not excluding any home inspectors. The inspector is not paying anything, so in my opinion you can’t file a complaint against an inspector. 

I agree with you, and I will not give my insurance information to any office. That is like asking someone for their automobile insurance for no reason. Why would you give it to them? If a client is unhappy with an inspection or report, they should call the home inspector. If he/she really did miss something, most inspectors will make it right without involving their insurance company. 

The only one that might have a valid complaint would be a client. The five most experienced home inspectors in the Prescott area are not on that “approved” list. If a client received a poor inspection or report , and found out their Realtor was not supposed to refer any of the most experienced inspectors, they might have a valid grievance. But it would be with the real estate office, not the home inspectors. 

By Randy West on June 3, 2016 

 

How to choose a home inspector in Green Cay (not Green Bay) 

I give a short presentation at a local real estate school to inform new Realtors about the home inspection process in Arizona. Part of my presentation is advice on choosing a home inspector, whether they use the advice themselves or pass it on to their clients for them to choose the inspector. I have given this presentation, and this advice, many times. 

Well, some of my oldest friends recently moved to a Caribbean island. They did not retire, they are going to open a business there. They moved for political reasons, they are scared to death of Washington DC. And it doesn’t matter who is in charge. They started planning this a couple years ago, before the fiasco of this election season. I can’t say my wife and I haven’t discussed it ourselves. We decided to wait for the first state to secede and move there (my money is on Texas). 

Anyway, my friends called and asked me for advice on choosing a home inspector. They were advised by a family member to ignore the advice of their Realtor, which just confused them more. I started in on my presentation. But then I realized that my presentation, excellent as it is, it’s based on Arizona. Inspectors are regulated and certified in Arizona (a CHI, or Certified Home Inspector). In fact, Arizona has very strict requirements to become a home inspector, so any CHI will have completed the required education, passed the National Home Inspector Exam, completed 30 parallel (“training”) inspections, completed a fingerprint/background check, etc. 

When I started in this profession, all I needed was a flashlight, clipboard and my name in big letters on my truck. Needless to say, there were many “home inspectors” that did not make it very long. In fact, most of them. A statistic that was mentioned in home inspector schools when I started was that over 50 percent of us (new inspectors) would be sued out of business within 2 years. A pretty scary statistic, if true. I don’t know if they were trying to scare some of us out of the profession, or trying to convince us that home inspection is a serious job and your clients really depend on you. I think they succeeded at both, because usually several attendees did not come back after the next break. 

So back to my problem. I can’t tell my friends to check the government bureaucracy for a home inspectors license status and/or complaints, because there is no such bureaucracy there. Like in Arizona 20 years ago, anyone with a ladder and a business card can be a home inspector. So I had to come up with some new advice. 

So my first advice was to ignore the advice to ignore the Realtor’s advice. There are some websites and blogs out there that advise home buyers to not use any home inspector that their Realtor recommends. Most home inspectors dispute this. If you did your homework in choosing a Realtor, you should be able to rely on his/her advice. That is what they are getting paid for, their knowledge of the local market and area. By the time you need a home inspector, you have trusted your Realtor to show you all homes that fit your needs, advise you of flood zones, school districts, desirable or undesirable home features in that area, maintained roads, special assessments, write and negotiate a purchase offer, etc. So now you’re not going to take their advice on choosing inspectors? 

So I advised my friends to put a lot of weight on the inspectors their Realtor recommended, but to do a little homework as well. 

First, I suggested they check the inspector’s website. In this day and age, any inspector should have a website. And he/she should state their credentials. Look for how many years they have been an inspector, and membership in professional organizations such as ASHI or NAHI. Watch for vague comments such as “30 years in the trades” or “30 years of real estate experience.” Even “30 years of inspection experience” can be misleading. An Arizona home inspector once advertised “over 5,000 inspections.” I found out he managed a huge apartment complex for many years, and 4,800 of his inspections were to refund a damage deposit. I believe this is making sure the tenants had the carpet cleaned and didn’t steal the refrigerator, but it is by no means a “home inspection.” A home inspector’s website should state how many years they have been an inspector, and/or how many home inspections they have performed. Real home inspections. 

They should also have a sample report on their website. Most home inspectors are basically self-employed. Franchisee home inspectors are becoming much more common, but even their success or failure depends almost entirely on the individual home inspector, not the franchise. As such, I have found most successful home inspectors are a bit egotistical. Except me, of course. In some ways this is a good trait. Since the actual report is the only visible thing we produce, home inspectors should have a sample report on their website. They want you to see their report. They should insist you see their report. In fact, they want everyone to see their report, because they know it’s better than the other guy’s report. (Who, of course, should be saying the same thing). 

You should also call the inspector. Even if all the information you want is on their website, a short conversation can tell you a lot. They will not be as professional and funny as me, of course. But they should be glad to talk to you and answer any questions you have, and it should be a pleasant conversation. If you can’t reach them before an inspection, what if you have a question about the inspection report? 

By Randy West on May 20, 2016  

 

More than you ever wanted to know about multi-wired branch circuits 

“Randy, in your report you mentioned the home has some multi-wired circuits and recommended an electrician. We had an electrician check on this. He told us we have to turn off two breakers to shut off all power to a circuit, but said this is common and is not a concern. We just wanted you to know this so you don’t report on this in the future.” 

This has actually come up a few times recently, and I don’t think I’ve ever written about it in this column. Here is my comment from that report, which will help explain what multi-wired branch circuits are: 

“There are numerous multi-wired branch circuits (also known as ‘shared neutral’ or ‘common neutral’ wiring). This was common at one time, and is still used in some circumstances. Some brand new homes have a multi-wire branch circuit for the outlet below the sink – one breaker for the disposer and a different breaker for the dishwasher but only one neutral wire. This wiring is safe in normal use. However, turning off a breaker does not ensure there will not be power in the neutral wire for that circuit, since the neutral wire also serves another circuit (breaker). Usually the breakers are physically connected, like a 240 volt breaker, when there is a shared neutral wire to ensure all power to that circuit is turned off. You should consult with an electrician regarding this wiring.” 

So the concern with shared neutral wiring is if a breaker trips off, or is turned off, there is still power to that circuit. Simply put, the hot (black) wire is power going to the outlet, the neutral (white) wire is the power coming back. With AC (alternating current) electricity, you can have one neutral wire serve two hot wires, since only one at a time will be sending power back to the panel. 

The electrician told you that you have to turn off two breakers to shut off a circuit, but are you positive you know which two breakers? And what if you have a friend install a ceiling fan, will he know you have to turn off two breakers on that circuit? If not, he may get a free hairdo when he starts wiring that fan. 

Multi-wired wiring is only visible if you remove the deadfront (inner cover) on the panel. And even if someone removes the deadfront, they may not notice the shared neutrals. Sometimes you can spot shared neutral wiring because there are red wires on the 120 volt breakers. But sometimes there are no red wires, and the only way to notice this is either by counting the neutral (white) wires, or checking where the branch wiring enters the panel. 

After receiving that letter, I wanted to confirm my comments. I called a master electrician that teaches at our home inspector classes. He said with shared neutral wiring the breakers must either be a dual pole (aka common trip, for 240 volt circuits) or have a “breaker handle tie,” which is a metal “clip” that connects the handles on two adjacent breakers. 

I also called the Prescott Building Department and left a message with an inspector. My voice messages get emailed to me (makes it easy to copy and paste), here is his reply: 

“Good afternoon Randy, This is the city of Prescott building department returning your call concerning the shared neutral question. It is allowed to share the neutrals. A common trip is not required, but a breaker tie handle is required so that if one breaker trips it does not necessarily trip the other one, but if you turn them off the breaker tie handle would turn both of them off. That can be accomplished by using either a two pole breaker or a breaker handle tie. So I hope that answers your question.” 

They both said the same thing. Understand that a dual pole/common trip breaker is used for 240 volt circuits, like a range or water heater. It is designed to trip off both sides (“poles”) if either circuit trips off. This ensures that all power to the appliance is shut off if either 120 volt circuit trips. The breaker handles are also physically connected with a metal clip called “bridging.” This is to ensure all power is off if someone turns off the breaker (rather than it tripping). 

Connecting two 120 volt breakers with a “breaker tie,” as required for shared neutral wiring, is not quite the same. A breaker handle does not have to move when a breaker trips. So if a 120 volt breaker trips off, a 120 volt breaker that is connected to it with a breaker tie will not trip off. This can make a tripped breaker hard to find because the handle is not in the “tripped” position. 

So with a dual pole 240 volt breaker both handles will move if either side is tripped. And with two 120 volt breakers with a breaker tie, if one side trips the handles do not move, making it hard to locate a tripped breaker. 

I inspected a brand new home recently with two multi-wire circuits. One was for the outlet under the sink (separate breakers for the disposer and dishwasher), and one was for the two 120 volt outlets in the laundry (separate breakers for the washer and gas dryer). Both of these had 240 volt common trip breakers. This is more convenient because the breaker will completely turn off if either side is tripped or turned off. 

I will continue to alert my clients to multi-wire circuits if the breakers are not connected. And especially if they are in the general wiring, e.g. bedroom outlets, rather than for a washer/dryer or disposer/dishwasher. Like other comments in a home inspection report, the client may choose to not make any improvements, but at least they are aware of the situation. 

  

By Randy West on May 6, 2016 

 

I love (most of!) my job – a home inspector’s lament 

I had two somewhat similar written questions (and a couple phone conversations) regarding home inspectors and re-inspections. Here’s one of the emails: 
“We had a home inspection last month on a 2,500 square foot home. There were a lot of recommendations in the report, which we expected because it was an older home. What we did not expect was the fee for a re-inspection. First, he said he would not re-inspect some things. Second, he wanted to charge almost as much as the original inspection. I think it’s only logical that the inspector that found the problems would be the one to make sure they are fixed properly. I was also shocked that a re-inspection cost almost as much as the original inspection, even though he refused to check some things. We are out of state and could not get to Prescott to check on repairs, so we had to agree to his terms, but we feel we were taken advantage of. Isn’t a re-inspection something all home inspectors do?” 

I used that letter because it was more “printable” (and wasn’t about me). Let me start by saying that home inspectors do not like re-inspections (my spell checker doesn’t like an un-hyphenated “reinspection”). They are the least favorite part of our job for several reasons. 

First, we (‘we’ refers to all home inspectors) are not allowed to discuss our findings with the sellers. So on our first visit the sellers were very nice and offered us lemonade and cookies (which we never accept for ethical reasons). But when we go back to re-inspect, the sellers are waiting at the door wanting to know why we didn’t tell them half the attic wasn’t insulated or that the master bath sink was draining into the crawlspace. We of course politely explain that we couldn’t discuss our findings with them. Sometimes the sellers understand and offer us lemonade and cookies (which we never accept for health/safety reasons). 

Sometimes sellers will insist that they are there for the re-inspection, even on a vacant home, so they can tell us how unhappy they are with us. I’ve had sellers that were very pleasant during my first inspection, but then not allow me back into the now-vacant home for a re-inspection without their armed guards on site. 

It’s true that most sellers are not like this, but the few that are make an impression. 

Which brings up a second point. Scheduling re-inspections is very difficult. It is typical to get a request for a re-inspection that has to be done in the next few days — after the repairs but before the closing. I have a “re-inspection policy” paragraph in my original report that lets clients know the minimum cost, and lets everyone know that it is very difficult to schedule a re-inspection for a specific day and time. Like most self-employed, I log many hours. It is not unusual for me to be typing a report until 7 or 8 p.m. A re-inspection, even if the actual inspection does not take long, easily adds a few hours to the workload with travel, inspection and report writing. 

I also understand the inspector refusing to re-inspect some items. Home inspectors are generalists, and by state law if we see a “major defect” we must recommend a contractor (“appropriate persons” is how it’s worded in our Standards of Practice). A major defect is anything that is unsafe, could worsen appreciably or cause further damage. 

Say a home inspector finds a furnace that is not operating safely, perhaps there was carbon monoxide in the supply air. The inspector may not know “why” the furnace was not operating correctly, so he/she recommends hiring a “licensed heating contractor.” Now assuming a licensed heating contractor fixed the heating system, should the home inspector re-inspect it? I understand the client wanting to make sure it was fixed, but now the home inspector is taking on the liability for the repair. I know this is unlikely, but say the heating contractor determined the furnace needs replacing. He can make a repair, but it is temporary and will only be good for short time. The home inspector knows nothing of this, and goes out and declares the furnace is “fixed” or “operating normally.” 

Perhaps a better example would be a noisy fan. Any fan will do, but let’s use the furnace again. The home inspector states the furnace fan sounded like a flock of scared parrots when operating, and likely the motor or fan needs replacing. Someone sprays two cans of the wrong lubricant all over the motor and fan, so when the home inspector re-inspects the noise is gone. The wrong lubricant actually worsens the condition, and by the time the buyers move in the scared parrots are back. Guess who just bought that furnace — the home inspector who said it was “fixed.” 

So when I get a request to do a re-inspection, here’s my thought process. One day this week just went from 10 hours to 13 hours so I can drive out to a home where there may be people that aren’t happy with me so I can report things are fixed and possibly take on liability for repairs that I don’t know for sure were done properly. And all this for not much money. 

I understand buyers needing a re-inspection, especially if they are out of state. But I also understand a home inspector declining to re-inspect items that he/she recommended an “expert” to repair. My “return visit policy” states that if I recommended an expert, the client should ask for copies of the invoice or work order. That way the clients know it was repaired by an expert, and the clients have the contact information if they have any questions or concerns. 

By Randy West on April 22, 2016 

 

Inspectors are not privy to Realtors’ conversations 

This week’s question comes from a Realtor: 
“Randy, I have seen many inspection reports over the years. I have seen reports that recommend a licensed roofing contractor to replace a few shingles, or a licensed electrician to replace a missing outlet cover. 

“As a buyers’ agent, I would like to know why some home inspectors recommend expensive professionals for minor improvements. I have seen buyers ask for every recommendation in a home inspection report. 

“As a sellers agent I am not privy to the conversations between the buyers and their home inspector and Realtor. Do home inspectors tell buyers that the seller of a home has to fix everything in the report?” 

Privy. That’s a neat word. Although I don’t know why it makes me think of a bathroom. There are two good questions here, so I’ll try to come up with at least one good answer. 

First, why do home inspectors recommend experts for minor repairs or improvements? Because we have to. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors states that we must inspect certain systems and components, e.g., heating systems, roof shingles, etc. Components make up a system – the furnace, ducts, filter, etc. (components) make the heating system. The Standards also state that a home inspector shall: 

2.2 C. 3: “state any systems or components so inspected which were found to be in need of immediate major repair and any recommendations to correct, monitor or evaluate by appropriate persons.” 

The glossary in the Standards defines “immediate major repair” as “a major defect, which if not quickly addressed, will be likely to do any of the following: 1. worsen appreciably, 2. cause further damage, 3. be a serious hazard to health and/or personal safety.” 

So inspectors have to recommend an “appropriate person” for any “major defect.” I warn my buyers/clients not to confuse major defect with major expense. A leak under a sink can “cause further damage” and a missing electrical outlet next to a sink can “be a hazard to personal safety.” The leak may not require any expense, just tightening a loose pipe or fitting. An electrical outlet cover costs 50 cents and most 10-year-olds can install it. But inspectors in Arizona are required to recommend an “appropriate person” to correct these. 

Now for the second question – do home inspectors tell buyers what a seller should fix? There is no law, rule or regulation governing this. But common sense says Absolutely Not! 

I have been asked by a buyer many times if they should ask the seller to fix something I pointed out. My immediate answer is Not My Department. If I’m in one of my rare serious moods I will tell them I don’t know if the home has been on the market for a day, week or month. Or if the seller or buyer are “handy.” Or if the buyer paid full price or low-balled. And all of those could influence what a buyer should ask a seller to fix, or what a seller may be willing to fix. 

But more often when a buyer asks if a seller should fix something I tell them all I can say is this is the problem, this is why it’s a problem, and I may offer suggestions on possible improvements. But I never comment on who fixes it, or when, or who pays for it. I am not a city or county inspector, and I have absolutely zero authority. No one listens to me, and that includes my wife, two sons and three dogs. 

I always tell my clients they should discuss the report with their Realtor, who can advise them on what to ask for. And I’m not privy to those conversations (you knew that was coming). 

Early in my career, I was inspecting a 30-year-old home. It had the original dishwasher, and when I opened the door, I was immediately assaulted. By an odor. A very bad odor. The interior of the dishwasher had yucky water (or something) in the bottom and was very rusty. I quickly shut the door. The seller was nearby and asked if I thought it was worth repairing the dishwasher. My nose was burning and I needed to get out in the fresh air, so I blurted out something about it probably wouldn’t cost any more to get a new dishwasher that would run quieter and do a better job of washing dishes (I left out “and not give anyone nosebleeds”). 

The next day everyone was mad at me. The buyers asked for a $100 credit for a new dishwasher. The seller stated they don’t need one. Sears had already come out and installed a brand new dishwasher. The buyers asked if it was white like the other appliances, and the seller said yes. The buyers were planning to buy all new stainless steel appliances, so they asked the seller why he had a new dishwasher installed. He said the home inspector told him he had to. 

So the buyers were upset – they had a new $350 dishwasher they didn’t want. The seller was upset – he could have gotten away for $100 and not had Sears tear up his kitchen (not to mention release that toxic odor). And the Realtors were mad at me for telling the seller he had to replace something. I told both Realtors that I knew they were not privy to my conversation with the seller, but I assured them I had NOT said anyone HAD to do anything. 

So now if a buyer asks me who should fix it, I say discuss it with your Realtor. I can’t discuss my inspection with the sellers, but if they know something is wrong and ask me about fixing it, I strongly recommend that they don’t do anything until they hear from the buyer. 

By Randy West on April 7, 2016 

 

Home inspectors must have a hard head … 

This week’s question came from someone who found one of my past Courier columns: 
Q: “Hi Randy. I saw an article online that was written by you, providing very good information regarding homes that have post tension slabs. We’ve just purchased a home in Scottsdale, and sure enough, there was a stamp in the garage that stated such a method was used. So here’s my concern: I have a floor safe, and in the last home I had it was bolted to the floor in the closet. Am I limited to merely placing the safe on the floor in the home, versus having the added security of bolting it to the floor? It’s not exactly difficult for someone, or a crew, to just pick the darned thing up and walk out the door with it. Thanks, Carol.” 

A: Get ready for a long answer – this will be in my next column. So you will have to wander (or is that wonder) with me. 

A quick explanation – a post tension slab floor has cables routed through it. After the slab is poured, the cables are tightened to make the concrete stronger. 

You would probably be OK drilling (Carefully!) very shallow holes, e.g. less than 1/2 inch, in the concrete. With masonry anchors, a few of these should make the safe feel very secure. I would assume (yes, I know what assume means) that if a thief found a safe secured to the floor, he would assume it was very well secured to the floor and would not try to lift or pry it off. I’d hate to tell my chiropractor that I hurt my back trying to lift a safe that was bolted to a floor (or lift a safe at all, for that matter). 

Depending on the location, an infrared camera can sometimes locate the tendons (cables) in the concrete. I would still not go very deep, but I’d feel a little better if I had some idea of the location of the tendons. 

Of course, if I have a stamp in the concrete floor that says “Do Not Drill or Core,” I would find a way to avoid it. Can the safe go up against a wall? Bolting it through the side or back to a frame wall could be as strong as bolting it to the concrete floor. You might have to use shims to keep it away from the wall (e.g. for the safe door to open). And once again if it feels secure at all, the bad guy may assume it is very secure and not try prying it. 

I hope this helps you. 

I have a “joke” group in my email which includes (some) family and friends. Many are fellow home inspectors. Some are fellow white trash motorcycle riders. One is a fellow FSU fan. (Actually, he’s not really an FSU fan. We “met” when he read this column and emailed me a question, but we are both avid college football fans.) 

Most of the emails I send out to the “joke” group are relatively harmless funnyisms. A good percentage are political (which is why only “some” family and friends are on the list). And some can be, well, not quite “vulgar” but they would have made my mother blush. 

There is a reason I’m telling you this. I banged my forehead on a metal beam in a crawlspace under a manufactured home last week. It hurt like heck for about one minute while I recited every foul word I’d ever heard. Then the pain subsided, but head wounds do tend to bleed a lot. Blood kept getting in my right eye and I kept clearing it off with my sleeve (I was wearing coveralls). 

I was taking a photo of the air conditioner condensate drain line discharging in the crawlspace (as in most manufactured homes), and decided to take a “selfie.” I knew there was a lot of blood on my forehead and face. I then sent the photo out to my “joke” group with the following message – “another typical day in a crawlspace.” 

I was in a dark crawlspace, lying down on the dirt floor, and I closed my eyes for the flash. I didn’t think about how this made it look like I may have been unconscious (or worse). Until I got some very concerned replies to my email: 

“Which hospital are you in?” “How long were you unconscious?” “Are you all right?” 

I sent out a second email letting everyone know what happened – I hit my head on a metal beam and I’m fine. The responses I received are what prompted me to put it in a column: 

“Nice head shot.” 

“RIP, Randy. You will be missed.” 

“You should use that photo on your business card.” 

“It’s almost St Patrick’s Day, not Halloween, or is this for real?” 

“Cute. Now get back to work!” 

“Looks like that photo should be mounted above the fireplace.” 

“Anyone who knows you would realize that a head wound wouldn’t be serious. There is nothing up there to damage! Glad to hear you didn’t cause any structural damage to the house.” 

“How’s the beam? Is it bent too far out of specifications?” 

“Did you give the beam a tetanus shot?” 

“Looks like you got caught in a Seminole blitz – you’re too big to be doing crawlspaces – you need a little guy assistant.” 

“Thank goodness it was only your head and not something important.” 

“Randy, I’m trying to figure out what happened. Did you fall asleep after you hit your head, or did your wife hit you, and then you went in the crawlspace to escape?” 

And Bob replied to my email with no written message but a couple links. One went to an Amazon page selling those weird looking bicycle helmets. The other went to a page with “the history of the hard hat.” 

By Randy West on March 25, 2016 

 

Attic insulation, Part II – where no man has gone before 

Last time I wrote about how just a small area of missing attic insulation can have a large effect on the overall attic insulation. A quick review: we measure insulation by its R value – the higher the R number the better. Walls in a house usually have R-11 (2×4 walls) or R-19 (2×6 walls) fiberglass batt insulation installed. Batt insulation comes on a roll. 

Most attics in our areas have loose insulation, either cellulose or fiberglass. There are other materials I find in older homes, such as mineral wool. I have found carpeting, newspapers and Styrofoam (one attic was insulated with cut apart coolers). I found cinders as attic insulation a couple times. I’ve heard they used this in Flagstaff for a while, until they discovered how well cinders will burn. 

We also discussed the U value, which we need for our equation later. The U value is the inverse of the R value- U=1/R and R-1/U. So R-30 would have a U value of 1/30 or .0333. In our example last time we used a 1000 sf attic with R-30 in half and R-10 in half. So the average insulation would be R-20, and one would assume the ‘actual’ insulation would also be R-20. But that’s not true. You will lose more heat through the low insulation levels. There is an equation to compute the actual R value for different levels of insulation in the same attic: sf x U + sf x U (repeat for all different insulation levels), divided by the total sf. Using the equation we found that attic actually had R-15, which is 25 percent less than R-20. 

We used the equation to calculate the loss of insulation if an attic access cover is not insulated. The typical attic access is only about 4 sf. But that dropped a 1000 sf attic with R-30 insulation down to R-28.7, almost a 5 percent drop in actual insulation. And it could be as high as 10 percent, depending on other factors. 

I have found all the following: A rear patio made into a family room with R-11 batt insulation installed: total insulation went from R-28 to R-22. A 1,620 square foot attic insulated to R-30, except no insulation over a 120 sf addition. This lowered the attic insulation to R-18, a 40 percent loss! A 2,000 square foot attic with a 500 square foot garage made into living space with no attic insulation: actual insulation went from R-30 to R-2! Yes, R-2 – I ran the calculation three times. 

But even small areas of missing insulation can have a significant effect on the overall insulation value, and on your heating/cooling costs. And I find this in a lot of attics! I have found uninsulated areas at furnaces, and where some repair or improvement was made (e.g. fixing leak damage, repairing a bath exhaust fan duct). These areas are almost always larger than the uninsulated access cover, and that lowered our attic insulation R value by 5 to 10 percent. 

Often a plywood “floor” has been installed in an attic for storage space. Every sheet of plywood is 32 sf. Just two sheets would be 64 sf, or half the size of that uninsulated room we used a minute ago. And remember – that 120 sf uninsulated room lowed the actual attic R-value by 40 percent. 

I don’t think there’s a formula for the “footprints” that I see in attics. In some attics, there are footprints from one end to another. R-30 cellulose insulation is about 8 inches deep. R-30 fiberglass insulation is about 12 inches deep. Often these “footprints” are right down to the trusses, especially if they have been used more than once. And of course they’ve been used at least twice, or I’d be finding bodies in attics. 

A size 12 shoeprint in insulation is probably a half sf, because the “holes” in the insulation are larger at the top. But to be conservative let’s use three footprints to make a square foot. Let’s use that same 1,000 sf attic with R-30 insulation. But now, there are 45 footprints. 45 divided by 3 would be 15 sf. And let’s say the insulation is only three-quarters compressed, which would make it @ R-7. It would actually be less than R-7; last time we learned that if you compress insulation it loses some of its R value. But we’ll use R-7. So for our formula we have 985 sf at R-30 and 15 sf at R-7. The actual R-value would be R-28.5. That’s a 5 percent loss of R value for some footprints. And we were conservative on both the sf and the R value in the footprints. 

When I enter an attic and there are no footprints, I always think of Star Trek: “where no man has gone before.” And here’s a surprise for the editors – I’m actually going to tie all this in to home inspections. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors state an inspector has to “…observe readily accessible installed systems and components listed in these Standards.” The Standards defines “readily accessible” as “Available for inspection without requiring moving of personal property, dismantling, destructive measures, or any action which will likely involve risk to persons or property.” So an attic would normally be “readily accessible.” However, the Standards also state “… inspectors are NOT required to disturb insulation, move personal items, furniture …” 

So in my personal humble opinion, inspectors are required to enter attics unless it would disturb the insulation. The glossary does not define “disturb,” but I would think leaving footprints that lower the R value by 5 to 10 percent would fall into that category. Anyone entering an attic and “disturbing” the insulation should level it out as much as possible on their way back out. 

By Randy West on March 4, 2016 

 

Attic insulation and brain damage, Part I 

When I see an attic access in a heated area, such as a hallway or laundry room, I always recommend insulating the cover. If it’s not already, of course. I have heard of sellers and handymen arguing that this is “silly,” a waste of time, or just the inspector trying to sound important. I know buyers have ignored this recommendation (I find out when I inspect the home again five years later). So I decided to do a little research and see just how much one small area of missing insulation would affect the overall insulation. 

I found formulas to calculate this. I even used them, they’re not that difficult (although it’s been a long time since college algebra!) 

First a few basics. We refer to insulation as R-11, R-30, etc. So what is R exactly? This is from Wikipedia: “The R-value is a measure of thermal resistance used in the building and construction industry. Under uniform conditions, it is the ratio of the temperature difference across an insulator and the heat flux (heat transfer per unit area per unit time) through it. Thermal resistance varies with temperature but it is common practice in construction to treat it as a constant value.” 

I deleted some formulas from that quote. The formulas were very complicated and had strange symbols that made my brain hurt. Simply put, R is the insulating value of a material. The higher the number the better the insulation. Let’s use fiberglass batt insulation for an example. Three common ratings are R-11 (3.5 inches thick), R-19 (5.5 inches thick) and R-30 (10 inches thick). Note the thicknesses are approximate, depending on the insulation. Owens Corning has R-19 insulation that is 6.25 inches thick and R-21 insulation that is 5.5 inches thick. The 3.5 and 5.5 inch insulation is made to fit inside 2-by-4 and 2-by-6 walls. 

Insulation has some funny properties. If you add layers of insulation, you can add the R values. If you put R-11 insulation over R-19 in your attic, you now have R-30. But that’s only true if you don’t compress the insulation. If you put 6 inch R-19 in a 2-by-4 wall, it is no longer R-19. Compressing any type of insulation will lessen its R value. 

Most attics in our area have loose insulation, either fiberglass or cellulose. This is where the math gets really brain-hurting. (Note: for this discussion we will disregard the framing members and drywall, which also have R ratings). If you have a 1000 square foot attic, and half is insulated with R-30 and the other half is insulated with R-10, we should have an average insulation of R-20, right? 

Wrong! Because heat will find the path of least resistance. R-20 is the average of the “thickness,” but you will lose much more heat through the lower insulated areas. There is a formula to determine the average R factor. First you have to convert to the U factor. The U factor is how much heat can get through something, so a lower number is better. Windows are rated by the U factor. The U and R factors are inverses of each other- U=1/R and R=1/U. 

The formula is sf x U + sf x U (+ as many sf x U as needed for the total sf) divided by total square foot. So in our example we have 500 sf of R-10 and 500 sf of R-30. After converting to U, our formula would be 16.6 + 50 divided by 1000, or 66.6 divided by 1000, which equals .066. This is our U value- divide into 1 for the R value of 15.15. So our R value is not R 20, it’s R 15. That’s a big difference – 25 percent less than the “average” thickness. 

Now let’s figure out that missing insulation on an attic access cover, which is at 2 feet by 2 feet or 4 sf. We will assume the rest of the 1000 sf attic is R-30. We can use the same formula. We will count the uninsulated attic access as R- .5, which is the approximate R value of drywall (and we can’t use 0 in our equation). So we have 996 sf at R-30, and 4 sf at R-.5. Which is .033 x 996 (32.8) and .5 x 4 (2). 32.8 + 2 equals 34.8, divided by 1000 = .0348, which computes to R-28.7. This does not seem like that big a difference, only a 5 percent loss. But that 5 percent loss is over the entire attic. 

And actually we need to think of something else regarding that access cover. You can transfer heat by conduction, convection or radiation. Conduction is heat traveling through a material – a good insulator is a very poor conductor. Convection is air movement- heat will rise and cool air will settle. Radiation is the heat hitting and warming an object-, the sun heats by radiation (only warms you if you stand in the sunlight). With no insulation an attic access cover will also have radiation. When heating the home you will radiate (lose) heat into the attic, when cooling the home the uninsulated cover will radiate (gain) heat into the home. 

I have read where a small uninsulated attic access cover can reduce your total attic insulation by 10 percent, and a pull-down stairs reduces the insulation by 20 percent. Since we know we lose 5 percent from the lack of insulation, it’s possible the radiation (and possible air leakage around the cover) can account for another 5 percent. But even if your home has only one small attic access it would be cost effective to insulate the access cover. 

And if you didn’t enjoy this column, you definitely won’t enjoy the next one: Attic Insulation and Brain Damage, Part II. 

By Randy West on February 19, 2016 

 

Garages, snowblowers, microbuses and Darwinism 

I have written in this column many times about gasoline vapors in garages. Gasoline vapors stay near the floor, so any flame or potential spark should be 18 inches off the floor. This is why water heaters and furnaces in garages are usually on an 18-inch-high box or stand. It is also why the electrical outlets in your garage are high off the floor at the “switch” level, rather than near the floor like your interior outlets. 

I have also written many times about fire and gas resistance between homes and attached garages. This is usually accomplished with drywall with all seams taped, and a metal or solid wood door with weatherstripping and self-closers. 

The 18-inch rule is to help prevent fires in case of gasoline vapors in the garage. The fire and gas resistance it to help prevent fires from spreading into the attic or home, and to reduce the chance of car exhaust (carbon monoxide) entering the home from the garage. 

There was an article in the Jan. 7 edition of the Prescott Daily Courier regarding a fire in a Prescott home. The owner had a mechanical problem with a gas-powered snowblower, and put it in the garage. The article said that gas may have dripped from the snowblower, and was ignited by a pilot light from a heater. The article said heater, not “furnace,” so I’m assuming it was a “portable” heater of some type on the garage floor. Unfortunately the fire did spread to the home, and two firefighters received injuries. Fortunately the injuries were minor – the article stated they did not have to go to the hospital. 

Occasionally home inspectors find problems with the “18-inch” rule. Most common is finding electrical outlets or connections close to the floor, and once in a while a gas appliance (pilot light or burner) on the garage floor. 

It is much more common for home inspectors to find violations of the gas and fire resistance. Two that come to mind immediately are pet doors and pull down attic stairs. You have fire resistant walls and a fire resistant door with self-closers and weatherstripping. And then you install a German shepherd-sized pet door through the door or wall directly into the home. And I wrote recently about pull-down attic stairs in attached garages. They make stairs specifically for fire-resistant ceilings, but these stairs are more expensive and I never see them installed in single-family homes. 

Home inspectors are accused of being “alarmists” when we comment on safety concerns such as these. I would rather think of myself as a realist. 

There is not a huge risk of a fire in my garage. There is also not a huge risk of my getting hit by lightning, snowboarding into a tree, or getting run over by a 1967 VW microbus. But I’m not going to increase the odds by staying in a swimming pool during a lightning storm, or snowboarding on new trails at night, or texting on my phone while I jaywalk across a busy street. (The first two I kind of made up, the inattentive jaywalkers are visible every day. Darwin?) 

A little research will show that a lot of home fires start in attached garages, and that a lot of these are from electrical arcing (not necessarily within 18 inches of the floor). Garage fires tend to spread faster due to the open space (more oxygen) and often due to the contents (newspapers to recycle, cardboard boxes, wood items, etc.). So extra precautions like fire resistance and the “18-inch” rule are required in the building codes. 

So when a home inspector sees these safety features violated, he is required to report on them. Now if a home inspector recommends you install a fire sprinkler system in your garage, install fire extinguishers every 10 feet, and don’t park anything with a gasoline engine in the garage I would have to agree he/she is being an alarmist. But all home inspectors should report on commonsense safety features required by code that are missing or have been altered. 

Speaking of fire sprinkler systems, I am a firm believer in these. I know they save lives and property from the trade journals I read. I also read in a recent Prescott Courier about a local hotel fire. There was a fire sprinkler system, and although several guests had to be relocated the damage was very limited because of the fire sprinkler system. 

And speaking of Darwinism, I am a firm believer in this too. But unfortunately some of the “weak” may take some of the normal with them. And by weak, I mean weak in mind. 

For example, I was driving on Skyline into Highland Pines recently. It had snowed the night before, but Iron Springs and Skyline were completely plowed and clear. I was run off the road by a large blue Dodge pickup truck coming out of the subdivision. 

This genius had not cleared the snow off his lights, side windows or rear window. In fact, he only cleared a small area of the windshield – an 8- or 10-inch square in front of the driver. (This could be a “her.” I couldn’t tell, but to avoid being called a sexist, I will use the male pronouns.) The road was clear, and I was blowing my horn, but this truck did not even attempt to pull over. I had to go off the road in an area where there was a very steep fall not far from the edge of the road. 

I thought about turning around and chasing him down, but I wasn’t sure my wife would be available to bail me out. I’m trying to remind everyone to remove the snow from all windows and lights before driving a vehicle. The life you save may be mine! 

By Randy West on January 29, 2016 

 

Readers speak out about power-hungry HOAs 

HOAs are Home Owner Associations in a subdivision. They have officers elected from and by the subdivision residents, and often enforce the CCRs. The CCRs are the Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions for the neighborhood. 

CCRs are different than zoning resolutions. Zoning will limit how you can use the property, e.g. housing or commercial buildings, setbacks from the property lines, etc. Zoning resolutions are actual written laws that are enforced by the municipality. 

CCRs are not a “law;” they are restrictions on the deed to a property. Therefore, they can be much more restrictive than the zoning. There can be advantages to a neighborhood with CCRs. They can prohibit unlicensed (“junk”) vehicles in the front yard, or the minimum size house you can build, which can help retain property values for the entire neighborhood. HOAs may operate and maintain common areas such as a clubhouse or swimming pool. 

However, CCRs can also impose restrictions that may not be desirable to all people. A great example is RV parking. Some subdivisions have a common parking area for RVs. Some have restrictions on RV parking and some don’t allow RV parking at all. 

Some CCRs are restrictive in ways I don’t understand, such as the ones I wrote about last time that don’t allow you to keep your overhead garage door open for longer than 10 minutes, or that require a fence around an air conditioner that will adversely affect the efficiency of the air conditioner. 

The problem with some HOAs, in my humble opinion, is the out-of-control officers. I have never heard of an HOA having any kind of requirement for its elected officers, other than being a resident. There are no education or training requirements. So people with no leadership training or abilities can run and be elected. 

If all HOAs did what they were supposed to, and enforced the CCRs with common sense and fairness, I would not be writing about them (again). But I wrote last time about an HOA hassling someone to the point she left the subdivision. This is not an isolated case! There have been many HOA abuses of power that made national news. Here’s a sample of what the homeowners did that upset their HOA: flew an American flag, put up Christmas decorations, parked in their own driveway, hung clothes to dry in their back yard, installed solar panels on the roof that were not visible from the ground, had U.S. Marine decals on his car, allowed their children to play in their own yard, etc. 

There are stories about HOAs approving very expensive improvements, then later requiring they be changed or removed. Because the new president didn’t like them. Or didn’t like the person. How about a Florida widow that installed $11,000 worth of artificial grass after her husband died, because she couldn’t maintain a real lawn. Nothing in the CCRs restricts artificial grass or plants, but the HOA president was quoted as saying that fake grass was not “Florida friendly.” 

One Virginia HOA decided that all 3,800 residents had to replace their mailboxes with the same $155 mailbox. Almost all homeowners painted their new mailboxes yellow in protest. Even though this was not against the CCRs, they all received notices they would be fined $10 a day every day their mailbox was yellow. 

Which brings us to a different and potentially very disturbing point. Many HOAs are allowed to assess fines, and even put liens on homes or foreclose on the property. In Albuquerque, a resident was fined $400 for having a for sale sign in his yard. Many homes had for sale signs, they were allowed by the CCRs. But his sign was not “pretty enough.” 

A Texas HOA foreclosed on a serviceman’s home while he was on active duty in Iraq. Why? Because he was $800 behind in the HOA dues. After this made the national news, the HOA did give him his house back (which he sold). 

Here’s a sample of the emails I received: 

“Your column really hit home for me. On three occasions, I lived in homes in areas that had CC&Rs. In every instance little tyrants tried to make my life there miserable by harassing me.” 

“You made my day! I lived in a condo ‘prison’ in California. ‘Police brigade’ would set out to see who was naughty. Apparently, I was one of those. I hung bamboo blinds from one of my windows to protect my furniture from the afternoon sun. I was reprimanded for this. A few days later I noticed that the president of the association had hung one also.” 

“We really applaud your article in the Daily Courier regarding HOAs and CCRs….you might have actually been writing about our HOA here. They who run it give good cause to move!” 

“I read with interest your article in the Daily Courier re: HOA’s. I can relate to Board members who swell with ‘power.’ Frankly, I call them ‘condo Nazis.’ One winter we had water cascading down the inside of our second bedroom window. We used a lot of bath towels to soak up the water. I reported it to the board. Nothing was done. After two more rains, I telephoned the president of the board. He told me that the leakage would be fixed after they were done planting flowers in the common area.” 

Most emails were like the previous ones, and I removed any personal or subdivision names. To be fair I received a few like these too: 

“Thanks for the HOA article, exposing the oddities of HOAs. I live in Prescott Lakes, and our HOA does a super job for the 1,400-plus home and landowners.” 

“I would never live in a subdivision without an HOA. There is always the risk of a tyrant president, but he/she can be voted out.” 

By Randy West on January 15, 2016