Susan West

Associate Broker

2008 

December 

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How legalese has changed the home inspection profession 

My wife pointed out a letter to the editor in this paper about a week ago. This totally unsolicited and unexpected letter stated the writer always looks forward to my columns. I appreciate that you appreciate my columns (and your gift certificate is in the mail). 

I have some great questions here about tankless water heaters, arbitration, shingle roofs, hot water circulators, whether GM should file bankruptcy, how long Hillary will last working for Obama, etc. All these questions require thinking, and possibly some research. Since this is my last column before Christmas, I picked a nice easy question. 

I had a call from an inspector the other day asking how long he should keep his inspection reports. He uses a paper/checklist report format, so a couple thousand inspection reports take up a lot of room. I told him the Arizona Rules and Statutes that regulate home inspectors don’t specifically address this, but the Board of Technical Registration recommends keeping reports at least five years. 

I’ve made my reports on a computer since 1994. I keep the current year reports right on my desktop and previous years on an external hard drive. 

For some reason, that phone call made me decide to ‘clean up’ my old inspection report folders. It was amusing, and a little scary, to read some of my first computer-generated inspection reports. 

Inspection reports changed a lot in 2001, when home inspectors in Arizona became regulated and had an official Arizona Standards of Practice to comply with. But inspection reports have changed a lot over the years for other reasons, including, of course attorneys. This prompted me to write the following History of Home Inspection Report Writing. (I admit the last paragraph may be slightly exaggerated.) 

1986: The bathtub faucet leaks. 

1988: The bathtub faucet was observed to be leaking. 

1990: The bathtub faucet was observed to be leaking at the time of the inspection. 

1992: The bathtub faucet was observed to be leaking at the time of the inspection and should be repaired. 

1994: The bathtub faucet was observed to be leaking at the time of the inspection and should be repaired or replaced as required. 

1996: The bathtub faucet was observed to be leaking at the time of the inspection and should be repaired or replaced as required by a licensed plumbing contractor. 

1998: The bathtub faucet was observed to be leaking at the time of the inspection and should be repaired or replaced as required by a licensed plumbing contractor to prevent water damage to the home. 

2000: The bathtub faucet was observed to be leaking at the time of the inspection and should be repaired or replaced as required by a licensed plumbing contractor before the close of escrow. This will prevent water damage to the home. 

2003: The bathtub faucet was observed to be leaking at the time of the inspection and should be repaired or replaced as required by a licensed plumbing contractor before the close of escrow. This will prevent water damage to the home. Water leaks in bathrooms can cause substantial damage to the framing and structure of the home that is not visible in this limited visual-only home inspection. Further investigation is recommended. 

2006: The bathtub faucet was observed to be leaking at the time of the inspection and should be repaired or replaced as required by a licensed plumbing contractor before the close of escrow. This will prevent water damage to the home. Water leaks in bathrooms can cause substantial damage to the framing and structure of the home that is not visible in this limited visual-only home inspection. Further investigation is recommended. Also note that water leaks can cause mold growth in the walls. Mold can be hazardous to you or your neighbors, who could sue you for dangerous mold fibers blowing over into their yard. 

2009: The bathtub faucet was observed to be leaking at the time of the inspection and should be repaired or replaced as required by a licensed plumbing contractor before the close of escrow. This will prevent water damage to the home. Water leaks in bathrooms can cause substantial damage to the framing and structure of the home that is not visible in this limited visual-only home inspection. Further investigation is recommended. Also note that water leaks can cause mold growth in the walls. Mold can be hazardous to you or your neighbors, who could sue you for dangerous mold fibers blowing over into their yard. Also, the constant dripping of the faucet could keep you awake at night. This could result in your physician prescribing medication to help you sleep. The stress of not enough sleep and the neighbors suing you could cause you to become addicted to these medicines. This could result in you falling asleep at work and losing your job. The lack of income combined with the costs of defending yourself from your neighbor’s lawsuit could result in you losing your home to foreclosure. This could in turn cause your wife to leave you, and she’ll likely take your bank account and medicines with her. This could result in you wandering the streets in a withdrawal daze until you’re arrested and committed to a rehab facility. When you are released from the rehab program and are in the market for a new home, please contact our office; we do offer a discount for repeat customers. 

By Randy West on December 18, 2008  

 

Who’s to blame for code violations? 

The editorial in this paper on Nov. 22 was titled “Those who do a bad job must pay.” The column was about the cost overruns on the Copper Basin road project. The city is claiming that some of the cost overruns were due to design errors by the architectural firm the city hired. 

All I know about this situation is what I’ve read. I agree with the editorial; if there were design flaws, the architectural firm should be accountable and not me. I say “me” because it aggravates me when the government talks about spending ‘their’ money. The government does not earn money; they take money in the form of taxes. So when Uncle Sam or the City of Prescott talks about spending money, they’re spending your and my money. 

I recently wrote about the building inspector in Dewey who would not ‘pass’ a home even though the builder had a letter from an architect stating the design would perform as intended. These two cases remind me of one of the first times I served as an expert witness, which involved architects and city inspectors. 

The plaintiff in this case was a builder suing a homeowner and architect. The homeowner had an architect draw up plans for major improvements to his home, including a room addition and a large deck with a sunken hot tub. The builder bid according to the architect’s plans, and the owner contracted with the builder to make the improvements. The owner pulled the permits, and the contractor had completed most of the work when the city inspectors failed several items. Since some dismantling was involved, the cost to make the improvements required by the city was substantial. 

The contractor assumed the architect or owner would pay for these changes, since he had built according to the architect’s plans. Surprise! The architect refused to pay because he had a clause in his contract that stated the contractor would “construct the project according to applicable codes.” 

The case was a little more muddied since the builder did not have a contract directly with the architect. So pretend you’re the judge; how would you decide this case: 

The owner claimed it was not his responsibility. After all, he hired a licensed architect and contractor, so why should he pay for their mistakes? 

The architect’s attorney stated in addition to his client’s ‘escape clause’ (my term) in his contract, his plans were originally accepted by the city and later ‘rejected’ by the inspector. He also stated a builder always has an ‘implied warranty’ that projects will be built to code. This is in fact true. If you hire a licensed professional, there is an implied warranty that the service or product provided will meet all regulatory requirements. That’s why you hire licensed professionals. 

The builder’s attorney argued that builders are not legally allowed to draw plans. Only licensed architects or engineers can do that. And while a builder is familiar with current codes, he has to rely on the architect to ensure the plans will meet all current codes. 

I’ll let my mind wander a little while you think about this (my wife tells me I shouldn’t let my mind wander – it’s too small to be out alone). I was reading a book on the history of Prescott the other day. There was a chapter on a local feud back in the 1870s. The feud was about cattle rustling, but there had been people killed so it was pretty serious. At one point one family of rustlers decided to sue the other family of rustlers, which I thought was a little ironic. The case was heard in Prescott, which had the only courthouse in Yavapai County at that time. I don’t remember the names of the parties or who won. I do remember the last sentence, which stated that the case dragged on for several years and all the attorneys made a lot of money off it. I thought this was a recent phenomena but I guess not. 

So back to our case. The judge decided the homeowner should not have to pay for the changes required by the city, which I agree with. The judge also decided the architect should not have to pay for the changes, mostly because of his ‘escape clause’. I disagreed with this. Builders can’t draw plans; they have to hire an architect. So why should an architect be allowed to use a clause that states the builder has to build to ‘applicable codes’? That’s what the architect is getting paid for – to design a safe building that complies with current codes. 

The judge actually said he wasn’t happy with his decision, but he has to base his decisions on facts and law and not emotion (or common sense, in my opinion). I’m more experienced now, and I think we would win that case. While a builder does provide an implied warranty, that only applies to items that he should know are not up to code. In this case the problems were with how the addition and deck were secured to the original home, and the support for the hot tub. These are details that were unique to this specific remodel job. It is unlikely a builder would have encountered these exact details before, or would encounter them again, and therefore would have to rely solely on the architect’s plans. 

I always advise contractors to use a clause in their contracts to protect them from these situations – something like “The contractor is not responsible for work that does not comply with building codes if the work does comply with drawings or plans provided by an architect or engineer.” Of course, that’s too easy to understand – you need to consult your attorney for the proper legalese wording. 

By Randy West on December 4, 2008 

 

Propane furnaces in crawlspaces can be dangerous 

This week’s column is about propane furnaces in crawlspaces. I wrote on this only a few months ago, but up till then I was writing theoretically. About a month ago a home inspector’s home in Williamson Valley blew up and burned to the ground. John Reding, the owner, suffered severe burns and is still in Maricopa Burn Center in Phoenix. He is recovering, but has a way to go. The entire Prescott real estate community wishes him well, along with his many friends. 

John has not been able to tell us exactly what happened. I spoke with his father, Clay, who was extremely lucky. He had just gone down the long driveway to get the Sunday paper, and the house blew up before he got back. Had he left a minute earlier or later he would have been in the home with John. 

John turned the thermostat up, and a minute or so later his home blew up and burned to the ground. He said that he did smell gas just before the explosion, and was trying to get his dogs out of the home (one didn’t make it, the other will be OK). 

I don’t know exactly what happened, but I have a theory. First, a quick review about propane furnaces in crawlspaces. Natural gas is lighter than air, but propane is heavier than air. Many areas of the country will not allow a propane appliance in a basement or crawlspace because if a gas leak occurs the propane will slowly fill the space. However, I see propane furnaces in crawlspaces frequently in our area. What I recommend (but have only seen a few times) is a catch pan under the furnace with a 1 1/2 inch pipe draining downhill to the exterior. The idea, of course, is that if a gas leak occurs the propane will ‘drain’ through the pipe to the exterior. 

I also tell clients there is a ‘gas sniffer’ valve they can have installed that will shut off the gas supply if it detects a gas leak. I spoke with Ed Phillips, operations manager at Flame Propane in Prescott, and he said these valves cost about $500 and installation is usually a little over $100. He told me this includes a warning device inside the home that alerts the homeowners if propane was detected. 

So here’s my theory on what may have happened to John’s house. Often when the thermostat calls for heat, the first thing that happens at the furnace is a draft fan comes on for a minute or so. The idea is to clear any gas from the burn chamber before the pilot light comes on. I was thinking that if there is a gas leak and propane in the crawlspace, the draft fan could actually pull the propane into the furnace. When the pilot light comes on it could cause an explosion. 

I presented my theory to two experts. Paul Williams owns Arizona Heating and Cooling in Prescott, and Aaron Kruger is service manager for Profab Heating and Cooling in Prescott Valley. These are the two people I call when I have a question about a furnace or air conditioner. Both their answers were almost identical. 

Paul and Aaron both said my theory was completely possible. Both said that is the reason they will only install furnaces with sealed combustion chambers in crawlspaces. Paul told me you should be able to put a sealed combustion furnace in a room full of propane and nothing bad would happen. He told me he had not tested that theory personally, and I don’t plan to either. Aaron told me that in addition to only using sealed combustion furnaces in crawlspaces, he usually installs the gas sniffer valve as an added safety measure. 

My next question was: Even if the gas sniffer valve detects gas and shuts off the gas supply, couldn’t the furnace still try to light and cause an explosion? Both Paul and Aaron told me there is a module that can be added to the sniffer valve that will shut off power to the furnace to prevent this from happening. That makes a lot of sense to me, and from now on I will only recommend sniffer valves that will also shut off power to the furnace. 

I also see propane water heaters in crawlspaces, which can present different challenges since they usually have a continuous pilot light. They need the catch pan and drain under them, and I will recommend a sniffer valve too because it will shut off the gas supply so the pilot light will go out. 

After what happened to John’s home I can guarantee you one thing: I (and likely the other local home inspectors) will have a much stronger comment in my report the next time I see a propane appliance in a crawlspace. 

By Randy West on November 13, 2008 

 

Weep screeds pose an array of special issues 

Happy Halloween! We’re not giving out candy this year. We bought some hot dogs and took most of the meat out of them. We’re calling them ‘hollow wieners’. 

A front-page article in the Oct. 23 Courier was about an appeal on a code violation on a new home in Dewey or Humboldt. All I know is what I read in this paper, but I have some comments. I have not seen the home, and none of the parties involved have bought me a new car recently, or even a nice dinner. (I don’t know any of the parties mentioned in the article). 

The appeal concerned a weep screed. I’ve described the weep screed before in this column. A weep screed is a ‘drain’ in a stucco wall. Stucco is not a waterproof wall cladding. You may have noticed the different colors in a stucco wall after a heavy rain while the wall dries out. There will be a vapor barrier between the wood frame wall and the stucco to make sure the moisture does not get into the wood framing. 

The weep screed is a metal flashing in a stucco wall that allows moisture to escape. The weep screed appears as a horizontal ‘lip’ in the stucco wall. The weep screed is at the bottom of the wood frame wall, and should be several inches above the soil. Sometimes the concrete or block stem walls extend much higher above the ground, so the weep screed can be well above the soil on some homes. 

If the weep screed is below the soil, or concrete as in the home in last week’s Courier column, the wall may not drain properly. Water trapped in the wall can cause damage to the stucco and/or exterior paint. If the moisture finds a way through the vapor barrier, it can cause moisture damage to the wood framing. And of course it can also cause mold, which is still a hot topic until some new danger comes along. 

If a home inspector sees a weep screed below the soil or concrete he will call it out for all the reasons above. I know most of the local termite inspectors, and they will always call out this condition as well. With the weep screed below the soil termites may discover a way into the wood frame wall. Since their entry point is under the soil, there may not be any visible evidence of termite activity until they do significant damage. 

The article last week stated the building inspector would not issue a Certificate of Occupancy for the home because of the weep screed below the concrete. The home did not have traditional three coat stucco (which is rare anymore), but had what home inspectors call ‘California One Coat’ stucco (which is common). The stucco was covered with elastomeric paint. 

The builder provided a letter from an architect stating that the installation was OK, and had other “witnesses” testify the construction technique would meet the intent of the code. 

This may be, but going by what I read in the article I have some concerns. It’s true that elastomeric paint is very good at keeping moisture out of a stucco-clad wall. Unfortunately water may get in somewhere else, usually at the flashings around windows or other penetrations through the wall. If water does get inside the wall and the weep screed is buried, the elastomeric paint now performs equally well in preventing moisture from getting ‘out’ of the wall. There are documented cases where the elastomeric paint has contributed to the wall damage and mold by preventing the wall from drying out. 

Even if the construction method has been approved by Dewey, home inspectors will continue to call out a weep screed below grade. Common sense states that if you have a drain in a wall, and bury that drain under concrete or the soil, the drain will not be able to function properly. And all home inspectors have seen moisture damage inside stucco walls from inadequate or improper weep screeds. In fact there is more than one class action lawsuit in Arizona right now against builders that were not installing weep screeds at all, resulting in moisture damage inside the walls. And the termite inspectors will also call out the weep screed below the soil because of the possible entry points for wood destroying organisms. 

The article states that the building inspector in Dewey would not ‘pass’ this home because of the weep screed. The inspector said he would need a letter from an engineer or architect. Once he received a letter from the architect, he still would not pass the home and requested testing to confirm the letter. This understandably made the builder angry, since he was told he needed a letter and then after he got a letter he was told he needed testing as well. 

Being a home inspector, I can also see the building inspectors concerns. If he ‘passes’ this home and moisture damage or mold does occur in the wall then the current owner will be upset with him. The inspector stated he “has to look out for the safety and welfare of the residents when applying the code.” I think the inspector was being conscientious and performing his job well. 

On another topic, there was an article in the Courier in last Friday’s Real Estate section about a local builder making a “miniaturized” Victorian style home. The 8-by-8-foot playhouse will be auctioned off at the Habitat for Humanity charity event tomorrow. I couldn’t help but think that if whoever buys this home allows kids to play in it for free, he could call it a ‘stay-free mini pad.’ 

Sorry. 

By Randy West on October 30, 2008 

 

Inspecting a home with utilities off unethical, unsafe 

Last time I talked about the importance of getting a home inspection on a bank-owned property. I explained that if a property is being sold ‘as is,’ this means the seller is not willing to fix anything. It does not mean the buyer does not have the right to have an inspection and find out what they’re buying. 

There are a lot of bank-owned properties being sold. In fact, 15 of my last 20 inspections have been on bank-owned properties. I’ve been having a problem getting the banks to turn on the utilities. You cannot do a complete and thorough home inspection if the utilities are not on. Most of the safety issues I find in homes are related to the electrical system and gas appliances. Inspecting these items is a crucial part of the inspection. 

I will do an inspection if there is no gas. 

It is not that difficult to go back and check the gas appliances, and it does not require going back on the roof or entering the attic and crawlspace again. 

However, if the water or electricity is off, I will not do the inspection. I run water in all the sinks and showers before I go in the crawlspace so I can check for leaks. I have the furnace blower and exhaust fans on when I enter the attic so I can check them for leaks. If I do an inspection on a home with no water or electricity, I will have to enter the crawlspace and attic again. Entering the attic and crawlspace is not enjoyable, and I don’t want to have to go in them again. Actually, I don’t want to go in the first time, but I have to. 

A few days ago I found out I’m not the only one with this problem. I received a call from Mick (not his real name), the owner of a multi-inspector company in Phoenix. Mick’s policy is the same as mine. He tells his inspectors to do the inspection if just the gas is off, but don’t do the inspection if the water or electricity are off. Mick will then call the Realtors and tell them they need the utilities on and to let him know when to reschedule the inspection. 

On several of these, Mick called the Realtors back after a couple days to inquire about the utilities, and was told the inspection was already done by an inspector who didn’t need the utilities on. In some of these cases, the buyers were told the bank will not turn on the utilities, and the buyers bought the home never having a ‘complete’ inspection. This means they don’t know if the furnace, water heater, range and other items are working properly and safely (or if they work at all). These can be very expensive items to repair or replace, not to mention the safety concern if a gas appliance is not working properly. 

It is not illegal for a home inspector to do an inspection on a home with no utilities. The inspector does have to state what items were not inspected or operated and why. So they can make a report that states the electrical system, furnace, etc., were not inspected because the electricity was off. I don’t think this is professional, and I personally don’t think it’s very ethical if the inspector suspects the buyer may buy the home without having a complete inspection. 

Mick has chosen to take what I consider the ethical path and not inspect homes with no utilities, only to lose the inspection completely. If he does the inspection and requests the utilities are turned on so he can complete it, there is the risk that the buyer will be told the utilities cannot be turned on and this is the only inspection they will get. I told Mick that as long as there is proper disclosure in the report he should not have any liability for items that don’t work or need major repair. But he feels that delivering an incomplete report may help fool the buyers into thinking they can’t get a complete inspection, and refuses to do it. I respect him for this decision, especially in this competitive market. 

Every time I call to schedule an inspection, I always ask if all the utilities are on. I have still arrived many times the last few months to find not all the utilities are on. But every time I’ve been called back to do the inspections, so I am not losing business like Mick. I think this says something good about the Realtors up here. I’ve not heard of any Prescott area Realtors telling buyers they cannot get a complete home inspection. I don’t know why a Realtor would do that anyway. If a buyer does not get a complete home inspection, guess who they’re going to call when the roof leaks or the furnace doesn’t work. 

I do have some advice for Realtors. When you show a vacant home that your buyer may be interested in, you should check if the utilities are on. It’s easy to check a light and a sink for electricity and water, and you can check the gas by lighting a burner on a gas stove or checking for hot water at a sink. 

I usually try to make you chuckle a couple of times in my column, but I’m in a somber mood this week. There was an article on the front page of Monday’s Courier regarding a home that burned down in Williamson Valley. The owner is severely burned and is in a Phoenix hospital right now. The owner is John Reding, a local home inspector. I’ve known John for years, and all the home inspectors up here are very concerned about him. On behalf of all the local home inspectors, we want John and his family to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you. 

By Randy West on October 16, 2008 

 

Bank-owned homes in particular need of inspection 

I (and all inspectors) have been inspecting a lot of bank owned properties lately. I had a call last week from someone who wanted to know if there was anything special they should be aware of if they buy a bank owned property since they can’t get an inspection. I asked why they couldn’t get an inspection and they said because the home was being sold ‘as is’. 

I’ve seen occupied homes also offered ‘as is’. I don’t know if Realtors have a specific definition for ‘as is’, but from a home inspectors perspective this means the seller is not willing to correct anything. This does not mean the buyer can’t get a home inspection. In fact, an inspection is more important on a bank owned property because the Sellers Disclosure form likely says ‘don’t know’ about every system and component. This is expected – the ‘bank’ has never lived in the home and doesn’t know if the furnace works right or if the roof leaks. 

The buyers still have a right to know what they’re buying. Even if they’re not going to ask the seller to fix anything they need to know if they will have substantial short term costs. What if the buyers spend most of their savings on a down payment and then find out the roof is leaking and needs replacing? They could be living with pots and pans under all the leaks every time it rains. So the buyers may have to put off buying that new car so they can replace the roof. Or they may decide not to buy the home if they simply can’t afford immediate improvements. 

I think sometimes ‘as is’ means the sellers aren’t willing to fix cosmetic issues or things that should were visible to the buyers when they looked at the home. I know the sellers of ‘as is’ properties have agreed to fix something if it’s a safety issue or an immediate large expense that the buyers can’t afford. 

So in my opinion a home inspection is important on any ‘as is’ property. If the sellers really don’t know anything about the home you have no seller’s disclosure to rely on. And if the home is occupied you might be suspicious why they’re selling it ‘as is’. To be fair to sellers there could be several reasons why they sell a home ‘as is’. Perhaps they’re not making any money on the home (easy to believe in this market) and can’t afford to make any improvements. I also had a seller that didn’t like home inspectors (imagine that!). He told me this in no uncertain terms when I showed up to inspect his home. In fact he followed me around for about an hour to make sure I was fully aware of his opinion of home inspectors, which I pretty much understood after the first 45 seconds. 

I always wonder why sellers would aggravate a home inspector. In my previous life as a builder I treated the building inspectors like Royalty. Of course city or county inspectors have ‘power’ that private home inspectors don’t have. They can make you change things or even issue a stop work order. Home inspectors can’t do that, but we are going to give a written report to the buyer. Fortunately for this seller I am very honest and didn’t let his attitude affect my report. I keep in mind that I work for the buyer, and they deserve an unbiased report. I don’t let my opinion of purple paint or blue tile floors influence my report, and I can’t let my opinion of the seller influence the report either. 

I had a call from a Phoenix Realtor who complained that a home inspector had a lot of cosmetic flaws in his report. The Realtor said that the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors don’t require home inspectors to comment on cosmetic items, and technically she’s correct. However, our Standards are minimum requirements and most home inspectors exceed them. For example, our Standards specifically state that home inspectors are not required to inspect smoke detectors, but I don’t know of any inspectors that don’t test them or recommend them if there are none. 

As far as cosmetic flaws go, I have a comment in my reports that states, “cosmetic flaws are not the focus of this inspection.” That does not mean that I don’t mention them, especially if they’re obvious. If you don’t mention the huge burn in the carpeting by the fireplace the buyers may wonder how observant you really are. I don’t necessarily recommend repairs or improvements, but I do mention visible cosmetic flaws. 

I inspected a bank owned property recently where the last owners really trashed the home. There were holes in almost every wall and door, broken drawers and cabinet doors, towel bars pulled out of the bathroom walls, and huge stains on the carpeting and tile floors (some of which I suspected were urine). Now these are all basically cosmetic items, so technically I do not have to mention them. But I did, of course, and my comment stated that making all these improvements would add up to quite a cost. 

There was only one time that I did not inspect the interior. The home was vacant, and when I opened the front door the smell almost knocked me over. I literally held my nose and entered to start opening windows to air the place out. I noticed the plastic bags of garbage on the floor in every room, and just avoided them. Then I noticed the rats running back and forth between the bags. I went outside, took a deep breath, and went back in and closed the windows I’d opened. This was years ago before inspectors were regulated in Arizona, so I didn’t have to worry about complying with the Standards of Practice. This was also before digital cameras, but I managed to get a Polaroid photo of a rat looking at me through a window. The caption said something about ” the interior was not inspected because the current occupants didn’t want me in the home.” 

By Randy West on October 2, 2008 

 

Dirty clothes dryer ducts a leading cause of house fires 

This week’s topic is clothes dryer vents. A dirty, damaged or improper dryer vent is a serious fire hazard. With a gas dryer there is also the possibility of carbon monoxide in the exhaust gas entering the home. 

I checked a lot of websites recently, including those of manufacturers, Consumer Reports, Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, Consumer Product Safety Commission, etc. The CPSC estimates there are over 15,000 fires annually caused by clothes dryers. 

One thing they all agree on – you should not use coiled-wire foil or plastic ducts for clothes dryers. These are the ‘accordion’ type ducts. The lint easily catches in these type ducts and becomes a fire hazard. They all recommend rigid (solid) or semi-rigid sheet metal ducts. All also recommend avoiding elbows and making the duct as straight as possible. Most recommend venting through a wall instead of up through a roof. 

In Prescott I frequently find the coiled-wire ducts, and I frequently find dryers vented through the roof, and sometimes I find both in the same home. 

So what should you do? Invest in a clothesline and clothes pins? Since that’s unlikely, you should check your dryer duct if possible. It’s usually visible either in the attic or crawlspace. If you have accordion type ducting, have it replaced with metal ducting. Consider having the duct professionally cleaned, especially if you notice it’s taking longer to dry a load of clothes. 

Clean the lint screen in the dryer after every load. Find the dryer vent on the exterior of the home and clean it at least once a month. Hopefully this is easy to get to on an exterior wall. Make sure the “flap” on the vent can fully open. On new homes with stucco walls I have found this flap unable to open because it’s covered with stucco. 

As I mentioned, I frequently find the dryer vents on the roof. I sometimes find roof-vented dryers on homes with concrete tile roofs, which I think is especially poor planning. Many people don’t know how to walk on tile roofs without cracking the tiles, and many (normal) people don’t particularly want to walk on any roof. If your dryer vent is not easily accessible, consider having your handyman check and clean it once a month. 

Following these tips will also save you money – the clothes dryer is one of the most expensive appliances to operate in your home. 

On another subject: Unless you’ve been in a coma, you know the real estate market is down, including new building construction. Home inspectors thought that one good thing that would come of this would be that municipality (city and county) inspectors, who are typically overworked, would have more time to inspect homes under construction. So we were puzzled when home inspectors all over Arizona starting finding more flaws in new homes. We tried to figure out why, and we came up with two reasons. 

First is the poor market. Builders have a lot of overhead, so they can only lower their prices so much. Perhaps they are cutting a few more corners to compete in this market. I haven’t found this too much in Prescott so far. I assume this is more true in larger cities, where the competition is more fierce. 

But if the city and county inspectors have more time now, why aren’t they catching the flaws? Perhaps because municipalities all over Arizona – and all over the country – are now cutting back on their work force, including inspectors. So municipality inspectors remain overworked. 

I’ve heard that Surprise building inspectors are doing over 100 inspections per day – each! Bear with me for a minute while I do a little math. Several inspections (electrical, plumbing, etc.) are at the same building, so if a city inspector is doing 100 inspections per day, he or she will have to go to 25 buildings. In an eight-hour day, they would have to inspect three buildings per hour. This does not include break time, office time or travel time, so they more likely have to inspect four buildings per hour. This would be 15 minutes per building. Keep in mind that there are several inspections in each building. So how thorough can they be? 

I have always been impressed with our local county and city building departments. I hope none of them cut back on inspectors because the number of building permits has fallen. Now would not be a good time to cut back on inspectors. For one thing, Yavapai County building inspections went county-wide last year. So Yavapai County inspectors now have to travel to Cherry, Wilhoit, etc. Yavapai County also recently adopted the International Energy Code, which I think is great. But this also means more work for the inspectors in the field. 

While many new homebuyers have a private home inspection, there are many that do not. For these people, the city or county inspections are the only guarantee that their home is safe and built to current standards. I wonder if new homebuyers in Surprise are aware that the city inspector spent 15 minutes doing four inspections on their new home. 

The real estate market and new home construction always goes through cycles. From what I can tell our local real estate market is starting to pick up. If our building departments lay off inspectors now, they will not be ready when the market gets into full swing again. 

So I sincerely hope that our local building departments don’t reduce the number of inspectors, but rather keep the current number so they have a little more time to spend at each home. And I also sincerely hope that our county supervisors and city council members don’t consider cutting the budget for our local building departments. 

By Randy West on September 4, 2008 

 

Homeowner blowing his fuse over old wiring 

Q: We just bought a 70-year-old home in Prescott. It has knob and tube wiring, whatever that is. If we run the microwave and toaster or coffeepot at the same time, it blows the fuse for the kitchen outlets. The dining room chandelier has 20 bulbs in it, and if this light is on when the refrigerator turns on, the light dims quite a bit. Is this common with knob and tube wiring? A neighbor told us to put in 30 amp fuses to avoid this. Is this a good idea? We also blew the main fuse a couple times when doing laundry, and once when my husband turned on his compressor in the garage. 

We love living in an older home, but we’re getting worried about the constant fuse-blowing. We were planning on making some other improvements right away, but do you think we should move electrical upgrades up on the list? 

A: It’s hard to say where electrical improvements should be on ‘the list’ without knowing what else is on that list, but from what you’ve told me, unless the house doesn’t have indoor plumbing or a heating system, I would put electrical upgrades on the very top of the list. 

Knob and tube wiring was common for many years. Although it is not necessarily unsafe when installed properly, it is only found in older homes, so there will be some concerns. These include the age of the wiring itself, ungrounded outlets (shock hazard), the knob and tube wiring getting covered with attic insulation (fire hazard), and that there may not be enough circuits in the home for modern appliances/lifestyles. 

I won’t go into a long explanation of knob and tube wiring. Let’s just say that any knob and tube wiring will be quite old. I always recommend replacing knob and tube wiring with modern ‘romex’ wiring for improved safety and convenience. 

Now, let’s talk about those blowing fuses. Newer homes have circuit breakers rather than fuses. Circuit breakers serve the same function: over-current protection. Circuit breakers are much more convenient because you simply turn them back on rather than replacing them. Breakers will certainly be less costly if you’re constantly blowing fuses. 

Whether the over-current device is a fuse or circuit breaker, it serves a very important function. Wires can only handle so much current. If you try to run more current through a wire than it can handle, the wire will overheat and can start a fire. So if a fuse or breaker is too small for the wire, the worst thing that can happen is the fuse will blow or the breaker will trip off. However, if the fuse or breaker is too large for the wire, the wire can overheat and start a fire. So you should NEVER use an oversized fuse. And you should certainly never use the ‘penny under the fuse’ trick – this is even more dangerous. 

If a fuse is blowing, it means that circuit is overloaded. You have two choices. One is to lessen the load – e.g., don’t make coffee and toast at the same time. A short-term solution for the refrigerator/dining room light would be to remove most of the lightbulbs in the chandelier, or replace them all with 20-watt bulbs. Keep in mind that lightbulbs are not really a high-use item (although 20 bulbs in a single light fixture is getting up there!). Any appliance that makes heat uses much more power. This includes heaters, toasters, coffee pots, hair dryers, etc. There are other high-use appliances – anything with a compressor (refrigerators, air conditioners, etc., especially when they first start up), and appliances that have to ‘move’ heavy loads (think of a clothes dryer full of wet towels). So you may have to ration the use of these sorts of appliances. 

The safer and more convenient choice is to have an electrician install additional circuits. Newer homes usually have about one 120-volt circuit for each 100 square feet of living space. This is a ballpark figure and changes with the size of the home. Newer homes will usually have a dedicated circuit for high-use appliances, such as the refrigerator, microwave, clothes washer, etc. I’m willing to bet that you have far fewer circuits than this in your home. 

Now that we know what circuit breakers (or in your case fuses) are, now we have to consider the main fuse. This serves as an over-current device for the panel and entire home rather than for a single circuit. I would guess that your main fuses are no larger than 100 amps, which means if several high-use appliances are on at the same time, it can blow. 200 amp main panels are standard now in most homes; very large homes can have two panels or a 400 amp panel. 

So again you have two choices – lessen the load or get a bigger panel. You can lessen the load on the main panel by replacing 240-volt appliances (such as the range, water heater, and clothes dryer) with gas appliances, and by rationing the use of electrical appliances. But I would say you’re overdue for a larger main panel. 

Upgrading the entire electrical system is an expensive adventure, but keep in mind that unsafe electrical conditions can be a fire and a shock hazard. I’ve also heard that running a lot of appliances on a single circuit can be bad for the appliances because of the voltage drop – especially electrical equipment such as televisions and computers. And, of course, there’s the convenience factor as well – like making coffee and toast at the same time. 

By Randy West on August 21, 2008 

 

Multiple smoke detectors a life-or-death necessity 

I want to comment on an article I saw in the July 18 Courier. There was a front-page story on fire sprinkler systems that “not only saved lives, but also have averted potentially high-dollar fire losses.” 

I cannot agree with this more! I read several trade publications each month, and one lists all the major building fires across the country. When there is no fire sprinkler system, the damage is usually in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there are often injuries or fatalities. When there is a sprinkler system installed, the damage is almost always confined to one area and is in the thousands of dollars range. 

I’m convinced that fire sprinkler systems can save lives and injuries, both to the occupants and to our firefighters. I think they should be mandatory in all buildings. Maybe someday. 

So this week I will talk about fire safety tips. The first and most obvious is smoke detectors. Smoke detectors can save your life, not to mention that baseball card collection you’re saving for your retirement. In newer homes there will be smoke detectors in all sleeping rooms and hallways, near stairways, etc. The detectors will be interconnected, so if one goes off they will all go off. This is a great feature that I’m sure has saved many lives. 

If you live in an older home, you should install numerous smoke detectors. Smoke detectors are inexpensive and easy to install, so there’s no excuse not to have plenty of them. Make sure you have one in each sleeping room, in the halls outside each sleeping room, at the top of stairways, and at least one on each level of the home. If a ceiling is higher in one room than in an adjacent room or hall, you should have one in the room with the high ceilings. Frequently there is an open doorway from a living room into a hallway. If the wall over the doorway extends more than 18 inches from the ceiling, you should have a detector on both sides of this doorway. The reason for these locations is the smoke will generally collect near the ceiling first. So if a fire starts in a room with high ceilings, or with a doorway with an 18-inch-high wall over it, the smoke will have to ‘fill’ the first room before it starts entering the hall or adjacent room. Having an alarm go off before the smoke enters the hallway may give you a chance to save those baseball cards. 

Often if there is a detector near the kitchen, you will get false alarms. We have a detector near the kitchen in my house that my wife calls the dinner bell. These are usually needed and it is not a good idea to disconnect them. There are detectors available for these locations that sense heat rather than smoke, which should reduce the false alarms. These detectors are more expensive, but you should only need them where you are getting false alarms with a conventional smoke alarm. 

I also recommend installing a detector in the garage and in any area with gas appliances, such as the attic or crawlspace. 

Many smoke detectors will ‘chirp’ once a minute or so to alert you the battery is getting low. If this occurs, do NOT just remove the battery or disconnect the smoke alarm. You will easily forget you did this. Let it chirp until you put a new battery in. 

Smoke detectors do have a lifespan. Many manufacturers and fire departments recommend replacing smoke detectors every 10 years. As I already noted, detectors are relatively inexpensive, so this is a good investment. 

Frequently I see dual cylinder deadbolts. These are the deadbolts that require a key to unlock them from the interior. I see these on entry doors occasionally, but more often on security doors. Fire departments really frown on these because they can hinder getting out of the home in an emergency. I frequently hear owners say they have these because there is a window next to the door and someone could break the window, reach in and unlock the door. I’m just a simple home inspector, but it seems to me that if someone is willing to break glass, they will find a way in. 

All sleeping rooms are required to have an alternative exit. These are usually egress windows with certain size and location requirements. Egress window openings have to be at least 20 inches wide and 24 inches high. These numbers were not chosen at random – this is the smallest opening that a fireman with a helmet and oxygen tank can fit through. Bedroom egress windows should not be more than 44 inches off the interior floor, and must open to the exterior of the home (not into a porch or patio). Note that only one egress window is required in a bedroom. If a bedroom has a door to the exterior, no egress window is required. 

A bedroom egress window should not be restricted in any way. Security bars are not allowed unless they can be easily opened from the interior. I think they’re a bad idea even with this feature because they can restrict entry by emergency personnel. 

I’ve heard this for years and it sounds kind of corny, but your family should make and discuss a fire escape plan, including agreeing where to meet. You may want to meet in the street, at a neighbor’s porch, etc. This way you can be sure that everyone is out of the home. You can even assign different ‘duties’ to everyone. For instance, Mom can collect the pets while Dad saves the baseball cards. 

By Randy West on August 1, 2008 

 

Mock trial an eye-opener to home inspectors-in-training 

About five years ago, we put on a mock trial at one of our home inspector classes. We tried to make it as real as we could. Jim Eckley, a well-known real estate attorney in Arizona, was the judge. Lawyers from his office represented the plaintiff and defendant. We had real engineers and Realtors as expert witnesses. I played the defendant. We followed all court proceedings as closely as we could. The idea was to give the home inspector attendees a real sample of what life as a defendant would be like. 

Jim threw me a curve (excuse the pun) by having a very attractive girl in a low-cut dress play the aggrieved plaintiff. She was excellent on the witness stand, saying how she relied on the home inspector, and the poor home inspection had caused her misery and grief. 

What was surprising was the jury, who was almost all male, voted in my favor. What was more surprising was it was almost unanimous, and there were 88 jurors. This is not quite as surprising when I tell you that the 88 jurors were the home inspectors attending the class. 

I received more positive feedback from the attendees at that class than any previous class, so we did it again this past year. We had real attorneys, engineers and Realtors again. We also had Miss October playing the plaintiff again. But Jim managed to throw me another curve. I was not going to be judged by my home inspector peers this time. We had a jury of eight non-home inspectors. 

The basic premise was there was some structural movement at the corner of the home. This was not present during my inspection a year earlier, but was the result of a leaking irrigation line next to the foundation. I thought this was an easy win for me. I had pictures showing there was no structural movement when I inspected the home, and a structural engineer to back me up that the movement occurred after my inspection. 

The plaintiff’s attorney really drilled me when I was on the stand. He asked about the common cracks in the drywall I reported on. I replied that my comment states that I see these cracks in every home with drywall walls. He asked me at least 20 times why I didn’t report on “all those cracks” as a potential structural concern. I answered each time by stating there were not many cracks, that they were called common cracks for a reason, and they had nothing to do with the structural movement of the home. I felt he was making a fool of himself, ranting over and over about “all those cracks.” 

When the case was turned over to the jury, nobody but the jurors were allowed to talk, so we all got to hear them deliberating. I was astonished that they found for Miss October. They kept going back to “all those cracks.” I wanted to yell at them that the cracks were very ordinary and were meaningless to this case. I couldn’t, of course, or I would have been found in contempt of court. 

So I had to revise my opinion of the plaintiff’s attorney. He wasn’t as dumb as I thought. He had no case; the facts were all on my side. So he zeroed in something that had absolutely no bearing on the case. He repeated it over and over, and the jury keyed in on it. 

This class was also a success, even though I was found “guilty.” Many of the home inspectors attending the class told me they really felt for me when I was on the witness stand. The lesson we learned that day was that if you end up in court, it doesn’t matter how good an inspector you are, how good a report you delivered, or even if the facts are in your favor. Once the case goes to the jury, there’s no telling how they’ll interpret the facts. In real life, you won’t get to hear their discussions as they are deciding your fate. And I’m sure this doesn’t apply to just home inspectors. Anyone going to court with a jury is in the same boat. 

After the class, the “cast” bought each other some adult beverages in the hotel bar. I asked the attorneys if the outcome was realistic, and they assured me it was. The jury is not made up of engineers or home inspectors, and jurors may cast their votes based on emotion more than facts. If you have a beard and they don’t like beards, or if you look like Uncle Jim who cheated at cards all the time, you could be in real trouble. Fortunately, I’ve never been a defendant in court, and I hope I never will be. 

By Randy West on July 10, 2008 

 

Some ‘cool’ tips from Randy 

Boy it’s hot out there! My only consolation when getting out of a 130-degree attic is thinking about all the home inspectors in Phoenix. I think somebody mistranslated something when they found Phoenix. I don’t think the ancients called it the ‘Valley of the Sun,’ I think they called it the ‘Surface of the Sun’. 

With the high-energy costs today everything we can do to lower our energy bills helps. So take my advice – I’m not using it. 

Use a setback thermostat if you have a central air conditioner. These are inexpensive today; some are only $20. These thermostats can be programmed to raise the temperature when no one is home. I have mine set to turn on the air conditioner at 5:30 a.m., just before we get up. Then it will raise the temperature to 82 at 8 a.m. after my wife and I leave. The air conditioner will come back on about 5 p.m., before my wife gets home. It raises the temperature at 11 p.m., and then it repeats and lowers the temperature at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. Most setback thermostats allow you to set different temperatures for Saturday and Sunday, when you might be home. They are also easy to override, so if you get home early you can easily lower the temperature. And most are pretty easy to set, unlike the first ones a dozen years ago that required a teenager to program them. 

And don’t forget to check those filters. A dirty filter can cost you a lot when operating an air conditioner. 

A lot of homes in our area have evaporative coolers. These are quite effective if the outdoor humidity is low, which it is most of the time in our area. These use much less electricity than an air conditioner. For you recent New Jersian transplants, the principle is quite simple. Water evaporating off something will carry heat away, and thus cool the object. This is just as true for animate objects. Ever get out of a pool or lake on a hot day and you’re cold until you dry off? The water evaporating off your skin is cooling you down. When the water evaporates off the pads in an evaporative cooler it will cool the pads down, and therefore the air passing through the pads. 

An evaporative cooler brings in a lot of exterior air. To get the maximum efficiency you need to open a couple windows a little. If you have ‘high’ windows, open them – this will blow the warmer air near the ceiling out. If your evaporative cooler has only one or two large vents in a hallway, you can draw the cool air into a room by opening the window in that room. 

If you have a gas fireplace with a pilot light, turn off that pilot light. Even a pilot light generates some heat (and of course uses gas). If you put your hand on the glass doors of a fireplace with the pilot light on you will feel how warm the glass is. And this heat is being transferred into the home, making the air conditioner or evaporative cooler work even harder. 

Ceiling fans do not cool a room down! All they do is move the air around. The ‘breeze’ can cool you down, but it doesn’t lower the temperature in the room. Running a ceiling fan when no one is in the room doesn’t do anything but use electricity. 

Installing fluorescent bulbs in light fixtures saves money and generates much less heat, making the air conditioner work a little easier. 

Hot water circulator pumps are becoming common. They won’t cool a home, but they can save energy and water. These are usually located near the water heater, and circulate hot water through the pipes so you don’t have to wait long for hot water at the sink or shower. Newer pumps have a timer so you can set the pump to come on in the morning and evening when you need hot water but it doesn’t run all day and night. Note that in some configurations if the hot water circulator pump is turned off it will take even longer to get hot water to the shower. This is because some of the hot water is being routed back into the water heater through the return loop. If this occurs, you need to make sure that timer is on whenever your wife needs hot water. I can’t think of anything worse than a wife that’s angry because the water wasn’t hot enough for her shower. If she takes a cold shower, you may be taking them too for awhile. 

If you follow all these hints you’ll save enough money to buy a couple large pizzas every month. But find someplace that delivers – you won’t save enough for the gas to go get them. 

By Randy West on June 26, 2008  

 

The ups and downs of stairs 

I received an e-mail last week from ‘Jack’ in Prescott. Jack said he saves my columns when they have good information. I wanted to ask him, “What do you mean ‘when’ they have good information – they all have good information!” 

Jack said his mother moved from Prescott to Wisconsin last year to be closer to most of her family. He said Mom’s getting old, and she’s kind of cranky and is no longer the “brightest light in the harbor.” He said she always read my columns when she lived here because they made her laugh, so now he sends some of my columns to her. I took this as a compliment. 

Anyway, Jack just sold Mom’s old home in Prescott, and that danged home inspector wrote up some major problems with the stairs. He said the interior stairs did not have proper headroom and were too ‘steep’. He said both the interior and exterior stairs had different risers (heights) and no handrails. He made the stairs sound downright dangerous and recommended a contractor “improve them as needed.” Jack said a contractor came out and said he could install handrails, but it would be very expensive to improve the headroom and uneven risers. 

So Jack went back through my columns and couldn’t find the one on steps. I was tempted to tell him that column must not have had ‘good information’, but actually I have never written about steps, so here we go. 

There are two important facts that all home inspectors are aware of. The first is that a lot of the accidents and falls that occur in a home are on stairways. The second is that there are a whole bunch of attorneys in the yellow pages. Given these two facts home inspectors take a very good look at stairways. 

The risers, or height of each step, are not supposed to vary by more than 3/8 of an inch from the lowest to the highest step. Although this does not sound like much, a larger difference could actually pose a trip hazard once someone gets in the ‘rhythm’ of a stairway. Other interesting facts (after all, I have to put some ‘good information’ in here): typically the treads should be at least 10 inches wide and the risers should be no more than 8 inches high. If there are more than three risers/steps, a handrail is required. In newer homes, the handrails are required to 90 degree into the wall at the top and bottom of the steps. There are other requirements for the height and the shape/size of the handrails, basically requiring the handrail to be easy to grab onto. And steps should have at least 6 feet, 8 inches of headroom at all areas. 

From Jack’s e-mail it appears the interior steps in Mom’s house didn’t make any of these requirements, and any home inspector would have commented on them. In an older home I comment that making all the improvements is not always practical or cost-effective due to the architecture of the home. I do get cute sometimes. Recently I inspected an old home that had very low headroom at the landing – less than six feet. I hit my head on the wall at the landing even though I ducked. My report said something about if you invite the Suns up for a weekend party you should duct tape a pillow on the wall at the landing. Not everyone appreciates my humor. I’m glad to know there’s at least one person in Wisconsin that does. 

I will always note these conditions in my report and warn my clients of the possible fall hazards. I inspected a home several months ago that was only a few years old. The interior steps were all about 8 inches high except the very top one, which was over 10 inches high. I didn’t get cute in that report. When a home is 50 years old you expect to find some unusual conditions, but not in a three-year-old home. 

Another item I find in older homes is a door at the top of the steps that opens into the stairway. It doesn’t take the brightest light in the harbor to know this is an unsafe condition. I also find screen or storm doors that open over an exterior stairway. If you have to back off the landing onto the steps to open a door I will certainly make a comment about it. 

While I’m talking about steps, I’m not a fan of those pull-down attic steps. Even if they’re installed properly, I put a warning in my reports that these steps are only intended for occasional use and have a reputation for being hazardous. 

I know home inspectors that won’t use these; they put their ladder over the pull-down steps. 

And more times than not, pull-down steps are not installed properly. There should be installation instructions on a label on these steps, assuming it hasn’t fallen off or been painted. The bottom of the steps need to be cut so they lay flat on the floor when the steps are fully extended; there should not be any gaps by the hinges/sections of the steps. Usually there are small holes in the metal brackets by the springs (on the side and at one end). A long nail or screw should be installed in all these holes. 

And finally, we have landscaping steps out in the yard. These can be blocks, timbers, or more creative materials such as dismantled picnic tables or miscellaneous car parts. These never have handrails. I just make a comment about being careful on these steps, unless there’s something really unsafe such as long nails sticking out of the tables or sharp edges on the Buick bumpers. 

By Randy West on June 12, 2008 

 

Roof trusses 101 

This week’s question is from a phone call I received from an irate seller. He wanted to file a complaint against a home inspector who recommended an engineer because of some damaged trusses. He used some very colorful adjectives to describe the home inspector (that I can’t repeat here). Apparently, someone cut through four trusses in a row in his attic to make room for a furnace. He went on for quite a while about how stupid the home inspector was because all you had to do was “sister” a board across the cut boards, something any carpenter or handyman could do. So, why the heck did the inspector recommend an engineer? This is not the first time I’ve been asked why home inspectors recommend an engineer for a fairly simple repair. 

Before I answer that I have to tell you more than you wanted to know about roof trusses. In older homes, the roof structure consists of joists (that make the interior ceilings where you nail the drywall) and rafters (that you nail the plywood roof sheathing to). Newer homes have pre-manufactured trusses. The joists and rafters are called the bottom and top chords, and the boards between the chords are called the webs. The chords and webs are all called members. 

Roof trusses are wonderful – we can build larger homes with large open interior spaces that don’t require posts or supporting walls. When installed properly, undamaged trusses can support the roof sheathing, roofing (tiles or shingles), snow and wind loads, and likely a small helicopter. However, when trusses are damaged they can be considerably weakened. 

Most truss damage I’ve seen is from two sources. The first and most common is the sawzall. These are power saws with a long blade that sticks out. A sawzall can cut about anything, even in hard to reach places. In the hands of a non-carpenter, a sawzall can be a deadly weapon. And now they make 500-volt cordless sawzalls, so that non-carpenters can carry them back to farthest corners of an attic and go to work like a beaver on a tree. 

I also see trusses that were damaged before or during installation. Once installed, trusses can support an impressive load. But before they’re installed, they’re actually kind of fragile and can easily be bent sideways. Think of a wide piece of thin metal. When vertical you can’t bend it up or down, but you can bend it sideways easily. The same is true for a truss before it’s installed. When a truss is bent sideways, it can sustain serious damage. Even if it doesn’t crack or split one of the wood members, it can loosen the metal connector plates. These plates are designed to be pressed into the lumber one time only. Once loose you cannot simply hammer them back in. Well you can, but the truss won’t have the designed strength. 

The trusses usually get this bending damage in two ways. The first is the delivery guy. Many times in my contractor days, I watched a delivery guy unload the truck by backing up at 45 miles per hour and slamming on the brakes. This is not much of an exaggeration. I watched the trusses bending one way as they slid off the truck, and then the other way when they bounced off the ground. The good news is the trusses are secured together with metal bands. The bad news is he just damaged every single truss. 

The trusses can also be damaged when they are delivered to the roof. The truss should only be lifted vertically to avoid bending it. I’ve watched carpenters put one end of a truss on top of a wall with the truss horizontal, then hand up the other side. The center has sagged/bent so much I can almost hear the connector plates loosening. 

As I’ve told you before, “code” is a four-letter word to home inspectors. Although when we inspect a home many of the items we check are code issues, we never use that word in our reports. I use euphemisms such as modern building standards or current construction standards. But since this is not an inspection report, I can use the “code” word. 

The building code states that pre-manufactured roof trusses cannot be altered in any way. Specifically, the 2003 International Building Code states “Truss members shall not be cut, notched, drilled, spliced, or otherwise altered in any way without the approval of a registered design professional.” 

You already know that “member” refers to the top or bottom chords or the webs. So if any part of a truss is damaged a “registered design professional” is required. Now who the heck is that? The answer is an architect or more commonly an engineer. 

So, this is my typical long-winded answer to what seemed a simple question. If a truss is damaged or altered in any way, an engineer is required. So, even if a home inspector sees what looks like a proper or typical repair he has to recommend an engineer to approve it. 

If I see a damaged truss and have to recommend an engineer, I always tell my clients to keep a copy of the engineer’s paperwork in a file for when they sell the home and the next home inspector crawls through the attic. In fact, I suggest they put a copy in a plastic protector and staple it right to the repair. I’d like to tell you that I thought of this myself, and I’m sure I would have eventually. The truth is I saw a repaired truss in an attic on a new home and the builder had stapled the engineer’s report to the truss. 

By Randy West on May 15, 2008 

 

Court decision benefits builders 

I don’t usually admit this, but I’m a recovering Realtor. In a far, far place a long, long time ago I was a real estate broker for several years. I still remember one of the instructors, Ray, at my first real estate class, who made some wise comments. A student once said “location, location, location is the most important feature of a home”. Ray immediately said “Nonsense! It’s terms, terms, terms. If you’ll sell me a home for $10 down and $10 a month, I’ll buy it and I don’t care what location it’s in.” I thought this was a brilliant statement. He was making the point that terms can overcome location, and that every property has good qualities and will be desirable to someone. Of course, I’ve never heard of someone actually selling a property with these terms, but I’m still looking. 

Ray also said if you think you’re going to get your real estate license and the phone will start ringing with clients wanting you to list their million-dollar homes, you might as well quit now. His point: if you want to be a successful, long-term Realtor it’s going to take dedication and hard work. I can tell the successful Realtors by what they drive. I don’t mean how expensive their car is, but that their car is the only one I see in the parking lot at 8 p.m. 

Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about this week. Ray also introduced me to the phrase ‘caveat emptor’, or ‘buyer beware’. He explained that this used to apply to real estate transactions, but not anymore. There are now things called agency disclosure, sellers disclosures and even worse home inspectors. 

So, caveat emptor is the phrase that came to mind regarding a recent lawsuit in Arizona between a condominium association and a builder. The case involved the Lofts at Fillmore Condominium Association. These condos are in downtown Phoenix in a 1920s apartment building that was remodeled into 18 condos. The condos started selling in 2000. 

The good news is Phoenix doesn’t get much rain. The bad news is apparently when it did rain a percentage of it ended up inside the Lofts at Fillmore. This caused major water damage; I’ve heard the damages were in the million-dollar range. 

So of course, the Lofts at Fillmore Condominium Association assumed the developer would fix everything under warranty. When the developer refused, the association sued. 

The developer was an LLC (limited liability corporation) formed specifically for the Lofts project. After all the condos were sold, the LLC was no longer needed. The LLC never had much money anyway, since they just sold the condos and never owned the builder’s profit. And of course, the whole idea of an LLC is that the owners are not liable and their personal assets are protected. So any money the owners did pocket from the LLC was no longer available by suing the LLC. 

So of course, the Association also named the builder in this lawsuit. Here’s the beware part. A superior court judge made a decision that’s not so superior in my book: he let the builder out of the suit because the homeowners did not have any contract directly with the builder. 

I’m trying to understand the judge’s logic. If my car blows up with 5,000 miles on it, I can’t sue Chevrolet because I bought it a local dealer and didn’t actually have a contract that the president of Chevrolet signed. If my new Sears range stops working, I’m out of luck because I bought it at the local store and Mr. Sears didn’t sign my contract. This may sound far fetched, but in my small mind it’s the same logic. And an appeals court upheld this decision. Sometimes I think judges and logic are mutually exclusive, like jumbo shrimp or military intelligence. 

But let’s get back to builders. I believe that very few purchasers of new homes have a contract with the actual builder. Most builders, whether they build five homes a year or 50 homes a month, have a separate LLC that handles the development and/or sales. Most have done this for bookkeeping and tax purposes. The builders that don’t have a separate LLC will soon, after their local contractor associations tell them about this lawsuit. 

So if the buyer can’t sue the builder, who’s next. The Realtor and home inspector, of course. Now you see why this concerns me. I do the best job I can on every home inspection; including the three or four new homes I inspect every month. But new homes are like new cars. They can look and drive great at first because some defects won’t show up for a while. I’m much safer inspecting an older home that has gone through its ‘break-in’ period. 

As a home inspector, I have no knowledge of whether my client has a contract directly with the builder or with an LLC. And I have no legitimate reason to ask. If the clients do have major problems and end up in litigation, they will be very upset if they can’t sue the guy that actually built the home. 

So I suggest Realtors stay informed about this suit. Arizona ASHI has signed on with Phoenix attorney Jim Eckley to file an amicus brief to the Arizona Supreme Court asking them to reverse the lower courts decision. I would hope that Realtor Associations would speak up against this decision too. 

By Randy West on March 20, 2008 

 

Prescott has two kinds of concrete: ‘cracked and not cracked yet’ 

I have three hard questions this week; they’re all about concrete. 

Q: I have a post tension slab and I was told I cannot drill into the cement. I want to add an interior wall and need to nail it to the floor. Is this OK, and what is a post tension slab? 

A: A post tension slab has tendons (cables) routed through it. The tendons are installed all the way through the slab before the concrete is poured. After the concrete is poured the tendons are tightened- hence the name post tension slab. The tendons will strengthen the slab and reduce the chance of significant cracking in the concrete. 

If a home has a post tension slab there should be a stamp in the concrete in the garage floor stating something like “post tension slab – do not drill or core.” If you drill into the slab and break one of the tendons, it could cause damage to the slab. 

You said you wanted to make an interior wall and need to secure it to the floor. The main reason to secure an interior wall to the concrete floor would be to keep it from moving back and forth. So, if you use two-inch long nails they will only go into the concrete 1/2 inch (assuming the sole plate is 1-1/2 inch), and should not hit a tendon. 

By the way, you have a concrete floor, not a cement floor. Cement refers to the mix – you buy bags of cement mix at the hardware store. Cement is just one component, when mixed with the other components (i.e. sand and water) it forms concrete. 

Q: I have a year old home with a lot of cracks in my garage floor and patio. The builder says these are not a concern, but I’m not so sure. How many cracks can you have before it becomes a structural concern? 

A: All concrete cracks. In fact, my inspection reports state “we only have two types of concrete in Prescott, cracked and not cracked yet.” We call these common cracks, for obvious reasons. Concrete will shrink as it cures, and will crack. The grooves in a concrete slab are called control joints, and what they control is where the concrete cracks. The grooves will be the weakest point in the concrete, so the cracks should occur in these grooves. 

How many cracks you get in a concrete slab depends on many things – the mix (did the truck driver or concrete finishers add more water to the concrete to make it easier to work with?), the weather when the concrete was poured, etc. The number of cracks does not determine if they are significant, as long they are all small (i.e. no wider than a dime, although in this market many home inspectors only have a penny to use). It is more important to check for displacement (unevenness) at the surface of the crack. Displacement would indicate the concrete on one side of the crack has moved up or down. This is not due to shrinkage and is no longer a common crack. 

Technically, in your situation these would not be a ‘structural concern’ anyway. A garage floor and a patio are not structural components – they are just a floor and are not holding anything up. Your garage floor or patio could be dirt, wood, crushed beer cans or anything else you desire. 

Q: The third question was actually part two of question two. It asked why the concrete porch and sidewalk were delaminating. There are two different conditions that can occur on the surface of concrete slabs. One is scaling and the other is spalling. Scaling is more like delaminating because it is basically the surface of the concrete failing. 

A: Scaling is usually blamed on the freeze/thaw cycles. But that’s not the underlying reason, because most concrete in our area does not scale. 

Excessive scaling can be caused by any number of things when the concrete is poured, such as the wrong concrete mix (no air entrainment or adding too much water again), improper or over finishing, and insufficient curing. I won’t try to describe all these in detail since there’s nothing you can do about them at this point. 

Once the concrete is poured, there are some things you can do to reduce the chance or spread of scaling. Never put salt or de-icers on a slab for the first year, only use sand if needed for traction. Always use salt or de-icers sparingly, and only ones approved for use on concrete. Some contain chemicals that can damage concrete. There is some debate about whether salt and chemical de-icers can damage concrete, but most agree you should not use it in the first year. 

Never use fertilizers as a de-icer/ There’s not much debate about this. Fertilizers, especially those with ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate, will very likely damage your concrete. 

Sweep water or snow off the concrete surfaces as soon as possible in freezing weather. You might want to caulk cracks to keep water from getting in them and freezing, and you might want to seal the concrete with an appropriate sealer. 

If the scaling has already progressed to the point that it’s a major cosmetic concern or possibly even a trip hazard, there are ways to repair scaled concrete. These are best left to an appropriate professional. For one thing, the surface needs to be properly prepared by high pressure washing, sandblasting, etching or cleaning with acid. The concrete can be surfaced with special Portland cement, latex modified concrete resurfacing, or a Polymer-modified mortar. The professional will know what repair material will work best for your concrete and situation. 

As you now know, concrete porches and sidewalks are not structural components. This is not to say you don’t have a right to ask that this be corrected on a new slab if defective concrete or workmanship is the cause. 

By Randy West on March 6, 2008  

 

The top 5 questions a home inspector should never answer 

My clients often ask me questions that I cannot or should not answer. The most common is “would you buy this house?” This is a question no home inspector should answer. I usually get out of it by saying I can’t buy this home because I have more trailers and vehicles than the neighborhood allows. Of course, if the home I’m inspecting is on 5 acres, I have to come up with a different excuse. Then I say I can’t buy this house because it has a kitchen, and my wife wants a home with no kitchen. My wife really does say this – it’s her way of saying that most of our dinners go from the freezer to the microwave. Of course, we do have a kitchen for that resale thing. 

I’m also asked, “Is this a good deal for X dollars?” I explain that I’m an inspector, not an appraiser. I have no idea what the home is worth. I only know that the roof is new, the furnace is old and the master bath toilet doesn’t work right. A Realtor or appraiser will compare the home to other recent sales and make adjustments for size, age, lot size and other amenities to determine the value. This is out of my expertise. 

Another question I frequently hear is “what would you charge to fix that?” The answer is “I can’t.” Most clients don’t realize that a home inspector cannot fix most of the problems he finds in a home. Sure, some inspectors come from a plumbing or electrical background and could easily fix those items. But no inspector is a qualified roofer, electrician, plumber, furnace installer, carpenter, tile installer, fireplace/woodstove installer, cabinet and countertop installer, insulator, drywaller, etc. He may be good at some of these, but no one can be an expert at everything. Home inspectors are trained to recognize problems, and then we are required to recommend an appropriate professional to further evaluate and/or make the necessary improvements. 

Which of course leads to question number 4: “can you refer a contractor?” No, we cannot. For the same reason we cannot fix something even if we are capable. Think of the conflict of interest if home inspectors could work on homes they inspect, or refer their brother the plumber or cousin the roofer. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors, and the Standards of Practice of all professional home inspector associations, prohibit home inspectors from working on homes they inspect or referring contractors. 

Recently I’m getting 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 un-budgeted 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 Realtor commissions. Or closing costs, which can be a couple thousand dollars with title insurance. That $80,000 profit just dwindled to about $60,000. They said it took 8 months for the home to sell. Assuming a $2,000 per month mortgage (it could be more), that profit drops to about $40,000. (I’m assuming they have a mortgage. If I had enough money to pay cash for a $160,000 home and $60,000 of improvements, I would be doing something other than flipping houses). 

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. 

That’s not a great income in this day and age, especially considering no health insurance, paid vacation, etc. And this is their gross profit – they will still have to pay taxes on the profit. Not to mention that for 10 months they had to make a mortgage 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? 

By Randy West on February 20, 2008 

 

Warranty inspections are for new homes 

Q: We’re going to have a house built in Dewey. We thought it would be a great idea to have an independent inspector come in several times during the construction. We have heard about warranty inspections, pre-warranty inspections and phase inspections. What’s the difference? Do you think this is a good idea? Do you offer this service, and if so what is the charge? Any other advice? 

A: I agree this is a great idea. Lets explain those “warranty inspections” first. These are home inspections performed to Arizona state standards. The clients are not people buying a home, rather the clients are people that have a new home and want an inspection before the builders warranty runs out. So “pre-warranty inspection” means an inspection before the warranty runs out, and “warranty inspection” means an inspection while the house is still under warranty, effectively the same thing. 

Some warranty inspections are a little more involved than home inspections. For example, I use an infrared camera on warranty inspections. This can detect moisture entry, missing insulation, leaking furnace ducts, etc. Also, I’m a little pickier on cosmetic items than I would be on a 10-year-old home that had teenage boys living in it. I use the teenage boys example a lot, but I qualify as an expert. I have three sons, and they were all teenagers at the same time for about five years. This is when I learned about the word “synergy.” Three teenage boys can think up (and complete) more ways to damage a home than one kid could ever come up with by himself. 

So on to “phase inspections.” I actually call these in-progress inspections. Many home inspectors offer this service. In fact, I know of at least two inspectors in Phoenix who specialize in this and stay busy enough that they rarely inspect “used” homes. 

Usually the home inspector does at least four inspections during construction. Often these are done at the same time the city or county inspections are done. I consider the framing (pre-drywall) inspection the most important. At this point, the inspector can really see into the walls. He can see the electrical wires, furnace ducts, plumbing lines, etc. He may find items that would be impossible to find once the drywall is installed. 

And even if the item could be found later, it can be much easier to fix before the drywall is installed. A great example is a broken truss or a damaged furnace duct in the attic. These can be corrected in minutes at the framing stage of construction. After the drywall and insulation are installed, they can be extremely difficult to access. 

Other advice would be to review the in-progress inspection agreement to be sure you understand exactly what you’re getting. Most in-progress inspections, like home inspections, are limited visual inspections. I had a client once who was unhappy because her hutch would not fit between a wall and a door. The home was custom built, and she had specified a minimum length for this wall. Unfortunately, the carpenters put a 2×6 inch interior wall on the wrong side of the line, and neither the builder nor I caught it. The difference was just enough that her hutch would not fit. After that, I had clients sign an agreement that states this is a limited visual inspection. This is a “workmanship” inspection, and is not a plan-review or plan-verification inspection. 

Inspectors exist that will verify everything is being built according to the plans. This takes considerably more time and is more costly. 

Make sure you have the right to these inspections in your purchase agreement. Most builders will not object. In fact, some builders are hiring private inspectors as a quality control measure, but there are a few builders that won’t allow home inspectors in their homes. 

I used to do these inspections but stopped several years ago. When someone orders an in-progress inspection they usually need it within a day or two, and I am so busy with home inspections that I cannot always respond that quickly. I know there are local inspectors who offer this service. Regarding the cost, I charged almost as much as I would for a home inspection because in-progress inspections take almost as long. 

Now, I don’t have enough space to answer the next question, so let’s talk about teenage boys again. I still remember the first time my wife and I left our two youngest home alone. We were gone for a couple hours when the pager went off – the home number followed by 9-1-1. This meant there was an emergency at home. We stopped at the next pay phone, and held the phone between us so we could both hear. The older son answered and told Mom that there was a hole in his bedroom door. He explained that he was pulling the vacuum cleaner down the hall real hard and it crashed into the door and made a hole. 

Now here’s the difference between dad and mom. Dad (me) immediately analyzed the situation. The bedroom door was a hollow core door, which are kind of susceptible to physical damage, and that old canister vacuum weighed more than a Camry. His explanation was plausible. 

Mom, however, immediately said “you’re lying. Tell me what really happened.” She was using that “mom” tone of voice that left no room for argument, like when she makes me fix the leaky roof. My son admitted the truth – he and his brother were practicing kung fu and put a foot through the door. My son then asked Mom how she knew he was lying. Her answer: “The first time you’re home alone and you expect me to believe you decided to vacuum your room?” 

I don’t know if my son learned his lesson, but I’ve never lied to Mom since. 

By Randy West on February 7, 2008  

 

Ground fault outlets prevent chance of shocks 

I get questions frequently regarding Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters, or GFCIs. In looking over my files, I found that although I have referred to GFCIs occasionally, I have not really discussed them in a column since 2005. So, it’s time for GFCIs 101 again. 

GFCIs are a safety device to prevent shocks and possibly electrocution. This is how I explain it to clients during a home inspection: In days of old, when knights were bold, and grounding wasn’t invented, homes had two prong outlets. Simply speaking, the power came in one prong (the ‘hot’ wire) and left through the other (the ‘neutral’ wire). Electricity will try to get back to Mother Earth, or ground. So if someone was standing outside or on a wet floor and the metal drill or toaster they were using malfunctioned, the electricity could try to get back to ground through their bodies. This resulted in a very unpleasant sensation, and possibly some new hairstyles. 

Since metal plumbing is a good conductor of electricity, the same thing can happen if someone is touching a metal pipe (or a sink faucet) if that pipe is eventually buried in the ground. 

Starting in the 1960s homes had to be grounded. Driving a metal rod into the ground and connecting it to the main electrical panel with a large wire usually accomplished this. There are other ways to ground a home, but I’m keeping it simple here, which is why I’m referring to “outlets” when technically they are “receptacles.” The neutral wires from the outlets are connected to this ground wire in the main panel. Outlets now had three slots, the hot, neutral and ground. If that antique drill malfunctioned the electricity should take the path of least resistance to ground, and you won’t get a new hairdo. 

But what if an overzealous landscaper with a Tim Taylor Turbocharged Weed-eater manages to chop through the wire between the electrical panel and the rod in the ground? We’re basically back to a 1950s ungrounded home. So, starting in the 1970s some outlets in homes were required to have protection from Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters. Does the name make more sense now? If there’s a fault with the ground, this device will interrupt the circuit. 

Simply speaking, these devices “sense” the power coming into that drill and the power coming back. If that power changes, for example by some of it going through your body, the GFCI will instantly turn off the power. 

So, theoretically, you could sit in a bathtub full of water and drop that plugged-in drill into the tub and not feel a tingle. I haven’t tested this theory personally. I have written Ralph Nader several times to come sit in a bathtub so I could try this out, but he has pretty much ignored me. 

GFCI protection is necessary anywhere the shock hazard is increased – anywhere you can step on the ground or a concrete floor, and within six feet of any plumbing fixtures (sinks, etc.). Newer homes require GFCI protection at all kitchen counter outlets. Swimming pools, hot tubs and whirlpool bathtubs also require GFCI protection. 

Most GFCIs in newer homes are on outlets. Note that GFCI stand for ground fault circuit interrupter, so one GFCI will protect all the outlets on that circuit. Usually the GFCI outlet in a garage or kitchen protects all the garage or kitchen outlets, and a GFCI in a bathroom usually protects all the outlets in all the baths. 

There could be a GFCI breaker in the electrical panel rather than a GFCI outlet. Often the GFCI for a whirlpool bathtub is on a breaker, although in newer homes the whirlpool can have a GFCI outlet near the toilet or hidden in some other unusual place (under a sink, in a closet, etc.). 

I always tell people we have an exceptional building code. By that, I mean that no matter what you look up, there will be numerous exceptions. And GFCIs are no exception to the exceptions. 

One exception is the dedicated outlet. GFCIs can trip off from a power surge, a nearby lightening strike, or if they’re just in a bad mood. There are some appliances you don’t want to stop working should a moody GFCI trip off. Two good examples are furnaces and refrigerators; these appliances should never connect to a GFCI protected outlet. 

So, if you have a furnace or refrigerator in a garage, it should have a dedicated outlet. Dedicated outlets are not GFCI protected, and have a single plug instead of two. If you have outlets in your garage (or basement, etc.) with a single plug, these outlets are not GFCI protected and are not proper for general purposes. 

And, of course, there is an exception to the exception. If you have two appliances that both require a dedicated outlet, for example a furnace and a humidifier, then the outlet can have two plugs instead of one. But this is still a dedicated, non-GFCI-protected outlet that should not be used for general purposes. 

A GFCI will have a “test” and “reset” button on it. You should test GFCIs occasionally by pressing the test button (if you could read the microscopic print on a GFCI it says “test monthly”). Pressing the test button on a GFCI outlet will cause the reset button to pop out. After pressing the test button, or if something trips the GFCI, you have to press the reset button to restore power. 

Sometimes it’s hard to find a GFCI. Knowing when requirements for GFCI protection started can help: 1975: exterior and bathrooms. 1978: garages. 1987: whirlpool bathtubs, kitchens near a sink, basements. 1990: crawlspaces. 1993: wet bars. 1996: all kitchen counter outlets. Note this list is not complete and the dates are approximate because local municipalities don’t adopt changes for a year or two. During the 1970s, it was common to have only GFCI breakers in the electrical panel rather than GFCI outlets in the garage and home. 

By Randy West on January 23, 2008   

 

Winterizing your home prevents unwelcome surprises 

Q: We had a home inspection recently. The home was vacant and the water was turned off. The home inspector did not turn on the water, and then charged us to come out and re-inspect. The main water valve is in a box in the front yard and is easy to reach. We feel the inspector did this on purpose to charge a re-inspection fee. Shouldn’t a home inspector turn on the water when doing an inspection? Also, we travel frequently and we always turn the water off when we are out of town. Any other advice to winterize the home? 

A: Very good questions! Let’s tackle the home inspector first. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors states in section 3 (General Limitations and Exclusions) “inspectors are not required to operate any system that is shut down or otherwise inoperable.” The plumbing section states, “The inspector is not required to operate any valve except water closet flush valves, fixture faucets and hose faucets.” (For you youngsters out there, a water closet is a toilet.) 

So a home inspector is not “legally” required to turn on the water to the home if it is turned off. Now the real question is, should he? Many inspectors I know will not turn on the water to the home. This is not so they can charge for a re-inspection, but because at one time they turned on the water and caused some damage to a home. 

My policy is to turn the water on unless the home is truly winterized, which I will explain below. I don’t like re-inspections. For one thing, most inspections are for a buyer in a real estate transaction, where they have to comply with the inspection period in their Purchase Agreement. If you have to re-inspect, it may require them to get an extension on their inspection period, which is a hassle for all parties. 

But more important is that it’s faster and more efficient to complete the entire inspection at once. I always go in the crawlspace under the home last, after I have run water in all the sinks and flushed all the toilets. This is so I can check for plumbing leaks in the crawlspace. Entering the crawlspace is not fun, even if you don’t mind spiders and snakes. And if I have to re-inspect because the water was off, I’ll have to go in the crawlspace again. 

Before I turn on the water, I go through the home and make sure all the faucets are off. I check the water meter (assuming the home is on a public water supply) to see if the meter is spinning, indicating water is flowing. I do this on every home, even if the water is already on, and have found leaks that no one knew about. But if the water has been off, when you turn it on, there will be water flowing into the toilet tanks and the meter will be spinning. So, when I turn the water on, I literally run into the home and check all the rooms that have plumbing to make sure nothing bad is happening. After the toilets have filled, I go make sure the meter is not spinning. 

I will admit that one time I forgot to check the laundry faucets. I turned on the main water valve in the front yard and ran into the home. As soon as I entered, I heard water running in the laundry room. Someone had opened the cold water faucet, and the water was spraying across the room into the opposite wall. I got the faucet turned off, but got soaked doing it. Fortunately I always have towels with me, so I soaked up the water before any damage occurred. 

Your last question was about “winterizing” a home. Turning off the main water valve when you go out of town is a great idea. If a leak does occur, this can prevent a lot of damage. And this is a good idea any time of year. Many years ago we took a summer vacation and one of the clothes washer lines decided to burst while we were gone. There’s nothing like ending a week-long vacation with the kids by pulling in the driveway and seeing water coming out under the garage door. Welcome home! Makes you want to turn around and go back to Disneyland. 

I recommend turning off the water heater whenever you turn off the water. If it’s electric, you can turn off the circuit breaker. If it’s gas, you can turn the gas control to “pilot.” This way the water heater is basically off but you will not have to light the pilot light when you return. If the water heater is in a garage or other cold area, leaving the pilot light on will also provide enough heat to prevent freezing. 

In the winter I also recommend you leave the furnace thermostat set at 45 or 50 degrees and open the cabinet doors under the sinks to help prevent frozen water lines. 

Even if you do all of the above, the home is not winterized. To winterize a home, a plumber will shut off the water, blow the water out of the lines, and put anti-freeze in the drain lines and toilets. He will drain the water heater and, if he’s good, he’ll put a big sign on the water heater warning you not to turn it on until the water is turned on. 

Winterizing a home if it’s going to be vacant for an extended time in the winter will help avoid those “welcome home” surprises. 

By Randy West on January 10, 2008