Susan West

Associate Broker

Daily Courier Articles by Randy West, Home Inspector 

2017 

December 

  • Happy New Year and a Swan Song 
  • Slippery steps and hiding handrails, oh my! part II 

November 

  • Slippery steps and hiding handrails, oh my! 
  • Choose a home inspector who knows the area 

October 

  • Continuing confusion over what home inspectors can fix on the job 

September 

  • That lazy home inspector wouldn’t tighten my toilet! 
  • Randy readily replies to random researchers’ requests 
  • Inspector offers shocking sarcastic snappy answers 

August 

  • To RO or not to RO, that is the question 

July 

  • MI Windows tour impresses state home inspectors 
  • Air Conditioners Part II: older refrigerant can be costly 

June 

  • Air Conditioners Part I — oversized fuses can be costly 
  • Home inspectors are not two-faced about insulation 

May 

  • What should, should not, be in home inspection report 

April 

  • Handling letters from our fan clubs 
  • Karma comes back to this home inspector 

March 

  • Randy receives, ruminates and regularly replies to readers requesting recommendations 

February 

  • Catching up on emails from my last columns 
  • New furnaces equal new problems, part II 

January 

  • Better furnaces equal new problems 

Happy New Year and a Swan Song 

Hello to 2018, and goodbye to Randy West 

I was cleaning out my old photos and I came across some of a home I inspected many years ago. The home had a lot of, shall we say, happy homeowner handiwork. 

There were lights with no fixtures — the bulbs were soldered directly to the wires. There was an in-wall electric heater directly over a toilet that would burn your scalp and probably start your shirt on fire if you sat too long. There was no drain pipe under the kitchen sink, instead there was a 5-gallon bucket with an attached garden hose routed out the exterior wall. 

There was a “solar hot water” system that consisted of an open galvanized tank on the roof. You opened one faucet to fill the tank (“stop if you see water draining past the window”). Then another valve to gravity feed a faucet at the kitchen sink. 

There also was a generator in the garage, and the exhaust was routed out a window with what looked like an undersized and severely damaged dryer duct. The window was so high that no exhaust was making it out the window, it was all leaking out of the duct into the garage. 

There were notes all over the place on how to operate the switches and devices — this note was my favorite! I can’t copy/paste from a photograph, but I transcribed these instructions as exactly as I could. My spell checker corrected some words, but my grammar checker failed about half way through: 

“Instructions To Operate Astron Hot Water Heater” 

To Activate The Astron Water heater, Place the Three Valves marked A B and C in the Horizontal position, that is, the Red handles will be laying down. You may have to force the cold water pipe just a little to get the large Red handle to lay down horizontal. After all three Red handles are down, run the hot water in the kitchen till all air is out of the line (NO MORE SPEWING AT THE FAUCET.) Now start the generator, plug in the charge cable and waite till the system goes into the CHARGE mode. The yellow light will glow on the Trace inverter indicating BULK CHARGE. Now plug in the power cable on the ASTRON heater into the wall socket on the other side of the short wall, then flip on the switch on the front of the ASTRON heater. 

In about one hour or less the water should be HOT. You now have about 4 gallons of HOT water. When finished, turn off the ASTRON water heater, unplug its cable from the wall socket and return all three RED VALVES A B and C to their vertical position. This is the normal position for SOLAR HOT WATER. You may now turn off the Generator.” 
So, to get hot water to the bathroom you had to move valves, go start the generator in the garage, risk your life plugging in cords near the Trace inverter panel, ‘waite’ one hour, and you’ll have 4 gallons of hot water. Enough water for my wife to wash her hair (not rinse it, just wash it). 
I remember the generator was in the garage, the water heater in a basement room, the “Trace inverter” in a different room, and the water heater cord in a third room (sort of, this was a half-height wall). If there were several “panels” on the walls, this would have looked right at home in a 1950 science fiction movie. These had combinations of 120 and 12-volt wiring, fuses and breakers, speakers, solenoids, timers, and devices with no known nomenclature. 

New subject 

I’ve always tried to inject a little humor in my columns. About 10 years ago I wrote that the words “homeowner maintenance” are mutually exclusive, like “military intelligence.” That was when I first realized how many people read my column. I received many emails from irate veterans. In the next column I explained that I am a vet, as was my father. In the column I was referring to the poor intelligence/information that the military receives, not the IQ of the military members. 

I’ve also been known to ramble off course in these columns. Several years ago I got a speeding ticket from that stupid photo van in Prescott Valley. It was at the bottom of the hill on Stoneridge, and probably caught a few hundred people. In my next column I raged about these cameras, but you never saw that column. I received an email from editor Tim Wiederaenders saying he would like to see the word “home” or “inspector” at least once in my columns. 

As I mentioned I was going through old home inspector photos. Actually I was archiving the photos, and all my other home inspector folders. That’s because at the end of the year (a couple days), I’m getting archived myself — at least from the home inspector profession. 

This will be my last “ask the inspector” column. It’s hard to believe the first column was in the Dec. 7, 2005, Courier. Thirteen years and a few hundred columns. I enjoyed writing every one of them. And I enjoyed reading the countless emails I’ve received from these columns. 

Some of you emailed me several times, a few emailed me frequently. Some dared to disagree with me. Some even made suggestions that are impossible with human anatomy. And I even enjoyed reading those. 

Thank all of you for reading my columns over the years! 

By Randy West on December 29, 2017 

 

Slippery steps and hiding handrails, oh my! part II 

“We’re selling a 90-year-old house, and the home inspector cost us a sale. He wrote up the steps and handrails, bedroom escape windows, a water heater in a bathroom, among other things. 

“It would be impossible to change the stairs, and it would take many thousands of dollars to change the other things. We have lost this sale now. 

“A contractor friend said these things are grandfathered in and old homes don’t need to meet new home requirements. So how can home inspectors report on these items? This is just extreme CYA and not professional inspecting.” 

This is the same question that started my last column, when I explained that ‘grandfathering’ refers to contractors and the building department. You are not required to ‘update’ your home every time a new code book comes out. This would be almost impossible. The writer is complaining that the inspector mentioned unusually steep stairs. 

What if the inspector said nothing about the stairs, and the buyer moved in and someone fell down the stairs and got injured (or worse). What would we be saying about that inspector now? 

The writer’s inspection report stated the stairs are “unsafe” and recommended a licensed contractor to “evaluate and repair as needed.” 

I explained last time that home inspectors are regulated in Arizona, and are required to report on anything that could be a “…risk of personal injury during normal, day to day use. The risk may be due to damage, deterioration, improper installation or a change in residential construction standards.” 

And the Standards require inspectors to state “…any recommendations to correct, monitor or evaluate by appropriate persons.” 

My comment would state what’s wrong with the stairway, that there are no practical improvements (assuming there aren’t), and that great care should be taken on this stairway. 

Some of my peers dare to disagree with me and point out that Arizona considers this stairway “unsafe” and by law I should recommend a professional. Some even accused me of ‘playing down’ or ‘kissing up’ with these comments. 

So this is the point I was making in my last column. We (inspectors) have to warn our clients if there is a potential safety concern in a home. 

But in my opinion we have to be realistic and practical. I have seen steep stairs in old homes and A-frame cabins where making them conform to current standards would literally ‘stretch’ them out the front wall. 

I know we must state “…any recommendations to correct, monitor or evaluate by appropriate persons.” I interpret this as meaning if we don’t have any recommendations, then we are not required to state them. 

In my opinion, if there is no practical improvement, why should I recommend a professional? If I recommend a professional, a client could infer there is some improvement possible. 

I want to help my client make an informed buying decision — I want them to know this is something they will have to live with. There is no practical improvement, but I have let them know about it, so they will be more careful and advise children or guests to be more careful. 

Imagine your son’s car rolled out of his garage and down a hill where an 18 wheeler smacked it right into a moving freight train that turned his car into 1000 small meteorites that landed in a deep lake. 

You might say “Sorry son, there is no practical improvement.” But would you add, “I recommend you have a licensed auto mechanic evaluate or repair as needed.” I don’t think so, the only reason you would recommend a mechanic is if you thought he might be able to fix it. 

So it makes no sense to me to state there is no practical improvement, and then recommend a contractor to evaluate or repair. It’s holiday season, so I usually add my feeble attempts at humor. I have always been a little smart alecky and sarcastic. No, really! 

I try to keep myself in control when I’m on an inspection. Note I said ‘try.’ Often neighbors will see me and know I’m an inspector — the clipboard, flashlight and confused look on my face give me away. 

Sometimes they ask me about the buyers, their neighbors-to-be. I usually honestly tell them that I have not met the buyers yet and don’t know anything about them. 

Recently a neighbor asked for the buyer’s phone or email. 

He explained that he was on the homeowners association and ‘entitled’ to that information. If you’re a regular reader you know that some local homeowners associations are near the top of my … list. 

So I told him I didn’t have that info (little white lie), and that all I knew about the buyers was they liked this big fenced yard because they raise Rottweilers, and they liked the large garage because they were members of a motorcycle gang. He looked concerned and walked away, and I chuckled to myself and went back to work. I actually forgot all about it until I got a call from the listing Realtor that night 

By Randy West on December 8, 2017 

 

Slippery steps and hiding handrails, oh my! 

When do current ‘standards’ apply to a decades-old house? 

“We’re selling a 90-year-old house, and the home inspector cost us a sale. He wrote up the steps and handrails, bedroom escape windows, a water heater in a bathroom, among other things. It would be impossible to change the stairs, and it would take many thousands of dollars to change the other things. We have lost this sale now. A contractor friend said these things are grandfathered in and old homes don’t need to meet new home requirements. So how can home inspectors report on these items? This is just extreme CYA and not professional inspecting.” 

These are valid questions and I can understand your frustration. Your contractor friend is correct. You do not have to “update” your home every three years when a new code book comes out. Although if you pull a permit to remodel your home they may require you to update some components. For example if you remodel an old kitchen they will require more outlets and GFCI protection. 
However, the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors does require that home inspectors report on things that code officials would consider “grandfathered.” The standards state that we must report on anything that could be a “…risk of personal injury during normal, day to day us. The risk may be due to damage, deterioration, improper installation or a change in residential construction standards.” 

So our standards don’t refer to “code,” but do refer to “residential construction standards.” And the standards require inspectors to state “…any recommendations to correct, monitor or evaluate by appropriate persons.” 
In a way inspectors are caught in the middle. We inspect a 50-year-old home and find an unsafe stairway — e.g. steps too high or not wide enough, stairway too narrow, missing or improper handrail. 

In fact, it is common to find more than one of these conditions in a 50-year-old stairway. We know it is not practical to improve this, and may in fact be almost impossible like our letter writer above states. 

I’ve seen steps with an 8-inch run (width of step, should be at least 10 inches) and 10-inch rise (height of step, should be less than 7.75 inches). To make these steps conform to current standards would “stretch” them through the front wall out into the front yard. 

But, by state law we are required to report on this, and to recommend an expert. And even if we weren’t required by our standards, we should still describe this in our written report. 
Following are the choices for a home inspector inspecting these stairs: 
1 — Say nothing. And hope that no one falls and hurts themselves. 

2 — Say something like “the steps are unsafe by current standards. Improvement would be extremely difficult due to the architecture. Great care should be taken on these steps.” 

3 — Say the steps are unsafe and recommend “evaluation or repair by an appropriate contractor.” 
I would never do number 1. What if someone gets hurt and you didn’t even warn them? 
Number 3 is actually the most “legal” for a home inspector. The inspector is complying with the literal and implied intent of the law: this could be unsafe, consult with the proper expert. Number 3 is the best possible choice to protect the home inspector from future litigation, since he recommended an “expert.” 
However, I’m a number 2 guy. The problem with number 3 is by recommending an expert you’re implying something could or should be done. If you know there is no practical improvement or solution, I feel that is what you should tell your client. 

It does not make sense to say “improvement is not practical” and then to recommend a contractor. What is the contractor going to do, other than say: “I don’t know what the inspector wants, there is no practical improvement.” 

I recommend an expert to “evaluate” when I don’t know specifically what’s wrong. The furnace did not come on; it could be the furnace, the thermostat, or a broken wire. I don’t have the time or expertise to figure out what’s wrong. So, I recommend a heating contractor to “evaluate,” or pinpoint the problem. But I know exactly what’s wrong with that stairway, so why recommend an expert to “evaluate” unless he is also going to make recommendations for improvement. 
The point I’m making is home inspectors, by law, are required to report on an unsafe condition. They are required by law to recommend an expert. And they are told by attorneys at classes to “adequately warn their clients” (which recommending an expert should cover). 

This is not just a case of CYA (Covering Your Arse). Even though I might not have done so, I’m not surprised that a home inspector recommended an expert regarding what today is considered an “unsafe condition.” The home inspector may be expecting the expert to say there’s nothing you can do. And while recommending an expert has shifted liability to someone else, the inspector was in fact complying with state law. 

More on this letter next time. 

By Randy West on November 23, 2017 

 

Choose a home inspector who knows the area 

Or, Randy rants regarding ridiculous recommendations 

I have had several emails recently from local Realtors regarding home inspections performed by Phoenix home inspectors. Two were from buyers’ Realtors where the buyer chose the inspector. One asked me about a travel fee, another asked about a crawlspace inspection fee. 

Most inspectors have fees based on the size of the home. Some charge extra for older homes, some charge extra for items that inspectors are not required to inspect. The best example would be Phoenix inspectors charging extra to inspect swimming pools. I see nothing wrong about a “travel fee.” However, home inspectors are required to inspect a crawlspace. A crawlspace does take time to inspect. There are often plumbing, electrical and heating/cooling components to check along with the structural, ventilation and insulation. And I rarely see an unoccupied crawlspace — you have to be careful of the vermin, spiders and other habitants. 

There may be others doing this, but I do not know of any other inspector that charges extra to inspect something that is required in the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors. If you’re inspecting a home, you have to inspect the crawlspace. I went to that inspector’s website, and the only “additional fee” was for older homes. If an inspector insists on an additional fee on-site, the client may not have any choice. If he refuses to pay extra, the inspector cannot inspect the home. And there is very likely not time to find and schedule another inspector within the inspection period. 

I’m just imagining taking my car in for an oil change, and being told there’s an additional fee because they had to open the hood. I’m getting better at controlling my type A (despite what my wife would say), but that would really light my fuse. 

I’m guessing about 30 percent of homes in our area have a crawlspace. That percentage is much lower in Phoenix, I’m sure. But in my humble opinion if you want to inspect homes in Prescott, you should not be charging extra for something that you are required by state law to inspect. Especially a crawlspace that is a very important part of the inspection. 

I also had emails from two different local Realtors where a Phoenix inspector made a recommendation for something that is common in our area. I have had past clients ask me to inspect homes in Phoenix and Flagstaff and have always said no. Recently a repeat client offered to pay me travel time to inspect a home in Kingman. This was my reply: 

“I have time for a longer answer now. I have been asked many times by clients to inspect a home in Phoenix or Flagstaff, etc. I always tell the m it would be much better to find an inspector in that area. We have ‘inspect a house’ classes in Arizona, and we always find that they call some things in Phoenix that are common in Prescott or Tucson, and vice versa. One quick example comes to mind. Gas-only fireplace manufacturers all recommend at least 10 feet between a fireplace wall vent and any opening window (because there’s a lot of carbon monoxide in a fireplace exhaust). Prescott does not enforce this — I have seen hundreds of gas fireplace vents near windows. I always recommend installing a carbon monoxide alarm in the room(s) with a window near the fireplace exhaust vent. If I made my usual comment about the fireplace vent/carbon monoxide alarm, and then you found out Kingman enforces the manufacturers specs, you might have to remove or replace the fireplace. 

“Prescott does not require exterior combustion air for a gas water heater in a garage. Prescott does not require a 120-volt outlet near a gaspack on the roof. Prescott Valley requires a gutter/downspout system, Prescott, Chino and Yavapai County do not. These are not written policies. Every jurisdiction (city or county) will be strict on enforcing some code items, and lax on some others. But these are all items that at least one city in Arizona does require. I have no idea what is common in Kingman, and would be doing you a disservice by inspecting a home there for you.” 

I have been “inspecting Prescott” for a long time. But if I wanted to start inspecting homes in some other city, I would do some research first to find out what’s common in that area. I’m not writing this column because these out-of-town inspectors affect my business; they do not. I’m writing it because of five emails in two weeks regarding unusual policies or recommendations by out-of-town inspectors. I’m offering advice to any buyer in any city. When interviewing inspectors, you should always ask how many inspections they have done in that city or area. 

By Randy West on November 3, 2017 

 

Continuing confusion over what home inspectors can fix on the job 

In a recent column I wrote about home inspectors “breaking” something they have to test. The best example is a GFCI outlet in a bathroom or kitchen. Inspectors are required by the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors to test GFCI outlets. My opinion was (is) that inspectors should not be liable for items they are required to test, especially if they just pushed a “test” button that homeowners should be pushing occasionally. 

My last column was regarding why inspectors don’t fix the minor stuff they find wrong in a home they’re inspecting, e.g. why we don’t tighten loose light fixtures, faucet handles, etc. I gave my usual excellent, thorough and slightly humorous response to that question, too. Amazingly, some readers did not agree with me. One letter said that if an inspector could fix something with a screwdriver, he should be required by law to do so. 

So I re-read my last two columns, and realized they are related. I don’t feel home inspectors should have to replace something that breaks if they are required to test/operate it. Keep in mind home inspectors are not required to do anything a homeowner can’t do. But if they go a step above and try to repair that item, now they are liable. If an inspector tightens a loose light fixture or faucet handle, and breaks it, the inspector is liable for that item. 

I know this sounds unfair to home inspectors. They went above and beyond what is required and performed a free “service” to their client and/or the homeowner. But it backfired and now it cost them more than their inspection fee to replace something. 

I had an email from someone who was upset because his inspector did not report on several things. The letter was from the buyer’s father, who did not see the house until his daughter had closed and move in. Unfortunately for him, the inspector was not required to report on any of those things. I always tell my clients they should read the Standards because they state what we must inspect, and what we don’t have to inspect. 

The Arizona Standards (section 11.3) state an inspector is not required to report on A: paint, wallpaper and other finish treatments on the interior walls, ceilings, and floors. B: carpeting. C: draperies, blinds or other window treatments. D: household appliances. E: recreational facilities or another dwelling unit. Recreational facilities include swimming pools, spas, saunas, etc. The ASHI Standards (section 10.2) state inspectors do not have to report on all these, plus D: coatings on and the hermetic seals between panes of window glass. 

If you think about it, all the items in the last paragraph are actually cosmetic concerns. The condition of the floors, walls, curtains, window seals/coatings do not prevent someone from moving in and living in the home. We have to report if a door or window doesn’t operate, or if the poor floor coverings are a trip hazard. 

Damage to cosmetic items is very subjective. If an inspector has inspected thousands of homes, he/she expects cosmetic flaws in a 10- or 20-year-old home. Common cracks and nail pops in the drywall are found in in almost every home, as are scratches, minor damage or stains on doors, window sills, under sinks, etc. 

Once I inspected an occupied home, and when my clients moved in there were numerous baseball size holes in the walls. Apparently every time the sellers made a hole, they covered it with a poster or picture. I felt bad for my clients, and even though I was technically not required to report on walls, I gave them some money toward repairs. 

A month later I inspected a vacant home. My clients met me when I arrived, which is unusual but they had to leave for the airport. We entered together, and at the bottom of the steps there was a large family room. I said there’s damage to the wall behind that picture. Everyone looked at me funny until I removed the picture and there was a large hole. I assumed there was damage because that was the only picture in a 2,200 sf home. 

Another month goes by and I get a call from a client regarding a bunch of holes in the walls. I’m thinking the sellers must have been relatives of the “indoor baseball” home I inspected a couple months ago. When I arrive, the buyer is upset over tiny nail holes in all the walls. There is no “damage,”from my perspective. I told him the holes are from nails or picture hangers. The home was 20 years old, did he think no one had ever hung a picture on a wall? He asked what to do about all these holes. My first reaction was to tell him to hang a picture at every one. But I said he can spackle them. He asked what spackle was, where he could find it, and how to install it. I told him, including about using a putty knife. He asked what a putty knife was, how to use it and where to buy it. I told him any place that sells spackling likely sells putty knives too. 

By now I realized I was not dealing with Bob Villa here. So I told him my mother fills in nail holes with toothpaste and her finger. He said he couldn’t do that. I asked why, and he said “Because my toothpaste is green.” 

By Randy West on October 20, 2017 

 

That lazy home inspector wouldn’t tighten my toilet! 

I have written in this column before that re-inspections are the least favorite part of a home inspectors job (attics in August rank up there). The first time we’re on site the sellers are very pleasant, and may even offer us iced tea or a cookie (which we don’t accept). But we’re not allowed to discuss our findings with anyone but our client, the buyer. So if we get asked to go back to a home, the sellers are sometimes not as pleasant. They may be upset that we found stuff wrong they didn’t know about, and/or that we could not tell them about it. 

But I had a new twist on this recently when I returned to inspect some improvements made on a home. The home was vacant, but the seller insisted on being present for the re-inspection (a red flag, from my perspective). Instead of being upset about the items I found, he was upset because they were all incorrect. The thermostat was not defective. There were no tree limbs touching the home. The front door does latch normally, etc. 

It was obvious that recent improvements had been made. I could see ‘fresh’ wood and paint where the front door and jamb had been repaired. There was a brand-new thermostat, and the outline of the old one was visible in the wall paint. But I did not argue with him. When we were outside, he “dared” me to find a tree limb touching the home, claiming he hadn’t trimmed any branches. I looked down and kicked some green freshly cut branches in his direction and said something about “guess these fell off by themselves…”. 

I’m still trying to figure out this behavior. I can understand being upset because a home inspector found stuff wrong with your home that you didn’t know about. But I can’t understand repairing everything and then trying to tell the inspector that he/she was wrong, especially when some of the recent improvements are too obvious to hide. 

Last time I wrote about home inspectors repairing items. That column was about inspectors operating or testing items they are required to, like GFCI outlets. I received a fan letter after that column. The writer understood that inspectors should not have to pay to replace items they are required to test. But he wanted to know why home inspectors don’t fix minor items that would not cost anything. “I mean, how long does it take to tighten a loose faucet handle or toilet? Or put in a working light bulb? Are you guys lazy or just trying to find stuff to write up?” 

Actually, I’m asked that question regularly, although usually more nicely. A home inspection takes a few hours, more on larger or older homes. If we stopped to tighten every loose light fixture, toilet seat, doorknob, faucet handle, leaking drain pipe, etc. we could easily add an hour or more to the inspection. 

But more important is the liability. I do try to fix minor items. I usually say if I can fix it with a screwdriver, I will. But I must be very careful. Once I was trying to pry out the plastic cover on a shower faucet handle to reach the screw to tighten the loose handle. The cover popped out and fell to the tile floor, where it broke into many unglue-able pieces. The faucet was old and I could not find a cover. Fortunately everyone understood and did not charge me. If the seller had insisted I repair it, I would have had to pay a plumber to install a new faucet in a tile shower wall. 

I used to remove glass covers from light fixtures that weren’t working. I even carried a good bulb to test them. But glass and plastic gets very brittle with age and heat. I broke more than one cover without doing anything wrong — just loosening the screws that secure the cover. After spending hours the next day finding a similar cover, I vowed never to remove a cover. I will put in a working bulb if the bulb is exposed, but I will not remove any type of plastic or glass cover to reach a bulb. The expense of tracking down, buying, and returning to install a faucet handle or light fixture cover can be more than the profit on the inspection. 

Non-working lights in some areas can be a significant safety concern. For example an exterior light by a door to see the coyotes in the back yard, or the light over the stairs to see the kids toys on the steps. So we have to report on non-working lights. My usual comment says “… likely the bulb needs replacing.” 

I can’t believe that letter mentioned toilets! I tighten loose toilet seats occasionally. But there is no way any home inspector is going to try to tighten a loose toilet. Occasionally you can simply tighten the bolts that secure a toilet to the floor. But Murphy likes toilets, especially older toilets. So it’s common for the bolts or screws to be stripped, or they’re rusted through and break, or the wood floor under the toilet is moisture damaged, or you pull the flange off the pipe or wax seal and the toilet leaks onto the floor after you tighten it. I know professional plumbers that have cracked toilets when tightening them to the floor. There’s no way I’m doing that during a home inspection. 

By Randy West on September 29, 2017 

 

Randy readily replies to random researchers’ requests 

Should a home inspector pay for something he breaks? 

I’ve had a few emails recently about inspectors breaking things. Apparently a column I wrote in 2014 comes up when they are researching. And some have the nerve to email me saying they disagree with me! I replied to the naysayers: “I guess I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.” 

Here’s the point I made. If a home inspector is properly testing something that is required by law for him to do, he is not liable if it breaks or stops working. This is especially true if it is something the homeowner would or should normally do. Several times I have tested a GFCI outlet in a bathroom and it would not come back on. This would have happened no matter who pressed the test button; it just happened to be me. 

A couple times I’ve tested the automatic reverse feature on an overhead door opener and it broke. I understand the seller saying “it worked before you got here, and now I can’t open my overhead door!” It’s better that I found out it was not working rather than someone’s car (or child!). 

To be honest, the overhead door openers I broke were when I first started and were manufactured before 1993, so they did not have the reversing beam. I quickly learned how to be very careful when testing the auto-reverse feature. 

But here’s the point. GFCIs and overhead door reverse features are specifically mentioned as items a home inspector has to test. And the owner is supposed to do these tests themselves on a regular basis. So why is an inspector liable to replace them? 

Let’s go a step farther. Say I inspect a home that has been vacant for a couple months. It’s fall, so I turn on the furnace (with the thermostat) and it does not work. The seller says “the furnace worked the last time I used it.” Of course that was months ago, and what is wrong with the furnace has nothing to do with me turning up the thermostat. Should I be liable to replace a $2,000 furnace? There would be no home inspectors if we had to pay for everything that failed to operate when we turned it on. 

Here’s an excerpt from that 2014 column: 

“Part of my job description is to make sure everything is secure. So I ‘shake’ fireplace mantels, cabinets, light fixtures, etc. I don’t shake them hard — I just give them a little tug to make sure they are well secured. A couple years ago I inspected a home with cabinets on the garage wall. As usual, I pulled a little on the overhead cabinets to make sure they were tight. The cabinet directly over the sink came off the wall and started to fall onto the sink faucet. I knew if the cabinet fell it would break the faucet, resulting in water spraying all over the garage. So I grabbed the cabinet. Which was heavy. In fact, it was very heavy. It was so heavy I was having trouble holding it over the sink. It was so heavy I was wondering if I was getting old. Then the cabinet leaned toward me a little and the doors swung open. 

“The good news is I was not getting old and weak. The bad news is there were about 50 paint cans in the cabinet. The good news is the cabinet was getting lighter. The bad news is this was because the gallon paint cans were rapidly falling out of the cabinet.” 

That story is totally true (the number of paint cans may be slightly exaggerated). Somehow no paint cans opened. I did not offer to pay to properly secure the cabinets. I feel the loose cabinets posed a danger to my clients, and I was just doing my job in discovering them. 

By Randy West on September 15, 2017 

 

Inspector offers shocking sarcastic snappy answers 

I like to give snappy, sarcastic answers. I don’t mean to stupid questions, I mean to all questions. 

Winston Churchill was very good at snappy answers. Perhaps his most famous was at a dinner where a lady was thoroughly exasperated with Mr. Churchill’s view on world events. She stood up and looked at Winston and said, “Sir, if you were my husband I would put poison in your coffee.” As she walked away Mr. Churchill replied “madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” 

One of my personal best was a surprise to me. I honestly didn’t know what my brain was doing until I heard myself saying it. It happened several years ago during an inspection in Prescott Valley. I was on my hands and knees in the garage, in front of the water heater. The home was vacant, so I wasn’t expecting company. Suddenly a very loud voice, very close to my left ear, said “Can I help you with something?” 

I was very startled, and jumped to my feet. Before I knew it, I had grabbed the sneaky old guy by the arm and was leading him out of the garage. I was telling him that I wash my car every August, whether it needs it or not. And it wasn’t quite August, but the car was ready for a wash. So I asked Mr. Sneak to wash the car, and to make sure he got around the wheel wells because there was mud packed in there. 

I made it most of the way back to the garage before he stammered out, “Wait, wait, I’m not going to wash your car!” I innocently inquired how else he could help me, since he’d offered. Turns out he was a friend of the seller, and thought he was in charge of the home. He was also not a member of the Winston Churchill Snappy Answer Fan Club. 

By now the editors are worrying. They have had to remind me occasionally that they want to see the words “home inspector” at least once in my columns. Don’t worry — I’ll tie this in somehow. 

I get questions from buyers sometimes, which is expected. I also get questions from friends and family that know I’m a home inspector and recovering general contractor. Sometimes I give them a snappy answer (not clients, but friends and family). 

For example, “why do my kitchen ceiling lights start to turn on and off after they’ve been on for a while?” 

Well, this occurs when mice eat through the wires going to the fixtures. When you turn on the switch they are instantly electrocuted, and their tongues and tails are “welded” to the wire. So as their body heats up it loses conductivity and the light goes out. Once the body cools off enough to conduct again the light will come on. You may have noticed the lights turn on and off a little quicker the longer they’re on. This is because the mouse is drying out and loses conductivity a little quicker each time. 

The real answer: the wrong type of bulb and/or too high a wattage bulb, which can cause a recessed fixture to overheat. Since an overheated recessed light fixture can be a fire hazard, some have a sensor that turns them off if they get too hot. 

I get questions about GFCI outlets sometimes. These are the shock preventing outlets with buttons in the bathrooms, garage and kitchen. “How do GFCI outlets work?” Well, electricity is conducted by electrons. In GFCI outlets, the electrons are all holding hands. Say one of the electrons notices you standing barefoot on a wet floor and holding a hairdryer with frayed wires. That electron immediately lets go of the other electron’s hands, thus breaking the circuit and keeping you from getting shocked. 

“GFCI outlets are expensive and trip off sometimes. I’m going to replace the GFCI outlets with regular outlets.” 

This is not a question, but I assume they’re telling me this because they want my opinion. So I tell them to plug an old radio or lamp into an extension cord, and plug the extension cord into a bedroom (non-GFCI protected) outlet. Then fill up the bathtub and climb in. Now have someone toss the lamp into the tub with you. If this doesn’t bother you, go ahead and replace the GFCI outlets with regular outlets. However, if the electricity flowing through your nervous system is unpleasant, or your feet or hands start to hurt from hitting the tub because of the muscle spasms, or the smell of burning hair interferes with your incense, then I would keep the GFCI outlets. 

Once a friend was installing a GFCI outlet. He shorted out the outlet somehow, and it made a sizzling noise and a pretty impressive puff of smoke came out. He looked over at me and asked if I could fix that. I told him he needed an electrician. I told him only highly trained electricians know how to catch that smoke and put it back in to make the outlet work again. 

By Randy West on September 1, 2017 

 

To RO or not to RO, that is the question 

Reverse Osmosis filter system wastes up to 4 gallons of water for every gallon produced 

I remember a former president flying his 747 jets across the ocean and back to attend a one-day conference on how to reduce carbon emissions. His jets probably used more gas than my wife, kids and I will use in our lifetime. When he came back, he told us we (all Americans) should give up our Las Vegas vacations to reduce emissions. 

I was reminded of this, on a much smaller scale of course, on a recent home inspection. There was a brochure on the counter touting all the water-saving features: low-water toilets, low-water showerheads, low-water motion-sensing sink faucets, etc. 

Now I’m not a tree hugger, but I know water is a valuable resource in our state, so this made me happy. I try to do my part to save water. I only wash my car in August and only shower on Saturdays. 

But back to the water-saving home. I opened the cabinet under the kitchen sink and found a Reverse Osmosis (RO) filter system. This type of filter uses water pressure to force water through a membrane, and has a line that connects to a drain pipe under the sink. For every gallon of water it produces, an RO filter pumps 3 to 4 gallons down the drain. So I figured the RO filter just offset all the water-saving faucets and toilets. 

Our past president could not see the hypocrisy in flying his huge jet over the ocean to meet with people to figure out how to use less gas. This did not surprise me — I expect hypocrisy in all politicians. They never seem to understand they’re spending OUR money. But I digress again. 

I believe that most people with RO filters honestly do not realize how much water they’re wasting. Twenty years ago I bought an under-the-sink filter for my own home. I was actually going to buy an RO filter, until I did a little research. I found the following information in the FAQ in a brochure (that was trying to sell RO filters): 

“All RO systems produce waste water. About 4 gallons wasted per 1 gallon purified (4:1) if you are on a municipal water supply with good pressure (75 degree water at 60 psi). Below 40 psi RO filters do not work and only produce waste water. An RO system takes a long time to filter water, so it requires a storage tank. If you fill up a gallon jug, the filter may be ‘running’ for 60 to 90 minutes to refill the tank.” 

In other words, an RO filter does not just waste water when you have the faucet open. Under high use, an RO filter could be running more often than not trying to keep that tank full. And this is under optimal conditions. If your water temperature or pressure is lower, your water is hard, or the required pre-filter is dirty, the RO filter will take even longer to filter water. 

I bought a top-of-the-line charcoal/canister filter. It doesn’t filter quite as well as an RO filter. But I figure with all the things I do that are dangerous or bad for me, I will probably die from French Fry Fibroses or Red Meat Rheumatism before the water can get to me. 

I bring a gallon of water to work each day in the summer, and we use the filtered water for drinking, ice, coffee, lemonade, iced tea, cooking, pet water, etc. I figured we use around 5 gallons a day, so with an RO we would be pumping up to 20 gallons a day into the drain. That’s up to 600 gallons a month or 7,200 gallons a year. That’s a lot of water. 

I have inspected some new energy-efficient homes that route the discharge water from an RO filter into the water heater, avoiding “wasting” water. However, 99 percent of the RO filters I see drain the water into the drain pipe under the sink, and out to the septic tank or sewer. 

By Randy West on August 11, 2017 

 

MI Windows tour impresses state home inspectors 

I have been a member of the Arizona Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors (azashi) since 1993, and was involved in chapter leadership for 12 years. That included two terms as VP, which in our chapter is in charge of education. That could be a thankless job sometimes. I would spend many hours finding speakers and locations, ordering the food, etc. I would always ask attendees after the class what they thought. Sometimes I would get answers like, “I can’t believe there were no chocolate doughnuts at breakfast,” or “you ran out of coffee creamer at 11:00.” 

I have to say that overall my time in leadership was extremely rewarding, despite the inspector that had to drink his coffee black. The friends I made in leadership are some of my closest friends today. We all gave up inspections, money and family time for one goal — to promote excellence in the home inspector profession in Arizona. 

Most home inspectors are one-man shops and to some degree entrepreneurs, more so 15 years ago than today. I quickly learned (as VP and as a presenter) that presenting to a group of home inspectors is a lot different than most other groups. Inspectors are not afraid to ask questions. They are not afraid to argue with the presenter. They are not afraid to throw things at the presenter. I always warned presenters of this, and made sure there were no heavy objects on the tables. 

I told you all that so I could tell you this: About five years ago MI Windows provided a tour of its Prescott Valley plant to a group of home inspectors. It was a continuing education class for azashi members, but all home inspectors were invited. We had a large turnout from all over the state. I personally found the tour fascinating. 

But what was astonishing was the class was well-behaved. They all seemed as interested as me. MI gave us a Powerpoint presentation before the tour, and a question-and-answer period after the tour. No arguing, no projectiles (at least at the presenters). And after the class when I asked members what they thought, all I got was positive feedback. Many said they would take this class again. 

So last week, MI opened its doors to us again. Seeing the window making process from start to finish was just as fascinating as it was the first time. They also make patio (sliding) doors. The plant is huge — 205,000 square feet under roof on 23 acres. MI has 320 team members on two shifts. They ship over 10,000 windows each week to the southwest, one-fourth of the U.S. Virtually all windows are vinyl now, and most have argon gas between the panes. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time, maybe some huge hopper where they dump in vinyl and glass and then George Jetson would push his button and finished windows come out the other end. 

There is some state-of-the-art automation, but with windows a lot of the manufacturing still has to be done by people. At the first tour most welds were ground by hand, this time there was an automated weld grinder, but every frame is still checked by people. MI’s quest for quality and safety through every step of the manufacturing is impressive. And their pride of their plant and windows was evident. 

And we learned new words, like “swiggle,” which is not something you stir your drinks with. 

I told Michael Reinert, the general manager, that I was going to write a column about MI and asked if he had anything to add. His answer: 

“We are proud to be members of AAMA (American Architectural Manufacturers Association). Our Chief Operating Officer, Mike DeSoto, is currently the chairman of the Board of AAMA. 

“We believe strongly in education. Some of that education is through AAMA with the Fenestration Masters and Associates programs. Additionally, we train all team members on Lean methodology. 

“We are strong believers in supporting our community and though the MI Foundation support the Four Diamonds Fund, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Homes for our Troops.” 

Speaking for azashi and all the attendees, I would like to thank MI Windows for providing this tour. And I would like to tell Prescott Valley it is lucky to have this company in town. 

By Randy West on July 28, 2017  

 

Air Conditioners Part II: older refrigerant can be costly 

Price of R22 will continue to climb as it becomes rarer 

Last time the headline for this column read “oversized fuses can be costly.” That meant oversized fuses for an air conditioner could allow expensive damage. This is easy to correct with a couple fuses that cost a couple dollars. 

This time we’re talking about the refrigerant gas, aka “Freon.” Air conditioners used R22 refrigerant for decades, until Uncle Sam decided it was attacking the atmosphere or attracting aliens or something. So after January 1, 2020, companies will not be allowed to produce or import R22 to the US. The new refrigerant is called R410a. Any air conditioner manufactured after January 1, 2015, will be required to use R410a. Most air conditioners manufactured after 2010 use R410a, but not all of them. 

So why am I boring you with R22 vs R410? Because the average life of a central air conditioner compressor in our area is about 20 years. And most R22 air conditioners cannot be updated to use R410. And we live in a free marketplace society, despite the strong efforts of city, state and national governments. Which means less (and limited) supply will result in higher prices. Which means as R-22 becomes harder to find, it will become more expensive. And after 2020 it will likely be extremely expensive. And 2020 is not that far away. 

There are air conditioner contractor websites (not from Prescott) that say R22 will continue to be available, even after 2020. Some R22 refrigerant can be reclaimed from older air conditioners that are being replaced with R410a systems. But many contractors, including local ones I spoke with, feel that R22 has already become so expensive it’s becoming less cost-effective to recharge an old system. They didn’t want to state the actual cost of R22, because it fluctuates and no one can predict how high it will go after 2020. A local contractor told me he’s paying four times more for R-22 than just five years ago. 

A quick search on eBay shows 30 pounds of R-22 for about $700, about $23 per pound. I found a 2015 ad for just over $300 for 30 pounds. So in two years the price more than doubled. And likely will again as we get close to 2020. 

I found 25 pounds of R410a for a little over $200, or a little over $8 per pound. I imagine contractors get better prices, especially on R410a. But everyone I talk to, including manufacturers and contractors, feel that R22 prices will rise substantially. 

So should you scrap your Disney vacation plans or sell your new BMW to pay for a new air conditioner? Not really. Newer air conditioners are much more efficient. I’ve always said it is usually cost-effective to replace a 20-year-old compressor rather than making any major cost repair. But if your compressor was manufactured in 2009, it could have many useful years left. It may be more cost-effective to replace the R22, if it’s still available. 

I have always advised having your air conditioner serviced yearly to make sure the system is operating efficiently and to get the maximum life from it. Now there’s another reason — catching a small refrigerant leak before it all leaks out. If the cost of R22 keeps rising the way it has, it could cost many hundreds of dollars to recharge an older system (including the labor, service call, etc.). 

You can usually tell what refrigerant your system has by looking at the data label on your air conditioner. There is always a label on the compressor (in the yard) or on a package unit (furnace and air conditioner in one cabinet, often on the roof). There is usually a label on the evaporator located next to the furnace too. The label should state R22 or R410a. And on the compressor it usually states how many pounds the outside unit needs. My compressor (built in 1999) states R22 and 98 ounces needed in the outdoor unit. That’s just over 6 pounds, but the entire system will need more. Larger and/or newer (more efficient) systems may take considerably more. 

By Randy West on July 14, 2017 

 

Air Conditioners Part I — oversized fuses can be costly 

Watch size of compressor fuses to avoid expensive repairs 

I am finding oversized fuses at air conditioner compressors more frequently lately. I tell people replacing those $10 fuses may save their $1,500 compressor (and some get mad at me?). 

Let me explain why the fuses are there. If Mr. Contractor is working on an air conditioner compressor, he needs to be able to shut the power off. One place to do this is at the electrical panel, by turning off the breaker. But what if Mr. Homeowner comes home, not knowing Mrs. Homeowner called for Mr. Contractor. Mr. Homeowner turns down the thermostat and nothing happens. So he goes to the electrical panel and says “Aha! Here’s the problem” and flips the breaker on. Mr. Contractor who had both hands inside the air conditioner just got a new hairdo! And Mr. Homeowner may lose all his hair if Mr. Contractor can catch him. 

So if the electrical panel is not nearby and in sight of the compressor there needs to be an electrical disconnect box near the compressor. Most, especially older disconnect boxes, contain fuses. With or without fuses, the box will have a small switch that Mr. Contractor can pull out to shut off power to the compressor, thus preventing Mr. Homeowner from trying to electrocute him. 

The compressor should have a data label stating the maximum overcurrent protection device (meaning fuses or breakers). Let’s use 40 amp for this example. That means that either the fuses or the breaker have to be 40 amp or less, but not both. 

In the old days, like before you could ask your smart phone who will win the next election, electricians would usually install 50 or 60 amp breakers in the panel for the compressor. This was because A) compressors weren’t very efficient and most needed that size, and B) it was up to the air conditioner contractor to install the proper size fuses in the disconnect box. 

The average life for an air conditioner compressor around here is about 20 years. So Mr. Homeowner is having a new compressor installed at his 20-year-old house. New compressors are much more efficient. The data tag states the maximum size fuses should be 30 amp, and there are 40 amp fuses installed (and a 50 amp breaker in the panel). 

My report comment states either the fuses or the breaker need to be changed, the fuses are less expensive and much easier to install. And this is a very “strong” comment. I was attending a class once where two Lennox engineers were presenting. I raised my hand and said I often find the fuses are 10 or even just 5 amp oversized — is this really a problem? 

Both presenters yelled “YES!”, rudely waking up some of the attendees. They said if the tag says maximum 40 amp, it means 40 amp, not 45 amp. If the fuses are oversized and the air conditioner fails, it could cause much more expensive damage. And it could also void the manufacturer’s warranty. 

So why would anyone be unhappy about a recommendation for a $15 improvement that could save them $1,500 or more? I don’t know either. I’m guessing these are the same people that drive the 400 horsepower twin turbo cars at 10 mph under the limit in the left lane, then get mad at you for passing them on the right. Don’t get me started on drivers — I don’t know if it’s just me but there seem to be more poor drivers. A poor driver, of course, is anyone that wants to drive 5 mph faster or slower than I do. I wrote in this column 10 years ago, and it’s still true today, It’s not a good thing if you can’t see the driver’s head over the headrest in the car ahead of you. 

Back to compressors. In newer homes it is more common to find the disconnect box at the compressor does not have fuses. It just has the pull-out switch so Mr. Contractor can shut off the power. In this case the breaker in the electrical panel is the only overcurrent protection device, and must be the size specified on the compressor. And we sometimes run into the same problem — newer compressors are more efficient so the maximum size breaker is often smaller. Breakers are a little more expensive, $25 to $50. 

So if you’re having your air conditioner replaced you might want to ask if they checked the size of the breaker in the panel. 

By Randy West on June 30, 2017 

 

Home inspectors are not two-faced about insulation 

I received some fan letters this week, including this one from the owner of a home I inspected: “I wish you home inspectors would stop trying to justify your existence. Our home is in city limits and passed all city inspections. Why are you telling potential buyers that our insulation does not meet code? And just for your information, the “@” when describing batt insulation shows your ignorance. 3.5 inch batt insulation is R-13, not “@ R-13” and 6 inch insulation is R-19, not “@ R-20.” And the writing on the paper facing says the paper should be against the heated wall, so on an exterior wall in a crawlspace there is no heated wall so the paper should face inside, like it does.” 

There was actually more to this letter giving me other advice that I edited, knowing our newspaper would not print it anyway. I’ve had some other questions recently about insulation too. The house above had a walk-in height crawlspace under the living area. There was @ R-19 faced batt insulation under the living area floor (above our heads), and @ R-13 faced batt insulation on the walls in the crawlspace. Batt insulation is fiberglass insulation that you lay in place. It’s sold on a roll or in “batts.” The facing refers to paper on one side of the insulation. The facing should always face toward the heated space. 

The R-19 insulation under the living area floor was properly installed with the facing toward the interior floors (heated space) and against/touching the floor. The facing on the insulation on the crawlspace walls was exposed inside the crawlspace. If the seller had read the entire warning printed on the facing, it stated the paper should be toward the heated space and should never be left exposed because it’s flammable. You should never be able to see the paper on the insulation after a home is built. Think about if a fire started in that crawlspace with all that paper exposed on the walls. If that paper caught on fire, you might lose the entire home. 

Now I did not say that in the report, I was professional. All I said was the paper on the insulation should be removed or covered, which is exactly what the printed warning on the facing states. Nor did I mention that the warning is printed every 2 feet on the paper, so it’s visible about 200 times in the crawlspace. 

If you’re installing insulation that will not be covered, you should use unfaced insulation, with no paper backing. 

Referring back to the letter above, I never used that four-letter word “code” in the report. I didn’t have to, since the warning is clearly visible on the insulation. It is unusual to insulate the exterior walls on a crawlspace, so I’m guessing that insulation wasn’t installed by the builder and wasn’t visible when the city inspected the home. 

And as far as the “@ R-20” insulation in my report, I went to a major insulation manufacturers website just now. They have 3.5 inch thick insulation that is R-11, R-13 and R-15. They have 6.25 inch insulation that is R-19, and 5.5 inch insulation that is R-21. R-30 insulation could be 8.25 inches or 10 inches thick. So unless I see the R value plainly printed on the insulation, my report will state “@ R-20.” 

And sometimes the insulation will not be what’s stated. If you compress insulation, it loses some of its insulating (R) value. So if someone put 6.25 inch R-19 insulation in a 2×6 wall (which is actually 5.5 inches), it will not be R-19. It would still be better than R-11 or R13, but it would not be the full R-19. 

Most professional insulators state that batt insulation is the least effective, because there are always gaps at the edges and ends/splices. These gaps may be small, but added up over an entire attic or crawlspace they allow a significant amount of airflow past/through the insulation. Blown in loose fiberglass or cellulose insulation always has the best coverage. 

For this week’s chuckle, I once told a client that there was @ R-30 batt insulation in the attic. I went on to something else, but could see something was bothering her. When I asked her, she replied “I don’t want bad insulation, I want good insulation.” Ever since then I spell it — “You have @ R-30 batt, b-a-t-t, insulation.” 

I am cleaning out old photo folders and though I would share some of the classics with you. This one is all text, but I don’t know how to copy text from a photo, so you may need your reading glasses. This was from an inspection many years ago, and this was the only way to get hot water! 

By Randy West on June 9, 2017 

 

What should, should not, be in home inspection report 

I have been asked several times recently (and over the years) to inspect a home in some city I’m not familiar with, such as Tombstone or Tuba City, or Cowlik or Chloride (all real Arizona cities). I always tell them it would be much better to find an inspector in that area. 

We have “inspect a house” classes in Arizona with inspectors from all over the state inspecting a home. We always find that they call some things in Phoenix that are common in Prescott, and vice versa. 

One quick example comes to mind:  Gas-only fireplace manufacturers all recommend at least 10 feet between a fireplace wall exhaust vent and any opening window (because of carbon monoxide). Prescott does not enforce this, and I always recommend installing a carbon monoxide alarm in the room(s) with a window near the fireplace exhaust vent.  What if I made that comment not knowing that Flagstaff enforces the manufacturers requirements (I don’t know if Flagstaff does, but that’s my point)? My client would be forced to replace a fireplace at great cost, and it might not even be possible. 

And there are things I don’t see up here but are required in other areas: exterior combustion air for a gas water heater in a garage, a 120 volt outlet near a gaspack on a roof, concrete filled pipes in front of water heaters. 

And then there’s knowing the geographic and localities. I know which subdivisions up here have had expansive soil, flooding etc. And I know some subdivisions require fences around the air conditioner compressors, even though the fence will adversely affect the air conditioner operation. I would not know any of this if I inspected a home in Nothing or Happy Jack. In fact, I told a friend in Phoenix once that the water was in his lower level because he didn’t have gutters and downspouts on the home. He told me that condo complex did not allow gutters. This was unbelievable to me, but I did not see gutters on any of the other building. In a different subdivision I asked about the hay bales in a lot at the end of the street. I was told that’s to stop the tubes. “Tubes?” I asked. Apparently every time it rained this street flooded. I mean really flooded. To the point that all the neighborhood kids had large innertubes in their garage, ready to whitewater down the street. Without the wall of hay the kids might end up in the next school district. 

So I admit I stay in my “comfort zone.” But I have seen reports on a Prescott home from an out-of-town inspector that listed “defects” that are common in our area, making the inspector look foolish. One called out overhead power lines on a tree in Ponderosa Park. I guess he failed to notice there are no telephone poles in Ponderosa Park, all the overhead wires are secured to trees. 

If I start inspecting in Organ Pipe or Monkey’s Eyebrow (real names) then I may be the foolish one. 

I was scolded by a client recently for saying nice things about the house in my written report. In particular in their report I made a comment about the professional looking installation of a brand new high efficiency heating/cooling system. 

Apparently they wanted to use the inspection report to “lowball” the seller. I did not feel bad, because that is not what a home inspection is for. A home inspection should be a fair, unbiased inspection of the home. If there are nice things in the home, I should report on them just as much as I should report on major defects or short-term major expenses. 

If someone just spent $15,000 to $20,000 putting in a new high efficiency heating/cooling system, and it’s installed and operating correctly, why shouldn’t I mention it? 

I always let clients know if the furnace or air conditioner is nearing the end if it’s useful life, so why shouldn’t I let them know there is an expensive replacement cost that they won’t have to worry about for 20 years? 

I have never said “the purple paint contrasts nicely with the yellow tile and curtains,” or “the green carpet in the family room will allow you to practice your putting on rainy days,” or “the clouds and sky painted on the ceiling give the home a bright, airy feeling” (I have found all those things). 

But I will acknowledge important and/or expensive improvements to a home to help my clients make an informed buying decision. 

By Randy West on May 12, 2017 

 

Handling letters from our fan clubs 

Randy recommends rapidly responding to ridiculous rants 

All inspectors receive fan mail. I have been called dumb, bone head, fool, etc. like the letter below. I’ve discovered the more a writer resorts to name calling, the less sense the letter makes. An inspector sent me the following email. It was from a seller to his Realtor, but the seller felt compelled to copy the inspector: 

“This guy is brain dead. Observed at several windows throughout: Screens are not installed. DAAAAHHHHH. Garage door operator does not open the door to its full open position. What a Dumbo. Observed at the main shut off valve. Valve is inaccessible, the cap is stuck in place. Yikes what a bone head. Carbon monoxide alarms are not found anywhere throughout the dwelling. I never heard him testing any one of them, so he wouldn’t know if they are working!!!!! Unless a gas dryer is to be installed, the gas pipe should be capped to avoid spewing of gas. What a FOOL.” 

The writer gave long explanations, which I had to omit for space reasons. Otherwise I copied/pasted, so the typos are not mine. He said he opened the stuck cap at the main water valve with a shovel. The inspector was concerned that someone would have to access this valve in a hurry. He said there were screens in storage, the inspector noted there were screens “not installed.” He said the smoke alarms in the home were also carbon monoxide alarms, which could be. The inspector said he tested the smoke alarms when the seller left for a few minutes to be courteous. But here’s the best part: 

“Garage door automatic operator infrared reverse feature safety beam should be installed within 6” of floor. Yea, for most cars I wouldn’t suggest it. Maybe for an SUV or VAN. But at 6” the beam would not sense the car. It would shoot the beam under the rocker panels and entire body. The garage door would come down on the car. I purposely put them at about 12” so they “wouldn’t” shoot under the car and come down on ‘any’ car. dumb, dumb.” 

This doesn’t even make sense. Using this logic, the beam should be higher for an SUV, not lower. And he admitted in writing that he installed the sensor beam 12 inches off the floor. This is against every manufacturer’s recommendations. The beam is not there to detect vehicles, the door will automatically reverse if it hits a car. The beam is there to prevent someone (e.g. a child) getting trapped under the door if the door almost closes and does not reverse. 

I have had similar letters. One was from an architect seller, and was in his reply to the buyers request for repairs so that everyone involved in the transaction saw it. He said there was no problem with 6 inches of standing water in a crawlspace. And no problem with the plants and vines all over the exterior wood siding. The termite inspector also had comments regarding these. I also recommended the required outside combustion air for a gas furnace in an interior closet. The architect stated he had never heard of and had no intention of “cutting holes in a home.” 

Without going into technical detail, I once found a very unsafe furnace installation in an older home. A local heating contractor (no longer in business) wrote a letter stating the installation met all codes when the home was built, and made several derogatory comments about my profession and myself. I was a little more type A back then, and my reply letter to all parties stated the installation is unsafe, there is carbon monoxide coming out of the furnace supply vents, and the only good thing about the contractor’s letter is that any survivors will sue him instead of me. Thank goodness the buyers consulted with another heating company that recommended some improvements. 

More recently I found carbon monoxide in a home when a gas fireplace was operating. A local fireplace contractor wrote a letter stating he tested the fireplace with a tif 8800 and no carbon monoxide was found, along with some derogatory comments about home inspectors. I insisted on meeting the buyers and Realtors on site. I started the fireplace and tested for carbon monoxide with my tif 8800. It did not find any, because a tif 8800 is a gas leak tracer and does not detect carbon monoxide. Then I used my carbon monoxide tester to show everyone there was carbon monoxide entering the home from the fireplace. 

By Randy West on April 21, 2017  

 

Karma comes back to this home inspector 

Karma. I have always believed in Karma. I have to, otherwise I’d have to let some people know they are really poor drivers. And in this day and age, that can get you shot. 

So here’s how karma came back to this home inspector. I was selling a car recently. A potential buyer asked to take it to ABC auto shop to have it checked out (not the real name). I agreed, since I knew the car was in great condition. 

The buyer came back an hour later and declined to buy the car because the transmission was failing. In fact, ABC auto told them the transmissions were known to fail in this year and model. And of course gave them a proposal for several thousand dollars to repair it. I was very surprised, and took the car to a transmission shop the next day. They said everything was fine, and were not aware of any known concerns with this model car. 

I can be a type A occasionally (if you ask my wife she might say more than occasionally). So I put on my black leather jacket and gloves, got on my noisy motorcycle, and roared into ABC auto. I pushed open the doors like an outlaw entering an Old West saloon. I stormed up to the counter and demanded “get the owner out here!” 

The owner came out a minute later. I laid two invoices on the counter said “This invoice is from you. A potential buyer of this car brought it in here a few days ago and you said the tranny is shot. And this invoice is from a local tranny shop stating there’s nothing wrong with this tranny. The original buyer was willing to pay full price, until he talked to you. I sold the car yesterday for $5,000 less. You owe me $5,000. Pay up now or I’m on my way to my attorney.” 

The owner refused to pay. I told him he would be hearing from my uncle, my attorney. And we would sue him for fraud and felony dishonesty and ask for punitive damages. Then I stormed out and left a little rubber in the parking lot. 

Now most of what I told ABC was not entirely correct. If I were a politician I would have to admit I “misspoke.” I don’t have an uncle attorney. I said that because I figured ABC would worry more if they thought I had a “free” attorney, but I had no intention of suing. And I had sold the car for what I expected, so ABC really didn’t cost me anything. Of course they did a great disservice to the first buyer, who missed out on a good car because of what ABC said. 

I was chuckling to myself on the way home from ABC, when I suddenly realized that I was now the seller and ABC was the inspector. My negative email comes from sellers, not buyers (my clients). I know that sellers love and are proud of their homes, and can be resentful when a home inspector comes in and points out flaws that they were likely unware of. Maybe I understood a little better. 

But there are a couple very important differences. I took my car to the tranny place because I wanted to know. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the tranny, but if there was I would have had it fixed and told potential purchasers about it. I would not have knowingly sold a car with a potential major defect without disclosing it. 

And Arizona does not allow a home inspector to work on a home he/she inspects. For obvious reasons. Otherwise we could be like ABC auto and tell people their furnace was failing, but we can fix it for a few thousand dollars. In fact, when I started home inspections we were not regulated and there was a local inspector that did just that. I think he inspected one home every Monday, then worked on that home for the rest of the week. 

By Randy West on April 7, 2017 

 

Randy receives, ruminates and regularly replies to readers requesting recommendations 

I usually get several emails a week from my column. Some are thanking me for the valuable information. Some are correcting errors — I always put an update in my next column if I made an error. Some are recommending I do things that human anatomy prevents. But this week I received one of my all-time favorites: 

Hi Randy, 

I really enjoy your columns in the Courier. A few years ago you wrote something about placement of vents on the roof. We are about to get a new roof, and at that time hook up the bathroom vent for our remodeled bathroom. It has been vented to the attic so far but the fan and the shower in that room have not been used much. 

Anyway I THINK you said it is better to place the vent to the north side of the ridgeline? Less noise from “flapping” maybe? If you could reply before the 27th it would be greatly appreciated. 

If you don’t then I’ll have to 1) hack into your phone, 2) get your appointment schedule, 3) buy a camera with a long lens, 4) stalk you and take a photo, 5) blow the photo up and 6) put it on a dart board. 7) Have to buy the dart board too, I guess. 

So you would save me a lot of money and work if you’re able to respond before the 27th. 

Thanks, Jack Moore 

Jack, don’t forget darts — they may not come with the dartboard. I don’t recall writing anything about placing vents on the north side of a roof. But you said it was a few years ago, and I don’t remember what I wrote last month (or even last week sometimes). 

Interior exhaust fans should always be routed to the roof or an exterior wall to keep humidity out of the attic. The hood/vent on the roof or wall has a metal flap. I have heard the metal flap “flapping” on wall vents more often than roof vents. The force that keeps the flap closed (not understood by some contractors and architects) is called gravity. On a side wall the flap hinge is at the top, making it easier for wind to rattle it. 

Since you can install this anywhere you want on your roof, common sense would say putting it on the downwind slope would make it less prone to rattling. But I don’t think this is a concern with roof vents. In many homes I see vents routed to the rear slope, so they are not visible from the street/front, regardless of prevailing wind. 

It is wise of you to wait for the roofing to be replaced to do this. When I was a builder, I learned that if a hole needs to be cut in the roof, for anything, the roofing contractor is doing it. Other subcontractors didn’t appreciate my lack of confidence in them sometimes. But if I got a call about a roof leak after the home was sold, I had to call the roofer. And if it was leaking from something he didn’t do, he would stalk me and put my photo on a dartboard. No, wait, that’s you. Roofers usually dropped a handful of roofing nails behind my truck tires. 

I did comment on a plumbing vent pipe on the upwind side of my home in one column. These are the small pipes that allow air into the waste lines so your toilet will flush properly. The also allow sewer gas (and odor) out of the pipes, so we route them up to the roof. I put a deck and hot tub on the east side of our home when we lived in Colorado, because we had a great view of Denver down in the flatlands. The first few times we went in the hot tub I accused my sons of flatulence. It was hard to pinpoint who, since the “bubbles” aren’t visible in a hot tub. Then one night I went in the hot tub alone. It became very odorous, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t from me. Turns out there was a plumbing vent was on the west side of the roof, and if the wind was just right (which seemed to happen mostly when the hot tub was in use) it would blow the sewer gas over the roof, down the east slope, and into the olfactory system of anyone in the home tub. (In other words, in this case it was the wind direction and not breaking wind that caused a problem.) 

I cured this by moving the vent pipe about 30 feet away, easy to do in the attic. Of course this did require cutting a small hole in the roof, so I had to call the roofer … 

By Randy West on March 24, 2017 

 

Catching up on emails from my last columns 

I get emails every week from this column. I reply to most of them, but not the ones stating my head is somewhere that is physically impossible with the human anatomy. In my last column, I made this comment regarding our federal government: Of course it’s hard not to trust a government than will spend $10 million studying the mating rituals of moths. 

I had a reply from Mark Womack, a local contractor: “My study on the mating rituals of months is none of your business, bub! You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the love between two moths who have decided to join together for life. It’s really not about the money.” 

I replied: I guess I can understand moths mating for life. Since their life expectancy is what, a couple weeks or months. Unless there’s a candle nearby….  

Mark: “…..not sure zactly cause my attention span is way short of 15 seconds at a time and moths all look alike to me. Hence the cost of the study.” 

Not all exchanges are this intellectual. I also received this email from Al: 

“Hi, Randy. I enjoy your articles, you remind of Pat McManus. Anyway, I have been watching This Old House and it seems they use materials I’m not familiar with such as PVC boards, foam forms for concrete, wraps, blueboard, etc. Are these regional products or are builders using them here? I walk through Granville and every house is wrapped with Tyvek, sheathed with foam, then stuccoed, plywood or OSB being used only on corners and narrow walls. I find it hard to believe this type of covering is used, it just seems so frail. Your comments if you have time are appreciated.” 

I admit I did not know who Pat McManus is. According to Wikipedia, he is a great outdoor writer and humorist, so I can see the similarity. 

I did answer Al: As a home inspector I can’t tell you how popular these products are in our areas. Concrete forms and building wrap are not visible. Unless I see moisture or other damage I don’t check for PVC or wood boards. I just describe interior finishes as drywall, and don’t check or care if they are white or blue — I just look for damage. All of these would be visible while a home is being built. But even if I inspect a new home, it is completely “finished” by the time I get there. 

Actually, I was surprised when I moved here in 1993 to see solid sheathing on exterior walls. And 16-inch centers, for that matter. I was a contractor in Florida and Colorado. Our exterior walls were almost all 24 inches on center (after we went to R-19 and 2×6 exterior walls) with solid sheathing at corners and every 20 feet. The walls did not appear to be frail for Colorado winters, blizzards and high winds. They were fine in the Forida panhandle where I worked. They didn’t do as well by the ocean during a hurricane. But if you review the damage after a major hurricane, it was mostly roofs being pulled off. There are occasional missing side walls, especially in garages, but I’m not sure solid sheathing would make any difference after a 100 mph wind blows in the overhead door. 

By Randy West on February 17, 2017 

 

New furnaces equal new problems, part II 

I’m getting tired of the snow. Not the snow so much as the drivers that don’t bother to clear off their windshields or brake lights. I want to remind them of the Principle of Automobile Relationships — for every movement there can be a sudden and painful end of movement. 

Last time I talked about high efficiency (category iv) condensing furnaces. These furnaces are so efficient they use a plastic vent that can be routed through a wall or the roof. They also remove condensate (water) from the exhaust gas, and require a condensate drain line to remove this water. Often this condensate drain line is connected to the air conditioner condensate drain line, which for decades has been routed to an exterior wall. But when used in the winter, this line could freeze outside. Some homes route this to a drain pipe under a bathroom sink. There are potential problems with this too, due to acidity in the condensate. I planned a part II to this article, but I may need a part III because a few people questioned why furnace condensate is acidic. For example: 

Question: “Randy, Interesting article. You may address this question in your next column; if not, please provide an answer as it is an obvious concern: What causes the condensate water to be acidic? This seems to be a manufacturer’s issue and should be addressed at the source? And, if the condensate is drained outside will that harm the outside of the stucco building and landscape? And, how much condensate is produced per heater cycle for the typical-sized heater?” 

Answer: I’m not a chemist, but I know the “simplified” reason. There are always nitrogen products in a gas appliance exhaust. I learned when I started this profession in 1993 that gas burning appliances cannot be vented through an unlined masonry chimney. Gas appliance exhaust will deteriorate exposed mortar. A wood fire does not. We don’t see unlined masonry chimneys too often any more. 

The atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen, so there is a lot of nitrogen (in one form or another, known as nox) in a gas appliance exhaust gas. The exhaust from a cat iv furnace is cooler than older furnaces — it is not hot enough to “carry” the nitrogen products up/out to the atmosphere, so they get absorbed by the water vapor, which becomes the condensate. There is really nothing the manufacturers can do about it; any combustion using gas will produce these nitrogen products. And a condensing furnace is the only way (so far) to achieve better than 90 percent efficiency. 

I have seen damaged stucco below a condensate drain line on an exterior wall, even when it’s for only an air conditioner. I would not want any condensate water discharging on my wall, but especially not from a furnace. I read somewhere that furnace condensate can be bad for plants/vegetation. 

Of course we also have to consider we’re in Arizona. The amount of condensate is very low, both from the ac or a cat iv furnace, compared to very humid areas. I can’t give you an amount — it depends on the weather, furnace, etc. I remember the first time I visited my mom in Florida after I became a home inspector. I told her there was a problem because water was “streaming” out of the air conditioner condensate drain line. Then I noted that it was the same at all the other condos; this was apparently normal in the 138 percent Florida humidity. 

By Randy West on February 3, 2017 

 

Better furnaces equal new problems 

Or, condensate lines part 1 

I try not to be afraid of or against change. But sometimes it’s hard not to be. And this is especially true with all the energy efficiency rules the government is forcing on us. Of course it’s hard not to trust a government than will spend $10,000,000 studying the mating rituals of moths. 

This column is about cat iv furnaces. First though … an air conditioner will function as a “dehumidifier” and has a condensate drain line. This condensate drain line is usually three-quarter inch PVC (plastic), and is usually routed to an exterior wall near the ground. 

High efficiency furnaces are becoming much more common. These are “Category IV” furnaces, which I call cat iv. These furnaces achieve a higher efficiency by removing the condensate (water) from the exhaust gas. This means they can use a plastic vent pipe, and vent through a wall instead of having to go up through the roof, which is good. This also means they need a drain line for the condensate. Since there is usually an air conditioner condensate drain line nearby, it is sensible to connect the furnace condensate drain to the air conditioner drain line. Or is it? 

I inspected a home recently where the condensate drain was on the north exterior wall. This is not a problem in the summer when using the air conditioner. However, there was a three-quarter-inch icicle from the drain line all the way to the ground. This had obstructed the condensate line, and water was backing up and leaking out of the line in the furnace. 

I have found this a few times. Sometimes an older furnace is replaced with a cat iv furnace, and the condensate drain line was only designed for air conditioners. But the home I mentioned above was only five years old and the cat iv furnace was original. I believe that some HVAC (heating) contractors are used to running condensate drain lines for air conditioners, and don’t think about freezing being a problem. 

In newer homes, I sometimes find the condensate drain line routed to a trap under a bathroom sink. This is a great solution to freezing condensate lines in the winter. Or is it? 

The condensate water from an air conditioner is very clean. However, the condensate water from a cat iv furnace can be very acidic, meaning it’s very corrosive and can damage any metal it touches. This includes metal pipes. Most newer homes have all-plastic piping, which is much more resistant to acidity. But when a cat iv furnace is installed in an older home, there could be metal pipes in the home or city sewer lines. 

I know that some of you have the audacity to disagree with me and worship anything that may save the Ozone layer or lower your heating bill by a dollar a month. But this acidic condensate water is becoming quite a concern. In fact, many jurisdictions do not allow the condensate water from a cat iv furnace to drain into a sewer system without a “condensate neutralizer.” A quick search at Amazon shows a variety of condensate neutralizers ranging from $50 to $250. 

So my advice to homeowners is … Oops, I’m out of space … to be continued next time. 

By Randy West on January 20, 2017