Green technologies always have some disadvantages that cannot be anticipated (or are anticipated but ignored).
The biggest example is compact florescent lights, or CFLs, that our government is forcing us to buy. Many scientists were begging the government to wait a few years for LED lights to come down in price. The biggest reason is CFLs have mercury in them that can spill out if the bulb is broken, posing a health hazard. The mercury content means these bulbs have to be disposed of at special places, but you know people will just throw them in their garbage. LED lights have several advantages: no mercury to pose hazards or contaminate our landfills; no hazards if the bulb is broken (other than broken glass, of course); LED lights last longer than CFLs and use less energy; they are instantly bright (CFLs are not); they can be used with dimmer switches (most CFLs cannot); and they are not affected by frequent on/off cycles or cold weather like CFLs.
So it’s pretty obvious to me that LED lights are much better than CFLs. Unfortunately, they are still pricey, but they are coming down in cost and will continue to as more are manufactured.
So why did Uncle Sam outlaw incandescent bulbs now, instead of waiting a few years until LED lights became affordable. That’s easy – just follow the money trail and see who made beaucoup cash off this legislation (I won’t mention any names, but the initials Al Gore come to mind).
Fortunately, the deadline to switch over to CFLs has been pushed back to October 2012; we’ll see what happens in the meantime.
We have all heard about “green” homes. Many have heard of the LEED rating system (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, by the U.S. Green Building Council or USGBC). There is a class action lawsuit against the USGBC, alleging that their claims of energy efficiency are incorrect. The lawsuit claims that often “green” buildings use more energy rather than less. The claim is the LEED rating system give “points” on a building design, but not on performance. I have referred to “building science” many times in my columns. This is the study of how all systems in a home (heating, ventilation, etc.) interact with each other. Making a home “green” will affect all the systems in a home. You can get “points” for making a home more weather-tight, but this can adversely affect gas appliances and indoor air quality.
Another popular program is “Energy Star” from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A home built to these standards can earn the Energy Star rating. Again, there is evidence that Energy Star requirements can increase energy costs. There is also evidence that homes built to Energy Star requirements can have indoor humidity, moisture, and air quality problems. There is mounting data chronicling poor performance and early failure of heating and cooling systems.
The EPA has acknowledged some of these concerns. The “Version 3” of the Energy Star program released this year requires pressure balancing, humidity control, third-party verification of the heating/cooling system, and documentation for the heating/cooling calculations. Experts are predicting that some builders will drop out of the Energy Star program when the more stringent Version 3 requirements take effect in 2012.
And, of course, there are the problems that we find with all government programs. The following is quoted from Wikipedia:
“On Dec. 17, 2008, the EPA Office of the Inspector General released its report on the Energy Star program. The inspector general’s audit found that the program claims regarding greenhouse gas reductions were inaccurate and based on faulty data. Additionally, the IG found that Energy Star program’s reported energy savings were unreliable, and that many of the touted benefits could not be verified. Deficiencies included the lack of a quality review of the data collected, reliance on estimates, forecasting, and unverified third-party reporting, and the potential inclusion of exported items, the report concluded.
“Additionally, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Consumer Reports, and the trade website ApplianceAdvisor.com have released statements claiming “that Energy Star test procedures contained loopholes that allow many inefficient products to receive Energy Star labels.”
In this paper there was an article in the Nov. 17 edition regarding the new energy code. Yavapai County does not want to adopt it because it’s unreasonable. The cited example was requiring R-49 attic insulation. This is almost impossible to attain with current building standards, and would be absolutely impossible in many remodels. I’ll have more on that in a future column.
Now let’s talk about low-e windows. Last year I wrote about low-e windows damaging vinyl siding on adjacent buildings. Low-e windows have a transparent metallic film that reflects the infrared from the sun, thus letting light in but not heat. The occurrences of window-related damaged vinyl siding is increasing in direct proportion to the higher percentage of low-e windows being sold and installed. There is much more evidence since I wrote that column. There are even videos on YouTube showing damaged vinyl siding.
A hotel in Las Vegas that we will not name here has a concave tower. The light reflecting off this tower is concentrated, and has burned people lying by the pool area. The ray is so strong it has melted plastic bags and cups. Some hotel employees refer to this as a “death ray.” The owners were warned about this before the hotel was built. There is documentation that architects and contractors both warned of this possibility, but the owners ignored their recommendations (some were for better coating on the windows, which, of course, would have been more expensive). There have not been any report of serious personal injuries. Yet.
Their solution: installing umbrellas by the pool and putting up signs recommending the use of sun block.
By the way, the hotel is a LEED-certified building.
By Randy West on December 22, 2011
I had to go to a meeting in Phoenix last Wednesday. After I lost the Prescott radio stations, I found a Phoenix AM station with a real estate talk show. Every commercial break (and there seemed to be a lot of them) played the same five ads. One of these ads was for a home inspection company, and the ad was two ladies talking to each other. I cannot quote it exactly, and I changed the name of the company, but here’s the gist of it:
Lady 1: “I just bought a house, and they want over $300 for a home inspection.”
Lady 2: “That’s unbelievable! They’re charging way too much. I got a home inspection from ABC Inspections, and it was only $180!”
They go on to say that ABC Inspections is “licensed and insured.” But I have to wonder why anyone would call a home inspection company whose claim to fame is cheap prices.
In retail, the lowest price is a good thing. If I want to buy a brand new Makita model xyz drill or Ferrari Testerosa, I will try to find the lowest price. I’m getting the identical product no matter where I buy it. (I have bought new drills before; the Ferrari falls into the “want to buy” category.)
We have all had to “shop” for professional service providers before: an inspector, mechanic, attorney, doctor, etc. For these people, their “stock in trade” is their education, knowledge and experience. If I was looking for a doctor (or accountant, etc.) and one advertised “20 years’ experience” and another advertised “my fee is 40 percent less than his,” I know which one I would choose!
Why is that accountant’s fee 40 percent less? I would have to guess maybe he or she is brand-new and needs clients. Or maybe he or she is playing the “numbers” game – “I’ll make more money doing a halfway job for a whole bunch of people than I’ll make doing a really good job for fewer people.” But whether it’s a plumber or a brain surgeon, I believe that you get what you pay for, and you cannot possibly get the same level of service for 40 percent less money.
There are times when what you are buying is half product and half service – for example, a new roof. All roofing contractors will provide new shingles that are likely similar quality. But in this case, the installation is more important than the product. Most roof leaks occur from improper installation, not from defective products. In fact, an improper installation can void the shingle manufacturer’s warranty. So when I need a new roof, I call a company I know does quality work. I don’t even call the budget company (if there is one) to compare prices. For something this important, I want to pay a little more for quality workmanship and my own peace of mind. And if something does go wrong, I can tell my wife I hired the best roofer I know, not the cheapest.
Here is a letter I recently received and my answer (the writer refers to a 2009 column he found on dCourier.com).
“Hi Randy: I just read your Sept. 24, 2009, column entitled ‘Blurring the definition of bedroom,’ and I have an interesting question for you: What defines ‘living space’ for purposes of requiring an egress window per building codes?
“For example, would a basement panic room or bomb-shelter style accommodations be considered living space and, therefore, require an egress window? Since this style of room is, by definition, sealed off from the rest of the house, requiring an egress window would breech the security of the room, defeating its entire purpose. An interesting conundrum.”
My reply: “The only rooms that require ‘egress’ windows (technically ‘ingress’ windows) are sleeping rooms. Other livable or habitable rooms should have 8 percent of the floor area in natural light and 4 percent of the floor area in natural ventilation. That used to be 10 percent and 5 percent before the International Building Code in 2000. Skylights and roof windows can be used for the natural light and ventilation requirement.
“Many jurisdictions overlook this, especially back east where there are more completely interior rooms.
“I always report on lack of or improper egress in bedrooms. I will comment on insufficient light or ventilation in other habitable rooms, but I don’t make a big deal about it. I have heard that in some areas appraisers may not count a room in their square footage calculations if it does not meet their definition of ‘habitable.’
“You are correct – if I saw a bomb shelter or panic room, I would not comment on a lack of natural light or ventilation, since that would defeat the whole purpose of the room.”
There are certain requirements for a room to be considered a bedroom (technically a “sleeping room”). An egress window, as mentioned above, must have a minimum opening of 20 inches wide by 24 inches tall (so a fireman with a helmet and tank can fit through), be less than 44 inches off the interior floor, and be on an exterior wall (not into a porch or patio). A bedroom cannot be a “thoroughfare,” e.g., the only way to access other parts of the home. A bedroom cannot have a door directly into an attached garage, and there cannot be a gas appliance (water heater or furnace) in a bedroom closet (the garage and gas appliances can be carbon monoxide concerns). And, of course, there needs to be a clothes closet.
By Randy West on December 8, 2011
This week I’m going to talk about anti-siphon devices. But with cold weather here, first I’m going to talk about hose faucets for a minute.
Most hose faucets in our area are freeze-resistant. The most common type has a long stem on the handle, so the valve itself is actually 8 or 10 inches inside the wall. When you close the faucet, water will drip out for a short time. This drains the pipe up to the valve so it cannot freeze.
One thing I find frequently with these type faucets is someone closed it so tightly I need a 24-inch pipe wrench to open it. The first few times I found this, I assumed the same person that installs “hand-tighten-only” oil filters on cars shut off the faucet. I met that person once. He was 5-feet-4-inches tall and weighed 450 pounds. He “hand-tightened” the oil filter until the whole car rotated a 1/4 turn.
Now I assume someone turned off the faucet, saw the water was still dripping, so kept closing the faucet tighter and tighter. This is not necessary. Close the faucet and stand back for half a minute and the water will stop dripping.
It is important to remove hoses and adapters from these faucets during freezing weather. Hoses or adapters will prevent the line from draining once the valve is closed. This could allow the faucet to freeze, and you’d need to cut a hole in the exterior siding or interior drywall to replace these faucets.
I have had several questions recently about anti-siphon devices. These will prevent cross connections. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors defines cross connections as any physical connection or arrangement between potable water and any source of contamination.
Most homes within city limits are connected to a city/public water supply. If you lose pressure from the city, water could be drawn back into the water supply. So imagine you’re washing your car. You have a hose connected to the faucet, and the end of the hose is in a bucket of dirty water. If you lose water pressure for some reason, water from the bucket could actually be drawn back into the water supply. This can really affect the taste of your coffee or lemonade.
An anti-siphon device will prevent this. Newer hose faucets have such a device built in. On the most common faucet, this is a green plastic cap on top of the faucet. If you have an older home with faucets that don’t have this feature, there are anti-siphon devices that you can screw on to the hose faucet. These have a set screw to hold them in place, and your hose connects to the anti-siphon device.
Irrigation systems often have a main water valve/connection near the water meter. If the city water supply loses pressure, water could be drawn back into their supply. Therefore, irrigation systems on homes in city limits are required to have a backflow valve. This is usually installed near the water meter or near an exterior wall of the home. Without this backflow valve, you could contaminate the entire neighborhood’s coffee instead of just your own.
There are other places where cross connections are possible. A dishwasher drain line is required to have an anti-siphon device. There are two ways to do this. One is an anti-siphon device that sits on the sink top near the sink. You’ve likely seen these – they may gurgle when the dishwasher is operating. Another method is to install a high-loop in the dishwasher drain line. Under the sink, the dishwasher drain line is “looped” higher than the bottom of the sink and secured to the cabinet. This is perfectly legal, and performs the same function as the anti-siphon device.
The spigots at bathtubs and sinks have to be above the overflow drain in the fixture. Sometimes large sinks, like those found in garages or laundry rooms, will have a spigot with a hose faucet fitting. Many municipalities do not allow these faucets because it would be easy to leave a hose connected and submerged.
Even toilets can have a cross connection. The fill valve in the tank needs to be above the water line, and the small fill line for the bowl should be above the overflow tube (not in it). There are fill valves available that are completely submerged. These do not meet the anti-siphon requirement.
All these anti-siphon devices may seem unimportant (or just something else for a home inspector to nitpick about), but they are important and are required or recommended by building codes and manufacturers.
I have room for a few more words here, so I’d like to comment on the recent controversy about the bench in Granite Creek Park. A college student got approval from the City of Prescott to build a bench. She submitted a sketch of the bench, which the city approved. She then built a bench that was not like the sketch, even though a city employee told her there were functional and safety concerns. The city removed the bench one day before the park was open. Citizens were upset and claimed the city was anti-art.
Here’s my take: If someone gets hurt on that bench a year from now, they will sue Prescott (you and me), not the artist or school. I commend the city for removing the bench. As far as the student, hopefully she learned something. If you submit a plan for something, you are obligated to follow that plan. I know sometimes forgiveness is easier to get than permission. But if you are working on a project and want to make changes, you need to get those changes approved.
By Randy West on November 17, 2011
I recently received the following email:
“Dear Randy: I enjoy your columns very much. My husband wants to buy a home and ‘flip’ it. He says that since homes are so inexpensive now, we can buy a fixer-upper, do the fixing-upping, and make some money. I believe that since homes are so inexpensive now, we could have trouble selling a home for any profit. I know you had a column about this recently. All I remember is you said something about getting your fiction in books. Could you print that column again so I can cut it out and save it?” – Debby P. in Prescott Valley.
A: This is a first for me. I have never been asked to print a previous column. Debby P. has a pretty good memory, or a different definition of “recent” than I do. I had to search a little for it – this column appeared Aug. 22, 2008. I’m pretty sure that Debby P. also remembers that my column would help her opinion more than her husband’s.
I thought about just sending the column to Debby. But then I wondered how many other people might be considering jumping into the “flipping” market. So I decided to run the column again, since it is still current and relevant (and saves me some typing). Here you go, Debby:
Recently I’m getting asked a new question: “We’re planning on flipping this home – any suggestions?” In case you’re not familiar with this term, this refers to buying a run-down home, making major improvements and then selling it for an unbelievable profit. There are some television shows that make this look easy.
I have to admit that I don’t watch the “flipping” TV shows. I like my fiction in books. I did watch one from start to finish last week. It showed two “amateurs” doing almost all the work, including demolition, plumbing, tile and wood floor installation, finish carpentry, etc. I say “amateurs” because the show inferred they had no or little experience for most of this work. So somehow they think they can do the same quality work as a professional. I wonder if they would do this work if they were planning on living in the home for several years, rather than selling it before the plumbing lines can leak or the floor tiles can come loose.
Since I’m not addressing a specific client here, let me give the “flipping” advice I’d like to. The first is “In this market? Are you nuts?” The second is, “Use licensed tradesmen and contractors – don’t try to do the work yourself.” The third is “get all the required permits.”
I specialized in remodeling for many years before my home inspection career, and I can tell you that even a professional cannot anticipate all the problems you may find when you start opening up walls. You suddenly find a few thousand dollars of unbudgeted repairs for termite or moisture damage, or plumbing and electrical upgrades, etc. The TV show budget didn’t have the 15 percent for “unexpected repairs” that I included in my proposals.
The home in the show sold for about $300,000, which was $80,000 above the purchase price and cost of repairs. They called this an $80,000 profit. They didn’t mention real estate agent commissions. Or closing costs, which are usually a few thousand dollars with title insurance or abstracts. That $80,000 profit just dwindled to about $60,000. They said it took eight months for the home to sell. Assuming a $2,000 per month mortgage (it could be more), that profit drops to about $40,000.
It took two people two months to do the repairs, and eight months to sell the home. That’s $40,000 for 10 months. For two people that’s $20,000 each. That’s $2,000 a month each, or about $500 weekly, or about $12.50 an hour for a 40-hour work week. And in the show they were working into the evening sometimes, so they were likely putting in more than 40 hours a week. So their pay/profit was likely closer to $10 an hour.
And this is before taxes! They will have to pay tax on that income, whether they took it as a salary or as a profit on the sale of the home. And there is no health insurance, paid vacation, etc. Not to mention that for 10 months they had to make a mortgage payment and had no income from the home they were flipping.
And since they did the work themselves, if the buyers have any problems with the improvements, they may call the sellers and expect them to take care of it.
Why would anyone go through all this when the program on another channel was telling me how to make millions of dollars in real estate with no money down?
After this column originally appeared in 2008, a few people emailed me stating my figures would be way off if the flippers did not have a mortgage. This is true, but I’m assuming they had a mortgage. I don’t believe they had enough money to pay $220,000 cash for a home and improvements, and then sit on it for 10 months. If you had that much cash on hand, would you invest it in a project that required you do hard, dirty work for $10 and hour and wait 10 months to get paid? I know I wouldn’t.
This reminds me of a quote in a recent column (by recent I mean this year). I was talking about this topic with local real estate agent Steve Karstens and said something about making a million dollars in real estate. Steve said that’s easy in this market. Just start with $2 million.
By Randy West on October 13, 2011
In my last column I talked about having to “register” when sending an email. This is a spam (junk email) feature. The person you’re emailing will not “accept” your email until you fill in a form. I find this irritating when someone emails me asking for a reply. If you email someone asking for a reply, you should put them in your “safe senders list” so they do not have to register to reply to your email.
I don’t let my wife read my columns before I send them in. If I did, some of my columns would not have been submitted (and perhaps some of them should not have been). My wife read my last column Friday morning in the paper, and asked if I would like some cheese with my whine. I guess I was whining a little. But I did have several people tell me that they agree with me.
My wife said I better tell a cute story this week (one that does not involve her!) to make up for my whining. So, in order to keep her happy, here is one.
When I inspect a vacant home, I park my car in the garage. (It’s actually an SUV, and it does not drip a drop of anything.) This is partly for security, and partly for convenience, including keeping my ladders and expensive tools out of the sun. At a recent inspection on a new/vacant home, I parked in the garage.
I had noticed a neighbor staring at me from her deck. Her home was quite a bit higher and a few hundred feet away. I was inspecting a brand-new home, so there was nothing for me to steal. I assumed she was just admiring my inspection techniques.
I entered the garage from the home, and noticed now she was watching me with binoculars. I thought this was peculiar. I opened the rear hatch on my car, which meant I had my back to her. I have a pair of very powerful binoculars right there in my tool bag. As happens with me occasionally, my body started working without consulting my brain. I grabbed my binoculars and turned around and focused in on the neighbor.
I could see her very clearly. She was still looking at me with binoculars. She lowered her binoculars and looked over them at me, perhaps to confirm what she was seeing. Then she ran inside, and closed the blinds on the sliding glass door. Then I noticed all the curtains on the side of the home facing me closing. I proceeded to tell myself how childish and juvenile that was (but I was chuckling a little at the same time). I made a point not to look at her house again. I was half expecting a sheriff’s deputy to show up to investigate a “peeping tom,” but he never did.
Anyway, this week’s question was from a local real estate agent. She was upset because a home inspector wrote in his report there were problems with the furnace. He said that a licensed heating contractor should be consulted. When the real estate agent and her client called the inspector to ask what needed to be done, he repeated they needed to consult with a heating contractor. The clients were upset that the inspector did not offer more specific information. The real estate agent said someone told her that I always make specific recommendations. This is not true. The following comment appears at the beginning of my reports:
“My goal is to make the report as informative and helpful as possible. If I make a recommendation, I try to explain the item in detail and explain why it’s a problem (if it’s not obvious). I may offer suggestions on improving or repairing the item. I will try to do this in everyday language and not impress you with my construction vocabulary.”
It is very important that I state “I may offer suggestions,” not “I will offer suggestions.” After 20 years of inspecting homes, many times I can offer suggestions on the cause and possible remedies of a problem. But not always. There are times in my reports when I recommend an appropriate contractor be consulted to further evaluate a condition and make recommendations for repairs.
I just thought of a great analogy. Imagine Mrs. Edsel starts her car one morning and it makes a loud knocking noise. She asks her neighbor to take a look, because she knows he is a “shade tree mechanic.” He listens to her car for a moment, and tells her it is “major.” He tells her to turn off the engine and have the car towed to her mechanic.
In this case, even the owner could tell there was a problem. Perhaps a better analogy would be a minor unusual noise in the engine. The neighbor hears it and comes over and points it out to Mrs. Edsel. He says it does not sound major, but she should have it checked as soon as possible.
In the second case the owner was not even aware there was a problem. The “inspector” could tell there was a problem, but he did not think it was major. In both cases, the “inspector” could not tell you the exact cause or needed repairs. That will require an expert with specialized knowledge and specialized tools.
Home inspectors are “generalists.” We cannot possibly know as much about every trade as tradesmen do. Sometimes I make suggestions in my reports regarding a cause and/or remedy. I do this as a service to my clients. This information can inform them whether the needed repair is urgent or not, a major or minor expense, something they can work on themselves or something that requires a contractor, etc. But unless I’m very certain of the cause, I still recommend that my clients consult with a contractor or appropriate specialist.
By Randy West on September 29, 2011
Have you ever tried to email someone, and had to “sign in” to their email? It explains that it is their way of avoiding spam (junk email). Of course, this means extra time for you. You usually have to fill in some blanks, including listing all your email addresses. And then you have to read those squiggly letters in a box, and enter them in another box. I have trouble with those funny letters anyway. And then, after you do all that, it says it will forward your e-mail to the recipient and they will decide if they want to accept it.
Usually I just don’t send the email if I have to “sign in.” Of course, if it’s a client waiting for an inspection report, I have to get it emailed to them. But what aggravates me is when someone sends me an email first, asking me to reply or for information. And when I reply, they won’t accept my email. Why would you email someone and ask for information and then make them sign in when they reply? I do not reply to these emails.
So I received a phone yesterday from someone in Colorado. She said she emailed me twice and I did not reply. I told her I reply to all emails, except those that require me to sign in to send them email. She patiently (read “condescendingly”) explained this was so she would not receive spam, and that I only had to sign in the first time. She actually called me stupid for not replying to her email. Actually, what she said was that my actions “seem kind of stupid” to her.
I asked her if she knows how to add emails to her “safe sender” list. She said yes. So I asked her why she would send an email to someone asking for a reply and not add them to her safe sender list. That would only take her two seconds, and would be much more courteous than making someone take the time to reply and then have to sign in. I told her that her actions “seem kind of rude” to me.
Click. There’s one inspection I won’t be getting. Probably not a bad thing, since she already thought I was stupid.
I always wonder how many important emails these people are missing: recall notices or updates on things they’ve bought, like cars or software. Old friends trying to get in touch with them. Schools having class reunions. Secret herbs that improve your sex life. I get a lot of spam – sometimes 30 or more a day. But I can go through them very quickly, although I have worn a groove in my “delete” key. And every once in a while there’s something important or interesting in there (like those secret herbs).
And now another pet peeve, but one that’s actually somewhat relevant to this column. The owners of bank-owned properties seem to be getting away with just about anything these days. Last year they started limiting the inspection period to seven days, or even five days. This means the buyers cannot get a busy inspector. I am often booked a week out in the summer, and so are the inspectors I recommend if I can’t make a time-frame, and sometimes so are the termite inspectors. So by limiting the buyers to a five-day inspection period, the banks are forcing the buyers to pick the least-busy inspectors.
I have also heard that some banks start the inspection period upon the bank’s verbal acceptance of an offer. This forces the buyer to schedule inspections before they even have written acceptance.
And now, some banks are requiring the buyers to turn on the utilities in their name. In 20 years of home inspecting, I never heard of this practice until this year. This is not the real estate agents – these are the policies of the banks. I have been told that sometimes the utilities are only allowed to be on for 24 hours. So if an inspector has to delay for any reason – car trouble or personal reasons – the utilities may not be on for him or her.
Also, the gas company frequently “red-tags” a gas appliance. Or perhaps there is a plumbing leak somewhere. So the gas or water cannot be turned on until these are improved. It is virtually impossible to get a contractor out there to repair something the same day. And, of course, if it takes a couple of days to get something improved, now the buyer is past his or her inspection period.
A significant number of my inspections in the last year are bank-owned properties. So I’m not whining (too much). I’m grateful for the business. And some of these bank-owned properties must be good deals because the banks are getting away with these requirements and restrictions. But this is something that the buyers need to be aware of – that they may have to turn on utilities in their name.
A buyer asked me last week if they were liable for damage. What if there is a leak when the water is turned on that causes damage to the home? If the buyer has the water turned on, are they liable for this? I would hope not. The buyer only turned the water on because the seller would not. But I do not know the answer – this is a question for your real estate agent. Perhaps it is addressed in the purchase agreement or addendum.
By Randy West on September 8, 2011
I have been asked numerous times to perform a home inspection before the client writes the offer on the home. This happens more frequently lately with all the bank-owned properties on the market. The clients want to know if there are major defects before they write an offer.
I always try to talk the client out of this. I explain that their purchase agreement to buy the house has provisions for them to have a home inspection, and any other inspections they may need or desire (for example, termite, well and septic). If I inspect the home on Monday and deliver the report to them on Tuesday, and they decide to make an offer, there is no guarantee the home will still be available. An offer can come in at any time. Or the sellers could change their mind and take the home off the market.
So while it may seem to make sense to find out about the home before you write an offer, it really does not make sense to pay hundreds of dollars for a home inspection when you have no guarantee you can even buy the home. But, as the saying goes, the client is always right. If they still want a home inspection before they write an offer, I will do it.
I have also been asked to do a “walk-through” inspection before the client writes an offer. Usually they say they will pay for a full home inspection once they have the home under contract. I will not do this for a couple of reasons. First, what if there are major defects that you do not discover in a walk-through inspection? You can’t tell if a furnace and air conditioner are operating correctly (or at all) by a visual inspection. You have to do various tests while they are operating. You can’t tell if there is moisture, fire or structural damage in an attic or crawlspace without entering them, and I’m not going into them for a walk-through inspection. Everything could look fine at a walk-through inspection, but there could be major defects or the need for expensive repairs that would not be discovered.
A more important reason to not do walk-through inspections is they may not be legal. Home inspectors are regulated in Arizona by the Board of Technical Registration (BTR). The Arizona Statutes and Rules describe what a home inspection is (and isn’t), and inspections have to be performed in compliance with the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors. An Arizona Certified Home Inspector (CHI) may get away with doing walk-through inspections in some instances. For example, if a client wants an inspection just for their own benefit – they are the owners and are not intending to sell the home. Or they are going to lease the home for a year and are not concerned with costs of repairs or life expectancies; they just want to know if everything works. If someone filed a complaint against a home inspector for an inspection like this, the BTR likely would not review it or discipline the CHI. This is assuming the CHI clearly disclosed in a written agreement the purpose and scope of the inspection.
Most home inspections are pre-purchase home inspections, performed for a client who is buying the property. So if the inspection involves a real estate transaction, I always advise home inspectors to only do a full home inspection in compliance with the Standards of Professional Practice. If it looks like a lemon, smells like a lemon, and drives like a lemon, then it’s very likely a lemon. If someone files a complaint against a CHI, and the inspection involved a real estate transaction, the BTR may consider this a home inspection no matter how many disclaimers there are in the inspection agreement.
There are exceptions to this. For example, in Phoenix there are investors who like to have a CHI do a walk-through inspection before making an offer at an auction. These auction homes are often only available for viewing for short times, and the utilities are rarely on. With these limitations it would be impossible to perform an inspection that complies with the Standards. Home inspectors can legally do walk-through inspections on these type homes, but again it is critical the inspection agreement describes the scope and limitations of the inspection.
It is legal for a home inspector to not inspect a component during a home inspection. This is in the Rules for a good reason. A few times (especially after our 1999 hailstorm) I had clients tell me they know the roof shingles are beyond repair. The seller had already contracted and paid for a licensed roofing contractor to replace the shingles. So there is really no reason for me to go on the roof and inspect the roof shingles, because they wouldn’t be there next week. I would lower my fee a little and, as required by Arizona, I would have the client request in writing that I not inspect the roof.
Some inspectors are using this rule to do walk-through inspections. They have a written agreement in which the clients request that they don’t walk the roof, enter the attic, operate the furnace and air conditioner, test all the windows, and look at other components that are required in the Arizona Standards. Technically, an attorney could argue the inspector complied with the Rules by having the client exclude all these items. But what if an unhappy client files a complaint with the BTR? If it smells like a lemon…
By Randy West on August 18, 2011
I’ve had a couple of emails from readers who are upset with me. They say I have not had enough humor in my recent columns. So I figured I’d try to redeem myself with one of my “war stories.”
I was inspecting a vacant home in Prescott Valley a couple years ago. The home was vacant, but the sellers had not quite completely moved out – there were some boxes and a few pieces of furniture. I went out back through the rear-entry door into a homemade aviary. I could tell it was an aviary by the chewed-up 2x4s, and because I had to be very careful where I stepped. I walked to the rear to the storm door, but it was locked and required a key to open it. I turned around to go back in the home and there was a 6-foot snake slithering toward me.
Now I have to admit that snakes are my weakness. I always tell people that I will go into a crawlspace or attic as long as everything I see has legs. But if I see something without legs, I’m outta there! This snake was blocking my path to the home. I made a new exit through one of the screen panels. I immediately went out front and called the listing real estate agent and told her about the snake. She said, “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you the sellers haven’t picked up their pet snake yet.”
I just stammered, “You forgot to tell me about a 6-foot snake in the home!” Then I regained my composure and told her she’d better tell the sellers to come fix the rip in the screen in the aviary. She asked how big a rip, and I said about 6 feet 1 inch. As I went back in the home to lock the snake in the aviary, I was thinking that birds and a 6-foot snake seemed like a silly combination for pets.
Now here’s one of my all-time favorite war stories. Actually, this is not mine. I heard this from an inspector at a national convention. The inspector was from New England, and had our whole table laughing so hard we couldn’t give our orders to the waitress. Here’s his story:
“I inspected a rural home recently. There was a barn. I don’t inspect barns, except for the electrical components. I could see an electrical panel in the barn. The fence gate was locked so I climbed over the fence and entered the barn. I had the cover off the electrical panel and was busy counting breakers when I felt something touch my back. I turned around and came face to face with two llamas.
“One of the llamas spit in my face. I proceeded to yell at them and call them some names. These names must have been very insulting to llamas, because they both started kicking and biting me. I dropped my clipboard and ran for the fence, with the llamas biting my arms and back the whole time. I got over the fence and collapsed on the ground. My clothes were ripped, I was bleeding in about 20 places, and bruised in another 20, including my ego.
“Right then a van pulled in. A cute girl and a big guy with a camera got out. It seems the owner had an appointment with a reporter wanting to do a story about llamas. The reporter came over to me, with the cameraman right behind, clicking away. I stood up and dusted myself off, but there was blood running down my face from a cut or bite. The reporter started asking me questions about llamas. I was still pretty shook up, so I told her they are vile, disgusting beasts and walked away.
“It was about two weeks later that I was inspecting a home in the city. It was a two-story home, and I was about to inspect the roof. I set my extension ladder up against the front porch, which was the lowest part of the roof. I was almost to the top when the ladder slipped out from under me. I grabbed the gutter, which held for about 2 seconds before it came off the porch. I fell about 12 feet right on my ladder on the sidewalk. I was pretty sure I broke something, and I had a nasty gash in my forehead from the gutter and blood was running down my face.
“It was at this moment that the buyer and his real estate agent arrived. My ladder was across the sidewalk, I was trying to sit up on top of the ladder and there was a rain gutter resting on my shoulder. And of course there was blood running down my face. The buyer asked me if I was all right. I said no, and could he please call an ambulance. After calling for an ambulance, the buyer looked at me and said he didn’t realize home inspecting was such a hazardous occupation.
“His real estate agent said she saw a picture in the paper a couple weeks ago of a home inspector that had been attacked by llamas.
“I looked up at them and said, ‘Yeah, that was me.'”
This is all I remember, but there was more to it, including something going wrong in the ride in the ambulance and his wife going to the wrong hospital.
Next time I’ll get “serious” again (a relative term in this column).
By Randy West on July 28, 2011
“Code” is a four-letter word to home inspectors. You will not see the “code” word in my reports, other than a disclaimer stating this is not a “code” inspection. I can do code inspections. They require specialized testing and cost thousands of dollars. For one thing, you have to research when the home was built and which code was in effect at that time. This is way beyond the scope of a home inspection.
So how do I report on an item that obviously does not meet code? Euphemisms. “The deck is not built to current building standards or practices.” “Some liberties have been taken with good framing technique at the deck.” “The deck framing was only observed from the yard (because I was afraid to walk on it).”
For some reason, I’ve had several sellers recently who knew the building code very well, or researched it very well just to annoy me. I wrote a few weeks ago about the lack of a self-closer on the door between a home and attached garage, which did get left out of the code for a few years.
Now I’ve had a seller argue with my comments about access to an electrical panel. He said there is no problem with the panel access, but there may be to the cabinet access. And technically he is correct. The electrical panelboard is in the electrical cabinet. So if there is a problem with clearance or access, it is actually a problem with the cabinet and not the panel. But I write my inspection reports so my clients can understand them. And everyone (even electricians) will refer to the main panel rather than the main panelboard cabinet.
All home inspectors know the basic requirements for access in front of a panel (oops, I mean cabinet): 78 inches high, 30 inches wide and 36 inches deep. And the panel must also be “readily accessible.” If the panel is not readily accessible, I don’t refer to code. I simply say that you should be able to access the panel easily, especially if you ever need to turn off the power in a hurry.
I don’t consider a panel readily accessible if a cabinet, bookshelf or refrigerator is in front of the panel. I’ve seen all these, and shelves permanently installed on the wall in front of the panel so you could not even open the cover. Not only is this woefully inadequate access for an electrician – what if that old toaster trips a breaker?
In this case, the main panel (cabinet) was locked. Often I find the key hanging on a nail in the garage just inside the door, or some other fairly obvious place. If I don’t see the key, I call the listing real estate agent and ask where the key is. Often the owners don’t remember where it is. So I tell the agent we have two options. I can cut the lock off and the seller can buy another $3 miniature padlock to put on the panel. Or you can call me when the panel is open; note that my re-inspection fee will be $75. To date I’ve decapitated every keyless padlock I’ve encountered.
So this seller was either upset at the loss of his $3 padlock, or just wanted to aggravate me on general principle. He emailed me stating I don’t know the code, that there is nothing that disallows installing a padlock on a main panel, and that I should take a refresher course in electrical code requirements. And of course he copied both real estate agents on the email.
Being the tolerant, understanding, patient, forgiving individual I am, I simply ignored the email.
Oh wait, that was my last life. I immediately emailed back (to all recipients) that technically he was correct, and a padlock is allowed. However, the main panel needs to be readily accessible, which it was not if he didn’t remember where the key was. And, by the way, if I were to follow the code diligently, there were numerous other violations at his home. That clear area in front of a panel applies to all panels, including the electrical disconnect at the air conditioner. His electrical disconnect is on the exterior wall behind the compressor, so either the compressor or the disconnect needs to be moved. And nothing but electrical components are allowed directly below the panel, so he needs to relocate his cable TV and telephone boxes. And actually, the main gas valve is pretty close – maybe he should move that, too. And artificial light is required at panels, so I want to see lights installed over the panels. I mean cabinets. And technically, subpanels are not allowed in bathrooms, clothes closets or storage areas. He has a subpanel in a closet with a clothes bar – this could be both a clothes closet and a storage area, so I recommend he relocate this panel.
I see all the items in the last paragraph on a daily basis. I don’t report on them because they are common in our area. As I’ve said many times, a home inspection is not a code inspection. Although many of the problems we see are code violations, every jurisdiction in the country strictly enforces some codes and kind of ignores others. I’m not going to report on something that is not a concern and is found on 98 percent of the homes in Prescott.
I’m still waiting for a reply from the seller.
By Randy West on July 7, 2011
I learn a lot from owner’s and installation manuals, which are pretty boring reading for “normal” folks. If I find the manual for a gas fireplace, tankless water heater, etc., in a home I’m inspecting, I will read it during my breaks. I also ask contractors questions whenever I can. (This is a clever lead-in for this week’s column.)
About a month ago, our gas clothes dryer stopped working. It would spin, but the flame would not come on. I told my wife the dryer was 15 years old and probably not worth fixing. We checked the local ads and found a used gas dryer in Chino Valley, so off we went.
The used dryer was at Adobe Appliance, and the owners Paul and Carole were tending the store. They had several used gas dryers. I told them what was wrong with our dryer, and Paul immediately said, “Oh, that’s the magnum flux capacitor.” He opened a nearby dryer and showed me where it goes and how to install it. This took about three minutes and, by that time, Carole had procured the part and my wife had paid for it. I was impressed with their honesty, since they knew we had come in to look at used dryers. They could have easily told us our dryer was too old to bother fixing, but instead they sold us an inexpensive part and even showed me how to install it. (I checked the manufacturer’s website when I got home, and the part cost almost double from the manufacturer!)
Paul said he’s been servicing appliances for more than 20 years. I saw an opportunity to learn something. I told him I had heard that front-loading washers and dryers were more efficient. Boy, did I ever learn things! The first thing he explained that was that top-loaders spin at 400 rpm, but front-loaders spin at 27,000 rpm. So they get the clothes much dryer. Carol said front-loaders don’t have agitators, so there is less lint and they don’t “beat up” your clothes. Drier clothes and less lint means less time in the dryer, saving energy costs.
I asked about detergent, and leaned even more. They only use powder detergent, and never too much. You should never see suds; if you see suds, you’re using too much detergent. They recommend 1/8 cup for front-loaders and 1/4 cup for top-loaders, but you can use more for a really dirty load. Carole said always read the owner’s manual and the label on your detergent – they may recommend less or more detergent. You should do this even if you’re using the same detergent you’ve used for years. Last year, phosphates were banned in detergents in some states, including Arizona, so your detergent may have different directions.
Carol said there are many people that waste energy because they don’t read the manual and use the appliance properly. For example, some washers have a filter that requires occasional cleaning.
I told Carole I’m one of those weird people who always reads directions and manuals. She said she’s a little too literal sometimes. She said she was reading her shampoo bottle in the shower the other day. It said “lather, rinse, repeat.” She said if she followed those directions exactly she would never get out of the shower.
Carole said her cousin suffers from the same afflictions (reading labels and being too literal). She said her cousin was reading her shampoo bottle and it said it will make you “fuller.” She realized that that shampoo running down her body when she rinsed may be the cause of her larger pant size. So now, she washes her hair with Dawn detergent, because the label says it “dissolves fat.”
I asked why powdered detergent was better. Carole explained that liquid detergent (and fabric softener) doesn’t dissolve well and will build up on the outer tub, where you can’t see it – but Paul will when he’s called out to fix your washer. She said dirt will stick to this build-up of sticky residue, and this is also a great breeding place for bacteria. I asked if leaving the washer door open would help – they recommend it. I asked if running an occasional empty load with hot water and bleach would help. Carole said yes, but even better is running an empty load with Cascade dishwasher granules. Cascade has bleach in it, and the granules will chip away at the build-up between the tubs.
Carole said front-loading washers and dryers often pay for themselves within a few years. Washers save energy (money) by using less water and soap, and spinning the clothes drier so the dryer takes less time. And it means longer life for your clothes.
We got sidetracked onto freezers. I knew that side-by-side refrigerators are less efficient than freezer above or below models. One reason is cold air falls, so with a side-by-side, every time you open a door, the cold air will spill out the bottom. I had never considered freezers. Carole said chest freezers are much more efficient. With a chest freezer, no cold air spills out when you open the door. And a chest freezer has fewer moving parts – an upright has a different evaporator, a blower/fan and an occasional defrost cycle. Carol said these use more energy than a chest type freezer with a static evaporator. Don’t ask me to explain what this means – I’m not even sure I got the terms right.
I never thought I could write an entire column about clothes washers and dryers, since I don’t even operate or inspect them during a home inspection. We may need to replace our refrigerator soon. I’ll be calling Paul and Carole, and may have enough for another column.
By Randy West on June 16, 2011
When I’m inspecting a home, I’m “in charge” of that home. I take that responsibility very seriously, especially in occupied homes (often the owners are not home). Most of my inspections in the last year are vacant, which might be why I’m getting more “looky-loos” lately. This is my term for people who stop at a home I’m inspecting and ask to see the home.
I politely tell them I’m not a real estate agent and cannot show them the home. I’ve had them ask if they could just look around, since the home is vacant. I politely tell them they cannot. If they are persistent, I will politely tell them there are 1,000 or so real estate agents in town, and I’m sure they can find one who will show them the home.
Recently, some looky-loos are getting a little more aggressive. More than once I’ve heard “the home’s vacant, we’re just going to look around for a minute.” I explain that I cannot legally let them in the home. If they break something, I would be responsible. If they fall and get hurt, the owner could be liable. My insurance does not cover strangers that are in the home.
This seems to satisfy most people. But not all. Last week I had someone insist he was going to look around, even after I told him he couldn’t. I explained about my insurance, and asked him again to leave the home. He said he would, as soon as he finished looking at the home. He told me I better mind my own business and just go about my job. I told him that right now this house is “my business.” I told him to take his time, since he was trespassing and I was going to call the police and give them his license plate number. He called me some names that would not make it past the editor, and stormed out of the home. He stopped in the driveway and loudly informed me that I would never be doing a home inspection for him. I smiled and told him that was the first thing we agreed on.
Which brings me to a related topic I get asked about frequently – having the clients attend the inspection. My policy is to have the buyers meet me at the end of the inspection. I will spend as much time with them as needed, but only after my inspection (I don’t mind if they come a little early to a vacant home to measure or take pictures). I have several reasons for this. The first is that I always leave a home exactly as I find it. If I flip a lightswitch and nothing happens, I put the lightswitch back where it was. This switch may control an exterior motion detector light, or an outlet with a timer plugged into it. I leave window coverings as they are. If blinds are partially closed, I actually note exactly where they are and put them back in the exact same position after inspecting the window.
I can’t be with buyers during my inspection. They are not going to go on the roof or in the attic and crawlspace with me. If they are in the home, they may be flipping switches or opening blinds, so I want to make sure I have inspected everything first so I know where everything was.
I was inspecting a home in Chino Valley in 1993, and the buyers arrived while I was on the roof. They were in a minivan with more people inside than it could legally hold. They had their relatives, friends, relatives’ friends, hitchhikers, and even two dogs with them. Before I could get off the roof, they walked through the muddy front yard and into the home. I was there for two hours after they left cleaning mud off the floors. It was while I was on my hands and knees cleaning the floor with paper towels that I decided from then on, buyers will come at the end of the inspection.
There is another reason for having the buyers come after I’ve inspected the home: I don’t start talking until I’m done. The attic and crawlspace (under the home, if there is one) are the last places I go. These are a major part of the inspection, and often the more significant findings are in these areas.
When I first started inspecting homes, I had the buyers attend the entire inspection. Once I was standing in the side yard with a buyer looking at some moisture damage to the eave. Right above this was a wood-sided chimney. I told the buyer that I rarely see saddles to divert roof water around chimneys in our area, and that often the chimney flashing is not properly installed. I even drew a couple of rough pictures showing what I was talking about. When I went on the roof the chimney flashing was perfect. When I went in the attic (remember, this is the last place I go), I found a water line for an evaporative cooler that had been removed. The water line was pushed over near the eave and was dripping. I got out of the attic and told my client to forget the pictures and everything I said about the chimney. I explained that the roof flashing was perfect and there was a dripping water line in the attic.
When a client orders an inspection I explain that I will not start talking until I’ve been in, out, up, down, over, under and all around. Until then, I may not know what caused that stain or why there’s a water valve in the bedroom closet. If they insist on coming early, I ask them if they drive a minivan….
By Randy West on June 2, 2011
I had a seller upset with me a few weeks ago. That’s not too unusual. What was unusual was he actually got ahold of a code book and was technically correct.
I had reported that the door between the garage and home should be fire-resistant and have weatherstripping and a self-closer. The weatherstripping and self-closer prevents toxic car exhaust fumes from entering the home. In our area, the self-closer is usually one or two spring-loaded hinges.
His home was built in 2009, in compliance with the 2006 International Residential Code (IRC). The 2006 IRC did require a “20-minute” (fire-resistant) door between a garage and home, but for some reason left out the self-closing part (section R309.1). Previous additions of the IRC required the self-closers, and the 2009 IRC again requires the self-closers. Interestingly, the 2006 International Building Code (IBC) did require the self-closers (section 406.1.4). But there were a few years when IRC did not require self-closers on garage/home doors.
So the owner was correct, but only regarding the self-closers. The German-shepherd-sized pet door he had installed through the door was still a problem, because the door was certainly no longer fire-resistant.
The seller then stated that I should only report on code violations that apply to that age home in that jurisdiction. I explained that a home inspection is not a code inspection. Using his criteria, I could not inspect homes outside the city limits built before 1988, because there were no Yavapai County building inspections prior to 1988.
This is the same thing I tell my clients: My inspections are based partly on code, partly on performance, and partly on common sense. (I have no authority; I cannot make or require anyone to do anything. I’ve been married for 30 years, so I’m used to that.) Something may meet code, but I can still recommend improvement, such as self-closers on a garage/home door on a 2009 house. Something may not meet code, but I won’t recommend improvement. One example that comes to mind is the openings in deck railings. If the openings are just a little larger than normal, but the deck is not high off the ground and is over a soft lawn, I may not recommend improvement. I will describe the components and condition and state “improvement is discretionary” in my report.
Another example is bedroom windows, which have specific size and location requirements to serve as an emergency ingress/egress. I often find the windows just an inch or two higher off the floor than required. In this case I will state “improvement may not be practical or cost-effective.” I may recommend other improvements to compensate for the condition. With the bedroom windows example I will strongly recommend that the client install smoke detectors in all bedrooms and test them regularly.
As far as performance, even if something was well built and complied with all code requirements when it was installed, it could be unsafe due to age, moisture damage, alterations, etc. If a component is not functioning as intended, or creates an unsafe condition for any reason, a home inspector will recommend improvement even if it meets code.
It was actually fun discussing that situation with that seller. He was well informed and was technically correct, but he understood my reasoning and eventually agreed with my report. It is more common for sellers to get upset and call the home inspectors names. Recently, I inspected a home in which the owner had installed a 240-volt outlet under the electrical panel. This is perfectly legal. He then labeled the breaker “generator – emergency use only.” The seller must have made a cord with two male plugs that he plugged into a generator and the outlet under the panel. In case of a power failure by APS (Arizona Public Service, our electric provider), he would plug the cord into a generator and the outlet under the panel, and would of course turn off the main breaker to shut off the APS power.
In my report, I stated APS would never allow a generator to be connected to a panel in this manner. They require a switch that can only be in the “APS” or “generator” mode, to ensure that the generator and APS power could never be on at the same time. My recommendation was simply to change the labeling and call the breaker an outlet instead of a generator connection, an improvement that would cost nothing and take 30 seconds.
The seller wrote a letter to the real estate agent stating that “I have to question this guy’s competence” and “this guy does not know what he is looking at.” He was referring to me and my comments regarding the electrical panel.
I sent the seller a reply. I told him I just called APS and described the installation. The gentleman I spoke with stated APS would never approve this installation, nor would Prescott or Yavapai County inspectors. I asked him what would happen if the APS power and generator power were on at the same time. He said he wasn’t sure, but he was sure he didn’t want to be near the panel when it happened.
He then said, “This is very easy to correct. There is nothing wrong with the installation, just the labeling. All I have to do is change the labeling from ‘generator’ to ‘outlet’.”
Why didn’t I think of that?
By Randy West on May 5, 2011
I’m going to catch up on some letters this week. A few weeks ago I wrote a column about low-voltage lights and wiring in homes. I explained that low voltage cannot deliver a significant shock. But then I said that was actually incorrect, and low voltage with high amperage (amps or current) can be dangerous. I used the example of my father telling me to grab a spark plug wire when the engine was running. I definitely got shocked!
I got several emails from that column. Here’s one:
“Two errors in today’s column: First, the shock you got from the spark plug wire is neither low voltage nor DC. It is a high voltage from the coil, and is a pulse, not DC. The pulse starts with the points.
“Second, the output of the low-voltage transformer is AC, not DC. Transformers work only on AC, never DC.
“I taught electronics in the Navy back in the ’60s.
“I enjoy reading your column. Keep up the good work.-Norm.”
I replied to Norm and asked what about a taser (hand-held shock weapon). They are low-voltage and can disable a grown man. Norm (among others) was glad to inform me that tasers also step up the voltage. I checked on this, and taser-type weapons do step up the voltage considerably. So I stand corrected. Until someone else emails me with other information.
Q: “I have a problem with my fireplace. It is an insert fireplace with a sheet metal flue going up a chimney with a chimney cap on top. It uses gas and fake logs. I have owned the house since it was new 12 years ago. I have used the fireplace maybe five times in those years. My problem is the wind. It sounds like the wind is beating against the sheet metal inside the chimney. The damper is closed and rattles from the wind. But the main sound is the banging sheet metal from the insert to the cap.
“I have called several fireplace companies in town, but they are only interested in selling new products. Will you give me your idea on what the problem may be and advise me on a solution?-Joyce and Ben.”
A: My first recommendation is to check the chimney on the roof. Usually the metal chimney pipe is routed through a metal chimney cap (flat piece of sheet metal). My job description is to grab everything that’s grabbable and make sure it’s not loose. This includes metal chimneys. Quite a few times I have grabbed the metal chimney and could easily move it back and forth against the metal chimney cap. According to homeowners that were home during my inspection, this can make a pretty darn loud noise in the home. This is easy to correct by installing flashing or straps to secure the metal chimney.
Even though you have only used the fireplace a few times, consider having the chimney cleaned. If fireplace stores won’t do this, have a professional chimney sweep do it. There could be a birds’ nest or other debris in the chimney. A professional should discover any defects that would account for the noise you’re hearing.
Q: “Our Hidden Valley Ranch home was built in the ’80s. We have never been able to find a water shut-off valve on the house. The City of Prescott says we can be fined for using their box to shut off the water in case of emergency. What are our options?-Sandra.”
A: My inspection reports always note the location of the main water valve. If the only valve is in the meter box, I note that technically this valve belongs to the water supplier (city). This is so if they need to repair or replace your meter, they will only have to shut off water to your home. My comment states there should be another valve. Often it’s in a large white pipe near the water meter. Sometimes it’s near the water heater (many newer homes have valves in both these locations). In older homes I have found the main water valve under a sink, in the laundry room or behind an access panel in a closet.
I had not heard of the city fining people for using their water valve. But I’ve never heard of a city withholding building permits if you don’t sign their “hold-harmless” agreement, and Prescott is getting away with that (so far).
A plumber could install a main water valve in a pipe by the meter. This could be a little pricey because it would take some digging. The main water line often enters the home near the water heater. It might be cost-effective to cut a couple small holes in the drywall near the water heater and see if you can locate the main water line, and have a main water valve installed here.
A main valve in the home is more convenient (i.e., it is never under the snow). Of course, if your main water line breaks in the yard, you will still need to turn off the water at the meter. This is unlikely, and if it occurred, I could not imagine the city complaining about using their valve (if you have another valve in the home).
I was joking with local Realtor Steve Karstens about the get-rich-quick schemes you see on TV. I made the comment “how to make a million dollars in real estate in one week.” Steve instantly replied “Easy: Start with two (million dollars).”
By Randy West on April 21, 2011
Although Arizona does not, most professional home inspector organizations require continuing education for their members. These classes are very beneficial, especially to keep inspectors up to date on new building practices, new materials, etc. I attend a lot of classes, but I also learn a lot from asking questions. For example, about 15 years ago, we started seeing small expansion tanks over water heaters. I asked every plumber I encountered what these were for. I got quite a few different answers, which I won’t go into here. But I have other sources of information.
One great source is owner’s manuals. I often find the owner’s manual for a water heater, furnace, gas fireplace, etc., in a home I’m inspecting. I will read these during my breaks. The installation sections are very dry reading, but can be very informative for a home inspector.
So, what are those little tanks for? First, let’s talk about temperature and pressure relief (TPR) valves. When water is heated, it will expand. In fact, it can expand enough to cause a water heater to explode. To prevent this, all water heaters have a TPR valve. This valve will open if the water gets too hot or if the pressure gets too high. When I took my first home inspector class in 1993, they showed a film of a 1940s water heater that did not have a TPR valve. The water heater malfunctioned and the burner stayed on, and eventually the water heater blew up. It was in a small wood-frame home on an Army base, and the home looked like a pile of toothpicks. (No one was hurt; the home was vacant.)
A water heater blew up in Phoenix on Aug. 14 a couple of years ago. (How do I remember that? It happens to be my anniversary). The water heater went a couple hundred yards and landed near a bus stop, and the home was destroyed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The “Mythbusters” TV show also blew up a water heater by plugging the TPR valve. They used a small 10-gallon water heater, but it was still a pretty impressive explosion.
As the water in a water heater heats up, it expands, because water is not compressible. Heating 40 gallons of cool water to 120 degrees will expand the water by about a half-gallon. That water has to go somewhere. The expanded water (and higher pressure) will often cause a valve to start dripping. Sometimes this is a sink faucet or a toilet fill valve. But sometimes it’s the TPR valve. The pressure is not enough to fully open the TPR valve, but it can start dripping/leaking. This can cause calcium to build up on the valve and obstruct it. And we know now that we really want that TPR valve to function properly.
So, water is not compressible, but air is. That little expansion tank has a bladder in it. When the water in a water heater expands, the bladder will expand, “absorbing” the water and compressing the air in the tank. This will save drippy faucets, including the TPR valve. This also prevents other possible damage to the water heater from high pressure, including damage to the flue that can result in poor drafting and carbon monoxide escaping around the water heater.
I’m not trying to scare you. Sixty years ago water heaters could malfunction and stay on, and eventually explode. But gas and electric controls are much better now. The chance of a water heater staying on is very slim. And if it does, the TPR valve will open before anything bad happens. And to make sure there isn’t slightly high pressure that can partially open and damage a TPR valve, there’s an expansion tank. So, water heaters are extremely safe today.
I hear you saying, “So what about that water heater in Phoenix that blew up?” I was obviously very interested in that story. And I remember the reason. It was an old water heater. It did not have an expansion tank, which caused the TPR to start leaking/dripping. Someone saw the TPR discharge line dripping, so he plugged it! Plugging anything that has “pressure relief” in its name is not very bright.
By Randy West on April 7, 2011
Before I answer this week’s question, I want to talk about transformers. Not cars that change into giant robots, but electrical transformers. All homes have a small transformer. Sometimes this transformer is not visible – it can be in the attic or crawlspace, or in an electrical box. Often the transformer is visible – I’ve seen them over a water heater, on a garage wall, or in a closet. I’m often asked what these are for. These “transform” the 120-volt power in a home to 24 volts. The 24 volts is used for low-voltage circuits, such as doorbells and furnace thermostats. The advantage to low-voltage circuits is the wiring cannot be a fire or shock hazard. Many yard/landscaping lights also have a transformer and use a “safe” voltage, and not surprisingly are referred to as “low-voltage lights.”
To be completely factual (and confusing), low voltage can be just as dangerous as high voltage. The current, measured in amps, is what can give you a new hairdo. When I was about 12 years old, I was helping my dad tune up a car. He started the engine, and one wire had not been attached to the spark plug. The wire was sparking to the engine. My dad told me to connect it to the spark plug. I told him to turn the engine off so I wouldn’t get shocked. My dad, who was a very smart engineer, told me that DC could not shock me. I was old enough to know there was AC and DC power, but not old enough to be a little more cynical. I grabbed the loose wire and proceeded to get shocked. Every time that wire sent voltage to the spark plug, the current went right up my arm. And every time that happened I jerked back and hit my head on the bottom of the open hood. And every time I hit my head on the hood, my dad laughed harder. After a few seconds that seemed like minutes, he turned the car off. He looked at me and said, “Sorry, son – maybe DC can shock you.”
That taught me two valuable lessons. One: DC can shock you. And two: Don’t ever trust old people. And it makes my point that low volts, with the right amps, can be a very shocking experience.
Back to that transformer in your home somewhere. The voltage and current going through the low-voltage wires are low enough that they are not a shock hazard. So you can basically ignore the electric code with regard to these wires. The wires don’t have to be in conduit; splices don’t have to be in junction boxes – you could tape the wire across the living room windows if you wanted. Now you’ll understand this week’s question better:
Q: “Do you know what could be causing an alarm going off in my attic? This has happened three times now that I am aware of since January. At about 5 a.m., a low-voltage ring occurs for a short time, wakes me up, and then nothing.
“It happened when I had someone in the guest room on the other side of the house and they thought it was an alarm in my room. To me, it is coming from the attic area.
“I also have noticed some of the insulation coming from the ventilation holes in the eaves and wondered if there are rodents in the attic chewing on wiring, causing a short and an alarm to go off?
“I really have no idea and my supposition may be illogical. I just have no idea what is causing the alarm about every 3 weeks – random, periodically.”
A: Damaged screens at attic vents are not a good thing. These screens keep out vermin and other pests, which is important. Also, these vents should not be obstructed with insulation. So my first advice is to check all the vent screens and repair/replace the screens as needed. And clear the insulation away from the vents if possible.
Now about the “low-voltage” ring – I assume you mean low volume. Vermin chewing on wiring insulation is not unheard of. It is more likely they will just break a wire, but it is possible they could cause a short. If they caused a short in a 120-volt electrical wire, it could be a fire hazard, but the breaker should trip off and alert you there is a problem. If they damage a low-voltage wire, such as a thermostat or doorbell wire, it could activate the doorbell or turn on the furnace. (I’ve not heard of this, but it could be possible. And DC can’t shock you.)
I cannot think of what would cause a ringing noise in the attic itself. A few guesses: perhaps a noisy turbine attic vent (was it windy when you heard the noise?). A power attic ventilation fan occurred to me, but these usually come on when the attic is 100 degrees, not at 5 in the morning. Often the furnace is in the attic in our area. I’ve never heard of a ringing noise from a furnace, but it’s possible a noisy fan or blower could make some strange noise. I can’t think of anything else in an attic that comes on intermittently (every three weeks). Anyone out there have an idea?
Note to self: Add “poltergeists” to limitations and exclusions in the Inspection Agreement.
By Randy West on March 24, 2011
This has been the snowiest winter in Prescott in a long time. We had a heavy snowfall at the end of December, followed by unusually cold weather. There was still snow and ice in the shade six weeks later in February. Then we had another heavy snowfall this past weekend.
One result of this snow was my realization that a lot of Prescott drivers should not be allowed to drive on snow. Some should not be allowed to drive at all, for that matter. I turned 16 in November in Wisconsin. There was a foot of fresh snow on the ground when I took my driver’s test, and I didn’t drive on dry pavement for five months after getting my license. We lived in the Rocky Mountains before we moved here. So I’m used to snow. I went out the morning after the December snowfall, and was amazed to find cars abandoned all over the place – at stop signs, in the middle of busy streets, across/blocking side streets and driveways – everywhere. Why people would walk away and leave their $40,000 car in the middle of a street is beyond my understanding.
Another result of this snow and cold weather was numerous calls from homeowners who have water entering their crawlspaces (the area under a home). Some callers have owned their home many years and never had water in their crawlspace before.
This is not unusual with this weather. Rain will quickly drain away from a home, assuming the site drainage around the home is good (i.e. the ground slopes away from the home). If you think about it, even after the heaviest monsoon, the roads are dry a short time after the rain stops. Mostly. Except for puddles in potholes and low areas, of which Prescott has many. The same is true around a home. Most homes have gutters to control the roof water and, shortly after a heavy rain, the soil around a home is relatively dry.
But snow staying on the ground for weeks will slowly melt and completely saturate the soil around a home. And the cold weather may cause ice in subsurface drains or on the surface where water would normally drain, causing more moisture to remain around the home.
Now remember that no masonry product is completely waterproof. Moisture will seep through concrete, block walls, bricks, stucco, and any masonry product. So with super saturated soil next to a home for several weeks, it becomes more likely that some of the moisture will get through concrete or block stem walls and find its way into a crawlspace.
The good news is minor and/or occasional moisture in a crawlspace is seldom a structural concern. Constant water or moisture in a crawlspace is a concern, of course. Constant humidity can cause rot or fungus on wood and corrosion or rust on metal (nails, framing straps, etc.). Humidity can also cause condensation on water lines, air conditioner refrigerant lines and even on insulation.
But if you have some water in your crawlspace after unusual weather you should not be too concerned. My advice is to make sure all your crawlspace vents are open and not obstructed. Check for dirty screens or insulation in the crawlspace obstructing the airflow through the vents. If you’re really concerned you can put a fan near the crawlspace access blowing in or out. Be careful with electrical appliances on wet soil. Put the fan on a piece of wood or blocks, and don’t run it constantly. Just turn it on during the day when you’re home. If you don’t have an outlet in the crawlspace, you can run an exterior rated extension cord to an exterior outlet (which should be GFCI protected) and turn the fan on and off by plugging and unplugging the extension cord.
Water entering a crawlspace under a manufactured home can be a larger concern. Most manufactured homes in our area are supported on metal posts that are supported on concrete blocks or pads. If the soil in a crawlspace under a manufactured home gets and stays very wet, the pads can settle, allowing the posts to settle and possibly loosen, which then can allow the home to settle. You should have all the posts under a manufactured home checked occasionally and secured/tightened if needed. If you haven’t had this done in a while (or never), after this winter would be a great time to have it done.
I’ve also had quite a few calls about roof leaks, and again people are having leaks where they’ve never had one before. This is often caused by ice in the gutters and downspouts, causing ice to back up onto the roof. These are called ice dams and are common problems in some areas of the country. Ice dams usually form near the gutters, but can also form in other cold areas, such as a valley or where a patio cover meets the home roof. The snow above the dam starts to melt. Water runs down the roof under the snow until it hits the cold area and freezes. This continues until you have a dam that causes water to pond on the roof above the dam. Slope roofs are designed to shed water downhill, not to hold water. Water ponding on a shingle roof can get under the shingles or flashings and cause leaks. The remedy is to shovel/sweep the snow off the roof, and make some paths through the ice for water to drain. I can’t recommend this, because it is very dangerous to work on a snow- or ice-covered roof. It’s much better to pay a licensed contractor or that kid in the neighborhood you don’t like too much to do this.
By Randy West on February 24, 2011
Q: Last year we bought a home in Prescott Valley. We paid $300 for a home inspection. It is a carbonless copy report that the inspector filled out at the home in about 20 minutes. When we moved in, we found some owner’s manuals in a drawer, along with an inspection report on our new home. It was your report from a few years ago. Your report was 35 pages and had recommendations for repairs (rather than just checking a box listing the defects), maintenance advice and 48 color photos. When we saw your column, we recognized your name and called you to check on your fees. Your report was much better than the carbonless one we received, and we were shocked to find out your fee was actually less. It obviously took you quite some time to complete this report, and yet you charged less than the 20-minute one we got.
I know home inspectors are licensed in Arizona. How can it be that someone charges more money for a lesser service? Can we let the agency that licenses you know how unhappy we are with our report?-LL in Prescott Valley
A: LL, I don’t like disparaging other home inspectors, but I always answer questions as honestly as I can. Of course, in doing that, I’ve managed to disparage Hyundai drivers, electricians, Williamson Valley Road drivers, glass companies, Hummer drivers, plumbers, short people on horses and every driver but me. So here goes.
The report format you received is called a “checklist” report, and computer-generated reports are called “narrative” reports. Not many inspectors use the checklist report any longer.
Home inspections are not the only product or service where you can pay more to get less. It is always difficult to make sure you get your money’s worth, whether it’s a service such as a plumber or home inspector, or a product such as a car or cell phone. The only way to make a good decision is to do some research so you know the right questions to ask, and then check and compare more than one service provider or product. Even then, it can be hard to make the right decision. Once I bought a major-brand TV at Sam’s Club in Flagstaff, before we had a Costco or Sam’s Club here. At home, I discovered the remote control did not have mute or previous channel buttons. This seems minor, but I would not have bought the TV had I noticed this in the store. And the next week Sears had a better model on sale for the same price. Hindsight is always 20-20.
Here are questions to ask home inspectors: How long have you been an inspector? How many inspections have you done? How long are you on site? What professional affiliations do you have? And always – what kind of report will I get? Always look at the sample report on the inspector’s website.
The main advantage to a narrative report is it has much more information, including information specific to your home, and usually a lot of photos. The main advantages to a checklist report are you get it right away, and it costs much less. Not only does it take very little time for the inspector to complete, the report costs less to produce: no computer, no software, no upgrades, no digital cameras, etc. And no pulling out your hair (which is an endangered resource for some of us) when you lose two or three hours of work on a computer. (Note that it is never operator error. In fact, humans have made very few mistakes since computers were invented.)
This is not to say that home inspectors who use checklist reports are not good home inspectors. They may be very experienced, excellent home inspectors. I did my first 1,500 inspections using a checklist report (and charged $150). It was great being completely done with an inspection when I drove away from the home.
Then in 1996 I inspected a home where the garage door opener did not reverse – a significant safety concern to convertible cars and small children. The client’s children were present and pretty much out of control. In fact, the children were jumping up trying to hit the button to shut the garage door. I completed the report, including checking a box that said something like “Overhead garage door did not reverse – consult appropriate contractor.” I realized this was just one box of a couple hundred on the checklist report – there was nothing to say how important this might be, or the potential risks to children (especially not well-supervised ones). Was this the best product I could offer my client? That’s when I went to a computer-generated narrative report. Now, with the push of two keys, I insert the following comment:
“The garage door did not reverse under resistance to closing. This can present a serious risk of injury, particularly to children. Improvement is usually as simple as adjusting the sensitivity control on the opener (often labeled ‘down force’). Consult the owner’s manual or manufacturer for more information. This should be corrected immediately.”
Now I’ve told you the problem, that it’s an important problem, why it’s an important problem and what to do to correct it. This gives my clients much more information than checking one more box on a form.
To answer your last question, home inspectors are “certified,” not “licensed,” by the state. The difference is not important to most consumers. You can only file a complaint about an inspector if he or she did not follow the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors. You cannot complain because the inspector is rude, mean, too old, too young, drives an ugly car or charges too much, since none of these are regulated by the state.
By Randy West on February 10, 2011
I need to catch up on some questions I’ve received from Courier readers:
Q: I woke up recently to ice on half the windows in my 4-year-old home – on the inside. What’s up with that? Obviously it’s a sealant fault, but do you think I have a case to take back to the builder? If I have to correct it myself … how? Could this problem have been detected if I had you inspect the house before moving in?-Jan D. in Prescott Valley
A: Jan, I am sure you have double-pane windows in a 4-year-old home. The ice is from condensation on the inside of the windows because of the difference in temperatures on both sides of the window. We use coasters under our glasses of iced tea in the summer because condensation will form on the outside (warmer side) of the glass and damage a wood tabletop.
Condensation on windows is not because of broken seals on the windows – that would allow condensation (fogging) between the panes of the glass, not on the inside. Condensation on the insides of windows is a major concern with single-pane windows in cold climates. I remember putting storm windows on all our windows every fall when I was a lad living up north. Double-pane windows were designed to reduce condensation and eliminate the need for installing and removing storm windows every fall and spring. Unfortunately, even double-pane windows can get condensation on the inside.
So I’m guessing something is putting humidity in your home to cause the condensation on the inside of the windows. Most homes have a forced air furnace, which does not add humidity to the air. Are you using a humidifier, either on the central furnace or a free-standing model? If so, I would stop using it and see if that helps. If you have a humidifier on your furnace, have it checked by a contractor, and make sure it’s not malfunctioning (running all the time).
Other sources of humidity are kitchens and bathrooms. Use the exhaust fan when cooking in the kitchen, assuming it goes to the exterior. In many homes, the kitchen fan does not really exhaust and just blows the air back into the room. In this case, operating the fan will not change the humidity levels in the home. Most newer homes have exhaust fans in all bathrooms, but an older home may have just a window. Make sure you use the bathroom exhaust fans, especially when using the shower or tub, to control humidity. If you have a bath with just a window, you really should open the window a little when showering. Of course that’s easy for me to say – I admit I would not open a bath window when the outside temperature is in the single digits. If you have a bath with only a window, consider having an exhaust fan installed. This should be a relatively minor expense, depending on how accessible your attic is.
Another source of humidity is any open flame. A kitchen cooking range should not put much humidity in the air if it’s only used for cooking (unless you do a lot of cooking!). But any type of open flame can put a significant amount of humidity in the air, including ventless fireplaces or other open flame heating sources and even candles or lanterns.
To answer your other questions, if the windows are not fogged between the panes, the contractor will not likely do anything because it is not a window defect. And a home inspector can only comment on the conditions present when he does the home inspection. It would be impossible to inspect a home in the summer and know what conditions may be present in the winter, especially during an unusually cold period like we’ve had this month.
Q: My house was built in 2004 and, according to code, has smoke alarms installed. They are AC operated with 9V battery backup. Periodically (usually in the middle of the night), the alarms go off – sometimes just for a couple of blasts; other times they can alarm for up to a minute before shutting off. It scares the heck out of us. What do you think is wrong?-Larry Peters
A: Almost all home smoke detectors have a “beam” in them. This is similar (but much smaller) to the beam across the bottom of your overhead garage door. If you interrupt the beam under the garage door with your leg, the door will reverse. If the beam in a smoke detector gets interrupted, the alarm will sound. Small insects can get inside a detector and interrupt the beam. Recently, a homeowner told me she called the fire department when her smoke detectors went off, and the fire department found a spider in one of them. So my advice would be to clean all the detectors. Most AC (120 volt) detectors will not “open” other than a small compartment for the backup battery. You can try (carefully) cleaning them with the brush attachment on your vacuum cleaner. If your home was built in 2004, the detectors should be interconnected, so if one goes off, they all go off. This is a nice feature: If an alarm in the guest bedroom is activated, you will know immediately, even if you’re in another part of the home. Of course, this makes false alarms more annoying.
Most people don’t know this, but these detectors also have sensors built in. These sensors can tell if something unusual is going on, and will cause most false alarms to happen when you have houseguests, during the Super Bowl, or if you had a little too much to drink.
By Randy West on January 27, 2011
I have had numerous phone calls from homeowners, home inspectors and realtors about the “official notice” sent out from the City of Prescott regarding sewer backflow valves. The notice said Prescott has passed a resolution and ordinance to amend the 2006 International Plumbing Code that was already adopted by the city.
The City of Prescott added the following to the plumbing code:
“Section 715.1.1: Sewage backflow retrofit requirements. All structures connected to the City of Prescott sewer system prior to the adoption of this ordinance shall be protected by an approved backwater valve when additions, alterations, or repairs to existing structures are done.”
I hear you asking: What is a backflow valve? This is a one-way valve installed in a home sewer line. It allows wastewater to flow away from the home to the sewer, but not backwards. So if the city sewer line becomes obstructed, the sewage cannot flow backwards into your home.
Prescott Valley has required these for about 10 years. In most Prescott Valley homes there are three black pipes in the front yard, usually near the home. Two of these are the waste- line cleanouts (for the Roto-Rooter guy when your kids flush their toys down the toilets.) The third pipe is a little larger and contains the backflow valve.
The letter from Prescott infers that every homeowner in Prescott needs to rush out and have a backflow valve installed. This is not my interpretation; this is why people are calling me. I don’t believe the city can require someone to install a backflow valve immediately. The amendment says a backflow valve is required “when additions, alterations or repairs to existing structures are done.”
If you read the letter from the city, it says you will install a valve or sign a “hold harmless and indemnification agreement.” I will refer to this simply as the “agreement.” I read the agreement online. It basically says if the city sewer line fails and causes sewage to back up into your home, you will have no claim with the city. It says other stuff that I did not reread enough times to fully understand; I’m pretty sure it was written by an attorney.
So here is what I tell homeowners about this letter. The city cannot require you to have a backflow valve installed; you can sign the agreement instead. A backflow valve is not a bad idea, but some homes may not really need them. If your home is the highest one on the street, a backflow valve is much less important. (If a backflow occurs, it will likely be in your lower neighbor’s bathtub and not reach yours.) If your home is the lowest on a hilly street, a backflow valve is a good idea. You need to consult with a plumber regarding cost. If your waste lines are accessible in a crawlspace, it may be possible to install the backflow valve here. This would be much less expensive than if the plumber has to install the valve in an underground waste line. And make sure you get a permit so the city knows you had the backflow valve installed.
I tell real estate agents that, as a home inspector, I will not mention the absence of backflow valves in my inspection report. Home inspectors report on the visual condition of the home at the time of the inspection. We do not report on code compliance; an inspection like that requires much more time and research. If there is not a backflow valve, we cannot determine if the current owner has signed the agreement. This may be a disclosure situation for real estate agents, which is beyond my knowledge.
I tell other home inspectors that I will not report on the existence or absence of a backflow valve. There may be one that is not visible. There may be one that is visible but is not installed correctly or is defective. However, the indemnification agreement has clauses that state the agreement will be recorded and will “run with the land.” I interpret this as meaning that subsequent owners of the home will be bound by this agreement. Frankly, I have never heard of a municipality requiring such an agreement. I can’t say it has not been done; I’ve just never heard of it. I will be adding a disclaimer in my inspection reports that briefly explains backflow valves and the city requirements. I will state that determining the existence or proper operation of a backflow valve is beyond the scope of a home inspection, as is determining if an indemnification agreement on this property has been executed.
I’ve always told homeowners that they are not required to upgrade their home every three years when a new building code is issued (or more accurately, when a new building code is adopted by your municipality.) It would be impossible for municipalities to enforce this and to inspect every home every three years. It would be expensive for every homeowner. It could be extremely expensive for owners of old homes.
I have told clients and homeowners that a municipality will usually require compliance with newer codes if a building permit is obtained. For example, if you remodel your kitchen, you will need to upgrade to current safety devices, such as GFCI outlets, anti-tip brackets on ranges, etc. I have no problem with this. If you are remodeling your kitchen anyway, these upgrades are a good idea and will be little additional cost.
In the future, I will be careful what I tell clients about code compliance and future building permits. Apparently, Prescott can require you to get a backflow valve before granting a permit of any kind, even if the permit is for work that has nothing to do with the plumbing system. Knowing this, I cannot say for sure what any municipality may require for obtaining permits.
By Randy West on January 13, 2011